The Mother Knot , by Kathryn Harrison. Random House, 82 pages, $16.95.
You read that right, sister: 82 pages . There’s a certain defiant, fuck-you quality to publishing a book that short, isn’t there? It could be a masterstroke of editing-or marketing.
Angular and angry author Kathryn Harrison, who devoted over twice that space to The Kiss , her best-selling 1997 memoir about an incestuous affair with her father, has eked out a mingy little companion volume devoted to Mommy Dearest. More specifically, how she had her mother’s corpse disinterred, cremated and shipped across the country, at some cost, so that she could scatter it like bath salts off a beach near her summer home on the North Fork of Long Island. (“I opened the twist tie and stirred my hand through the contents of the bag …. “) Call it The Kiss-Off .
As we know from her copious earlier outpourings on the subject at hand (herself), Ms. Harrison experienced a miserable upbringing. She was conceived by parents still in their teens, who divorced soon after her birth, strong-armed by her maternal grandparents. Dad fled the scene, returning when his daughter was in college only to feed her bad pick-up lines (“I just want to hold you,” for example) and take her to cheap motel rooms, like some white-trash Humbert Humbert.
Well, it turns out Mom was no picnic either: Kathryn’s earliest memory involves being coldly pushed from her lap (“You’re going to make varicose veins”) and running to the garage to fume about it; later, according to The Kiss , there was “endless nagging about weight” that helped trigger a lifelong battle with eating disorders. Ms. Harrison took a break from constant calorie-counting while pregnant with her own three children, when, as she nicely puts it, “I understood my body as belonging to someone else, and I cared for it as I would a borrowed book.”
But at 41, a year from the age when her mother’s breast cancer fatally metastasized, she relapsed; at one point her stern internist threatened to hospitalize her for the very Victorian-sounding malady of “temporal wasting” (in her author photo, she does look troublingly bony and haunted). Having come to expect a “gasp” moment at some point in each installment of the Harrison Chronicles-in The Kiss , it was that wet, exploring paternal tongue-the reader may be disappointed to find that the major revelation in The Mother Knot is the memoirist’s middle-aged return to what she calls “that sanctuary of anorexia” at the very moment she was nourishing her infant children. “I’d used nursing to pare myself down,” she confesses, sitting in her analyst’s office. (One’s own real-life therapy sessions are stultifying enough; is there anything worse than sitting through someone else’s?) “I intended for my body to accuse my mother, testify to my having given the pound of flesh she’d withheld,” the patient loftily concludes.
Alleluia , declares her (surely long-suffering) shrink, which makes the patient wonder, “Did she sound fed up, or was I projecting my own disgust?” The self-doubt doesn’t last long: She unloads further, “listening with interest to what I was saying” (with more interest than we can muster, alas). She then congratulates herself on a session well done, a breakthrough: “Never had my discoveries been so revealing, or so directive.”
Odd though the concept is, this might’ve been the perfect meta-memoir of anorexia-with its bantam weight, its prose that seems dictated less by talent spilling forth than a kind of joyless, grinding discipline. Yet anorexia is far from the only chamber in the Harrison house of horrors (whole new wings were added last year with an essay collection, Seeking Rapture : nits! ticks! inadvertently murdered kittens!). Did you know Kathryn’s medical chart includes Graves’ disease and hour-long panic attacks? The maladies pile on, as if they might be correlated to writerly skill.
When her young son came down with a case of asthma bad enough to send him to the hospital, Ms. Harrison superstitiously blamed herself-and flirted with self-mutilation. Good , she thinks, as blood runs down her wrist after a household fix-it accident, her children looking on bemusedly. Bleed . The fascination with her plumbing doesn’t stop there. We are treated to the author’s tubal ligation, to the “hollow, pink coils of [her] intestines” and to her breast milk, a souvenir bottle of which she saves like a midnight snack among the family’s “foil-wrapped leftovers and cartons of ice cream.”
“I don’t want to know when she … when it arrives,” says her husband about his mother-in-law’s remains. (Unnamed in the book, the husband is Scribner executive editor Colin Harrison.) Yes, there are glimmers of humor, but on the whole there’s something Gothic and ghastly about Ms. Harrison’s ongoing fascination with bodily fluids and harbingers of death: vampires, floating corpses, “a black, destructive spirit, dybbuck or dervish, twisting out of my chest.” With her penchant for sequels and recurring villains, it’s a kind of Nightmare on Elm Street for the literary haute bourgeoisie.
The odd thing about Kathryn Harrison, given what a seriously messed-up chick she is, is how terrifyingly productive, hardy and prosperous she’s proved to be; turning out book after book (a biography, a travel narrative and five novels-on top of the Me material) and raising three apparently cherubic children with her aforementioned hubby in their capacious brownstone in Park Slope. That summer home; those foil-wrapped leftovers and cartons of ice cream; “seven hundred dollars’ worth of products from an allergy-management catalog” to treat her asthmatic son!
Not to leach sympathy for Ms. Harrison’s long and arduous coming-of-age, but a book like this just makes one think: You know what, she’s milking it .
Though lacking the pedigree, Stacy Horn, the founder of the online service Echo, had a much more compelling-if less icily highbrow-exploration of midlife crisis in Waiting for My Cats to Die: A Morbid Memoir (2001). That endearing, humanly squeamish book plumbed not only Ms. Horn’s inner demons but those of friends, senior citizens, pets. It was 307 pages, but it flew like the wind.
Alexandra Jacobs is a senior editor at The Observer.