Magnificent Marvel Supersale

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores

Original Essays

Sin Boldly

by Kathryn Harrison
  1. Envy
    $2.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist


    Kathryn Harrison

  2. Seeking Rapture: Scenes from a Woman
    $0.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

  3. The Seal Wife
    $15.50 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Seal Wife

    Kathryn Harrison

  4. The Binding Chair; or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society
    $4.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

For the first time in my writing life, I have a character for whom I want to plot a return. Naturally, this is Jennifer, the one character in Envy whose sole purpose, her raison d'etre, is to wreak havoc in the lives of the others. She is, indisputably, a Bad Girl. Even better, she is a Bad Girl who doesn't get her comeuppance. Naturally, her arena is sex. She determines her victim, plots his seduction, effortlessly ruins his life. She suffers no guilt, at least not any her author or audience can perceive, and moves on to the next object of her fleeting attention.

"But why?" an early reader asked me, almost wringing her hands over the turbulence Jennifer left in her wake. "Why is she doing this?"

"Because," I said. Because she can. Because she does. Because that's who she is.

The reader nodded; then she stopped frowning; then she smiled. "Oh," she said. "Right."

Maybe this is a way of thumbing my nose at the patriarchy, feminism with a sense of humor. (Yes, there is such a thing.) Maybe it's the irresistible lure of the forbidden.

More likely, it has a lot to do with the fact that my life, filled as it is with gratification, lacks excitement. A few years ago, a friend of mine embarked on an affair and destroyed her marriage to a man who was — in her estimation, anyway — decent and law-abiding to a fault. She was a Catholic, and just the previous year she'd been going to mass every day, tallying up her minor sins and little penances in a last ditch effort to rein in temptation. But once she succumbed, she was flagrantly indiscreet. Still, her decent, earnest spouse was, typically, the last to know. It was my husband who, when he couldn't stand it any longer, took the man out for a drink and told him his wife was cheating on him.

"He used the word 'cuckold,'" my friend told me later, both relieved and stricken when she reported that she and her soon-to-be-ex-husband had finally had it out. My friend looked at me, rather pointedly, I thought. "Don't you think that's weird?" she asked me. "I mean, he's never used that word before. I was surprised he even knew it." I shrugged, looked away, out the window, anywhere but into her eyes. It was only after the fact that I found out about my husband's telling hers what was going on, and I'd kept the secret. An attorney and an academic, her husband used a lot of words my husband didn't, but the literary, slightly fey and anachronistic "cuckold" wasn't one of them.

"I just don't understand why she's doing this," I said a few weeks later, to a mutual friend.

"Of course you do."

I shook my head. "No I don't," I said.

"She's bored."


"Come on," our friend said. "Look at the stuff you dabble in every day."

"What? What are you talking about?"

"Shoplifting. Adultery. Murder. Weird sex."

"Yes, but that's on the page."

The friend shrugged. "She doesn't have that. You don't know what it's like not to be able to act out. You can do whatever you want, whatever you can think of."

"But it isn't real."

"It is to you."

She was right. Everything on the page is real to me. What's more, my characters, over which you might imagine I have control, arrive without warning and behave as they want, without my conscious direction. They steal things, break things, eclipse the people I thought I was writing about, rearrange my plot. They torment others, they hurt themselves, they break the law — all without my permission. Often, their exits — the suicide of my favorite character in The Binding Chair, for example — are as unexpected as their arrivals, and leave me bereft. It sounds absurd, but for weeks after that suicide, I dragged around in shock, thinking the sorts of things one thinks under those circumstances: I can't believe it. I just can't believe it. I should have seen it coming. I knew she was depressed. And it was true. Once I examined her actions, all that the departed character had done and said in the months preceding her death had predicted that she would take her life. And yet, I hadn't known. I loved her, and couldn't imagine the world — the world in which I was immersed — without her.

The cast of each of my novels contains at least one female character (invariably female) that I never intended to be part of the story. Often — in Poison, The Binding Chair, and The Seal Wife — this character is the heroine, and when she popped into the story I did all I could to discourage her. After all she wasn't part of the book I thought I was writing. But over the years I've grown more comfortable with the peculiarities of my job. This time, when Jennifer walked into Envy, I was delighted. Finally, here was the person who was going to take this story in hand, and push it places I couldn't go by myself.

The book is new, but already I've heard back from readers who know me personally. Wow, they say. Where did she come from? Or: Imagine that person being part of you. Because, of course, she is me, or at least mine. One of the women I hold within myself, one of the ones that evens things up in this unequal world. Mostly suppressed, certainly silenced in polite company. But not entirely repressed, because I have a job that requires input from my Id.

As a reader, my interest in sequels has been limited to children's books — by C. S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, J.R.R. Tolkien, Enid Blyton — my devotion inspired by the transgressive characters, the ones who misbehave, mostly not out of a desire to wreak havoc so much as an expression of their personalities. It was Laura whom I loved in the Little House books; I never could care for Mary, who didn't disobey or get her dresses torn and dirty. Some people aren't cut out for following the rules. Some people only need hear of a rule to want to break it. I am one of these.

When I was five or six, I was told never to write on walls, a thing I hadn't considered up until that moment. As soon as I had the opportunity to work uninterrupted I pushed aside the very heavy dresser in my room, with the strength born of desire, and with my mother's red lipstick (compounding the crime, as I had been forbidden to touch her cosmetics) I wrote and drew all over the pastel wallpaper that had been hidden by the big piece of furniture. Then I pushed the dresser back into its place and, after doing my best to reshape the worn down point of the lipstick, put it away as well. It wasn't until we moved out of that house, when I was ten, that the trespass was discovered, a surprise for me as much as anyone else, as I had forgotten what I'd done. This is only one example of my attraction to what is held out of reach. I don't think I'd have lasted a day in Bluebeard's castle. I'd never have been able to wait until he went out of town to see what the key unlocked. It was caller ID, not adulthood, that put an end to my prank phone call career.

So, I want Jennifer to come back. I miss her — not for the power she wields as much as for the exuberance with which she breaks the rules. "Sin boldly," Martin Luther is said to have counseled. In other words, why go to hell for petty crimes? It's Jennifer's boldness and swagger that I like, the fact that not only does she not disguise her bad deeds, she brags about them. I wish she'd return and turn another story upside down, but it doesn't feel within my power. Given the fact that she has a mind of her own — or at least her own piece of mine — she'll do what she wants. spacer

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at