Breaking The Ultimate Taboo

The incest taboo is so old and so ingrained it’s almost unmentionable – and yet, incest happens.

When I came upon Anaïs Nin’s descriptions of what she said was a consensual adult sexual liaison with her father, I was staggered. Who the hell sleeps with their father? It turned out that Anaïs Nin did – but why? To understand Nin’s possible motivations, first consider another 20th century female icon.

It is well-known Marilyn Monroe was an “illegitimate” child who never knew her father, but he was most certainly a man named Charles Stanley Gifford. Monroe and Gifford were, as they say, “dead ringers.” Marilyn, born Norma Jeane, was shown Gifford’s photo when she was a young girl and her child’s mind related him to the great masculine star of the day, Clark Gable. As her lonely and traumatic childhood progressed, Norma Jeane was said to have fantasized about the glamorous daddy who would rescue her. Instead, her first husband, Jim Dougherty, claimed she once tried to call Gifford and he quickly hung up on her.

Did rejection by her father ignite in Norma Jeane the tremendous drive for love and attention that propelled her quest for movie stardom? Possibly. According to her first acting coach, Natasha Lytess, Monroe made at least one more attempt to contact her father. Charles Casillo reports in Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon that Lytess and the then-famous starlet drove to Gifford’s home near Palm Springs, discussing Monroe’s “father issues” during the drive, but that Monroe became anxious and decided to call first before showing up on his doorstep. Lytess waited in the car while Monroe nervously made the call at a payphone. A moment later she returned to the car and told Lytess that Gifford had responded, "Call my lawyer” – and hung up on her. Lytess said the episode broke Monroe’s heart.

Somehow, the never-acknowledged “illegitimate” Norma Jeane became a font of acting genius and a wildly charming personality in the form of the world’s preeminent sex symbol, one with a little girl’s voice and supposed innocence – the kind of voice and innocence that might appeal to a daddy. She also left a trail of luscious images that still enthrall us long after she died. Did her father’s rejection fuel the ambition it took for Norma Jeane to attain the attention of the world, attention she had not received from him? Did devastating heartbreak give birth to extreme drive and creativity?

One winter in the mid-1950s Nin met Monroe. The occasion of their meeting was the glamorous opening of an ice cream shop in New York City. The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume Six 1955–1966 describes the scene:

It was decorated in the old-fashioned way, all in ice-cream colors, very fresh and icy, and filled with celebrities. Some press agent thought it would be amusing to invite both Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. It was to the detriment of Jayne Mansfield. Marilyn arrived without make-up, fresh and glowing, and instead of posing to be admired, she looked at everyone with genuine interest, and when I was introduced she turned her full warm attention on me.

Both Monroe and Nin, possibly because of their childhood deprivations, developed exceptional personalities. Both were masters at making meaningful connections, at touching people’s hearts. But Casillo writes in The Private Life of a Public Icon that in the intervening years since her father’s rejections, Monroe had still not overcome the hurt – and it seems it had turned into something else:

As an adult, still wanting to be rescued by a father, she would attempt to re-create him in the men in her life. At a Manhattan party Marilyn confessed that she longed “to put on a black wig, pick up her father in a bar, and make love to him. Afterward she would ask, ’How do you feel now to have a daughter that you’ve made love to?'"

So there it is: sex (or the fantasy of such) as revenge. I believe Monroe’s apparent desire for retaliation through sex is a powerful clue as to Nin’s possible motivations. Sex is seen here, not only as coupling, but also as conquering.

Social anthropologists theorize that the incest taboo stems from a risk of inbreeding, but also from a need to create new alliances through marriage to non-relatives so as to strengthen the tribe. But what if the father and daughter never had an alliance? What if they were separated for 20 years and are strangers to one another? Would they then seek to make an alliance? Is it possible that girls who’ve been traumatically separated from their fathers have a compulsion to “co-join” with them as adults? Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, The Kiss, tells her story of reuniting with her absent father at age 20 and having an affair. A pattern seems to be developing.

We must also consider what Sigmund Freud introduced as the Oedipus Complex (for boys) or the Electra Complex (for girls). Freud believed children pass through a stage of normal psychological development during which they feel a kind of desire for the opposite sex parent and competitive hostility for the same sex parent. The term was actually taken from a play written 2,400 years ago by Sophocles, the Greek tragedian. Oedipus Rex is a dramatization of the incest taboo: the story of a king, Oedipus, who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. When Oedipus discovers the truth, he blinds himself.

But Anaïs Nin didn’t blind herself. Instead, she told the story in her diary and it is essentially this: She had been separated from her father for 20 years. They planned to meet in an effort to get to know each other. He was Joaquin Nin y Castellanos, a Cuban pianist, composer, and member of the French Legion of Honor who was enjoying a successful career in Europe. He joked that his daughter was his fiancee. (And when, fourteen years previously, sixteen-year-old Nin had sent him a portrait of herself, he jested charmingly that she was his “betrothed.”)

Father and daughter met at a hotel in Chamonix, France during the summer of 1933 when Nin was 30 and her father was 53. Photographs prove they bore an incredible resemblance – the proverbial “dead ringers.” They were both artists and shared a number of significant character traits. The meeting was intense, intimate, and Joaquin Nin took the opportunity to tell his daughter his side of the story regarding the break-up of his marriage to her mother. As is revealed in Incest: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin 1932–1934, father and daughter admitted to feeling upset and confused by their powerful feelings for one another. They were strangers who shared 50% of their DNA, after all. And then the father said, “Let me kiss your mouth.” Daughter wrote that she was “tortured by a complexity of feelings,” “tempted – terrified and desirous,” and then a brief affair began. And then, daughter ended the affair.

Strangely, I believe the incest experience with Joaquin Nin “put to bed,” so to speak, Anaïs Nin’s unresolved issues with her father. He continued to pursue her, via letter, but he was eventually divorced by his wealthy wife and forced to return to Cuba where he spent the rest of his life in greatly reduced circumstances. When his daughter published a book titled House of Incest in 1936 he was alarmed, even terrified. (He needn’t have been. The book is Nin’s surrealistic exploration of the subconscious mind, a prose poem about a dream.) Joaquin Nin died alone in Cuba in 1949. Anaïs Nin wrote that after everything, after believing her feelings for the man were absolutely dead, she still cried when she learned he had passed away.

When Nin’s secret diary revealing her incest experience was published in 1992, the reaction was swift and harsh. A review in the New York Times was titled “Nin’s Diary Reveals Troubled Life, Mind: Writer Shown as Highly Self-Absorbed.” Nin’s friends didn’t want to believe Nin had actually slept with her father and suggested the diary entries were fantasies. Nin’s beloved younger brother, Joaquin Nin-Culmell, was extremely upset about the publication of the book and believed her reputation was irrevocably damaged. These reactions from friends and loved ones are understandable, but I found it surprising that one of Nin’s biographers, Deirdre Bair, questioned the veracity of Nin’s story and thought it necessary to go to “distinguished analysts and therapists” – something I find hilarious – to confirm that such a thing as “adult onset incest” is possible.

Anaïs Nin didn’t lie to her diary. She romanticized. She dramatized. And – like all of us – she needed to see herself as the heroic protagonist of her own story. But she did not lie to her diary. When I read her account of incest with her father, I knew it was true.

Joaquin Nin y Castellanos was Anaïs Nin’s ultimate shadow self. For 20 long years, between his discarding of her as a child and her reuniting with him as a 30-year-old woman, she saw the shadow of his face every time she looked in a mirror, this man who she once said had “crippled” her family.

Anaïs Nin’s incest with her father? I believe it was the ultimate revenge. She entranced him and then abandoned him. She left him longing for her, begging to see her just as she as a child had longed for him. She also eventually became the vastly more successful of the two. And then, though the account of their liaison was published long after they were both dead, she posthumously ruined his reputation. Let me put it this way: many decades after your death, how would you like it if people remembered you, not for your life’s work, but as the father of a much more famous artist with whom you’d had an incestuous relationship?

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Kim Krizan