But I’d rather speak my truth to a few, rather than pretend truth to the many. (I had that option as a journalist in my thirties, and I walked away.)
Second, I’d rather have a few friends who know the real me than many false friends who like my best effort at a pretense of “normalcy.”
Finally, I’d rather not spend the tremendous amount of mental energy it takes to read people, try to figure out what’s expected, then emulate it, and keep all my stuff – politically important stuff – to myself. That would be a dreadful way to live.
I’ve known since I was in my twenties that I wanted more than anything to communicate to the masses about our social ills. I didn’t know then why I felt so fervent about it, but I do now, and I’m glad I spent my decades studying all forms of communication, such as “Radio and Television” (when I didn’t even own a TV), film, videography, news writing, script and screen writing, creative writing, non-violent communication, mediation, consensus decision-making, Robert’s Rules of Order (!), public speaking and acting – when I was terrified of the stage!
All that has given me the foundation to do what I do now – write essays and produce videos on concepts very difficult to make people want to read or view them, but politically important, and also psychologically important to me personally.
So, imagine my surprise when in 1999 I discovered the writer Anaïs Nin, bohemian, diarist (I didn’t know the activity was respected enough to warrant this title!), and cultural critic. Anaïs criticized the culture obliquely by writing obsessively about herself, her psychology, her resistance to cultural norms, and her defense of her self-interest, which she felt could be a most worthy activity for any human being desiring to increase his or her consciousness.
As a bohemian, she had multiple affairs while married (most notably her relationship with the writer Henry Miller), and proudly celebrated her counter-cultural ways.
I read Nin’s biography, immediately liked her, and recognized our similarities – and our differences. (I had decided at a young age that multiple sexual relationships were probably not strategically wise – though I’ve never thought they were immoral per se; they were simply fraught with social penalties and other problems I wasn’t willing to choose.)
While reading Nin’s biography in 1999, I began a three-year relationship with a man who was, at the time of our meeting, reading Henry Miller’s biography! My curiosity piqued by this coincidence, I decided to read more about Anaïs.
Very oddly, though, I couldn’t: I hated her writing! When I tried to read her work, I felt overwhelmed by shame, as if her writing was bad – and too much like mine. I suspected that if I spent any time with it, I’d see all my own writer’s flaws and sink into debilitating grief at my humiliation.
Time and again, I’ve picked up her books, and had to put them down after only a paragraph or sentence. And each time, the feelings I experienced were of deep shame for being such a narcissistic writer. I feel as though Anaïs’ writing and mine are one and the same, that her self-obsession is my self-obsession, and I cannot read her.
I’m not exaggerating. I have a book by Tristine Rainer, titled The New Diary, with a Preface by Anaïs. I began, but couldn’t continue past the first line or two. It sits unread on my self. Besides, I might argue, I know all about “how to use a journal for self-guidance and expanded creativity,” as the cover promises, or so I think. But, for as much as I feel dear toward this woman, I cannot read her Preface.
I have another book titled Sisters of the Extreme: Women Writing on the Drug Experience, a collection edited by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz, who each endorsed the book beautifully to me when we met at a “Mind States” conference in 2000 or 2001. The book contains works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Bronte, Louisa May Alcott, Sarah Bernhardt, Box-car Bertha, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Maya Angelou, Alice B. Toklas, Margaret Meade, Diane di Prima, Susan Sontang, Carrie Fisher, Nina Hagen, and many, many others, including Anaïs.
I read every word of this book, drinking it up, cover to cover – except for the piece by Anaïs. When I came to it and tried to read it, deeply interested, I had to put the book down. Returning to it repeatedly, I’ve never been able to force myself to go on beyond the first paragraph. I don’t even want to try it now as an experiment. I remember how it upset me so immensely.
What is the problem? I kept asking myself. Eventually, I accepted that these words which others celebrate are in a style that reminds me too much of my own, so that I feel keenly, viscerally embarrassed, even mortified. I decided, having only read a few words, that her writing and mine are so much alike, so self-obsessed in our alikeness, that I just cannot look in the mirror with which she confronts me.
Was Anaïs ashamed of her writing? I don’t know, but I suspect it. There was an extensive period of her life in which she made ends meet by writing pornography, but I don’t think this is the pertinent issue. I believe it was simply the extensiveness of her journals – she wrote constantly – and the self-obsession she displayed with them and the dept of truth she told she later regretted.
She also rewrote her journals so frequently that, even when she needed to borrow money, she hired other women writers to help her “correct” her earlier works, keep them organized, and secretly destroy earlier drafts as she updated them. (It’s possible that, like many writers, she was not changing her original intent as much as refining it, replacing careless phrases with ones more exact and less prone to be misunderstood (I sure understand that practice). In any case, she was obsessed to record her life on paper, and she needed to get it right.)
I’ll repeat her contention: she defended her obsession as her chosen path to developing her consciousness, which she felt was a healthy activity. But, why would I, one who appreciates journal writing as a healing and self-exploration tool, be embarrassed to read this sort of writing by another?
Perhaps we’re not just similar. I’ve had many experiences in my life of connecting with trans-dimensional beings of various sorts. And one of those, I’ve finally accepted, is Anaïs. I think she might have connected with me at some point in my early activist days (bohemians are essentially activists) and decided to stick around to help me with this work. (She died in 1977, before I ever heard of her, when I was a naive young mother, just a few years away from my first activism.) And together – she in me – we cringe at her early work as many people cringe at things they put out to the public when they are young.
Painful though it may be to put ourselves out there as activists, we know it is our work: to criticize culture, take stands, stick our necks out, take social risks, and take the criticism – because that’s what we were born to do. And I theorize she recognized me – and came to assist.
So now I have a photo of Anaïs on my desk, reminding me it’s okay to be misunderstood by the many, so long as we give voice to new ideas. She was a scandal in her time, and now in death she’s a respected writer – even though I cannot read her myself. I feel I already know what she has written, and the structure of her language will only suck me in with more emotional entanglement than I have the energy to handle. Besides, it would be like looking backward, and we have work to do to keep us moving forward.