Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 memoir, The Kiss, in which the novelist wrote about having a sexual relationship with her father, marked the official saturation point in confessional literature. She was excoriated and praised in equal measure, but one thing she certainly failed to do was exorcise her demons. In her new memoir, The Mother Knot, Harrison writes about how her middle child’s severe asthma led her to relapse into anorexia and depression—the only cure for which was to disinter her own mother’s remains, have them cremated, and scatter them over the Long Island Sound. “I’m not so much having my mother dug out of the ground,” she writes, “as I am exhuming her from my own body.” Boris Kachka talked to Harrison at a Park Slope coffee shop.
Your life seems pretty complicated. Do you think you have an unusual number of issues?
That’s a hard question. I don’t know if I can answer that. What do you think?
Well, yes, but maybe you’re just more vocal about them.
I think in terms of the parents that I had, I sort of drew a bad hand, or bad karma; who knows? And I did have a family that was complicated, with some quite eccentric members. So there was a lot of grist there.
In The Kiss, you claimed to have let go of your mother. Clearly you hadn’t. You think it’ll stick this time?
Up until I wrote this book, I’d only partially dealt with my rage against her. I have at last admitted that not only was I angry with my mother but in fact I wanted to destroy her as a child. And I was so concerned to be a woman who was different from my mother that I had this vast architecture of rules. My mother used to carry a handbag, and for years I just stuffed crumpled-up bills and credit cards in my pocket. But last year, for the first time in my life, I bought a wallet.
You’ve written about sleeping with your father, having a tubal ligation, torturing insects, tasting your grandmother’s ashes. Is there anything you wouldn’t write about?
I would draw a line at intimate experiences that belong to my children or my husband. But in terms of myself, at this point, I don’t ask, Am I going to write about it? I just do.
So you’re always the central subject of your work?
Probably, but I think that’s true of every writer. How much of a book review is about the reviewer? Sometimes it’s mostly about the reviewer!
Well, there are levels of self-involvement . . .
Obviously, narcissism is an issue. Certainly I’m self-involved, but I tend to believe what I’m doing is anti-narcissism because it’s not about preserving a pretty or ideal image. Having grown up so familiar with creating a pleasing façade, I now end up compelled to reveal things inside and say, “Okay, now you really see me, do you still love me?” And then it’s never enough; it always has to be total self-revelation.
And how does your husband, Colin Harrison, feel about your compulsion to write about everything?
We’re two writers who live together, and we know that we each have to be free to write what we will. For all that, I think that he’s on some basic level sort of astonished and possibly appalled.