Anaïs and I

Louisa Leontiades On Writing, On Writing-General

My publisher suggested the idea in order to streamline my rapidly expanding series of books, but afterwards I wondered whether she wasn’t trying to tell me something.

What if your books drew all their titles from quotes by Anaïs Nin, she said.

I like Richard Bach more, I replied.

But Jonathan Livingstone Seagull wasn’t a polyamorous bird. 

Before Anaïs was scattered across the internet in various memes featuring rosebuds with glistening dew on them, I’d never heard of her.  My British schooling consisted of mainly male authors—Charles Dickens and William Golding—who taught me that I deserved nothing and only had value if I could limp onwards after the hardest of knocks, otherwise I’d end up like Pip or Piggy. So in order to research potential titles, I plunged myself into Anaïs’ bohemian world painstakingly chronicled over 60 years, and fell into an abyss. It’s warm and still down here. It’s a place where emotional truth is bonded to the oxygen you breathe. It’s an inky dark womb. A place where I can be reborn.

Anaïs was a memoirist, like me. Who was all kinds of fucked up, like me. Who followed love and personal growth as if it were a extremist religion, like me. Who was riddled with self-doubt, was dedicated to the confusion of her psyche and who wrote about her deliberations compulsively, like me.

Today a novelist’s preoccupation with inner psychological distortions does not stem from a morbid love of illness but from a knowledge that this is the theme of our new reality.

But I see beyond her words. I am like her. It is not a ‘new reality’ for others, but we strive to make it so, because the alternative is that people like us should not exist. So we fight hard for our right to exist. Luckily for people like she and I, who have the curse–or the blessing–to straddle fact and fiction, we can believe in our stories until they become us.

Dive beyond the clipped pieces of timeless wisdom littering Goodreads, and you’ll find a woman who deviated so far from the norm as it was possible; from an abusive relationship with her father in her adult years to multiple open love affairs. Like me. Was she, as her critics say, a narcissist? Like me?

She existed more fully in the pages of her own diaries where the spoken and the unspoken meet. Some say she lived to create events for the sole purpose of writing about them in her journal, perhaps even more than desiring the experience itself. But I believe she edited her stories to create an aspirational and more beautiful life until they resembled an identity she could live with and by—like me. I’ve looked into the mirror so often looking for identity and not finding it, I’ve lived my life, written it down and searched for the truth then I’ve written my life and lived according to new, and I hope better, truths. 

Reality doesn’t impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another.

One way or another, for Anais, was by writing. Like me. I’ve looked into the mirror so often looking for identity and not finding it, I’ve written my own and then I’ve lived it. To hunt so hard for a new self can be perceived as narcissism. So I also live according to my aspirations, although if I were feeling kind I would call it manifestation. The Secret gives us all permission to believe that which is not yet a reality until it becomes so.

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

Today I am not feeling kind. I have it in my nature; my biological father was a narcissist. I have it in my nurture; my adopted mother was a narcissist.

But if there was one aspect of narcissism of which I used to be sure, it was that I should love myself. And I could not have lived a life which proved that more wrong. It’s been the hook upon which I’ve hung my hopes that I was like neither of my two narcissist parents. But a narcissist–as Anais and I might be–can also be utterly self-destructive and excessive self-love–what we think of as narcissism–is only one trait of the narcissist archetype. What I learned at my mother’s knee was that the world should revolve around the self.

If it’s true, then everything altruistic I’m do barely conceals the fact I’m self-obsessed. Narcissists live in fantasy, like me. And perhaps hating myself for all these years was simply the way that my brand of narcissism manifests itself. It’s difficult to detect because my ideas of new reality only reveal themselves in very few pieces of writing. Rather it’s the fact I write about myself which betrays it. I have compensated for my enormous self-hate, maybe even healed it, by making myself the heroine of my own life. It has meant that I am finally able to love myself, the person within my pages as well as pretending and then becoming her.

Had I not created my whole world, I would have certainly died in other peoples.

This post then is perhaps the mirror moment of my life. If I am a narcissist it could explain why I reject others with narcissistic traits so severely, so viscerally. Maybe it’s not just about rejecting my mother. Yet many narcissistic traits are not me. I don’t take criticism personally although thats taken years of effort, nor do I criticise others (ditto). I don’t lack a sense of humour, I am not contemptuous, rather I am compassionate. I am often all that is good. But underneath I am also all that is vile. I accept vileness in others to an extraordinary measure; I understand the why of what others’ condemn because I also know it is within me and I have learned to live with it, love it even.

It’s with strange passivity and dull recognition that I sit here shoulder to shoulder with Anaïs. I don’t know whether it is possible to change myself, or whether I want to. Only live with it, manage it and disguise it in some way so that I don’t harm others simply by being me. I must compensate for my constant introspection–the voice that narrates my life during heartbreak and whispers you must write about this–with deeply controlled intellectual rigour which means yet another mask. I must play nicely with others, without revealing my true monstrous self. That existential voice which arrived unbidden in my childhood to reassure me that there was more to life than this, that this couldn’t be what I was born to, that maybe I was a lost princess kidnapped by evil marauders. That voice still exists, it’s been my friend for almost 40 years, comforting me every time my world has turned to shit.

There were always in me, two women at least, one woman desperate and bewildered, who felt she was drowning and another who would leap into a scene, as upon a stage, conceal her true emotions because they were weaknesses, helplessness, despair, and present to the world only a smile, an eagerness, curiosity, enthusiasm, interest.

To many Anaïs was an inspiration, to others she was a monster. To me she was a person who needed to write in order to live better. Like her I have proved to myself that I can change my story and be cured of my past by writing and reframing it. I am so grateful for it because the alternative was to remain, like Pip and Piggy, lost forever. 

Only in the fever of creation could she recreate her own lost life.