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My Politically Incorrect Mentor

Susan R.Bowers


The backpack I carried on my 1974 solo trip to Europe during the most defining summer of my life had room for only one book. It was a book that would give me the courage and imagination to forge my life as a single woman after a nine-year marriage and to embark on the five-year graduate program that would lead to my work as a feminist teacher and scholar. Yet, even though it was a book that inspired many women of my generation, most of us hesitate to acknowledge it today.

This book that was more important to my birth as a feminist than any other—more than The Second Sex or The Feminine Mystique—was The Diary of Anaïs Nin. Parisian-born Nin, who grew up in New York, was one of the writers and artists whose artistic and life-style experiments defined the early 20th-century avant-garde. Although she had published her fiction with her own press in the 1940’s, it was the publication of her diaries in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that had such enormous influence on so many women of my generation. However, because Nin flaunted her “femininity,” abjured feminist consciousness, and embraced an essentialist approach to gender, her writing now is seen as politically incorrect.

What may be difficult for third-wave feminists to understand or appreciate is what drew us to Nin’s diaries during that liminal period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Most of us probably haven’t bothered to figure it out either. For instance, as I began to reflect on this question, I first thought about the lyrical language, Nin’s independence as a writer, her cosmopolitan life, her celebration of the female body—the sorts of things that my students could accept. But the embarrassing truth is that I loved reading Nin’s diaries over and over (you can tell them on my bookshelf by their battered condition) because of their narcissism. Nin was in love with herself: with her body, her creativity, and her ability to entice and love others. She had done analysis with Otto Rank, one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis, and she found her own psyche as fascinating as anything in the universe. She not only wrote about herself in the diaries, of course, but frequently featured there what other famous artists thought of her—Robert Duncan described her as “fox, princess, daughter” (Nin 2:19). She thus constructed a self that was delicate, beautiful, alluring, and sensuous, yet also insightful and daring.

Now, narcissism may not seem like the most admirable quality, but to a woman who grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was revolutionary. Like many or most women my age, I had been in a marriage that was far from egalitarian. I not only worked full-time outside the home, but also did all the cooking, laundry, housekeeping, and yard work in addition to taking care of my husband’s emotional needs. I would feel guilty if I indulged in something for myself, such as taking a graduate course or going out with women friends. The social tumult of the early ‘70s led many women such as myself to question such a life. If we escaped those marriages, our divorces were traumatic events of which our families—for whom ours likely were the first divorces ever—were ashamed. We often felt that we had paid for our freedom with loneliness, shame, and economic uncertainty. We sometimes wondered whether our new focus on our selves was misguided after all.

But reading late at night in my new single bed, I could absorb the adventures of a woman who seemed able to go anywhere and do anything. Boundaries had no relevance for Anais Nin—neither national nor moral ones. So when I conceived the idea of going to Europe alone for three months to hike and sightsee, it was Nin who was mentoring me while I applied for a passport and bought my Eurail pass.

I had grown up and lived all my life in small towns in Oregon, where rail travel was almost unheard of. When I landed in the Brussels airport, I even had trouble figuring out how to get to the city. Then it took several painful minutes of my bad French to register for a hotel room. But before long, I was reading The Diary of Anais Nin, Volume Three (1939-1944), in sidewalk cafés in Paris, on a ship crossing the North Sea, in climbing huts in the Norwegian mountains, in a villa in northern Italy, on the flanks of the Matterhorn, and on an island on the Croatian coast. In fact, my reading of Nin’s diary was a mirror image of her writing it: she carried it everywhere, writing on trains, in cafés, and in doctors’ offices (Stuhlmann x). The combination of my new experiences and my growing confidence in my self-sufficiency, combined with reading Nin daily, produced in me the thrill of self-discovery. As Nin wrote, “You live . . . sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book . . . or you take a trip. . . and you discover that you are not living, you are hibernating. . . Some never awaken. They are like the people who go to sleep in the snow and never awaken” (Nin 1:7).

Not long after I returned from that summer tour of Europe, I took the first women’s studies course offered at the University of Oregon. I remember what the instructor said the night we examined our own vaginas with a speculum: that this very concrete awareness of our own bodies was a far superior knowledge to what could possibly be gained by a previous generation’s notion of liberation through travel. Of course, it is now pretty much common knowledge that, as two scholars recently put it, “Many American women coming of age during the heady 1970s construed feminist emancipation as unmitigated self-realization” (Zorach and Melin 127). Indeed, middle-class white women in the ‘70s did enter an awareness of themselves as women through various kinds of journeys of self-discovery. Gunther Stuhlmann’s introduction to the first published volume of the Diaries announced, “The ‘revelation’ of Miss Nin’s diary, essentially, lies in the fact that here, for the first time, we have a passionate, detailed, articulate record of a modern woman’s journey of self-discovery” (Stuhlmann i). For me, socialized into my gender roles by the repressive society of the 1950s, the experience of being a woman traveling alone abroad was profoundly life-changing. I may have left as a new divorcee with a false bravado, but I returned with a strong sense of self and a new direction. I also came home from Europe with anger about how my gender made me vulnerable (I had been assaulted by a soldier in Vienna and narrowly escaped being raped by my host at a B and B in Dubrovnik). With that foundation, I was ready to read feminists such as Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich and to begin to understand how gender was part of a complex matrix with such other factors as race and class.

I credit Nin with much of my own personal change. Who was she to me during that life-changing summer? Certainly not a mother: I had no illusions about her mothering capacities (she writes of her experience babysitting a friend’s children for an afternoon, “I was not proud at all of having helped three children with faces like puddings or oatmeal to live through a Sunday afternoon. I would have felt prouder if I had written a quartet to delight many generations” (Nin 6:49). Nor was she a sister, someone to whom one might confide one’s most precious dreams. In fact, I never imagined meeting her. For one thing, her world was worlds away from my own, not only in time—most of the diaries had been written 30 years before they were published—but also in even more significant ways. Nin’s friends were people like Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, and Antonin Artaud. She had a wealthy husband, yet also enjoyed sexual liaisons with other men and women (usually famous). I suspect that one of the reasons for her great impact on women such as me was the fact that her life was so exotic. We couldn’t imagine being her, but we relished her self-introspection and her adventurousness. I suspect that at that moment, on the threshold of the second wave of feminism, Nin’s texts were ideal. We might not have been able to handle yet the intimate reflections of a woman more like ourselves, but the daring of this exotic expatriate woman who seemed to reject stereotypical gender roles drove us to try on such courage ourselves. Her reaction to the climbing of Mt. Everest was that it “gives courage to others. . . all of us are trying to climb Mt. Everest” (Nin 6:56). But not only did she teach us courage, Nin also helped us to try on new identities to see what might fit. As Jaime Horn points out, “Anais Nin reads like a masquerade ball, deceiving you into many roles adorned with elaborate masks. She encourages you to take off, add to and relish what you know about yourself. Nin motivates the unhappy housewife to take her bobby pins out and pucker up her lips” (41). In her recent book-length study of Nin, Helen Tookey asserts that she functioned as a “mobiliser of fantasies” (189).

Nin perceived herself not as a mentor, but as a spokeswoman for her gender:

It is not only the woman Anaïs who has to speak, but I who have to speak for many women. As I discover myself, I feel I am merely one of many, a symbol. I begin to understand women of yesterday and today. The mute ones of the past, the inarticulate, who took refuge behind wordless intuitions, and the women of today, all action, and copies of men. And I, in between. (Nin 5:vii)

What kind of mentor was she, then? Not a mother or sister or even a friend, but a character in a radically new narrative, because the Anais Nin in the diaries was, of course, a carefully constructed persona. She was more abstract than real, more fictional than actual. Nin herself sometimes found that the life she lived in her diaries was more real than the life she lived outside them. She was like a heroine in a Henry James novel: wonderfully interesting, but, finally, not one of us. Yet her intensive self-analysis modeled a kind of pre-feminist “Diving into the Wreck,” long before Adrienne Rich’s poem was even conceived.

Reading her now, I am struck by the preciosity of her prose and repulsed at times by the persistent narcissism. It seems unlikely that today her diaries would function in a mentoring role. Nin’s ideas are not only dated, but also often disturbing. She certainly sought creative and sexual freedom for herself, but she embraced an essentialist view of gender relations: “The woman was born mother, mistress, wife, sister, she was born to represent union, communion, communication, she was born to give birth to life. . . . Woman was born to be the connecting link between man and his human self” (Nin 2:234). Even so, I continue to appreciate the clarity of her social critique, such as, “The atmosphere of America, puritan, middle-class, hypocritical, afraid of reality, is like a total absence of oxygen” (Nin 6:22). Reading her can be like eating a constant diet of desserts because, as she herself notes, “I choose the extraordinary moments of life, the heightened ones, because they are moments of heightened revelations, of illuminations, of the greatest riches” (Nin 4:152). Not only did she choose these “extraordinary moments” to highlight in her diary, but she disdained the ordinary moments: “I have days when the music in my head stops. Then I mend socks, prune trees, can fruits, polish furniture. But while I am doing this I feel I am not living” (Nin 1931-1934: 5).

One of the lessons of the last 30 years is that feminism concerns not only the extraordinary, but most especially, the ordinary moments of women’s lives. What, then, is the value of Anaïs Nin’s diaries today? I would say that despite their preciosity and dated gender notions, they are valuable as documents that had real influence on many of the women who were part of the second wave of feminism in modern America. When Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique was published in 1963, it documented the victimization of American women at the hands of a patriarchal system that subsumed their identities and dreams in favor of those of their husbands and children. When Nin’s diaries began to appear three years later, they allowed women to imagine a world in which they could dream their own dreams and be their own persons. But finally, the diaries are proof that a mentor teaches not just the complex lessons, but also the obvious, the simple lesson. Anaïs Nin’s mentoring gift to me and to many women of my generation was the simple lesson that we not only could, but also we should imagine who we wanted to be.

Works Cited


Horn, Jaime. “Becoming What I Write. ” The Writer 115. 9 (Spring 2002): 41-42.

Nin, Anais. The Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1931-34. Ed. and with a Preface by Gunther Stuhlmann. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966.

Nin, Anais. The Diary of Anaïs Nin. Ed. and with a Preface by Gunther Stuhlmann. Vol. 2. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1967.

Nin, Anais. The Diary of Anaïs Nin. Ed. and with a Preface by Gunther Stuhlmann. Vol. 4. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971.

Nin, Anais. The Diary of Anaïs Nin. Ed. and with a Preface by Gunther Stuhlmann. Vol. 6. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976.

Stuhlmann, Gunther. Preface. The Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1931-34. By Anaïs Nin. Ed. Gunther Stuhlmann. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966

Tookey, Helen. Anaïs Nin, Fictionality and Femininity: Playing a Thousand Roles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Zorach, Cecile Cazort and Charlotte Ann Melin. “Collaborative Expeditions in the Academy: Housekeeping and the Art of the Infinite. ” NWSA Journal 13. 1 (2001): 126-138.

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