None of us is a stranger to the exigencies of affection: the bittersweet parallelism of falling in love with friends, champing at familial bits, being underwhelmed by our inability to decipher the complex needs of the heart. But these experiences are necessary components of life’s instruction on the subject of the feeling self. Each chip in our emotional armour can be restyled as another lacquered layer; every crick and gripe gives us the opportunity to take stock and reinforce.
In her book Affection: a memoir of love, sex and intimacy, Krissy Kneen has woven episodes such as these into a graceful memoir laden with particulars from her life of learning and loving. It comprises two interweaving timelines: a 2008 strand, and a strand spanning the 1970s to the 1990s. This to-and-fro structure foregrounds the relevance of personal history to present-day life, and illustrates the conversation that exists between experience and memory. And like many good conversations, Kneen’s begins with sex: the discoveries of young Krissy’s sexual awakening, snatched through chinks in her decidedly anti-sex upbringing, remain heady motivations for the adult she becomes.
Detailed depictions of Kneen’s sexual experiences are natural ingredients for this memoir: sex is as vital to Kneen as is breathing. Its purchase on her life, however, is sometimes a source of semantic confusion. ‘I’m not a sex addict,’ she says to Katherine, a friend who is trying to pin down the relevant terminology for Kneen’s outlook. But it’s not really the nouns that are important; it’s the verbs. Terms aside, Kneen is constantly sexually wishing and aware. While talking to Katherine in a café, she thinks ‘about how deeply she could reach inside me with those elegant hands’, and registers ‘the feminine beauty’ of a young Asian man who walks past.
Sexuality is something some of us have in more abundance than others, and Kneen’s descriptions of the strange interface between her sexual, ‘ugly’, desiring self and the rest of the world make for confronting reading. As natural as her sexual activities and thoughts are for Kneen, they are not always readily understood by others. Conversations with fellow drama students about sex come to a halt when she discloses how much she enjoys anal sex. And as eagerly as she approaches sexual encounters, she comes to realise that she has never said no, even to partners who take advantage of her body’s willingness in order to please themselves and to humiliate her. But there is a powerfully structured redemptive arc to this story, which sees Kneen finally embrace a new name and new wisdom with which to greet emotional curveballs like these.
I wouldn’t ever attempt to suggest that memoir be or do anything in particular. But in the case of Affection, what is proffered is both beautiful and pedagogical: it organises the author’s own prospect of her self into an illuminating narrative. To make sense of what one has learnt is a responsibility both lovely and grave, and Krissy Kneen has discharged her burden with brave honesty.