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How A Woman's 'True Crime' Addiction Helped Her Work Through A Traumatic Past

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm going to say right up front that the next conversation we're going to bring you is really intense, and some of you may find parts of it disturbing. I spoke with the writer Kathryn Harrison recently. She has written 15 books - biographies, novels, essays - but her most groundbreaking book is the memoir she wrote back in 1997 called "The Kiss." That is a startling account of the affair she had with her estranged father when she was 20 years old.

And while the experience affected her in unimaginable ways, she went on to an acclaimed literary career, and she built a full life for herself. She has a loving husband and three kids. Her collection of essays explores those other dimensions of her life. It's a new collection called "True Crimes: A Family Album."

And it is an album, stories about the mother who left her, the grandmother who raised her and the children she so desperately wanted. There's even a darkly comic story about the family dog. But the title essay, "True Crimes," is about her father and her own preoccupation with the lurid stories of real-life murders, those paperbacks with grisly photo inserts from the crime scenes.

KATHRYN HARRISON: You know, I had to ask myself the question, why am I fascinated with these books? Because they're not only badly written, they're also boring. It's the same story over and over. You know, it's sort of the dark underbelly of - you know, of the bodice ripper or something (laughter).

MARTIN: Yeah.

HARRISON: But for me, I've always been fascinated by crime photographs, and, of course, there's forensic photography in these books about girls that are murdered. And I remember this weird sort of something that became almost a ritual. We called them the dead pictures. And I used to pose in various scenarios as if dead, and my father would take pictures of me. It was one of the few things that I had manipulated him into doing.

MARTIN: What was the thought process like when you were trying to figure out how to acknowledge what happened with your dad in this collection but not make it central because you had already done that in a previous book?

HARRISON: I think that personal essays often are written in answer to a question. And I did have a question, which was why am I addicted to these really bad books (laughter)? And so once I'd asked myself the question, I was increasingly disturbed by the answer that the photo inserts had awoken.

Not that I'd forgotten about it, but I just hadn't thought about it in years, this whole thing that my father and I did where I insisted that he would take pictures of me while I was pretending to be dead. I was better able, 20 years after the fact, to look at that situation and see how obvious a statement it was to my father and one that he really ignored.

I think that because he was - you know, he was very intelligent, very manipulative. And I think over those four years, I ended up doing a lot of acting out that said help me or I'm in trouble. And I - you know, I had eating disorders and any number of problems, but...

MARTIN: ...Those four years being the four years you had a...

HARRISON: The four years that I had...

MARTIN: ...Sexual relationship...

HARRISON: ...A sexual relationship with my father. I was 20, and I was also his child and a very unworldly 20. You know, I think - you know, I'd never had sex ed. I didn't know what bad touching was or anything. And when my father approached me the first time, I was really - you know, I was so shocked that I was dysfunctional.

But now, looking back on it, I couldn't write "The Kiss" today because I'm not in the same place in relationship to that part of my life. I've moved on. And in some ways, my addiction to true crime has helped me because I worked through my understanding of how I separated myself from my father.

And a lot of that was to leave part of myself behind. I couldn't afford to remain with my college girl self anymore. I just had to tear myself apart from that person. And, you know, the fallout of incest is seemingly endless. It's not a taboo for nothing. It's really destructive.

MARTIN: Are there any parts of that time of your life that you allow yourself to go back to? Can you compartmentalize that way to think about things that happened to you that were good?

HARRISON: Oh, absolutely. I think that I'm somebody who is, by nature, introspective. And I will look at something and dismantle it and put it back together and take it apart again until I understand it. And then once I do, I'm frankly bored. So - no, really. I mean, there wasn't really anything to say about my father and me. You know, I'd said it.

MARTIN: Yeah.

HARRISON: And I didn't - I thought about it, of course. I returned to it, just in memory helplessly, but I didn't go back to exhume things or re-examine it. It's just that at some point, I had that dream of the girl in the room which recurred.

And I - you know, it was clearly myself watching myself. And it was all about, you know, this paralyzed terror of my father walking into the room and - as I turned 20, and those four years being ahead of me. And because I had this dream over and over again, I sort of began to have a relationship with the girl in the dream.

And, of course, that's me and that - it was many, many years before I allowed myself to have - sorry. It was many years before I allowed myself to have sympathy for that person. And I guess this essay is the beginning of my resurrecting the girl who I had been and trying to come to terms with the damage I did to myself.

MARTIN: Have you forgiven - did you need to forgive yourself? Have you done that?

HARRISON: I absolutely did need to forgive myself, and I think I'm closer to it now than I ever have been. The biggest thing for me and the hardest thing to let go of was the idea of being polluted, made dirty forever by what happened.

And once I did manage to separate myself from that idea, it turned out that I'd maintained this way of thinking about it because it was easier than feeling betrayed and scared and anguished. And much easier to blot all those feelings out by couching it in terms of how dirty it made me and what I could do to address that situation. You know, that was just a helpless defense.

MARTIN: May I ask if you have any kind of relationship with your father now? Is he still alive?

HARRISON: No. He is still alive, and I have no relationship with him whatsoever.

MARTIN: What is it like to walk around in your life knowing that this stuff is out there, these very - the most personal, most painful parts of your own story?

HARRISON: Well, I think I have (laughter) - I think I have a strange relationship to the outside world. I'm more than a homebody. I'm very shy. And I really do believe that humans are sort of poised between the two opposite terrors of not being loved because they are known for who they are or being loved for something they believe that they're not.

So I don't know, I have this need to vivisect myself. I think it's in part to understand who I am, but I also think that it's to compensate from my alienation from a lot of the world around me.

MARTIN: Kathryn Harrison. Her new collection of essays is called "True Crimes: A Family Album." Kathryn, thanks for talking with us.

HARRISON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.