Kathryn Harrison, author of True Crimes: A Family Album, has some simple advice for her writing students: Please stop thinking. In our conversation for this series, she discussed a favorite Joseph Brodsky poem in which a man has a beautiful, restorative fantasy about a person he once loved—a dream that’s possible only with the lights turned off. For Harrison, the poem is a metaphor for the way writing works; good things, she says, happen in the darkness.
True Crimes is an essay collection, and the subtitle is apt: The book portrays a series of blood ties—examinations of the people to whom Harrison has been daughter, mother, wife, protector, victim. But it’s a work of self-portraiture, too. The short works are consumed with questions about how identity changes over time, how selves die and are replaced, and how the mask we confront in the mirror appears to ourself, and to others.
Harrison is the best-selling author of novels including Envy, Enchantments, The Seal Wife, and Thicker Than Water, as well as the memoirs The Mother Knot and The Road to Santiago. Perhaps her best-known book, 1997’s The Kiss, was a harrowing, courageous, and artful memoir about being coerced by her father into an incestuous affair. At the time, several prominent male critics questioned the book’s candor; in The New Republic, James Wolcott wondered out loud whether some secrets are too unseemly to be told. One hopes it has become more acceptable, if not easier, for victims of sexual abuse to publicly share their stories. If so, it’s in part because of the efforts of writers like Harrison.