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Nin, Anaïs

Category: Writer


Anaïs Nin (born Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell; February 21, 1903 – January 14, 1977) was an essayist and memoirist born to Cuban parents in Neuilly, France, where she was also raised. She spent some time in Spain and Cuba, but lived most of her life in the United States, where she became an established author.

She wrote journals (which span more than 60 years, beginning when she was 11 years old and ending shortly before her death), novels, critical studies, essays, short stories, and ‘erotica’. A great deal of her work, including Delta of Venus and Little Birds, was published posthumously.

Of the nine books of fiction she published in her lifetime, four were self-published, and only one, her short-story collection Under a Glass Bell, received any critical acclaim. Most were roundly mocked. Elizabeth Hardwick, in the pages of the Partisan Review, called her “vague, dreamy, mercilessly pretentious” and “a great bore.”  By 1954, Nin believed the entire publishing industry saw her as a joke. When she hosted a party at the British Book Centre for her novel Spy In The House of Love, none of the invited critics came. “America tried to kill me as a writer, with indifference, with insults,” she wrote. The tide, however, turned.

In 1973 [aged 70], Anaïs Nin received an honorary doctorate from the Philadelphia College of Art. She was elected to the United States National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1974. And in 1976, one year before she died, she was presented with a Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year award.

But, she is on the site not because of her writing, but because of her use of LSD and the lessons it needs to teach us.  First, however, we need to look at her life to understand the experience.

Who was Anaïs Nin?

Despite the present day classification that Nin was an author, she was, to all intents and purposes, a concubine; she obtained her income from the exploitation of sex – with her husband [s], via her other men, from her books - she fed and clothed herself via sex.  She was a most unlikely looking concubine, but she clearly knew what she was doing..  For those who have actually loved and expressed their love through making love, it is clear she didn’t actually like sex with men that much.  Her descriptions are those of a prostitute who is paid to please, not a lover. 


She called her books ‘erotica’, only because she knew she was writing pornography for those who didn’t like to admit they were reading pornography.  Little Birds,for example, appeared in 1979 two years after her death.  But it was written in the early 1940s when she was part of a group "writing pornography for a dollar a day."  Nin even referred to herself jokingly as the "madam of this snobbish literary house of prostitution".

One of the themes covered in Little Birds is paedophilia.  So she certainly hit the depths of pornography.  The 'little birds' of the title story refer both to the actual birds used by its exhibitionist protagonist to attract young schoolgirls to his attic, and to the girls' flight when he finally exposes himself to them.

Little Birds was written according to her  “for a client who examined sexual activity to the exclusion of aspects which are the fuel that ignites it. Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional."  And ‘I was …, under pressure from a client who wanted me to 'leave out the poetry.'’  So love never came into it.  These days she might have been employed by magazines like Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler, and as Wikipedia so well describes it ‘they primarily serve to stimulate sexual arousal, and are often used as an aid to masturbation.’

What else do we know?  There is every reason to believe that Nin was actually a lesbian.  She writes far more emotionally, honestly and graphically about her encounters with women.  For example:

The Diary Of Anaïs Nin, Volume 1: 1931-1934  
"As June walked towards me from the darkness of the garden into the light of the door, I saw for the first time the most beautiful woman on earth. A startling white face, burning dark eyes, a face so alive I felt it would consume itself before my eyes. Years ago I tried to imagine true beauty; I created in my mind an image of just such a woman. I had never seen her until last night. Yet I knew long ago the phosphorescent color of her skin, her huntress profile, the evenness of her teeth. She is bizarre, fantastic, nervous, like someone in a high fever. Her beauty drowned me. As I sat before her, I felt I would do anything she asked of me. Henry suddenly faded. She was color and brilliance and strangeness. By the end of the evening I had extricated myself from her power. She killed my admiration by her talk. Her talk. The enormous ego, false, weak, posturing. She lacks the courage of her personality, which is sensual, heavy with experience. ….. That night, in spite of my response to her, she sought to be whatever she felt I wanted her to be.

Nin also wrote about her infatuation with the Surrealist artist Bridget Bate Tichenor in her diaries in a similar style.

Harold Norse and Anaïs Nin, Paris

The trauma of her life

The above summary of Nin may sound harsh, but it has to be read in the context of what happened to her to get her to this state.  Much of Nin’s behaviour, her tendency to mix fiction with fact and her exploitation of men, can be traced to her traumatic childhood and later life. 

Anais Nin by Deirdre Bair
Nin's credo was that life must be "a dream made real," but she also realized, as she recalled in 1973 at the age of 70, that "life would be more bearable if I looked at it as an adventure and a tale. I was telling myself the story of a life, and this transmutes into an adventure the things which can shatter you."  ….Art was her defence mechanism:

Her diary begins as a dreamy, hypersensitive child's letter to her straying father, Cuban pianist-composer Joaquin Nin, a Don Juan who firmly believed that the world should revolve around his talent and charm, but who wasn't above beating his wife and children or molesting his daughter.  What Anais Nin learned of sex came from her father, which is why she was able to write about paedophilia with such ease. 

Incest, one of books published in 1992 after her death, covers exactly what the title tells you to expect.  The decision to publish Incest sparked bitter enmity between one of her husbands - Pole - and Nin’s surviving brother, Joaquin Nin-Culmell.  It is quite graphic.

Following her parents' separation, Nin and her two younger brothers moved to New York with their mother.  Thus so far, we have insecurity, alienation, childhood abuse, a dysfunctional family -- the whole bag of what we now consider to be 20th century traumas.  And for the icing on the cake we have the Catholic church and its emphasis on SIN.

The Diary Of Anaïs Nin, Volume 1: 1931-1934 - Poem by Anaïs Nin

"Am I, at bottom, that fervent little Spanish Catholic child who chastised herself for loving toys, who forbade herself the enjoyment of sweet foods, who practiced silence, who humiliated her pride, who adored symbols, statues, burning candles, incense, the caress of nuns, organ music, for whom Communion was a great event? I was so exalted by the idea of eating Jesus's flesh and drinking His blood that I couldn't swallow the host well, and I dreaded harming it. I visualized Christ descending into my heart so realistically … that I could see Him walking down the stairs and entering the room of my heart like a sacred Visitor. That state of this room was a subject of great preoccupation for me. . . At the ages of nine, ten, eleven, I believe I approximated sainthood. And then, at sixteen, resentful of controls, disillusioned with a God who had not granted my prayers (the return of my father), who performed no miracles, who left me fatherless in a strange country, I rejected all Catholicism with exaggeration. …………I took up the words of Lawrence: "They stress only pain, sacrifice, suffering and death. They do not dwell enough on the resurrection, on joy and life in the present."

with Hugh Parker Guiler

Anaïs Nin thus had a truly appalling childhood and early life.  It is little wonder that at the very first opportunity she ran away from home to marry.  On March 3, 1923, in Havana, Cuba, Nin married her first husband, Hugh Parker Guiler (1898–1985), a banker.  From her ‘adoring banker’ she obtained financial security, although her inherent insecurity made her continually search for more and more sources of this lifeline.  She cultivated Henry Miller whom she supported with her husband's earnings, because she loved his wife; and she professed love for her psychoanalysts, Rene Allendy and Otto Rank around which she wove extreme fantasies.  Lifelines of different sorts.

In Deirdre Bair’s biography she says that fiction was an excruciating effort for Nin, but then goes on to assume that her frank portrayals of illegal abortions, extramarital affairs and incest in her books were fiction.  As we have seen there is every reason to believe they were not.  Nin had known incest via her father and possibly her brother and carried on numerous affairs.  Furthermore she had an abortion in 1932, and it seems may well have had to undergo other abortions in order to secure her income stream. Bair describes Nin’s attitude as being one of “horrifying in its callous indifference”, but was she?   

She wove a fantasy for herself that in time became almost real to her – continually escaping from the terrors and horrors of reality.  This was psychological trauma of almost unheard of proportions, she wove a web of lies to protect her own mind, not to deceive; “It was not playing tricks on men, but rather, on life, which does not answer what I have demanded of it.' Saying she lied 'bravely, ironically, dually, triply.'

with Rupert Pole

After Nin and Hugo's wartime move to the United States, she met a young man named Rupert Pole and married him. Nin spent the next 30 years in a bigamous, bicoastal triangle, flying back and forth between her two husbands every several weeks - "the trapeze," as she called it.  The literary luminaries who revel in her work use words such as experimental and brave, but by this time, she was seriously mentally ill.   After her death, The New Yorker magazine in their Life and Letters section in the  March 1st, 1993 Issue wrote of her Diaries -  Sex, Lies, And Thirty-Five Thousand Words [by Claudia Roth Pierpont].  But this was escapism on a quite unprecedented scale.

Today I feel my past like an unbearable weight, I feel that it interferes with my present life, that it must be the cause for this withdrawal, this closing of doors.  The chill curse of Christianity. I do not confess any more, I have no remorse, yet am I doing penance for my enjoyments? Nobody knows what a magnificent prey I was for Christian legends, because of my compassion and my tenderness for human beings. Today it divides me from enjoyment in life."

Instead she confessed to her diaries, called by one critic, “Nin's opium pipe".  The first, heavily edited diary finally appeared in 1966, when she was 63 and one presumes wondering what the future held for an aging concubine.  It was the beginning of an Anais Nin industry that eventually resulted in best sellers, a scholarly newsletter devoted to her life and work, and the film "Henry and June."   Most of this she did not live to see, as she died in 1977.  She received no respite from suffering even leading to her death, with critics [of all people] praising “ the courage with which she faced her agonizing terminal illness from cancer”.

Anais Nin was a sick woman – and the LSD experiments may have actually sent her over the edge.

with Gore Vidal

The LSD experience

Nin was another of Dr Oscar Janiger’s experimental subjects.  She had heard Gil Henderson talk about the visionary effects of LSD and how he had participated in an experiment with Dr. Janiger where he painted an American Indian doll before taking LSD and then again after the ingestion of the drug.  She was impressed “The first version was rigid and photographic. The second impressionistic, emotional”. Gil asked her if she wanted to participate in an experiment with Dr. Janiger too.


The session was arranged and according to Nin two other subjects were there, a biologist from UCLA and another painter. Gil was supposedly the minder - that is, the person who has taken LSD and was thus capable of helping and guiding if necessary, but a less capable minder one cannot imagine for someone as psychologically unstable as Nin.

The account of the experience is in her diary and has oft been quoted as an example of an LSD experience.  But there is every reason to believe it is a fabrication from beginning to end.  That she had an experience is not in question, but her description bears no resemblance to the actual experience.

Though she never admitted it publicly, Nin’s access to her inner life was dramatically augmented by LSD. According to author and screenwriter Gavin Lambert — who was referred to Janiger by Nin — she privately confessed that her acid trip was traumatic, truly traumatic.

And we have little reason to doubt Lambert’s word on this.  Lambert was a British-born screenwriter, novelist and biographer who lived for part of his life in Hollywood.  Educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, one of his professors was C. S. Lewis.  He was a fair, scrupulously honest man, who did the research for his books with enormous care and attention to detail. 

Gavin Lambert
For Anaïs it was a disaster. On LSD the world seemed to her terrifying. This, to me, was extremely interesting, because Anaïs Nin’s life was a high-wire act of lies. She had two husbands — was bigamously married — and neither of them knew about the other. And I think that her whole high-wire act became very naked to her under LSD, and she couldn’t take it. She was a creature of such artifice, and then suddenly the artifice was stripped away.

As such Anais Nin appears to have had the ultimate bad trip.  It may even have unhinged her even more than she already was.  One of Janiger’s written case studies is of a ‘man’ who had "a bad, bad, bad trip”.  In an essay written shortly after this LSD session, this ‘man’ described "an awful account of how some intensely repressed psychosexual problems surfaced to the conscious front under the influence."

We could speculate that this man was really Nin and that the change of sex was to protect her from unwanted publicity, but there is no need to speculate, because it is the lesson that is key:

Rick Doblin
In a way, you hope to find nobody like that, but …. what this tells us is that LSD shouldn’t be given in research unless there is someone with therapeutic skill present."

 In fact it tells us nothing of the kind.  It actually tells us that we should never give LSD or any other drug for that matter to sensitives, psychologically traumatised, women and children. LSD is an ego buster, as such the only people who might benefit [and might is the operative word] are those with huge egos needing insight - like psychiatrists [I jest, or maybe I don't]. 

As we can see from the paintings of Dr Janiger's patients, one cannot make a silk purse from a sow's ear - if you are gifted and creative you do not need LSD and LSD will not make you into a better painter.  As we have said in the description of the drug, long term it causes brain damage and it appears that in Anais's case, short term it caused brain damage, as she sunk into a Walter Mitty world of escapism.

It also tells us that we need to be cautious about the revelations of the psychologically traumatised when it comes to taking drugs.


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