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Books

Cover

Who else could tell Kathryn Harrison's incestuous story?

'The Kiss: A Memoir'
by Kathryn Harrison

Avon Books, $11

Review by Jillian St. Charles

(CNN) -- When Kathryn Harrison released her fourth book, "The Kiss", a predictable furor erupted. Media and critics immediately began cranking out articles and holding discussion panels, all to rule on the wisdom and appropriateness of Harrison's publishing of her memoir.

Why? Because the book is about her adult affair with her father. Renown Harvard ethicist Robert Coles gave the publisher, Avon Books, a laudatory blurb for the cover and then withdrew it, saying he had not considered the book's effect on Harrison's children.

Harrison's first two books, "Thicker than Water" and "Exposure", both dealt with issues of abused children. The former fictionalizes a woman's affair with her father. The parallels to her memoir are many.

This is a story that seems to have percolated for years, and finally would not be denied. One of the statements Harrison made in defense of her decision to publish characterized her account of the affair. "It wasn't a decision. It was a helpless act," she said. Harrison describes the first time she and her father cross the line as if she was merely an observer of an inevitable act -- an intimate kiss at the airport as her father leaves her world once again.

Her father, a preacher, had left Harrison's life when she was a baby, and resurfaced when she was in her early 20s. He began visiting his daughter and his ex-wife, but his focus quickly narrows to Harrison.

Harrison, by her account, was raised by her mother and grandmother in an atmosphere devoid of any attention, much less love and approval. When her father appears, she is unable to resist his overwhelming need for her, his desire to be close to her. After this apocryphal first kiss, the book takes us on a tour of several years of outrageous and pitiful behavior by father and daughter.

At one point Harrison, alienated from everyone else in her life, moves in with her father and his wife and daughter. What motivates her father, what allows him to make the necessary rationalizations to sexually pursue his daughter, is never made clear.

Harrison's own motives seem as hazy and unfocused as her behavior as she passively accepts her father's advances. "The Kiss" is frustrating in its refusal to clarify details, but also finds some redemption in the fact that it remains largely in the emotional realms rather than wallowing in graphic description.Still, it's hard to fault Harrison for that. She doesn't seem to be withholding explanations as much as she simply doesn't have them.

This book can leave the reader feeling a little soiled and out of sorts, as if just reading the account somehow transfers some of the taint of incest. This is a powerful indicator of how much impact the subject retains in a culture where nothing is shocking. But this is a true story, and Harrison has as much right to tell it as any other biographer does to tell his or her story.

If nothing else, it serves as a cautionary tale about the extraordinary ways children will compensate all their lives for affection and love not given when it mattered.

Jillian St. Charles is a freelance writer and works for CNN.

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