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The Mother Knot


The Mother Knot

I began reading this book on Mother's Day, and though Kathryn
Harrison's mother is long dead, and mine, too, is gone, it reminded
me how powerfully our parents stay alive in us --- for better or

In Harrison's case, it seems to have been for much, much worse. Her
mother, pregnant at 17 and married briefly, moved into her own
place when her daughter was six, leaving Harrison to be raised,
with scrupulous care and scant understanding, by her grandparents.
Although her mother remained nearby and saw her child on weekends,
they never lived together again. She died at 42, of breast

A mother who was there, yet absent. A mother whom she adored and
hated in equal measure. A mother she never really had who
nonetheless occupied huge real estate in Harrison's psyche and
affected her own sense of parenthood. THE MOTHER KNOT begins with
Harrison thrown into a spiral of despair over two apparently
unrelated events: her decision to stop breast-feeding her third
child (a daughter) and her son's bout with severe asthma. The
depression and eating disorders she had developed in childhood now
return; she goes back to her longtime analyst; she starts taking
medication and losing weight; she feels responsible for her son's
illness, overcome by a black, vindictive force that at last she
identifies as her mother --- or Harrison's internalized version of

Whew. Strong stuff --- yet for me, this sea of troubles didn't
really register at first; it was too neat, too practiced. THE
MOTHER KNOT struck me as: (a) something of a gyp (96 pages for
$19.95? Please.) and (b) traversing confessional ground already
mined by the author in her novels THICKER THAN WATER and EXPOSURE:
parental abandonment, anorexia, depression, incest. In fact, it is
a sort of maternal bookend for Harrison's earlier (and rather
notorious) memoir, THE KISS, which revealed an incestuous affair
with her father, whom she finally met at the age of 20. I got the
sense that she was simply going over the same territory, and I was
curiously unmoved.

But something shifted --- in me or in the book, or both --- about
midway through. (My interest level rose, I now realize, the moment
Harrison stopped acting like a victim.) She summons a scene from
her honeymoon trip to India, when she and her husband see a woman's
body floating on the Ganges River, and she devises a way to
exorcise her mother's spirit: have the body (now buried in
California) disinterred, cremated, and sent to her in New York,
then scatter the ashes "into a river, or into the sea. I'm going to
say good-bye."

Letting go is painful, impossible, essential, universal. Ritual
makes it a little more tolerable, whether or not we're
conventionally religious, and Harrison recognizes that. There is a
ceremonial aspect to the moment she relinquishes her mother's
possessions, things she had kept through four changes of address:
"As if under a spell, I opened the top drawer of my bureau and took
out lingerie, old slips and camisoles of my mother's. … I put
them in a shopping bag to drop off at the local Salvation Army,
hunted through my closet for whatever else I'd inherited from her:
a pullover; an evening jacket; two cardigan sweaters; a black
velvet dress I'd stepped into and buttoned and, when I saw myself
in the mirror, taken off, at least once each winter since her death
… Then I dumped my clutch of cosmetics out on the bathroom
counter and extracted a compact of rouge, a concealer stick, and
three eye pencils --- also my mother's --- and threw them

When the ashes arrive, on a winter day (28 degrees!), she drives to
a beach on Long Island where she and her mother once walked, wades
into the freezing ocean, and gives her to the sea. It is a scene of
grace and clarity, almost a primeval rite. Her mother is departing,
Harrison writes, "because at last I was allowing her to go."

Autobiography is difficult to do well, and in the early stages of
this book Harrison's narrative seemed to me more self-absorbed than
enlightening. The last half, though, is something of a tour de
force. However the details of our stories differ, we all have a
"mother knot": anger bound up with love, dependence with defiance.
Harrison's memoir may inspire you to break free of your own tangle.
It helped with mine.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 7, 2011

The Mother Knot
by Kathryn Harrison

  • Publication Date: July 12, 2005
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812971507
  • ISBN-13: 9780812971507