On Keeping A Liary: Anais Nin, Autobiography, and the Lady Narcissism Debate
I have only lately determined to remember some of my early adventures. Till now I have always avoided them, even with a certain uneasiness. Now, when I am not only recalling them, but have actually decided to write an account of them, I want to try the experiment whether one can, even with oneself, be perfectly open and not take fright at the whole truth. — Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
“I would not be concerned with the secrets, the lies, the mysteries, the facts. I would be concerned with what makes them necessary. What fear.” — Anais Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin: Vol. I
At some point, toward the beginning of the summer, I became obsessed with the question of truth in personal writing. It wasn’t a question of craft — what to tell, how to tell it — so much as a moral crisis. If I have a value system, reckless honesty ranks high within it. But it’s easier to lie about oneself than about anything else, primarily because it’s easier to lie to oneself than to anyone else; we tend to be our own most gullible readers. And I got the sense that, more often than not, the story I remembered was only the story I most wanted to believe.
I raked through my pieces, looking for sins of which to accuse myself. I found distorted chronology, missing details, imprecisions, false precision, inadvertent cruelties, intentional cruelties, invasions of privacy, a frankly disgusting amount of self-justification, even in pieces that had seemed harmless, and even in pieces where all concerned agreed that I’d told the truth. I had never lied. But the whole truth — the full, real, photographic thing — always seemed to elude me. This process was more than slightly insane; the littlest thing could set me off. I remember those margaritas being $3. I remember that being their only real attraction. But what were the odds that I could remember the exact price of a drink I’d had, several years ago, without taking notes, and when I’d had enough of them to get an impulsive tattoo after the fact? Couldn’t the margaritas have been $5? Or $4, or $7? The spectre of involuntary margarita-related falsehood kept me up at night.
My existential crisis was well-timed. The subject of women’s autobiography — specifically, how much they could tell, and whether they should tell it — was being widely discussed, and fought over. Emily Books was promoting several great examples of it (some of which I reviewed). Marie Calloway and Cat Marnell were attracting a fervent cult fan base, and an equally fervent cult of detractors. Girls and Sheila Heti were so ubiquitous that people joked about having to include their names in a pitch in order to sell it. After a few months of relentlessly hating myself and/or my writing, I was able to produce quite a few pieces on that fight, more often than not arguing both sides.
The terms of the debate — which you’ve likely heard already, but which it’s worth rehashing — are as follows. For the defense: Women have never been encouraged to be honest. Traditional femininity both requires a permanent emotional pseudo-virginity — an appealing blankness, a lack of “baggage,” upon which men can impress their own fantasies and needs — and encourages women to fear or pathologize their own feelings, which are always suspect, always potentially “sentimental” or “melodramatic” or “hysterical.” In the old sexist dichotomy, men were proudly impersonal, gifted with transcendence: They slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the realms of pure, objective intellect. And if they happened to write about their bad relationships or their breakdowns or their various organ-meat-based masturbational tactics, as they traversed these lofty regions, well, that was Art, my good man. High culture, don’t you know. Brave and ground-breaking and explosive and rebellious and all those other nice, laudatory, masculine-sounding adjectives. Meanwhile, women covering the same ground were supposedly stuck in rehashing petty, pointless personal bullshit. Women didn’t write, or even self-express; they just “overshared.” Therefore, women who actually do share a risky or unflattering amount of personal information are pushing back against the system, breaking new ground, and presenting us with a full, complex portrait of female existence that isn’t filtered primarily through male fantasies or fears.
The prosecution’s case can be summed up in one word: “Narcissism.” Specifically, as John Cook at Gawker writes in regard to Girls, “the exhaustion of ceaselessly dramatizing your own life while posing as someone who understands the fundamental emptiness and narcissism of that very self-dramatization.” The act of writing about oneself is self-inflating, a way of recreating oneself as a fascinating character, even if that character is ugly. And it can also be a dodge which allows one to remain stuck in adolescent acts of self-definition without engaging with the larger social context in any meaningful way. There are wars, there is poverty, there is starvation, there are diseases and injustices and super-PACs; writing about your insensitive college boyfriend does very little to solve the problem. And it’s none too kind to the boyfriend, either.
Or, as Houghton Mifflin wrote to Anais Nin in 1942, rejecting her diaries:
There is no doubt it is a remarkable performance that should someday be published and may well achieve permanence as the ultimate in neurotic self-absorption, a kind of decadent St. Theresa. Certainly the writing is extraordinary, the cadences, the ability to communicate an intensity of emotion. But I don’t think this is the time to bring it out. Today such morbid preoccupation with one’s inner life will seem trivial.
“Today,” apparently, has lasted for seventy years. And it is frankly flabbergasting that any of these conversations — the one about women and autobiography; the one about autobiography and female narcissism; for that matter, the conversations about the act of documenting one’s daily life and creating a more or less truthful public persona, which, in the era of Tumblr and Facebook, are relevant to men and women alike — have gone on this long without a serious consideration of Anais Nin.
Let’s start with a few unpleasant facts. First: Anais Nin was a fraud. Fifteen volumes of her diary (which disillusioned fans have referred to as “the liary”) have been published, and all of them are untruthful. The first seven-volume edition cuts out her prodigious extramarital sex life and all mention of her two husbands, contains some invented characters, was written partly by someone else (her second husband, Rupert Pole, who took over the job when she became too ill to work) and contains too many falsified details to count. The next four volumes, published after her death by her second husband (possibly against her will) contain almost nothing but sex, and are still heavily distorted and re-written. Only the four “early diaries,” covering her childhood and early married life, come close to being accurate and full representations of what she wrote, but Nin’s own writing process makes their real truth impossible to ascertain.
Second, and not unrelated: Anais Nin was a very fucked-up lady. Her biographer of record, Deirdre Bair, writes that assembling a picture of the woman’s life required special research into “childhood abuse, child and adult incest, narcissism, borderline personalities, and various forms of sexual pathology,” just for starters. Bair assigns her an armchair diagnosis of “Narcissistic Borderline personality,” but with or without our posthumous categorizations, the fact is that Nin routinely made some flabbergastingly bad decisions, and required therapy for her entire adult life.
Given all this, and the disrepute into which her writing has fallen as a result — she’s known primarily, if at all, for the relationship with Henry Miller that she tried for most of her life to keep secret, the porn she cranked out for quick cash and found so deeply embarrassing that she only allowed it to be published after her own death, and the ultimate humiliation, a special mention in a Jewel song — one has to do a little special pleading in order to explain why she deserves a role in the discussion. Our contemporary understanding of Anais Nin is summed up by her book jackets, which tend to revolve around pretty ladies in various stages of old-timey lace-and-garters undress; she’s lady-porn for ladies too pretentious to cue up a James Deen video, a romance novelist for people who can’t admit they read romance novels, highly embarrassing and relevant only to die-hard fans. But her work is so closely related to the fights we’re having now that it’s worth looking past all the garters, if only for a moment.
It’s not as simple as saying that Nin wrote exhaustively about her own life, or that she did it (as bloggers do now) with an emphasis on an unfolding day-to-day narrative, or even that she received much the same criticism as contemporary women who write about their intimate lives. All of these things were true: By the time she was in her late twenties, at least, she considered her diary to be her major work, and she went at it with a professionalism that some people don’t apply to their paid work. She produced hundreds of pages per year, indexed, numbered, and regularly re-typed so as to prevent physical decay of the text. But by the time Anais Nin got through with writing about “her life,” it rarely bore any resemblance to her experience. Aside from the quirks of her particular, highly subjective sensibility — and the fact that she had a “vice for embellishment,” meaning that she frequently wrote down incidents or compliments that she made up — the diaries were not written in anything like a linear fashion. Those re-typing sessions served a double purpose: Along with preserving the work, they were a chance for Nin to make revisions. She expanded scenes, corrected them, wrote new ones from fragmentary notes or memories and inserted them into the places where she believed she should have or would have had those particular thoughts, and she did this at regular intervals, for decades, until their first publication in 1966. It’s not as simple as saying that Nin didn’t publish her “real” diaries. In a sense, there were no “real” diaries. Their ongoing falsification was key to their form.
So you can’t exactly make a case for her as an autobiographer. Nor is it as simple as saying that Nin was “sexually emancipated,” a forward-thinking proto-third-waver who wrote about sex without shame, and assumed sexual prerogatives reserved for men in her misogynist cultural context. That was, briefly, the fashionable take: It started with the publication of the porn, and was sustained through the publication of Henry and June, an “unexpurgated diary” (put together from heavily rewritten material and further edited by Nin’s second husband) which filled in the sex scenes missing from the first part of her published Diaries. Although that volume was about cheating on her husband, it was romantic, and frankly pretty tame; there was lots of vague bicuriosity and lyrical praise of Henry Miller’s sexual prowess. (The revelation that Henry Miller was into dirty talk and butt stuff will shock exactly no-one.) But the case for Nin as a sex-positive role model ends at the second volume of the “unexpurgated” diaries, very subtly entitled Incest, and containing the revelation that she had a “consensual” — and, by her account, very enjoyable — affair with her own father. There’s freedom, and then there’s fucking your parents. Feminist interest declined sharply at the point where the latter was introduced into the picture.
If you can’t make a case for her honesty, nor for her feminism, nor yet for her general character (Bair’s diagnosis aside, the “unexpurgated” diaries contain plenty of behavior that’s cruel to the point of being abusive) then what is there to work with? Quite a lot. In Anais Nin’s stunning ambivalence, her compulsion to record the facts of her life and her equal, opposing drive to rework and conceal them, we can get closer to the nature of personal writing — the basic urge behind it, and how that urge conflicts with traditional femininity — than we ever can with a more honorable or skilled writer.
The first obstacle, for a contemporary reader of Nin, is her style. Even if you accept her as a proto-blogger — someone whose daily craft of figuring out which pieces of her life she wanted to record, and how she wanted to record them, should be familiar to anyone with an Instagram account — her written work is never conversational or direct, in the way we’re used to. Instead, it’s lyrical, dreamy, imagistic, full of idiosyncratic word choices and grammatical oddities, more than a little purple. Some people love it. (I do, actually.) It drives the majority of us right straight up the wall.
But Nin’s lyricism was not unrelated to her subject matter. Nin’s language was her self, her world; it was where she lived. She compared losing a diary volume to “my own death,” worked to publish the diary because “it must not die.” Nin didn’t record her life in the diary. As she saw it, her diary was her life. In fact, it was her. And its deceptiveness was largely self-deception. She put herself through exceptionally sordid, banal, or painful experiences. But when she went home, she inevitably transformed them into poetic, lyrical effusions, starring herself as the poetic, lyrical creature who had whatever thoughts and feelings she thought best suited her character. The words had to be pretty because the experience had to be made less ugly. Her prose was her defense against her life.
“I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live,” she said, late in her life. “I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me… I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living.”
It sounds like an excuse. But when Nin said she “could not live” in the world offered to her, she wasn’t kidding. She loathed realism, in fact loathed reality, in a deep way; she honestly did see the world as ugly, threatening, and potentially annihilating, and she honestly did believe she had to create a personalized fantasy world in order to survive it.
She had reasons. When the Diaries were published, Nin frequently said that they’d begun as a letter to her father, whom she’d lost when her mother divorced him and moved the family from Europe to New York City. (Queens, actually, for the most part. You say irrelevant, I say Queens Pride demands we claim our literary history where we can find it.) By describing her life, and her sorrow at his absence, she hoped to entice her father to come back. Somewhat glossed over, in these stories, was the fact that Rosa Culmell-Nin divorced Joaquin Nin because he was sadistically violent, and was probably molesting Anais.
We know a few things to be true. We know that Joaquin Nin beat his wife. We know that, when this failed to break her spirit, he locked her up and beat her three children just outside the door, so that he could hear her scream. We know that he frequently insisted on taking pictures of the children in the nude, and that Anais Nin always remembered this as the only time her father ever praised her or paid her any positive attention; usually, he mocked her and called her “ugly,” giving her a belief in her physical unattractiveness that she spent most of her life trying to overcome. And we know that, as an adult, Nin had confused, blurry memories of her father fondling or fucking her, and that she felt she may have co-operated, “consented,” if only in order to stop or prevent the beatings.
All told, Anais Nin had quite a few reasons for believing the real world to be a scary place. But when she sat down to write her first diary entry, at the age of eleven, her history of abuse disappeared. Her father became her idol, her love, her paragon; losing him was her greatest sorrow, all she wanted from life was to make him proud. Etc. It’s a sad story. But it doesn’t become heartbreaking until you realize that this story — the good Daddy who went away, the perfect Daddy that she failed somehow, the Daddy who could come back and make everything better, if only he loved her enough — was actually what Anais Nin preferred to reality. Blaming herself, believing herself neglected or abandoned or unloved by the perfect man, was entirely acceptable, if it meant that she could avoid acknowledging who her father really was, and what he had really done. The second she started writing, she was already inside her more livable world.
And for the rest of her life, Joaquin Nin’s beautiful, gifted, charming daughter was fundamentally incapable of two things: Honesty, and a healthy sexual relationship with another human being. In the unexpurgated diaries, at least, it’s clear that she chose the cruel men, the unavailable ones, the drinkers, the users, the ones who blew up or let her down. The two men she was closest to, in this time period, were Miller (one of the more notoriously misogynist man-children of the twentieth century, who often plagiarized her writing for his own more celebrated work) and Gonzalo More, a drunk with a nasty temper, who claimed he would one day do great things for the Communist party, and in the meantime enjoyed screaming at Nin, setting her things on fire, or trashing her apartment to prove a point. She was responsible for paying both of their rents and living expenses, as neither one could hold down a job. But with men who genuinely tried to care for her, like her adoring first husband, Hugh, or her preternaturally understanding therapist/lover, Otto Rank, she often felt distant, turned-off, perversely revolted by their devotion. The published evidence we have suggests that Nin simply couldn’t find a man sexually attractive if he treated her too well. And she was certainly never brave enough, or vulnerable enough, to make one relationship bear the whole weight of her need for love. In the midst of fucking her way across Paris, Nin confessed, she was most often “hellishly lonely.” No-one could ever love her enough. And she could never let them try.
But of course Nin lied to and betrayed others. She’d spent her entire life lying to and betraying herself. Even that exuberant, graphic, stomach-turning description of “consensual” sex with her father is suspect — more suspect, I’d argue, than anything else in her work. Nin spent her life lying to herself. And her first lie, her most important lie, was always about her father, and what he did, and what she felt. After that “affair” ended, Nin’s descriptions of her father are purely disdainful. When he died, she was so indifferent to him, so estranged, that she refused to be involved with his funeral. Her brother never saw her shed a tear.
She wrote a sad bit about it for the Diaries, though:
The hurt was so deep, the shock so deep, the sense of loss so deep, it was as if I died with him. I wept not to have seen him since Paris, not to have forgiven him, not to be there when he died alone and poor in a hospital… I wept and felt the loss in my body, this terrible unfulfilled love. Never to have come close to him, never to have fused with him.
At a very young age, Nin entered her more livable world, the place where she could recreate herself when life destroyed her, where she could be whatever she thought she ought to have been. And she never, ever came back out.
But it’s too simplistic to claim that Anais Nin was a fantasist, the Girl in the Bubble, irrevocably trapped in her own airbrushed self-portrait — or even to say that she used her diary to evade the truth. She was, and she did. But she was also driven by a powerful desire for experience. Her diaries, whatever other purpose they may have served, are also a crash course in the avant-garde literary and cultural movements of the first half of the twentieth century; she insisted on being close to all of them, involved with them or in reaction against them, as they unfolded, and could often catch something interesting brewing (Miller himself, or the Beats, or LSD, or the mid-century shifting of the American attention from New York City to California) before it was widely adopted by other artists. She spent her early thirties writing about Miller, Artaud and psychoanalysis, but she also spent her late sixties writing about Timothy Leary, Judy Chicago and consciousness-raising groups. In a sense, Anais Nin’s old-timey lace-and-garters memorialization is the ultimate insult; she never paused to romanticize any time period, because she always needed to be where the action was. In all of this, and even in many of the sex scenes, you get the sense that the diary was her main instigator: She was egging herself on, doing more and more outrageous things for the sake of having more and more outrageous scenes to describe.
And describe them she did, even when doing so was unbelievably risky. She sat in her study, with her husband, writing careful descriptions of sex with Henry; she sat with Henry, writing about her affairs with her therapists, her father, with strangers or with Gonzalo. “I live in terror that my journal should be discovered,” Nin wrote. But when anyone suggested that she stop writing in it, she was mortally offended.
“This diary proves a tremendous, all-engulfing craving for truth,” Nin wrote, “since to write it I risk destroying all the edifices of my illusions, all the gifts I made, Hugo’s life, Henry’s life; everyone whom I saved from truth, I here destroy!”
Probably, none of these truths were intended for publication. She considered it, on several occasions, and decided each time that she couldn’t face the consequences; one early novel, “Djuna,” was completed, self-published, and then pulled from circulation and repressed for decades, simply because the characters were too obviously identifiable as Henry Miller and herself. Despite her reputation as a self-revelatory writer, the real Anais Nin was so intensely private that, after she’d published seven volumes of memoir writing, some friends and colleagues audibly gasped when Hugh Guiler identified himself as her husband at her memorial service.
But as her lies and betrayals piled up, and the consequences of truth-telling grew steadily more terrifying, Nin turned to the journal, apparently simply to release the pressure, to have a place where she could actually discuss her life. Commentators have wondered how Nin managed to collect all these partners, and all of her many deeply devoted friends; the woman in the diaries is manipulative, selfish, cruel, a tantrum-thrower and a life-wrecker, somebody that no-one could even like, much less fall in love with. But no-one in her life ever really met that woman. In person she was delicate, shy, quiet, kind and generous past the point of reason, never remotely rude or tactless. An “angel,” whose “only fault was her incapacity for cruelty.” This is the woman she put into her first published diaries, as well: An ethereal, sensitive muse who selflessly and sexlessly provided for other artists, to her own detriment. And in the diaries she vented, gloated, and recorded each bit of trickery she’d deployed to give that impression.
“I need a place where I can shout and weep,” she wrote. And added: “Here I shout, I dance, I gnash my teeth, I go mad — all by myself, in bad English, in chaos. It will keep me sane for the world and for art.”
And she dissected herself, mercilessly, and thoroughly enough to know that even her “hellish loneliness” was self-inflicted:
When I talk, I feel that I lie imperceptibly in order to cover myself. I put on costumes. I hate to expose myself truly. Lies seem like a costume, small lies, deviations mostly, because I am afraid not to be understood, and I am afraid of the pain. And then what I do not tell, I pour into the journal. I chafe because people don’t understand, and it is my fault. The truth is I only face human beings in fragments… I always find the mensonge vital necessary — the one lie which separates me from each person.
Nin needed to be loved, needed to be accepted, by everyone she met — not only as a writer, but as a truly “feminine” woman. She often confessed her fear that her mind, her creativity, made her less than female, and worked constantly to find a “feminine” way of expressing herself, a way to do her work while still commanding admiration (particularly the admiration of men) in a sexist culture. Certainly, her huge sexual appetite and her capacity for cruelty didn’t fit into the mid-20th-century picture of what a “feminine” woman ought to be — which is probably exactly why she cut them out of her memoirs.
"I had locked up my demons in the diaries where they could do no harm," she wrote. "And if the diaries burned, I would be left only with this persona, smiling, ever available, ever devoted. I associated honesty with the loss of love. The only women I had known who were honest, belligerent, assertive, undisguised had lost love. I was not going to risk that."
But her very need to be loved, to be accepted as the perfect woman, meant that she could never actually be loved for herself. She kept careful lists of who knew whom, in her social circle — who she could talk to, what she could tell them, without being exposed. Toward the end of her life, she kept a “Lie Box,” a small box filled with cards on which she listed the lies she had told to each person in her life, so as to keep them straight. It is entirely possible that Nin would never have written at all if she’d had one friend or lover with whom she was capable of being entirely honest. But she was never that brave. And as her personas fragmented and proliferated, the Diary grew — not only as a means to recreate herself as she wanted to be, but as her only real way to pull all those fragmented, false selves together into a portrait that somewhat resembled her real face.
I discovered Anais Nin — many people do — as a teenager. I was working in my college’s library, in the basement, shelving books. This portion of the library — underground, windowless, lit only by a few ancient and unreliable ceiling lamps, so dark you could hardly see the shelves themselves — was notoriously haunted, on a list of the Most Haunted Places In Ohio, in fact. It also had a mattress in one corner, where people were said to sneak off for sex when they couldn’t get rid of their roommates. I would hear mysterious bangings on the sides of the metal shelves, when I got close to a dark portion of the library, and run up the stairs in terror; I was so innocent, at that point in my life, that I never connected the ghostly noises and the mattress. Now, I like to think that library — dark, underground, full of frightening mysteries, shadow-drenched pathways and secret sex — would have pleased Anais Nin, as a setting in which to discover her work.
I had never heard of Anais Nin, when I found her books. I didn’t know about the sex, or the lies, or the scandals. I picked up one of her edited diary volumes, while shelving, because I kept a diary, and the thought that such a thing could be published was amazing to me. I picked a good one: Volume One, which distills the chaos of her 1930s life into a novel that is ultimately a well-orchestrated, highly conventional feminist kunstlerroman. The narrator, a delicate, ethereal child-woman named Anais, lives with her mother and her brother in a mysterious old house just outside of Paris. She is haunted by memories of her sophisticated, yet treacherous father, who abandoned their family many years ago. And she wants to be a writer. But how? The narrator encounters several symbolic male figures, who initiate her into different realms of male-dominated knowledge: Modernism (Henry), Freudian psychoanalysis (her first analyst, Rene Allendy), surrealism (Antonin Artaud), and aristocratic high culture (her father, a composer). She is drawn to each of these, but must ultimately reject them, as they have no place for a woman’s unique vision. Alongside these symbolic men, we encounter several frightening female doubles, who represent sides of Anais that (we are led to believe) she cannot live out: June, the pathologically lying, chronically unfaithful seductress; Jeanne, the mad aristocrat in an incestuous relationship; Countess Lucie, the wealthy dilettante who amuses herself by writing bad novels. (This last was an accusation frequently thrown at Anais Nin, when she self-published her own fiction.) The whole thing could have been plotted by Gilbert & Gubar. (They quote Nin, and praise her highly, in The Madwoman in the Attic: Their whole thesis, that female artists experience a particularly female guilt for creating, was a topic Nin lectured on frequently in the ‘70s, and it was taken in turn from Rank’s thesis of “creative guilt.”) Ultimately, the narrator’s chains are broken by the rogue psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who insists that the artist’s first obligation is to his or her own self-created individuality, and she sails away with him to New York and a rich life as a writer. The End.
I stayed close to Anais Nin over the years. And I unraveled the secrets as I went, feeling personally betrayed each time, but always wanting to know more. And I continually re-read her work — still do, in fact — at points of personal crisis, during break-ups and professional frustrations and moves and breakdowns. The women who wrote to Nin in the ‘60s and ‘70s claimed that she’d given them “courage,” and that is, strangely, what comes through most in her writing. No matter how much ugliness life dealt out or how many complications she created, Nin took it all in stride, wrote it down, and went out looking for more.
Now, however, I read Nin mostly as a writer; to figure out the technique of creating a persona or a voice, the craft of telling a story from life, the difference between privacy (no memoirist would be expected to give us the precise details of all her one-night stands, as the “unexpurgated” diaries do) and dishonesty (no good memoirist would allow us to believe she was a completely celibate, angelic presence when she had so many one-night stands to detail). Anais Nin encountered all of these problems. And she screwed up, massively, with each and every solution she concocted. But it’s her failures that interest me now, that seem to make clear the mechanics of how and why we create characters and narratives from something as slippery and subjective as memory.
Biographers, scholars, and fans have been working for over forty years to establish, definitively, who the “real” Anais Nin was. And the fact is that no-one will ever know. She didn’t know herself. It was why she wrote. Not to glorify herself (although she self-glorified), not to expose herself (although she self-exposed), but simply in the hope that, by describing this complicated woman, over and over, and every day, she might finally write a description that she herself could understand.
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