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

Every day for a week I visited the gun on the shelf above my father’s suits; sometimes I touched it, and sometimes I just looked. Once, I loaded it. I dropped a single bullet into one of the revolver’s six chambers. A bullet would be too fast for regret, but having never practiced on anything other than a distant soda can, I was afraid of misfiring, and even more than that, I was afraid of myself. On my last visit to the revolver, I looked up from where it was lying in my lap and by chance caught my reflection in the closet’s mirrored door. We regarded each other, I and the girl who’d traded all she had in order to keep the father she’d lost once before. How long had it been since she’d taken off the gold cross she used to wear? She didn’t want anyone to mistake her for a decent Christian. I pointed the gun at the girl in the mirror and saw something beyond or beneath her willingness to be debased. She was proud, like her father.

Whatever part of me I hadn’t lost or strangled was the one recording what happened, and even an apprentice writer knew better than to end such a story on so obvious a metaphor as her incestuous father’s pistol.

I put the gun back on the shelf and let what was left of me live.

A dream recurs, a dream that consists of one moment. As if I were watching from the other side of a double mirror, I see myself sitting alone in a small, windowless room painted white, empty aside from the chair beneath me. The room has a single door, with a knob but no lock, and my father is on the other side. I sit facing the door, and I watch the knob.

Nothing happens. I wait, that’s all. I’m 19; soon I’ll be 20. I know it’s only a matter of time before the knob turns, the door opens, and my father steps through. I know what future lies ahead, and I know there’s no way to escape it.

The only way to get away from my father, the only way I knew, was to leave her behind, the girl he stalked and stole, the one in the college yearbook picture that appears above my name. She was stupid about love, that girl, and she never knew when people were lying to her.

I kept her christening dress, a pair of her baby shoes bronzed into bookends and a banker’s box full of high school notebooks and term papers, all of them typed on onionskin paper, without a single mistake, the result of watching her fingers on the keys. Of starting over as many times as necessary. “What I Am; What I Hope to Become.” It was an assignment, so she’d taken it seriously: She did her best to sum herself up. Ten pages held together with a heart-shaped clip: I skimmed them to see what she thought she knew about herself. That she loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian? That maybe she’d work for a zoo, taking care of the big cats? She’d gotten an A, of course; she always got A’s. She was a slave to praise.

I kept the stuffed dog she’d had all her life and had taken with her to college, and I kept her books, too, a few cartons’ worth. To open a volume was to summon the girl who’d licked the gummed bookplate bearing her name and solemnly set it in place. Ex libris. Her grandfather had built her a bookcase and painted it white, and she slept just an arm’s length from it. The lamp on her bedside table had a ceramic stand painted with a nosegay of pink flowers, and she scorched a lot of T-shirts by dropping them over its shade to stop light from leaking under her door past bedtime and giving her away.

The door in the dream has no lock, and the room is so small and so empty, the girl so alone. How was it—how could it have been—I didn’t know the cost of failing to protect her? She’d want books, the girl I’d abandoned; she always did, and maybe it would help her to see the story’s end.

First published in the October 2013 issue

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