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Kathryn Harrison
Los Angeles 20 March 1961 • American novelist and essayist

photo: Joyce Ravid

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Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels Envy, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water. She has also written memoirs, The Kiss and The Mother Knot, a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago, a biography, Saint Therese of Lisiuex, and a collection of personal essays, Seeking Rapture. Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, and other publications. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their three children.

In her own words: "I was born in Los Angeles, on March 20, 1961. My mother was 18, and so was my father. They met during their senior year of high school. My father was from El Paso, Texas, but his family had pulled together the money to send him away for a year of boarding school, so that he could graduate with a diploma from a name brand prep school. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy was about as welcome an idea to his family as it was to my mother’s. But my mother and father married, with grudging approval, the day my father turned 18. As they had no jobs, and no money, they were forced to live with my mother’s parents.

After I was born, my mother had what was later referred to as a 'nervous collapse' and her parents took this as their chance to force my father to leave. They told him they’d assume all responsibility for my upbringing as long as he relinquished all claims on me. So I grew up with my maternal grandparents. My mother lived with us until I was five; then she moved to her own apartment. If it seemed she’d managed to escape her consuming, predatory mother, the illusion had worn off by the time I was in grade school. My mother never went to college or remarried; she never made enough money to support herself; she was the daughter her mother wanted, the one who couldn’t leave her.

My father, always a good student, set out to prove himself a success. He wasn’t going to be the failure my mother’s parents had predicted. He earned two master’s degrees, one in history, the other in religion, and got his doctorate from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. A minister, he remarried, and with his second wife had three other children, none of whom knew that I, or my mother, had ever existed. I remembering seeing my father only twice when I was a child; neither occasion was a happy one.

I went to the same small prep school from which my mother had graduated, The Buckley School in Los Angeles, where I was a dedicated student and a social nonentity. I graduated from Stanford University in 1982, with a bachelor’s degree in English and Art History. I wasn’t as slavishly devoted to my GPA in college as I had been in high school: I was tired of studying – I hadn’t done much else for years – and once I was away, I discovered just
how claustrophobic my grandparents’ home had been. And, having left home, I finally began to see some of the causes of my unhappiness as I grew up.

By the time I was in college I’d had an eating disorder for years, not with the level of self-awareness I might have had today. In the seventies, no one was talking about young women starving themselves – not yet. In college I finally had a name for what had happened to me, and I began to realize that my relationship with my emotionally distant, critical, and terribly unhappy young mother had been not only painful, but damaging – in some ways annihilating. Anorexia had become a surrogate mother, a consuming if not embracing one, a set of exacting standards that I could, with effort, satisfy, as I could not satisfy my real mother. It was the religion I chose, the one I thought I’d invented, with my own doctrine of self-deprivation.

When I was a junior in college, my father reentered my life. He came out to California on the occasion of my 20th birthday. He stayed for a week, a guest at my mother’s apartment. At the end of the visit he kissed me, not chastely. I’ll never know how obviously needy and manipulable I appeared to him, but – given my history with my mother, my failure to win her love or even her approval – it wasn’t hard for him to eventually pressure me into a sexual relationship, one that lasted four years, ending when my mother died, in 1985. My relationship with my father was a tortured one, for both of us, I believe, and gravely damaged his family and contributed to the collapse of my own, unfolding in tandem with the critical illnesses of my grandfather and my mother. My grandfather died at the age of 94, in the aftermath of a serious fall. My mother died of cancer when she was 43, just three years after she found a very small lump in her left breast.

I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1987, and from Iowa City I moved to Brooklyn, New York, with Colin Harrison, whom I married in 1988. My grandmother moved east and lived with us until her death, two months before her 92nd birthday. She got to see her first great-grandchild, Sarah, born in 1990. We also have a son, Walker, born in 1992, and a younger daughter, Julia, born in 2000. And a dog and two cats.

We still live in Brooklyn, in a brownstone that was built in 1882, filled with charming and vexing details, like brass faucets that dispense hot or cold water separately, one drip at a time. I write in a small study at the top of our house, getting most of my work done while our children are in school. Colin is an editor at Scribner, as well as a novelist.

July 2005 marked the publication of my 11th book, a novel called Envy. At this writing I’m deeply involved in the research for a non-fiction book, an account of three murders that took place in Medford, Oregon, in 1984. I’m an addicted as well as dedicated writer, still amazed – and grateful – that I get to make a living at the work I love."


–› Excerpt

Envy portrays a New York family wracked by tragedy, some obvious - the accidental drowning of a young boy - much hidden.
The Seal Wife
The story of a young scientist sent to Alaska in the early 1900s to establish a weather observatory, and his consuming love for a woman known only as the Aleut - a woman who refuses to speak.
The Binding Chair
A late nineteenth-century tale of a Chinese girl who flees from foot binding to brothel to marriage with a Westerner.
The Kiss
An obsessive love affair between father and daughter that began when Kathryn Harrison, twenty years old, was reunited with a parent whose absence had haunted her youth.
Ann Rogers, a photographer, cannot forget her childhood career as her father's model and muse. As the psychological trap set by her past closes tighter, she escapes into a secret life that is both addictive and self-destructive.
Harrison's strange, appalling, yet enrapturing tale focuses on two young women: Francisca de Luarca, the free-spirited daughter of a failed silkworm cultivator, and Marie Louise de Bourbon, doomed to marry the last surviving Hapsburg, the deformed and aberrant King Carlos.
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The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
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Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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