In this dark gem of a book by the author of The Kiss, a complex mother-daughter relationship precipitates a journey through depression to greater understanding, acceptance, freedom, and love,.
Spare and unflinching, The Mother Knot is Kathryn Harrison's courageous exploration of her painful feelings about her mother, and of her depression and recovery. Writer, wife, mother of three, Kathryn Harrison finds herself, at age forty-one, wrestling with a black, untamable force that seems to have the power to undermine her sanity and her safety, a darkness that is tied to her relationship with her own mother, dead for many years but no less a haunting presence. Shaken by a family emergency that reveals the fragility of her current happiness, Harrison falls prey to despair and anxiety she believed she'd overcome long before. A relapse of anorexia becomes the tangible reminder of a youth spent trying to achieve the perfection she had hoped would win her mother's love, and forces her to confront, understand, and ultimately cast out--in startling physical form--the demons within herself. Powerful, insightful, unforgettable, by "a writer of extraordinary gifts" (Tobias Wolff), Kathryn Harrison's The Mother Knot is a knockout.
Memoirist and novelist Harrison (The Kiss; Seeking Rapture; The Seal Wife) begins with the poignant words, "There's still a bottle of [breast] milk in our freezer," as if to warn readers that she's of two minds. How dear, to have saved a last bottle of breast milk after weaning her last child-and yet, readers may wonder, what does that imply? To need a tangible reminder of that time when Harrison used her very body to feed her child? Four months after she'd stopped breast-feeding her youngest child, Harrison's 10-year-old son developed life-threatening asthma, just as Harrison herself had developed asthma after her own mother abandoned her to her grandparents. Harrison obsessed over her son's treatment, before turning to the one sure way she'd always known to control an unruly world: imposing starvation on herself. As her anorexia became life-threatening, she worked to accept its cause, her unresolved anger with her now-deceased mother. Ready, finally, to be rid of the burden of this anger, Harrison ordered her mother's body exhumed and cremated, so she could personally scatter her ashes. "[A]t last I was allowing her to go," Harrison concludes (although in the acknowledgments that follow, she speculates that perhaps every writer needs an elusive, "eternally empty vessel" into which "longing... can be poured," such as her mother). This brief, poetic meditation on the exorcism of family pain is sure to find appreciative readers. Agent, Amanda Urban. (On sale June 1) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Random House Trade Paperbacks
July 10, 2005
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Excerpt from The Mother Knot by Kathryn Harrison
Chapter 1 There's still a bottle of milk in our freezer, six ounces expressed from my breasts and poured into a sterilized container to have on hand should our daughter get hungry when I'm not home. There used to be more frozen bottles, as many as a dozen, but our daughter is three now; she hasn't nursed for almost a year. The single bottle hidden among the foil-wrapped leftovers and cartons of ice cream is one I saved for myself-a benign little keepsake, or so I thought at the time, unable to imagine that the apparently sentimental souvenir would be revealed as a dark, even perverse, fetish. The daughter for whom I froze my milk is our third child. After she was born I had a tubal ligation. I nursed her longer than I did her older sister and brother because I knew I wouldn't be returning to this one thing I did so well, so happily. Never again, under any other circumstances, would I be able to answer a loved one's desire so completely. My daughter passed one after another milestone of babyhood-she walked, talked, used her full set of teeth to eat whatever she wanted-and still I postponed the separation of weaning. By May 2002 my youngest child was twenty-six months old and lifted my shirt only at bedtime or when she needed reassurance, comfort that was hers whether she nursed or not. At the end of that month I used a business trip to help me accomplish what I'd avoided as long as I was near her. All day and all night for a week I wore a tight sports bra, the effect of which was to bind my aching breasts and suppress the production of milk. When I showered my chest throbbed and my nipples leaked. For a few days they did. Then the body began to understand; the swelling diminished. Back home, despite a sudden June heat wave, I wore high-necked shirts and tucked them into my waistband. When my daughter asked to nurse, fondling me through the fabric, I told her how proud I was to have such a wonderful big girl, and together we listed the differences between big girls and babies, who drink from their mothers and can't have apple juice or chocolate milk in a cup. A secure and cheerful child, my daughter adapted quickly. I, however, suffered a plunge in mood and waited for what didn't happen: to feel better, or at least less bereft. Summer became a season of compulsive work and little else. Diversions I'd enjoyed in the past-trips to the beach, dinner parties, movies, tennis-were leached of pleasure, colorless, tedious, exhausting. Everything required more energy than I had, especially pretending that I wasn't depressed. Sleep was elusive, and I began, on those nights I was awake hours after turning off the light, to sneak a half milligram of stale Xanax. The tranquilizer had been prescribed four years earlier, when I'd suffered a depression serious enough that, once hospitalized, I found a metal mirror in my bathroom, not a glass one I could break and use against myself. The admitting nurse searched my overnight bag and confiscated my disposable razor; she told me that there were no circumstances under which I was permitted to close my door and that if I wanted to shave my legs or armpits I could do so only with supervision. But all I wanted was nightfall, the eight o'clock distribution of pills that hastened the patients to sleep, silencing the hallways. Xanax was valuable; I'd never considered discarding the fifty or so that remained after I recovered. I still had enough that for weeks I could avoid acknowledging the anxiety and insomnia that had characterized the onset of my previous breakdown. Soon it would be September, I told myself, the month I'd always loved best, the one that, when I was a child, had rescued me from a long season spent with my family, and offered then what I thought it would now: the solace of routine. Our older daughter, twelve, and our son, ten, began school immediately after Labor Day. One week passed, then another. I was still waiting for a discern