Anaïs Nin’s Incest: A Key To Understanding Her Art
Recently I was interviewed by Anaín Bjorkquist, hostess of the SexLoveJoy podcast, about Anaïs Nin. Part of the discussion had to do with the fact that Nin had adult-onset incest at the age of thirty with her father, Joaquin Nin, in 1933 after two decades of estrangement. Nin described it in the unexpurgated diary aptly titled Incest, and she wrote about it honestly, explicitly, and beautifully from a literary point of view. The significance of it in terms of discussing Anaïs Nin’s sexuality was, naturally, part of the podcast.
Despite the fact that the podcast is rated “explicit,” some listeners felt the incest portion was inappropriate, that somehow incest was “romanticized,” or that it should have been edited out, never mentioned. I feel Anaín was courageous for not making any changes, even after the feedback. But the feedback prompts me to discuss this hot topic further here, distasteful or not, as it may be.
Question: how can one truly understand the life and work of Anaïs Nin if the nature of her most important relationship—the one with her father—is edited, disguised, or sugar-coated?
Answer: it cannot.
Incest, of course, is taboo in most cultures, disturbing to say the least, and is usually referred to in hushed voices. But Nin never backed down from any aspect of life, and I, for one, cannot back down from mentioning incest within the context her writing—that’s part of my job, to tell the truth as I know it so that readers can better understand her, her relationships, and ultimately the meaning of her work. Nin scholar Benjamin Franklin V and I discuss this very topic in our recent podcast interview.
A little history:
The loss of Nin’s pianist/composer father at age ten (he abandoned the family for a young and beautiful piano student) was by far the most significant event in her life; it created the path she would take and the woman she would become. There was severe psychological damage—she not only lost her father, but her grandparents, the countries she adored (France and Spain), her language, her culture, and the entirety of her life as she knew it.
She began her diary at age eleven onboard the ship that would bring her, her mother and two brothers to New York in 1914. It was originally intended as a letter to her father, naïvely pleading with him to come to New York and rejoin the family. In it, she painted a distorted but alluring picture of America to win him back…yes, she learned ruse and enticement at a tender age, but its first application was for naught since her father never did come back.
When her father failed to return, and the reality of the impossibility of such a return became apparent, Nin began to seek him in others. This began when she married Hugh Guiler, a man whom she saw, in some ways, as a substitute father, but one who was kind, gentle and faithful. However, the nature of her attraction to him, coupled with Guiler’s own inexperience with women, created a sexual incompatibility that would last for the rest of their lives. She then began a search for a man who not only could fill the role of father figure, but who could also make her feel like a desirable woman. Her first attempt was with John Erskine, Guiler’s former professor, in 1929. But Erskine, overwhelmed by the young Anaïs’s beauty and a sense of loyalty to Guiler, was unable to finish the act in a hotel room. This sent Nin into a tailspin of self-doubt and shame. She had feelings of incompleteness, of failure as a woman, and most of all—of abandonment. She contemplated suicide, thought of jumping off a ship into the ocean. This depression lasted for years.
Henry Miller, whom Nin met in 1931, seemed to be the man she’d been seeking—not only was he older, wiser, and took Nin under his wing, he was also the one who initiated Nin to sex as she hoped it would be—raw, passionate, all-consuming. This, coupled with the fact he would mentor her writing, gave her the sense of having finally become a woman in the true sense of the word, as she writes in the unexpurgated diary, Henry and June.
By 1933, Nin was sexually alive, her impulses were strong, and she was engrossed in Miller’s life. But she soon began to realize that Miller had an inhuman quality, one that, especially when he was writing, shut out all others, Nin included. Nin realized he could never be completely hers, or anyone else’s, and his long list of romantic failures bears this out. When Miller locked himself in his room with his typewriter, Nin felt the presence of the old demon—abandonment—once again. How could she rid herself of this constant imbalance, this constant fear of being left alone? Her desires, of course, had long been distorted and amplified by the original abandonment, and she grew to feel that no singular man could provide her with a sense of being loved or could commit to her absolutely, so that even with two main men in her life (Miller and Guiler), she felt utterly alone.
Then, Nin’s father, after a long silence, began to write her again after a friend told him what a beautiful woman she had become. This led to a reunion at her house in Louveciennes almost exactly twenty years after he’d left the family. This meeting, of course, had a huge impact on Nin, who was finally beginning to realize she was a desirable woman, a fact most men in her company did not fail to notice, most notably her Don Juan father.
The elusive father, dashing, charming, romantic, aristocratic, impeccably groomed, with a grandiose personality, then began an all-out campaign to woo his daughter. He told her that of all the women he’d known, she was the one—and he lamented the fact that the “one” was his own daughter! “You are the synthesis of all the women I have loved,” he told her. He said that if she visited him in the South of France, everyone would believe they were lovers, thereby introducing the concept to her. His letters were frequent and increasingly emotional. He predicted “chapters” would be written in his hotel room that would surpass those of D. H. Lawrence. All of this, combined with everything else that had preceded his return, was a potent elixir she had no ability to resist. She had spent most of her life trying recapture the father she had lost, and he was giving her a way to do it literally, a way to face the demons and to destroy them at long last.
She described the affair in eloquent detail in her diary; she called the passages the “father story.” The incest itself was, for her, a living symbol. She looked at it from the inside, through the lenses of literature and psychology, not one of morality or artificial convention. She did not condemn herself, nor her father, and some readers find this outrageous. They expect guilt, remorse, atonement, but Nin had none. It was part of her life, an event that occurred, a stone in the mosaic, and like all other events, she recorded it in her diary from the depths of her psyche.
As one of my recent podcast guests, Lana Fox, says, “She didn’t judge herself for this. She embraced it, made it her own, and she wrote about it in stunning language.” Fox, a childhood incest victim, says Nin’s incest passages changed her life, gave her permission to accept what had happened to her, to accept herself, to empower herself, to grow, to flourish. That is what we mean by the power of writing.
Nin’s incest is more than a taboo, more than a forbidden act, more than two family members engaging in a sexual affair—it is the culmination of many complex events and emotions, the result of trauma, loss, years of mourning and craving, a product of self-loathing, doubt, the feeling of being unloved and unlovable. And it was an event that would forever change her life, especially the nature of her work. Nin wrote about incest abstractly in The House of Incest (1936), lyrically in “Lilith” (1939) and injected its essence into much of her later fiction. It flavored who she was—it caused her to grow in a completely different direction. It didn’t save her—she ultimately rejected her father, who died alone in Cuba in 1949—but it made her more aware of who she was and what she needed from life and relationships.
There are those who refuse to accept Anaïs Nin because of incest. There are others who refuse to believe it really happened. There are those who wish this would never be mentioned again, that it is “icky,” “disgusting,” “immoral,” and so on…but the failure to include it in any comprehensive discussion of Anaïs Nin would be a failure to understand exactly who she was, how she got that way, and what informs her writing.