I’ve been reading the biography of Anais Nin and my eyeballs are out on stalks. Nin intrigued me as a writer who had no intention of becoming a mother. When she found herself pregnant she decided swiftly to have an abortion, but a strange story of numerous attempts with drugs that all failed left her facing a 7-month labour that might have looked harrowing to a lesser soul. Nin’s biographer, Deirdre Bair, describes it thus:
For two more days she labored intermittently but the child was not aborted. Hugo was with her [her husband], Henry [Miller] was in the waiting room, Rank [the psychoanalyst with whom she was having an affair] was in London, and Eduardo [a homosexual friend] made himself scarce.
On the twenty-first, when spasms of pain grew fierce, an hysterical Anais begged Hugo to telephone Rank in London and ask him to come. Hugo did and Rank agreed. Anais then combed, powdered and perfumed herself, even painted her eyelashes. She made Hugo send for Henry, who came into her room looking ‘haggard and desperate,’ and Eduardo, who eventually turned up. Shortly after, Rank joined them. ‘All this love calling me back to life,’ she told the diary.
The next morning she perfumed and powdered herself and put on the rose silk jacket Hugo bought after her ‘carefully thought request for the appropriate hospital costume.’ All her men came to visit, bringing gifts. Henry’s was the announcement of the imminent publication of his book.
‘Here,’ Anais said, ‘is a birth which is of greater interest to me.’
So, let’s do a quick head count. Attending her abortion is Hugo, the husband for whom the term ‘long-suffering’ seems mightily insufficient, her lover Henry Miller, who she considered to be the father of the child (although she never appraised him of the fact), her latest and therefore most desperately needed lover, the psychoanalyst who was supposed to be attending her, Theodore Rank, and her friend Eduardo who was convinced she could ‘cure’ him of homosexuality if she would only meet his wishes. The only person missing from this scenario who had an interest in the paternity of the never-to-be-born child – was Anais Nin’s own father. Given that they had had a six-month affair prior to this event, it was quite possible, although even in her catch-all diary, Nin does not entertain the thought.
Whatever am I to do with this kind of material? It’s just too much. It’s beyond tasteless, beyond shocking. And yet, I cannot think of Nin as a monster. The trouble began with her father, a narcissistic sadist who married her mother for her money (he wanted to become a concert pianist and eventually made it), proved faithless and cruel, beating her and then beating the children behind a locked door where she could not reach them as this seemed more exquisitely tortuous. He then took to photographing the young Nin naked whilst all the while telling her ‘what an ugly little girl.’ Eventually the money ran out and so he left them all, Nin suffering the worst from the abandonment. She took to writing to him in a journal, and from that point on her obsession with her diary began. Nin never reassembled a coherent self from this early cataclysm. And then somehow she seemed to have the gift of enslaving men. She exerted the numinous, hypnotic quality of the beautiful and the damned. Her husband Hugo wrote of her: ‘To really realize her one has to understand that here in the flesh is Cleopatra, Sappho, Helen of Troy, Christ, the fourth dimension, the woman’s body that all men believe is just around the corner, the center of the magic circle in which we move.’ Yet she took all his money, even to the point of almost bankrupting him on several occasions, and used a large part of it to keep Henry Miller. What she needed, all her life, was a man who would say ‘no’ to her, who would say no calmly, firmly, as the drawing of a merciful boundary. Her father was clearly not that man, and he passed onto his daughter his preening pride in refusing to bow to societal constraints. From this early act of parental vandalism, a chain of consequences spread forth and in an act of both cannibalistic triumph but also desperate questing for security, Nin would take scalp after male scalp.
Nin’s art suffered too, as she never rose above this first, childish problematic, and her work never deepened or developed. However alarming her behaviour may seem, it’s worth remembering that, late in life, cultural feeling caught up with her and her doctrine of graphic eroticism. She became the empress of free love in the sixties. Somehow what looks damaged and wrong in the individual becomes neutralized and harmless in the crowd-mind. That’s probably the most shocking thing of all.