Growing up, Kathryn Harrison's absentee father was bigger, faster and stronger than all other dads—at least in her mind. On her 20th birthday, that storybook image was shattered when her real father stepped back into her life. What Kathryn could have never imagined was the darkness that followed—a four-year incestuous affair she chronicles in her best-selling memoir, The Kiss.
Kathryn's parents married at 17 after her mother got pregnant. With no jobs or money, they were forced to live with Kathryn's maternal grandparents. Less than a year later, the marriage ended, and Kathryn's grandparents told her father they wouldn't pursue child support if he left quietly. Five years later, her mother abandoned her. "She was 18 when I was born. She didn't want to have a child," Kathryn says. "She had always been critical and cold."
Kathryn was raised by her grandparents. "I was the good girl who never needed disciplining, who made straight As," she says. "I applied and was accepted to Stanford University."
Meanwhile, her father finished college and became a minister. "I remember seeing my father only twice as a child for brief visits. As I grew up, I invented a father who was larger than life—stronger, smarter, more handsome and even holier than other men," she says. "Having been abandoned by my mother, I was sure I was unworthy of such a father's love."
On Kathryn's 20th birthday, her father came for a weeklong visit. "Here he was at last, the father I'd invented for myself," she says. "The one who knew exactly what to say, that all the years I'd loved and wanted him. He, too, had loved and wanted me."