Writer Kathryn Harrison has published seven novels, three memoirs, and a biography of Saint Therese of Lisieux. She lives in New York with her husband Colin Harrison, a writer and editor, and their three children. She has listened to the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light more than any other album in her life. We talked in March of 2011, four days before her 50th birthday.
I suppose it’s some measure of accomplishment having survived half a century, but I don’t think of it as an accomplishment. I’m really somebody who thinks of it as a milestone and a moment to pause and reflect on what has been accomplished and what is left to accomplish. You know, I don’t relish aging, but I like where I am in my life, and I’m really glad we had three children and that they are doing well in their respective lives which are still very much wrapped up with ours because our oldest is 21. I think for me, in general, as I’ve gotten older life has gotten better. I mean, I think that I’ve managed to relax in my relationship with myself. I’m nicer to myself [laughs]. I’ve gotten nicer to myself as I’ve gotten older. Without apology. Which is not something I could’ve done when I was in my 20s or 30s.
I think it’s a time when many people are losing their parents or experiencing their parents’ frailty in a way that means, “Hey, I’m next in line.” I mean, that sort of generational thing: “There’s no longer someone between me and the great maw of extinction.” That actually happened quite early in my life because my mother died just after she turned 43 and I was in my early 20s, and my grandparents, who raised me for her, also had been dead for many, many years, so I’ve looked at it and thought about it since I was in my 20s. I mean, when I turned 43 and I was still here, I thought it was odd.
I think that at this point I am sufficiently psychically differentiated from my mother that it no longer seems to have very much to do with me and the continuing of my life, but I also have to say that I had a really difficult and damaging relationship with my mother, so around the time that I turned 43 I had been in analysis for many years and had been working very diligently [laughs] to untangle myself from the mother that I had preserved inside me.
I’m sorry that the end of my mother’s life was so difficult—she died of cancer—and I’m also sorry that I was so young that I couldn’t really be much of a grown-up, and very, well, not supportive exactly, but I was too needy when my mother was dying to be of much consolation to her. And I’m sorry about that, but I don’t know that I feel guilty about that. I’m sorry that’s the way it was, but I accept that that’s the way that was. So I don’t really think that I feel that much guilt in relation to my mother, but I also would have to say again that this is an issue that I’ve worked on very hard [laughs] with a professional for many years. I remember her sort of somewhat casually outside of the hour of analysis, which isn’t really an hour, saying to me that I was riddled with guilt at some point [laughs]. And I take exception to that, but I do think about it a lot.
You’re talking about survivor guilt in a way, but there’s also survivor exhilaration. Like, the bullet whizzed past you. And I think I feel some of that. I mean, there is some aspect of aging that I find consoling because the older I get without getting breast cancer the less likely I am to have such a virulent form of it, and that does relieve anxiety. When my mother died and I was in my 20s I didn’t even… You know, what 20 year old thinks about breast cancer? And her oncologist said to me, “You know, from this point forward you’re going to have to be very vigilant.” And I was like, “What?” And he said, “Well, you know, this is very close. It’s the closest physical relationship that you have with somebody in terms of replicating their DNA and everything.” So I started having mammograms in my 20s.
There’s a maternal line of breast cancer. My grandmother died and her mother had died of it, so there were years of obsessing about ways to escape what seems like my fate, to the point where I considered radical things like, you know, preventive mastectomies. And I didn’t do that because I had two daughters and I felt that that was really just not a good thing to do, for them to witness. And so there’s been a certain amount of relief in getting older.
I was talking to a doctor once and I said, “You know, I just don’t want to think about this anymore [laughs]. I just want, you know, let’s just take them off.” And he said, “Well, I have to tell you that it’s not 100 percent.” So at that point I thought, “Fuck, I’m never going to stop thinking about it.” When my grandfather and then my mother died in my early 20s, it was like just being gobsmacked. I just had this sudden revelation of “Oh! I get it. This thing called life ends. And it’s going to happen to me.” But that was in my 20s. I think it’s very difficult for a being individual to get his or her mind around non-being, but that was something that I was thinking about 30 years ago almost.
I want to remain alive for as long as my children really need me to be alive, so that is something I think about. And there are things I want to accomplish professionally, and hope to. But—and this is going to sound like sort of a nuts analogy but it’s the one that popped into my head—when I do have that sort of “Oh God, you know, more than half over,” I always remind myself that if I go to a party and I’m there and I’m all excited for the first half [laughs], maybe the first three-quarters, I do get to the point where I’m ready for it to be over. And I’ve been around enough people at the ends of their life that I’ve watched them arrive at a point where they really are at peace with it, so I remind myself of that. I don’t think I’m afraid of dying, really. I don’t want to, because I don’t want to leave my children first. You know, in terms of my own ambitions, I’ll be dead so it’s not going to bother me if I don’t get it done [laughs]. But I know how much I struggled losing my mother at the age that I did, when I was really not ready.
I have a daughter who’s just about to turn 11, and I’ve got two older kids, 21 and 18, and there’s a zen part of me that can detach and say, “Well, that would be their challenge. That would be what life threw at them.” It would not be me wanting to leave them or even like committing suicide or something. On the other hand, I do, also, in my non-zen self say, “Boy, you know, that’s a big stumbling block to be thrown.” And I’d prefer not to do that to my children.
There is one thing that I am really looking forward to and that’s being a grandmother, because I really love babies [laughs]. I really loved so much about being a mother that I do look forward to meeting who else might come into my life and I would be disappointed not to be around for that.
I think most people are afraid of cancer because it has this uncontrolled quality. I think that it defies our ability to understand it still, so it does have this ability to come across as pure chaos and evil. And within your own body, one that you can’t get away from, and I think that is scary. Even other ailments that are ultimately fatal I don’t feel the same degree of worry over them. But, you know, that has to do with my experience too. I’m definitely more fearful of cancer than I am of death.
The last person I watched die up close is my father-in-law whom I really loved a great deal. And he was a pretty evolved person, but I just remember him saying to my husband—I mean, he said a lot of amazing things while he was dying—but I remember him looking at his son once and saying, “I’m learning so much.” So I think that’s probably true of a lot of people. I had this sort of sense of him burning more brightly at the end in a way, even though the disease had sort of eaten him up. There is this whole fuzzy realm of auras and crap that I’m not going to get into, but he was one of those people who did somehow appear to sort of shine forth, and that was not in any way diminished at the end of his life.
Another thing that was quite mysterious was that time itself seemed to change at the end. I had my father-in-law in my life for 17 years and it was, in a platonic way, pretty much love at first sight. We clicked. We always enjoyed each other. When I came to visit he always beamed at me and I the same with him. And I was with him a lot at the end of his life, and at some point he looked at me and he said, “I’ve always loved you.” And I said, “I loved you even before I met you [laughs].” And we both agreed that that was true and that our understanding in that moment of what we felt for each other was not contained at all by time.
So that was interesting too. I don’t necessarily see time as having the complete ability to eradicate things like relationships or love, so having experienced that I think also takes the edge off of it. I feel that I can confidently say to my children at the time, “I’m not going to be physically present in your life, but based on my experience of the people I’ve lost and loved, they remain with me, and I’ll be with you too.”
I think anytime that I get sort of itchy in an ambitious way – you know, like, I should’ve won the prize, I should’ve whatever it is, sold more copies, blah blah blah, been reviewed here—I remind myself that the thing that I love about writing is writing. And my experience of being a writer is actually one that, like for all writers, I think, is fraught with frustration and anxiety. But when I’m really writing it is the one moment when I am both released from the burden of myself and most myself, if that paradox makes sense, and that is a really good feeling.
I do feel that one strength that I have as a human being is that I had a pretty clear sense of who I was from the moment I achieved consciousness [laughs]. I don’t mean that I was always self-aware completely, because that’s ridiculous. Although having been through psychoanalysis I do think that I’m probably at least somebody who strives toward self-awareness more than the average. But I never had a sense of “Who am I?” I often have the sense of “What the fuck am I doing? [laughs]”. But not “Who am I?”
Actually for many years I was frightened by happiness, because it just seemed like this really strange balancing act that I had achieved for one weird moment or ten years, but then it would inevitably topple. So whenever I noticed I was happy it made me nervous [laughs] because I liked it. And I didn’t want it to go away but I was sure it would.
You know, my tears are cheap. I cry pretty easily. I’ve always been sort of weepy [laughs]. I have been somebody who responds, rather in a delayed way, to many things. I am usually a day late getting angry about things and sometimes it’s really annoying [laughs].
It’s not so much with Colin anymore. I mean, he used to call me the Sniper because I was so afraid of conflict, having grown up in a family where conflicts were really serious, that whenever I got angry at him, just in the very early years of our relationship, I would say something and then immediately run out of the room [laughs].
I wouldn’t even mean to and my husband would say, “Wait. Wait. Don’t you want me to answer?”
I had a very strange experience when I was in my 40s. I was writing a book on Therese of Lisieux who was a saint. She became a saint at the beginning of the 20th century. And I was writing a biography of her, one I didn’t choose to write but I was asked to write for the Penguin Lives series, and I said, “Yes,” because I hated her and I thought that was at least as interesting as loving somebody. I just thought she was the smarmiest and most simpering of the modern saints. No stigmata [laughs], nothing really fun. So I ran an opposite course to many biographers who begin in love with their subjects and end up hating them once they discover who they are. I was sort of unwillingly seduced by Therese, and part of that began when I went to Lisieux on her Saint’s Day.
And Lisieux is a pilgrimage site because, as many people believe, she does perform miracles. So I was in France and my French was very rusty, or I thought that it was, but I had a very strange, charmed experience there. I won’t say that it was fused with divinity, but a couple of weird things did happen that I wasn’t expecting, because I went into it with a very cynical attitude. I’m not proud to say that, but I did. And I had this strange revelation in the midst of a Mass that began around midnight, and it was a really sort of overwhelming. You know, there’s a procession, a candle lit procession. There are lots of pilgrims, many of them are ill, and they take her remains in this sort of glass and gold casket from one holy place and put it in another, and people touch it and kiss it and everything. It’s sort of overwrought, let’s say. And one thing that was very strange was that I found it completely possible to understand native speakers speaking quickly. It was my only experience with that in my life. And I’m not going to say that that was because of divine intervention. I think I was just really overwrought and things were going on inside of me for whatever reason and I will leave you to your own conclusions. But I did have this weird vision of my life at that moment. It was sort of analogous to one of those cutaway pictures of a ship where you can see all the cool state rooms and everything. And I had this sense of who I was and this sort of vivisection of me and all the parts of my life and I had this understanding that there wasn’t any problem that I had in my life that was not addressable or perhaps even fixable through love. And so I will say that I believe in the truth of love.
I’ve reminded myself of that moment many times. In fact, I have the word “revere” tattooed on my arm so that when I see it I remember that, because it was a very powerful experience, and when I check it out and reapply it to other situations I always see how it’s a failure of my ability to love that has caused or made the problem worse.
I am a work in progress, like the rest of us, I guess.