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

If the dead girl whose story I’m reading isn’t a prostitute, she’s a college girl out on a hike, or a waitress who went home with the wrong customer. She’s been missing long enough that her roommate is frantic, her family more so. If she’s not a prostitute, the media invite the missing girl’s parents to appear on the nightly news and plead for their daughter’s abductor to return her. They have to assume he’s capable of remorse, of possessing emotions that resemble their own. They can’t understand what makes him who he is, and they don’t want to believe such people exist. Her friends stand at intersections handing out flyers printed with her picture over the word reward.

I didn’t think it was particularly odd to keep a box of lust murders under my side of the bed until I tried to move it to a better spot. After all, what mother would leave books like that lying around, where her children might come upon them? I carried them up and down the stairs looking for a place to tuck them away, out of sight, and ended up putting them back under the bed. I did this two or three times, enough to feel self-conscious. Did I want them near me as I slept, and if I did, why? Acknowledging them as bedtime stories provided only more reason to hide them away.

Perhaps I was, as my analyst said, polluted only insofar as I believed myself to be. But what informed my beliefs other than the books I’d read? I’d never taken a sex ed class; I knew little enough about normal sex, let alone deviance. But Oedipus knew the wages of incest, of pollution that can’t be contained. And what about Paradise Lost, in which Death is born when Satan beds his own daughter? Dick Diver put his mad wife, Nicole, in a Swiss asylum; by the end of Tender Is the Night, he’s lost his soul to the father who raped her. I was still a bluestocking, with a bluestocking’s library. Whose opinion would I hold above Sophocles’?

My favorite of the dead-girl pictures, and the last we made together, is bloodless. I’m wearing a black dress with a prim white collar and holding a white rose. Eyes closed, I’m lying in a casket I nagged my father to ask an undertaker friend to lend him—a floor model. I thought it might be scary, climbing into a coffin and lying down, especially when the bottom half of the lid was lowered over my legs, but it wasn’t, not really. Not when I thought of myself as dead anyway, a body abandoned by its owner.

Who can interview a dead girl? If a reader is to understand how it happened, this thing so terrible that people can’t imagine it for themselves, someone has to re-create her final hours. If the author’s lucky, there’s a girl who got away, and she tells the homicide detective what the killer did before she escaped. She shouldn’t have been walking alone on that stretch of road; she knew that. But her car broke down, or a pickpocket stole her wallet, or she spent her bus fare on something she wished she hadn’t. The lust murderer posed as an officer of the peace or a night watchman: a big man whose job it is to protect the vulnerable. He seemed nice at first, she tells the detective; he was kind and he bought her dinner.

Whoever she was, the girl who got away had been careless, just like the ones who weren’t so lucky. Everything would have turned out differently if the coed had been a better judge of character, or if she hadn’t been so headstrong as to hike alone where no one could hear her screams. The prostitute would still be alive if she hadn’t been so desperate for a fix that she ignored the killer’s eyes and got into his van. If you read enough lust murders, it’s clear how vigilant a girl has to be.

First published in the October 2013 issue

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