***In order to help our readership guard against existential threats to Christmas, the most austere and sacred of holidays, an inquiry is being made into what is ruining Christmas this year. First up, the New York Times.*
Christmas: it’s a time for reflection, a time for family, a time for appreciating all the love we have in our lives. But really, it’s a time for children to get presents. That’s presumably why the New York Times brought in a writer (and Stanford alum) to expound on the latter theme with a somewhat bittersweet tale of a hardscrabble childhood brightened briefly on Christmas day. What came out of it was the most disturbing Christmas story in recent memory. It opens:
BEFORE the lie, a confession: My involvement with Christmas stockings approaches a fetish. As a child I was fixed on my own, filled always by my mother. Eighteen when I was born, and unequal to the burden of motherhood, she had given me to her parents to raise.
Sad, but not disturbing. She continues:
Alone with my bounty, the only one awake, I made it last. I untied each ribbon, smoothed the pretty paper and set it aside. A book of poems the size of a postage stamp, with real, printed pages; a rare seashell, pink and fluted; a little bear carved from teak — every year a stocking stuffed so perfectly as to suggest my distractible, elusive young mother had secretly been paying me attention all along, closely enough to know my desires.
What we have here is a fairly straightforward story of a neglecting mother who for one day give her daughter hope that she really does care. In a way, it’s extra heartbreaking, but still not really disturbing. Then there’s the final line, describing the author:
Kathryn Harrison’s most recent book is “While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family.”
Yikes! And it gets worse. Mrs. Harrison’s (Stanford B.A. in English, 1982) name may be familiar to you, because it has been in the news recently. Why? Her 1997 memoir, The Kiss: A Memoir, has been in the news in connection to the recent claims by Mackenzie Phillips that she carried out a consensual sexual relationship with her father, former member of the Mamas & the Papas, John Phillips (not to be confused with Papa John).
In the memoir, Mrs. Harrison detailed that when she was 20 (and at Stanford) she began having a consensual sexual relationship with her own father (who had been uninvolved her life) that lasted four years. She would meet her eventual husband in 1985 at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop–it’s unclear if the affair with her father was over by then.
Questions abound: what do we do about someone like this? Without getting too deep into the psychological details, it’s fair to say that Mrs. Harrison has had her issues. Nevertheless, she did engage in a sexual relationship with her own father, and well, that’s just disgusting (if any of you are wondering if the fact that is was consensual and that she was of age makes it ok, don’t. A parent-child bond should never be abused in that way. The power dynamics are so skewed that it is beyond inappropriate).
So, what do we do? Do we let her tell Christmas stories in the nation’s leading newspaper? On one hand, she is a gifted writer. On the other hand, she had sex with her father. While the former certainly is a legitimate qualification, the latter should disqualify her from some things, no? Heartwarming tales about family come to mind as something that her choices have abdicated–reread the first sentence from her story and her choice of words might strike you differently than it did before.
The larger debate is how we react to a massive personal failure. Do we embrace it, accept it, and try to normalize it, or do we stigmatize it? There are compelling reasons to support both positions, and obviously varying circumstances that make each option more compelling. In Mrs. Harrison’s case, I’m torn. I just never will be able to read a story (about anything) by anyone who slept with their father without a sense of horror at that fact. Maybe that’s a bad thing. Maybe Kathryn Harrison shouldn’t lose my business because of 25-year-old mistakes. But then again, maybe Kathryn Harrison shouldn’t exploit those mistakes for fame and fortune. Jonah Goldberg enunciated the latter position nicely (if a bit hyperbolically) in a recent op-ed:
Society has embraced what social scientist Charles Murray calls “ecumenical niceness.” A core tenet of ecumenical niceness is that harsh judgments of the underclass – or people with underclass values – are forbidden. An added corollary: People with old-fashioned notions of decency are fair game.
Long before the rise of reality shows, ecumenical niceness created a moral vacuum. Out-of-wedlock birth was once a great shame; now it’s something of a happy lifestyle choice. The cavalier use of profanity was once crude; now it’s increasingly conversational. Self-discipline was once a virtue; now self-expression is king.
We truly cannot divorce the author from their work (The Economist excepted), and pretending to do so would be dishonest. I don’t know whether it is better to stigmatize people for appallingly and deliberately deconstructing social norms, or if we should reexamine those norms and see if we can’t improve them. But I do know that Mrs. Harrison would do well to apply her criticism of Phillip Roth’s most recent novel to herself:
The bedroom frolics inspired by something as lurid and ludicrous as a green dildo make for embarrassing reading not because of the caliber of their sexiness, but because they demean everyone involved. Including the reader, who is forced into the position of voyeur
Mrs. Harrison must know how well this criticism applies to herself, and her response would presumably be that if it is handled tastefully, even the most personal topic is fair game for sharing, but that misses the point. What makes Mr. Roth’s novel repulsive is not the tactfulness of its handling of transgressive content, but the actual content. I’ll let the never-shy Christopher Hitchens voice his discontent with Roth’s use of sexual transgression as a plot device in a review of another one of Roth’s books:
When Raymond Chandler felt things going limp in a story, he would have the door open and then it would be: Enter a man carrying a gun. When Roth is in the same fix, we know that some luckless goy chick is about to get it in the face. Exit reader.
With Mrs. Harrison, the potential problem is the same, only she’s writing from the perspective of that luckless goy chick. Being transgressive is not worthwhile unless a meaningful artistic contribution is being made. For Mrs. Harrison, I doubt that the contribution comes remotely close to the “gawking at a trainwreck” factor. The New York Times’ mostly positive review of her memoir described it as “appalling but beautifully written,” and “a powerful piece of writing.”
If that’s the standard for cultural worth, and that the content and message of that beautiful writing isn’t really relevant, then the only thing separating the most abhorrent and transgressive elements of our culture (think The Jerry Springer Show) from respectability is their lack of a genteel façade rather than any difference in values.