TRUE CRIMES: A Family Album, by Kathryn Harrison. Random House, 222 pp. $28.
The essays in “True Crimes,” all previously published over the course of 10 years, feature the pairing of elegant writing and raw material that is this author’s trademark — though after 15 books of fiction and nonfiction, her Jeopardy square must still say: “Wrote 1997 memoir about incest with her father.”
Who is Kathryn Harrison?
The 13 essays here offer a variety of interesting answers to that question. She is a wife and mother, a woman who has faced mental and physical illness, an only child who was abandoned by her very young mother and raised by her grandmother, a person with a complicated relationship to dogs and cats, an intellectual who reads true-crime magazines and studies Joan of Arc.
But do we like her, or not? Like other ultra-candid essayists, Harrison deliberately keeps the issue of her own likability in the foreground. Do we embrace her despite the mistakes she has made and the shame she feels about them, or does she push it so far that she pushes us away? In the opening of the very first essay in the book, “A Tale of Two Dogs,” she silently pleads with a growling, chained-up “cur,” “Bite me. Do it. I deserve it.” The narrative that follows weaves back and forth through the story of a family trip to Italy during which Harrison fell seriously ill, the treatment she underwent after returning home, and what is surely one of the “true crimes” of the collection’s title, committed by Harrison against a black Labrador named Max. It’s hard to believe she did what she did and even harder to believe she’s telling us about it — a signature Kathryn Harrison move.
“Your wife, she is a very nervous woman,” an Italian doctor tells Harrison’s husband after diagnosing her with cardiac arrhythmia. “We see it all the time, these high-strung working women. They come to Italy to relax and, poof, they fall to bits.”
No, dottore. This is not the kind of woman you see all the time. Kathryn Harrison is a special case. But, as she seems to imply in her report of this belittling remark, maybe we all are.
After so baldly begging to be judged in the first essay, Harrison turns around and goes directly for the heartstrings in the second, “Keeping Vigil.” After her famously depraved relationship with her own mostly absent father (recounted in “The Kiss”), Harrison was blessed with a magnificent father-in-law, a Quaker headmaster, with whom she shared a mutual adoration. But now he is dying. “He’ll be dead before I understand that all the fires he built, meals he praised, trees he planted, branches of buds he arranged on the table, and hugs he gave — especially those, tighter and longer than required for hello or goodbye — added up to something more than his affection for me,” she writes.
This essay also depicts her husband’s intense grief, and within that portrayal comes a classic Kathryn Harrison moment — one when she provokes readers to wonder whether they really want to know the thing she’s telling us, and if so, why.
“What can I do,” she asks her husband. “How can I possibly help him at a time like this?” His answer: “Have sex with me every night. That will help. That will help with everything.”
Though she explains the idea of nightly lovemaking as an assertion of life in the presence of death, and though it turns out they are so busy with caretaking responsibilities they don’t do it anyway, this is the kind of revelation that starts one worrying what it’s like to be Harrison’s husband. He also takes it on the chin in the dog essay. What is fair game in memoir, and what is TMI and voyeurism? Should Kathryn Harrison be telling us these stories?
If you are asking yourself these questions, Harrison has you where she wants you, whether you’re comfortable there or not.