Anais Nin:
By Judy Chicago

First posted: 7-30-01

History has not been kind to Anaïs Nin. Within a year of her death, Cacharel produced a perfume called "Anaïs Anaïs," as if all that was left of her life and work was the exotic odor of a memory. For what does it mean when the name of a woman writer is popularized not by literary recognition but by the dubious honor of having a scent named after her? And then there was the rage, which seemed to erupt soon after her death. For example, in speaking about the many young women (myself included) who were inspired by her, James Wolcott, writing in the New York Review of Books, June 26, 1980, characterized them (us) as "the cult," going on to belittle all who revered her by calling them "Ninophiles."

This fury continues unabated today, as seems evident in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s recent book, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World: "Nin’s celebrated diary, eventually published in seven volumes...offered a widely appealing portrait of an independent woman in an artistic milieu." So far, so good. But a few pages later, the author tells us what she thinks of Nin’s lifetime of work: "The real and bottomless subject of Nin’s diary is not sex, or the flowering of womanhood, but deceit." This accusation arose from the fact that during her life, Anaïs Nin altered her diaries for publication—sometimes for legal reasons, other times to protect someone she loved and also out of the very human and (to me) forgivable desire to present herself in as positive a way as she could, given the life she had lived.

Poor Anaïs—seems as though she can’t win. If Pierpont vilified her for her manipulation of reality, she was even more vicious toward her when she told the truth, as she did in the posthumous volume, Incest, in which she revealed the fact that she had had an affair with her own father. This revelation prompted Pierpont to write: "In this instance, rewriting her history was probably Nin’s best deed for the feminist cause, and her most important lie. For even in an age of hard-won and vulnerable freedoms, the truth we are offered now is recognizably obscene." Pierpont ends her essay with a cruel and patronizing assessment of Nin’s autobiographical writing: "For the reader able to escape the solitary confinement of these endless pages through the mere act of closing a book—such simple deliverance—relief is dulled only by a shuddering pity for the woman who
lived all her days trapped inside."

A Spy In The House Of Love

I first met Anaïs in the summer of 1971 at a party in Los Angeles. A year prior to meeting her, I had spent a secluded period in Fresno formulating my ideas about the woman-centered art practice and art education that I would call Feminist Art and Feminist Art Education. My Fresno students and I had put out an edition of a now-defunct monthly feminist journal called Everywoman, in which I had written an article called "My Struggle as a Woman Artist" about my ten-year fight to be taken seriously in the extremely macho L.A. art scene.

Although I have absolutely no memory of the person who hosted the party where I first encountered Anaïs, my first sight of her was unforgettable. Tall, slender and elegant, she spoke in a delicate voice, with just a touch of an appealing accent that I couldn’t identify. Softly, she told me that she had read my essay and liked it. She then followed this with an invitation to visit her in her home in Silver Lake, a hilly and verdant part of Los Angeles northwest of downtown.

I had read her diaries and tried her fiction, which I found difficult except for A Spy in the House of Love. This book had dazzled me with its description of the heroine seeking the kind of sexual freedom men enjoyed—the freedom to couple, achieve physical release and then disconnect from the moment of love without a backward glance. For a woman of my generation, raised with the bizarre idea that only men needed to reach orgasm in sex but burdened with an intense drive toward sexual fulfillment, I saw myself in Nin’s character, Sabina. Still caught as I was in inculcated expectations that men’s needs should take priority over my own, I was unable to separate lust from love, at least then.

As to the diaries, I found them riveting; primarily because I had never before read such honesty in a woman’s writing. (How ironic that Anaïs should later be accused of lies.) Perhaps it is because I straddle the generation between hers and the younger women like Pierpont, who are so critical of her, that despite the editing and re-editing of the diaries, I could recognize Nin’s words as giving voice to the experiences of countless women, myself included. I guess young women cannot even begin to imagine what life was like for us, when there was no information about women’s history and no theory to explain gender relations or to unearth sexist assumptions, much less the permission to challenge them openly. There was absolutely no possibility of telling men the truth about ourselves—or about our perceptions of them—as males were thought to be too fragile for such disclosures. To be truly honest was to risk committing the greatest of sins, to become the castrating woman, undercutting the "precious male ego," which, according to prevailing mythology, had to be coddled, protected and nurtured at all times.

It was because of my own experiences that I could so identify with Nin’s words in A Spy in the House of Love: "At this moment she feels impelled by a force outside of herself to be the woman he demands, desires and creates." Given this imperative, one can only admire the fact that Nin was able to come to the realization that she did, reflected in the words with which I began this essay: "I was always ashamed to take. So I gave. It was not a virtue. It was a disguise."

But even though she eventually recognized this about herself, given the years in which she lived (1903-1977), it would have been unthinkable for her to have openly revealed the truth about her life and feelings in her diaries when they were first published. The most she could do was leave the entire body of her journals to be read and understood—once she and those close to her were dead and, thus, unable to be hurt by what are some deeply shocking revelations, such as bigamy and, of course, incest.

However, I’m sure she never dreamed that young critics would be contemptuous of the courage it required for a woman to, first, make herself the center of her writings and then to reveal herself as nakedly as she did, albeit incompletely, in the published diaries and, finally, openly in the unpublished journals. What woman before her had ever displayed such courage—the courage not only to live such a life but also to expose it, even if she was not able to risk such exposure during her lifetime?

Sadly, it is one of the tragedies of women’s history that young women seem unable to honor what women before them struggled to achieve, even though many of those struggles laid the groundwork for whatever modicum of post-feminist freedom exists for them today. As for men like James Wolcott, their harsh and uncomprehending assessments contribute to the climate of dishonor, marginalization or erasure that seems to accrue to even the greatest of women as soon as they die.

Am I suggesting that Anaïs Nin was a great writer? A great woman? Not really, mainly because I do not know. I am neither a literary critic nor a historian and, therefore, think it would be presumptuous of me to attempt a definitive evaluation of her work. What I am saying is that Anaïs’ writing was of greater importance than is presently conceded, primarily because in her diaries she left us a record of a woman who struggled against the constraints of the "female condition," as it used to be called—or the "construct of femininity," as it is now labeled—and she did it all by herself. For this, in my opinion, she is not only to be admired but also to be revered.

And I revered her, from the first moment we met. So much, in fact, that when I visited her on that first warm day in the late summer of 1971, I could not imagine myself accepting any service from her hands, be it the preparation of food or even the squeezing of oranges for a glass of juice.

Journal Entry, Wednesday, September 15, 1971

"(About) my visit with Anaïs... ostensibly for lunch, but she wasn’t eating and the idea of her cooking for me was beyond me. She squeezed me some juice and as I watched this 70 year old woman" (she was actually 68 at the time but I was only thirty and, therefore, her age seemed greater than it was; even though, in retrospect, I realize that she looked far younger than her years). "I looked at her slender hands and thought about how they had written so many wonderful words. I was very moved. We got along wonderfully and... she walked me all the way to my car and we kissed."

At the time I first met Anaïs, I was trying to sort through what was a confusing period for me. My first decade of professional art practice took place before the second wave of feminism, which began in the late ‘60s. When the early literature appeared from what was then called Women’s Liberation, I read it with a sensation akin to what a drowning woman might feel upon being rescued just short of submersion.

From the time I was young, I had had my sights set upon becoming an artist, one whose work would end up in the art history books. I never thought my gender at all relevant to my ambition—until I reached graduate school. Then I ran smack into what used to be called male chauvinism, an attitude that was manifested even more intensely in the art community than in the academic environment. And if one attempted to complain about such injustice, one was disparagingly called "some kind of suffragette," which was definitely not a compliment.

The space between a "castrating bitch" and a "suffragette" was narrow, to say the least, and many women of my generation fell between the looming cracks that appeared whenever one attempted to traverse such an unpropitious path. I was one of the lucky ones—at least I became accepted as an artist in the Los Angeles art community. But the price was high, indeed. Under no circumstances could my art reveal my gender, and I had to try and act like one of the "boys" in order to achieve even a semblance of validation.

Although I went along with this, underneath I seethed. When the Women’s Liberation Movement began, I joyously realized that I was not the only American woman who was fed up—I had a lot of company. It was as if a door had suddenly opened and the light streamed in. What I saw was the chance to be myself as a woman artist which, until then, had been a complete impossibility in an art scene where the most prominent male critics thought nothing of announcing that one could not  be a woman and an artist, too.

But how to fuse these? That was the question. For ten years, I had been learning how to censor every feminine impulse, not only in my art but also in my persona. I had taken a decidedly different path than had Anaïs. Whereas she had become the Eternal Feminine, I had rejected every behavior that smacked of femininity.

This dilemma is what I went to Fresno to resolve, and it was this that I discussed with Anaïs the first time I visited her. In a rush, no, a torrent of words, I told her everything I was thinking about and grappling with. It was such a relief to talk to her. In all my life, I had never had a woman mentor, and I was more grateful to her than I ever had the chance to tell her.

According to the seventh volume of Anaïs’ published diaries, our first meeting impressed her as well: "Our first meeting was very interesting. I was intimidated by [Judy’s] powerful personality. She was intimidated by the lady of the Diaries.… But what happened is that we immediately felt tenderness and recognized that we needed each other."

In addition to the sense of mutual recognition that took place between us, Anaïs suggested that I write a book, which shocked me, in part, because at that time artists were expected to be seen—but not heard. The mystique of the mute but heroic Abstract Expressionist was still strong, and the role of the artist was certainly not thought to be one that included writing, at least that was my impression.

I did indeed follow Anaïs’ advice, which included the assurance that I could in fact write. More important, I realized that, with her help, writing would allow me to think through paths that I might not ever take and work out ideas that seemed all a muddle of confusion. Thus began my literary journey, one which, to date, has produced seven books by my own hand and one co-authored volume, with another one planned. All this I owe to Anaïs, for I doubt that I would have ever seriously taken up writing without her encouragement.

She also wrote the introduction to my first book, Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist, a publication that grew out of an early essay Anaïs read and also from the many discussions we had during the three years in which I visited her regularly. During that time, our conversations focused mainly on ideas about a female-centered art, something she felt strongly about. In fact, I began Through the Flower with a quote from her diaries:

...Woman’s creation, far from being like Man’s, must be exactly like her creation of children; that is, it must come out of her own blood, englobed by her womb, nourished with her own milk. It must be a human creation, of flesh, it must be different from Man’s abstractions."

Although my views have changed somewhat over time, Anaïs’ words proved inspirational in that they affirmed my growing conviction that women artists might have something entirely different to say. This is not because of some essentialist biological difference from men but, rather, because there are many ways in which our socialization and experiences differ.

The World Split Open

In addition to our private visits, we were also involved in a number of public activities together, including an event organized in her honor in Berkeley and a panel on education in Los Angeles. The Berkeley celebration produced at least three different written versions of what took place. Both Anaïs and I recorded our own impressions in our journals, but the historian Ruth Rosen presented quite a different picture in her recent book, The World Split Open:

"Imagine, if you can, a Sunday-morning brunch held in the living room of a modest home in Berkeley… The featured guests are Judy Chicago... and Anaïs Nin. Chicago proudly shows her recent work, a print of a woman pulling a used Tampax out of her vagina. Nin is appalled... she recoils from what she describes as ‘vulgar art.’ Soon they retreat to the kitchen, shouting and arguing..."

My own memory is quite different, although it is true that we disagreed. But I don’t remember any shouting. Moreover, we decided to air our differences on a radio show that we did together on KPFK in Los Angeles in February of 1972. In a journal entry I wrote shortly before that, dated December 1, 1971, I stated my belief that "women must be free to express rage in symbolic forms ...women have never really been allowed the expression of anger and it has stifled us because we’ve turned it back onto ourselves."

In our radio debate, we discussed the idea of women openly expressing the physical aspects of female reality in art, such as menstruation. I don’t really think that Anaïs was "appalled" by Red Flag (my menstruation image), though she did argue that women’s emphasis should be on feeling, while I countered with the conviction expressed in my diary that we must make the hidden visible and acceptable. After the radio show, she called me to say that I was her "radical daughter" and that she loved me, which is how I felt about her as well.

Anaïs was far less upset about our disagreements—or, for that matter, my art—than she was about the criticism that had been leveled against her at the celebration by some of the radical feminists. In a letter she wrote to me that was subsequently published in Diary Number VII, she complained: "I suffered twenty years of criticism for being apolitical… The Diaries show I found another route to liberation... I inspire women. I do not propagandize... Do you think that if I held out against men’s political obsessions for thirty years and accepted persecution from them, I will yield now to women’s imitation of revolutionary tactics?"

Sometime later, she invited me to participate in a panel discussion with herself, Lawrence Durrell and Buckminster Fuller that was being organized in relation to the opening of the International College, an alternative school without walls. The event was held at a private home, which, as I recall, was well appointed, filled with sunlight and many plants.

Both Anaïs and I were on time, but the other panelists were late. The audience milled around for what seemed like ages until, finally, the moderator decided to begin as soon as Durrell appeared, almost an hour late. The session was in full swing when Bucky Fuller strode in, positioning himself in front of the seated panelists and rudely interrupting what, up to that point, had been a polite, though lively, discussion.

Ignoring everyone on the panel, Fuller selfishly took over the session, walking back and forth in front of us and ranting on about all that he had done and when he had done it. I became furious, in part because of my memories of domineering male professors in college but more so because I was outraged at the insult he was paying to Anais who, I believed, did not deserve such treatment. And since I didn’t really know Durrell, I didn’t care so much about him, though I did think Fuller’s rudeness extended to all of us on the panel.

Somewhat timorously, I raised my hand and asked whether it was possible for anyone else to speak. At first, Fuller didn’t hear me or, if he did, chose not to acknowledge my question, which I repeated. Finally, he turned around. In a voice shaking with the terror I felt in challenging such an authority figure as Buckminster Fuller, I made as impassioned a statement as I could muster about his insensitive behavior and my belief that education involved a level of shared communication that his behavior entirely precluded.

The response was pure silence—and shock. When the audience began to realize what I had done, they turned on me. None were more vociferous in their reaction than the women, probably because they could not believe my audacity in challenging so august a personage as Mr. Fuller. From the look on Durrell’s face, I believe he found my outburst entertaining; but not so the audience. Just when I thought they were going to rise up and collectively rush the stage, Anaïs stood up. In her gentle, yet elegant voice, she said something about how they had all witnessed a classic confrontation between the masculine—rational, logical and objective—and the feminine—intuitive, emotional and subjective—following this by suggesting that it was the purpose of education to unite these differing approaches. Then she sat down.

Her words seemed to diffuse what was an extremely tense situation, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Later that evening, Anaïs called me to express concern about whether I considered her comments a "cop-out." Not at all, I replied, on the contrary. In fact, in my opinion, she had "saved my life."

I tell this story not only because I consider it amusing but, more important, because it conveys something of Anaïs’ astonishing grace, any awareness of which seems singularly lacking in many of the articles I have read about her. In fact, given her incredible personal charm and generosity of spirit, I find it astounding that she has elicited such anger from critics.


The last story I wish to tell about Anaïs further emphasizes her graciousness. In 1974, when she was already ill from the cancer that would claim her life (which I didn’t know about), I visited her. I had just returned from an exceedingly difficult few weeks spent in Bellingham, Washington, where I had gone to work on a new series of drawings and to spend time with my (then) husband, who was working on a sculpture there. The trip had been a success in relation to my art, as I had formulated designs for what would be the first of the china-painted plates in The Dinner Party (my monumental tribute to women in Western Civilization), which was at an early stage of development.

Not so successful was my visit with my husband, who had used the occasion to reveal that, over the course of our ten-year relationship, he had engaged in a series of regular affairs with his students. Although I was devastated by this confession, it would be some time before I ended our marriage, something I should have done on the spot. Nevertheless, as I have done throughout my career in the face of extreme anguish, I worked, producing the drawings I had gone to Bellingham to create.

Upon my return, I went to see Anaïs. Although I was quite upset, I don’t think I mentioned my personal difficulties. Instead, I spoke to her about something else that was troubling me—more than troubling me, in fact. Panic would be the best way to describe my feelings. It seems that as I configured the imagery in the new drawings, I had experienced a terrifying sensation and described it to Anaïs as akin to a cancer growing in my womb.

Even now I cannot write those words without experiencing a sense of horror at my gall in saying this to her. In my defense, I have to repeat that I did not know she had cancer, and to her enormous credit, she never mentioned it. Instead, she reassured me, saying that what I had experienced was related to my fear of my own power, which I was experiencing as negative, even monstrous.

Earlier in this essay, I discussed the attitudes toward female power with which I was raised—attitudes that, if expressed, could cause grievous harm to men. That afternoon in 1974, Anaïs helped me understand that I had internalized this attitude and that, as I expressed myself creatively, I had confronted those internalized taboos.

To this day, I feel deeply grateful to her and disgusted with those who attempt to besmirch her reputation and diminish her worth. They seem to have no idea how profoundly women have been mutilated by the warped ideas which have been accepted—and foisted upon us—as truths. Nor do they seem to realize what amazing bravery it requires to stand up to society’s mistaken notions and claim the right to one’s freedom, one’s expression and, most of all, to the right to live as a human being—rather than some type of fictive politically correct character.

To Anaïs, who had the nerve to claim her humanity, with all its flaws, and to leave us a picture of the woman she was, not the woman she was supposed to be, I say BRAVA.

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