True Crimes: A Family Album

True Crimes: A Family Album

by Kathryn Harrison


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From acclaimed literary talent and New York Times bestselling author Kathryn Harrison comes a collection of provocative and illuminating essays. In True Crimes, conventional ideas of love, loss, forgiveness, and memory are transformed—complicated, upended, and reimagined by one of the foremost memoirists of our time.

In essays written over the course of more than a decade, Kathryn Harrison has created a beautifully detailed and rigorously honest family album. With tenderness and wisdom, compassion and humor, Harrison writes about the things we don’t always discuss, casting light on what lurks beneath the surface of everyday life, sifting through the artifacts of memory to find what haunts and endures.

Both serious and surprising, these essays capture the moments and impulses that shape a family. In “Keeping Vigil,” Harrison reflects on the loss of her beloved father-in-law, and how he managed to repair something her own father had broken. In “Holiday Lies,” she describes the uneasy but necessary task of lying to her children about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, withholding certain truths to protect their innocence. In “Mini-Me,” she writes about how the birth of her youngest daughter—who used to pry open a sleeping Harrison’s eyes—finally allowed her to understand her own mother’s complicated attitudes about parenting. And in “True Crime,” Harrison writes for the first time in the almost two decades since the publication of The Kiss about her affair with her father, and how she has reckoned with the girl she once was.

With gorgeous prose and unflinching self-examination, True Crimes is a powerful and unforgettable literary tour de force.

Praise for True Crimes

“I found myself mesmerized by Harrison’s nervy confessions: odd and idiosyncratic, as original as any personal disclosures I’ve read and yet not obviously calculated for inflammatory effect. . . . Here, as in all of Harrison’s nonfiction, there’s a magnetic and almost mystical weirdness roiling beneath a seemingly placid ­surface.”The New York Times Book Review

“It’s hard to think of other memoirists who match not just Harrison’s unsparing clarity of vision, but her empathy for both her loved ones and her tormentors. . . . Harrison is doubly gifted: She is able both to see her world with painful clarity, and to share this clarity with us.”New Republic

“Revelatory in its honesty about everything from her scorching childhood to the push and pull of marriage.”More

“A beautifully written and wonderful book about almost everything that means anything in life: love, family, loss and betrayal, death, joy. It is heartbreaking, funny, direct, elliptical, and somehow pulls a provocative healing thread of meaning from generation to generation, from husband to wife, and from life to death to life again.”—Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D.

“In these essays, Harrison approaches her own past as a mystery—at once elusive and unshakable—and excavates its nuances with tender rigor. Her memories emerge less like artifacts and more like luminous veins of quicksilver, constantly diverging and reconnecting.”—Leslie Jamison

“With its sharp, haunting portraits, this gorgeous and unsettling book is like the most honest family album ever. Harrison is not afraid to plumb the darkness of family life, to look at the rage, panic, and resentments entangled with love: Her reminiscences are vivid and unforgettable.”—Katie Roiphe

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400063482
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kathryn Harrison has written the novels Thicker Than Water, Exposure, Poison, The Binding Chair, The Seal Wife, Envy, and Enchantments. Her autobiographical work includes The Kiss, Seeking Rapture, The Road to Santiago, The Mother Knot, and True Crimes. She has written two biographies, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Joan of Arc, and a book of true crime, While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison.

Read an Excerpt

A Tale of Two Dogs

Bite me. I offer my hand to the mongrel chained to a pole outside the neighborhood locksmith’s shop. It’s a big dog, with pricked ears, a black face, and a mostly black coat. A shepherd mix, I think. Neglected, if not intentionally mistreated. Its tail is hairless on one side, and its long fur is matted and dirty. It should weigh a good seventy or eighty pounds, but it can’t be more than sixty. A pariah of a dog, repellent in its ill-­tempered misery. The kind of animal around which I’d make a wide berth, were I walking with my children.

The dog’s growl is low, almost lost amid the clamor of the city: the approach of a garbage truck; the metallic shriek of an unoiled security gate; the rumble of a subway train I don’t hear so much as feel through the soles of my shoes. I should be home at my desk, working. Instead, alone on the sidewalk, no passersby to witness, I hunker down until I’m eye-­level with the animal and stretch my hand out farther, close enough to touch its nose.

Bite me. Do it. I deserve it. I don’t say the words aloud, but I think them. Think them hard enough—­if effort is what’s required—­to force them from human to canine brain, looking the dog in its dark, almond-­shaped eyes. The left one is rheumy and dull, half closed over a crescent of wet fur. After a moment, it turns away from my outstretched hand and lays its head on its front paws, closes its eyes. This is the eleventh, maybe the twelfth cur that has refused to punish and absolve me.

Absolution. I am always seeking it, if not usually from dogs.

The dog problem began in Italy, the previous summer. Not that it seemed, in the beginning, to have anything to do with dogs. My mother-­in-­law found a Tuscan villa to rent—­a farmhouse, but they call them villas—­and my husband and I and our two children, six and four at the time, joined his parents for a month on the outskirts of Casole d’Elsa, a medieval village largely untouched by the intervening centuries. The photographs forwarded to us did little to convey the charm of the old house, two stories of yellow stone with a terra cotta roof, much of its façade hidden behind an immense trumpet vine in resplendent bloom, the bees hovering around it so gorged with nectar that they seemed to sink and stagger mid-­buzz, too sated to sting or even threaten. The view from the grounds was of slanting vineyards and fields of sunflowers, crowds of black Cyclopean eyes fringed with golden lashes following the sun’s transit across the sky. Fig trees laden with ripe fruit spread their branches over the pool, offering their sweetness to any swimmer who paused to reach for it. A patio was furnished for eating outdoors. The six of us made day trips to San Gimignano, Monteriggioni, and Siena, each place as lovely as the next. A perfect holiday, until I ruined it abruptly one night in the middle of dinner.

We were in Casole, at a tiny restaurant balanced on the periphery of the sloping plaza, gathered together around a white-­clothed table set outside on the cobblestones, silverware polished bright and water glasses spangled with condensation, drops that caught the light like sequins. Not yet a week after the solstice, the June sun shone long past our children’s usual bedtime, sending a spray of beams through the ancient pink crenellations that topped one of the towers in the village’s fortified walls.

“I’m going back to the house,” I said, apropos of nothing and interrupting the conversation.

“Why?” my husband asked, looking up from his menu.

“I don’t feel well. I just want to go where I can lie down.”

“What’s wrong?” My husband and in-­laws asked the question almost in unison. Did my head ache? Was it my stomach? Did I have a fever? Was I catching a cold? What could be wrong enough to send me home on so idyllic an evening, especially as all of us knew me to be stoic, often too stoic, with respect to physical discomfort? Thoroughly and successfully indoctrinated as a Christian Scientist from the ages of two until ten, I still had a hard time believing it wasn’t my fault when I was sick: a manifestation of my having fallen into what Mary Baker Eddy, the church’s founder, called “error,” which separated humankind from God and left them vulnerable to illness and pain. Sick people were sinners. I never applied the conceit to other people. It was wrong and it didn’t make sense. But with regard to myself, my first and often tenacious response to illness was denial. In fact, on that night in Casole, even I was surprised to hear myself admit what I’d refused to consider for weeks, well before we left for Europe: There was something wrong with me, and it was getting worse, not better.

“I’m fine, really. I just want to lie down.”

“Do you want me to go back to the house with you?” my husband asked.

“No, no. You have dinner. I’ll see you when you come home.”

I set off through the golden dusk, thankful it was downhill all the way from village to farmhouse. Even so, I stopped several times by the side of the road, overcome by the beating of my heart, weirdly fast and erratic. Again and again it seemed to trip over its own rhythm; then it would shudder and restart. Each time this happened I ended up kneeling on the ground, having first bent over like an exhausted runner to put my hands on my knees, breathe, and will myself not to vomit. The only thing that got me to my feet again was the thought of my family walking back along the same road after dinner and coming upon me folded among the weeds in a ditch.

Once back in the house, its door left unlocked in this place of safety, I lay on the couch in the cool and shadowed living room. I used to be able to slow my pulse if I tried, breathing deeply and willing my heart to decelerate. The window across the room was a square of dimming light surrounded by the leaves of the trumpet vine, a green border shimmering in the gentle wind, and I tried to use it as a focus object, the way Lamaze classes had taught me to manage labor pains. But it didn’t work, not at all. Inside me was the visceral equivalent of cacophony, as if every organ had slipped out of sympathy with the rest—­the moment in a cartoon before a rattletrap engine blows and fails. I couldn’t breathe, at least not as I was used to breathing; my heart was pounding so hard I felt it in my groin, my neck, my temples. I’d felt this way more than a few times over the previous month, but never so intensely or for so long. Until that night the feeling had been a fleeting thing, sensations endured and over with before I’d had a chance to analyze them. Once they’d stopped, I put them out of my mind. Told myself whatever it was, it hadn’t been so bad, really. My problem was I needed to learn to relax. That’s why I felt so tired and why I couldn’t sleep. When we got back home, I told myself, I’d enroll in a yoga class. I’d learn to meditate. Something.

In the bathroom I lay on the cool stone floor. I was hot; maybe I did have a fever. I should have told my husband I’d fainted two days earlier, when, having decided I wasn’t sick so much as stressed out and suffering from a lack of real exercise, I’d gone for a run. Not two miles in, I’d blacked out between two fields of sunflowers and discovered myself lying among stems as thick as my arms, looking up at their monstrous heads. I should have told him the gash on my heel, which bled so much it should probably have been sutured, wasn’t from ­tripping on the stairs in the dark. I’d gotten up in the night to go to the bathroom, fainted, and cut myself on the sharp edge of a stone tread. I should have told the truth in Siena, that I hadn’t, as I said, run back to the shop with the pretty paper but was throwing up over a drain in the alley we’d just passed through.

What I should have done was go to a doctor before we left for Italy.

“How’d it go?” my husband calls from work to ask me.

Back home the next month, all I do is see doctors. It’s July in New York City: sweltering, humid. My husband has returned to work; the children have started day camp. I trudge from internist to endocrinologist to radiologist and back again.

“I’m radioactive,” I tell my husband. “I come with warnings, protocols.”

He laughs. “Protocols, huh?”

“You think this is funny?” I say. “No sex. No kissing. No sleeping in the same room with you or the kids. No using the same dishes. No touching the children. No sitting next to people on the subway. I’m not kidding,” I say when he keeps laughing.

“For how long?”

“Most of the radiation is shed in the next forty-­eight hours, but I’m not safe to be around for a week. Honey?” I hesitate. “Can we talk for a second?”

“We are talking.”

“I just wanted to know if you had to get off the phone right away.”

“Why? What is it?”

I’m pacing as we speak, first one way, then the other, tethered by the phone cord. “I did something you’re not going to like,” I tell my husband.

“Something aside from becoming radioactive?”



“I’m scared to tell you,” I tell him. Then, after he sighs in exasperation: “I bought something. It was an expensive something.”

“You bought what? How expensive?”

“I . . . it was after I left the doctor’s.”

“What is it?”

“I didn’t mean to buy it.”

“You bought something you didn’t mean to buy and it was expensive?”


“Oh God. You bought a dog.”

“How did you—­ Why do you think it’s a dog?”

“You did, didn’t you? You bought a dog.”

“Why do you think it’s a dog?”

“I’m right, aren’t I?”


“What kind?”

“A puppy. She’s so—­”

“What kind of dog is it?”

“She’s . . . she’s . . . um . . .”

“She’s what? What is she?”

“Well, she’s a . . . she’s a pug.”

“You did not buy a pug!”

“I, um—­”

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

A Tale of Two Dogs 3

Keeping Vigil 39

True Crime 61

Holiday lies 75

The Couch Account 83

The Forest of Memory 97

Cat Fancy 111

Baby New Year 127

The Unseen Wind 151

The Book of My Body 163

By Angels' Speech and Tongue 171

Mini-Me 183

Pilgrim's Progress 195

Acknowledgments 219

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