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."
At the end of the week, Kathryn drove her father to the airport—where he gave her a startling goodbye kiss. "He forced his tongue into my mouth and then he just picked up his bag, waved goodbye and got on the plane," she says. "I stood in the airport for I don't even know how long with my hand over my mouth."
Kathryn, then a junior in college, returned to Stanford but found herself too paralyzed to continue. "I didn't register for classes," she says. "I literally sat in the same chair for days. If I slept, I slept in that chair."
Still, Kathryn says she desperately wanted to see her father again. "I remained uncomfortable about the kiss, but I kept saying to myself, 'Well, maybe it wasn't so bad.' Or, 'Maybe you made it up yourself,'" she says. "I think at that time in my life I was somebody who had a hard time turning down love in whatever form it was offered."
Soon, Kathryn and her father were talking on the phone and writing letters daily. "[He said], 'I am what you have to learn,'" she says. "My father looked at me and said: 'You are the most beautiful woman in the world. You are the smartest. The best.' I'd never heard anything like that from anybody."
Months after that kiss, Kathryn travels to the Grand Canyon with her father. There, he asked her a question that gave her chills—would she "make love" to him? "'What are you afraid of?' he asks. I'm afraid that whatever he wants, I will give him," she writes in The Kiss. "It's only a matter of time."
Because she was afraid of losing her father's love, Kathryn says the relationship progressed. The first time they had sex was at his mother's house. "It was in the guest room, and she didn't like my family. I'd never seen her before, and she didn't like me very much," she says. "I knew that there wasn't any way that I could call out and anybody would help me."
As the relationship continued, Kathryn says her father became more controlling. "He said: 'It's too late for you. You've made your choice. You've had sex with me, and no man will ever have you. You won't be able to keep the secret, and you'll always be alone,'" she says. "And I believed him."
The deaths of her grandfather and mother finally prompted Kathryn to end the relationship. "I started seeing a psychiatrist because I was suicidal," she says. "There was no way that I could conceive of escaping from my father other than killing myself."
Looking back, Kathryn says she now sees how easily manipulated she was. "I think that there were many hard lessons that I learned at that time. I was always the good girl who really wanted to please other people, and I found out just exactly how far down you can go," she says. "The major thing was that I had seen him so few times—just twice that I remember —[and] I invented a father who didn't exist. ... My idea of him was so powerful that I didn't really notice who he really was."
Kathryn is now estranged from her father and did not contact him when she published The Kiss. "It's not about outing him. It's really about trying to figure out what happened with me," she says. The Oprah Winfrey Show tried to reach Kathryn's father for comment, but phone calls went unanswered and he refused delivery of a letter.
Today, Kathryn is married with three children. Although she says she still loves her father, Kathryn vows to never see him again. "I was totally willing to sort of move on and forgive him. I said: 'Well, maybe we could fake it. Sort of act like regular father and daughter. We've never done that before,'" she says. "He just said, 'Don't you know who I am? ' And I said, 'Yes.' And he just waited. I said, 'It's all or nothing.' And he said, 'Right.' And I said, 'Well, I have to choose nothing.' That was the last time I spoke with my father."