Reunited: Letters from the “house of incest”

Anaïs Nin never did things by the rules. She wrote surrealistic and erotic fiction when it went against the grain of the times in which she lived. She engaged in lifestyle choices that were widely considered taboo—adultery, bigamy, you name it—if it was condemned, she probably did it. But, putting morality aside, she offers us a glimpse into a life lived fully without pre-conditions. It was a grand experiment. Sometimes it succeeded spectacularly, and sometimes it failed in exactly the same way. Whatever she did, she wrote about it brilliantly, and this is one of the reasons she has attracted millions of readers over the past half-century and more.

One of the key events in her life, as I have written about, and spoken about in my podcast, was adult-onset incest. Abandoned at the age of ten by her father, pianist/composer Joaquín Nin, she spent the next twenty years trying to replace his love with that of others—her husband Hugh Guiler; John Erskine; Henry Miller; and the list goes on and on with men who were at least in part substitute fathers. One can argue this was perversion; but whatever it was, it was a reaction to a traumatic event early in life.

If you are a Nin reader, you are probably familiar with the unexpurgated diary Incest, which is so named because that is the topic—incest with a father who had been absent for twenty years. It is, for some, a revolting document. Read some of the reviews if you want to know what I mean. It is easy to moralize about incest between two consenting adults. But let’s face it—it is not as uncommon as we’d like to think. When Makenzie Philips revealed her relationship with her father John Philips some years ago, there was disbelief and outrage, but very few attempts at understanding. When Incest, which describes the relationship with Nin’s father in graphic detail, came out in 1992, not only did the critics trash her (her life, not her writing), some of her old friends rejected her as a liar and keeper of vile secrets, while others simply didn’t believe it was true. Some went as far as accusing Nin’s literary executor (and “West Coast husband”) Rupert Pole as having made up the diary passages himself to cash in on scandal. There was a lot of condemnation, but few attempts at grasping the dynamics of the Anaïs-Joaquín relationship. And, after all, we only had Anaïs’s word for it.

All that has changed.

Deirdre Bair, Nin’s official biographer, said that while Nin and her father wrote to each other often during their affair, the letters were destroyed after having been read to erase any evidence of their sexual relationship. Imagine my surprise, then, in 2007, when I discovered a folder in Nin’s Los Angeles house that was labeled, in Nin’s hand, “Father Letters.” In it were the original letters from her father written during the entirety of their affair. They included his relentless overtures beginning in 1933, which only increased in intensity after meeting his daughter for the first time in many years at her home in Louveciennes. They included his descriptions of what would take place “within the walls” of his hotel room in the South of France, which eerily came to pass. And there was a second folder, with Anaïs’s responses. These have all been collected between the covers of a single book, never before seen, and they reveal the history, depth and complexity of their relationship from the time Nin was a child until she met her father at his hotel in June 1933; they continue throughout the several-month affair and its aftermath, when both struggled to come to grips with what they had done and what it meant.

I, for one, have never seen accounts from both sides of an adult-onset incestuous relationship. This is what makes the book valuable. It is the kind of story that few have shared, let alone allowing the world to be privy to intimate correspondence. This, in my opinion, is how we begin to understand this affair in particular and adult incest in general.

While incest is considered by some to be the ultimate taboo, it is as real as any other human activity. It has happened all over the world since the beginning of time. It happens in our neighborhoods, sometimes in our own houses. It is something that has to be dealt with psychologically and compassionately. But that begins with understanding.

This book, titled Reunited, gives us a snapshot of the lives of two artists who fused in an explosion of catastrophic passion. We are left trying to make sense of it. The letters are where we start.

To order a print copy of Reunited: The Correspondence of Anaïs and Joaquín Nin, 1933-1940, click here.

To order a digital copy, click here.

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