If True Crimes: A Family Album, Kathryn Harrison’s latest essay collection, lacks the punch of her earlier memoirs, she shouldn’t be faulted. Early revelations of a cruelly loveless mother and an absent father who reappeared only to foster an incestuous relationship were shocking enough. The confessions continued: anorexia, self-harming, crippling depression.
Harrison manages — barely — to escape her traumatic early life. Married, the mother of three children, Harrison is an esteemed writer of fiction, essay, and biography. Her middle-aged transgressions are less egregious than those of youth. And that is a welcome thing, for few writers are more deserving of a little peace in their lives.
The essays in True Crimes: A Family Album have all appeared elsewhere, many in popular women’s magazines like More and Allure. The resulting pieces are often short and rather topical. Yet Harrison, always elegantly precise, writes with a lively happiness absent in books like Seeking Rapture or the alarming The Mother Knot.
“A Tale of Two Dogs” flips between Harrison’s near-fatal bout of Graves Disease and the acquisition of not one but two dogs. It’s most successful — and most subversive — when discussing the dogs. The first, a very expensive, adorable pug, goes back the store at the insistence of Harrison’s spouse. The second dog, Max, may be worse than the Graves disease, which was cured. Max, conversely, is impossible: highly strung, untrainable, given to continual barking and howling. When enraged neighbors begin leaving threatening letters in the mailbox, Harrison reaches her wits’ end. She “loses” Max. Permanently.
When one is middle-aged and the telephone rings at the wrong time, it means one thing. Thus begins “Keeping Vigil”, which is exactly what Harrison does. From 18 September until 8 November, she commutes between New York City and Washington D.C., sitting at her father-in-law’s bedside, watching cancer kill him. Harrison is expert at this: she knows how to slip her stocking feet in the space between the mattress and the bedsore-preventing padding without disturbing the person atop them. She’s practiced; at age 24, Harrison nursed her own mother, who died from metastatic breast cancer at age 42. But this vigil is different. Her love for her father-in-law is:
“benign, daughterly, reverent. Probably they (her husband and mother-in-law) know what I don’t, that he is the only person who could begin to help me reassemble what my own father broke.”
“True Crimes”, the title essay, is Harrison’s first mention of her father since 1997’s The Kiss, the memoir detailing their incestuous relationship. In it, she adds an interesting, macabre detail:
My father and I never spoke of what it might mean that I insisted on posing before him as a corpse, again and again: the victim of a car crash, a fall, an assault. I didn’t plan the pictures ahead of time. They were incidental, the result of my happening upon a usable prop or a scene.
This same girl, photographed repeatedly by her camera-buff father, would later write a novel entitled Exposure. In it, motherless protagonist Ann is the preferred subject of her art photographer father, who repeatedly photographs Ann posing as if dead. With the onset of Juvenile diabetes, Ann’s poses take on a new veracity: during photo shoots, Ann often allows herself to slip into a diabetic coma.
That Harrison, Ann’s creator, was herself a photographic subject explains much. Nor is it surprising that Harrison maintains a fascination with “lust” murderers and pulp crime magazines.
True Crimes threatens to lose steam with “The Forest of Memory”, which revisits the Christmas morning when five-year-old Harrison ran to her mother’s room and found the bed empty. The ensuing fight between Harrison’s mother and grandmother — two women who took inchoate screaming to new levels — marked Harrison forever. Her mother moved out of the house, leaving Harrison behind. While unquestionably traumatic, the moment has been exhaustively mined in three prior memoirs and a barely veiled novel.
“The Unseen Wind” puts mirror-gazing far past the selfie, pulling Harrison over the precipice into breakdown. Constant readers will recognize this moment from, documented with frightening clarity, from The Mother Knot. In this piece, the message is inconclusive.
True Crimes rebounds with the final two essays. Despite having two happy, healthy children, Harrison longed for a third. In “Mini-Me”, she discusses that child, a daughter, born when Harrison was 40. This daughter is different from her first two; clingy and demanding, she follows Harrison everywhere, including the bathroom. If somebody greets Harrison on the street, the child turns Harrison in the other direction. She unplugs Harrison’s phone calls. Her need for her mother is ravenous, overwhelming,
Harrison is often powerless before this need, cancelling social engagements, allowing the child into the bathroom. Why?
“I allowed her to open my sleeping eyes with her fingers, because I remembered what it did to me when my mother pushed me away.”
“Pilgrim’s Progress” describes a bizarre research excursion undertaken while writing Joan of Arc. Just as there are train aficionados, Renaissance role players, and gamers, there are Joan of Arc fanatics. Harrison finds herself amongst them, traveling with couple called Madame and Monsieur through Joan’s France. “Friends and family have concluded that I am impractical at best.” Harrison writes. Readers rapidly agree, for most would cancel upon receipt of a pre-trip questionnaire asking about values, goals, and hobbies. Harrison signs on, even after learning her guides are members of an American mega-church. They sign all correspondence with “blessings”.
Matters worsen in France. Every morning begins not with breakfast, but with the Question du Jour. These questions are invariably religious in nature. They invariably reduce Harrison to tears. Even as her trip mates stop appearing for the Question du Jour, Harrison, who fears angering her tour guides, continues showing up, and crying.
The tour guides prove increasingly nutty, their demeanor more like high school teachers than adults leading other adults through Europe. Questioning the itinerary is cause for outrage: When Harrison asks for more time at a cathedral, “Mme. flattens her lips into a line.” By the trip’s conclusion, it’s clear everyone is intimidated by the guides. The question is why. On the final morning, Monsieur insists the group gather in a circle and pray. Incredibly, nobody objects.
If you are new to Harrison, True Crimes: A Family Album isn’t the place to start. Begin at the beginning, with Thicker Than Water and Exposure. Though fiction, both are autobiographical, setting the stage for what comes next, which is The Kiss. Then Seeking Rapture and The Mother Knot. These are the autobiographical works, stark, dark, at times taking readers to the very edge of human behavior. Only then should you come to True Crimes: a book that is, if lighter, then also warmer, the spring after a long, long winter.