Incest: The Epilogue

At 20, this writer had a sexual relationship with her long-absent father—a secret she revealed in her 1997 memoir, The Kiss. But incest has a long half-life, and now she is ready to reveal her emotional journey of the past 17 years

by Kathryn Harrison
father daughter image

Why didn’t the familiar plot bore me? I asked myself as I glanced up to make sure my children hadn’t wandered off while I looked for books I’d be embarrassed to be caught purchasing. If I judged myself by their covers, it wasn’t only because they advertised my poor taste in reading material. It was my appetite for true stories of dead girls and their killers that made me uncomfortable. I had a dozen or more dog-eared paperbacks hidden in a cardboard box under my side of the bed. Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway, Richard Ramirez. I read books about men in whom lust and violence were fused, predators satisfied by nothing less than a girl’s halted heartbeat, and I read them at bedtime, using a finger to keep my place in the photo insert so I could flip back and forth between the text and the pictures. The best inserts juxtaposed a victim’s high school graduation portrait—or, if she’d been a prostitute, a booking photo—with that of her lifeless, often mutilated body.

At which I stared as if I’d known the dead girl personally and were trying to understand what didn’t seem possible, that life had continued without her.

My husband was right. I did bump into things more often than other people did. I closed drawers on my fingers, cut myself on can lids, fell down the stairs, and burned myself while cooking. I never hung a picture without hammering a thumb along with the nail, and I stubbed my toes almost as soon as I took off my shoes. I forgot to look both ways when I crossed the street; even a collision with a bike messenger and the resulting concussion didn’t help me remember.

Didn’t I realize I was punishing myself? my husband asked me. Once he sensed intent behind what I believed was accidental, he began to challenge my insistence that I was just clumsy, that was all. He’d been watching me for years by then and saw what I could not. There were only so many ways of mining my comfortable married life for penance.

And what about all the hours spent reading stories of violated and murdered girls, girls guilty of nothing other than trust? Was that a punitive exercise as well? That the spell these stories cast had never weakened forced me to admit I couldn’t—or, as my analyst might have said, wouldn’t—let go of the lust--murder plot. How many sickening photo inserts did I have to examine before I made the connection between forensic photographs of female corpses and photographs I persuaded my father to take of me when I was a college girl?

The first thing to happen in a lust murder is that someone finds a girl’s body. A janitor lugs trash to the Dumpster and sees her propped against its side, her legs spread wide so everyone will know what got her into this mess. Or the killer drives the dead girl out of town and into the wild, and a deer hunter stumbles over a foot sticking out from a brush-covered berm. If it’s a fisherman, he sees her hair first, and how it streams from her head, animate under the water. Soon patrol officers are busy securing the scene, grid-searching the terrain, looking for tire tracks, footprints, torn pantyhose, anything that might speak for a girl who can no longer speak for herself.

She’s naked, because the killer strips his victim. One step short of skinning her alive is how he sees it. Sometimes he needs more and has to dismantle her for a trophy: a finger, a kidney, a nipple. Or maybe he takes her apart for the sheer pleasure of destruction, of going on living after he’s watched the blood run out of her veins.

My father hadn’t liked the idea. But for once it was I who manipulated him, suggesting that if he didn’t take the occasional picture I staged, I might not continue to obey his directions when he posed me for the ones he wanted.

First published in the October 2013 issue

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