'My father's relationship with me ultimately destroyed him': Writer Leslie Kenton reveals the secret incest she endured
31st January 2010
In her new memoir, beauty guru Leslie Kenton reveals for the first time that she was raped aged 11 by her own father, and describes the secret incest that lasted until she was 13. Now, more than three decades after his death, she tells Louette Harding why she remembers him with sadness - and love
Leslie today. Despite her traumatic childhood, she says: 'I ended up with so much beauty and so much life'
It was June, four years ago, when Leslie Kenton first contemplated writing about her childhood. ‘My friend Gail Rebuck – who was my first editor and is now the chairman of Random House – she told me, “You need to write a memoir.” I said, “Gail, I can’t. No one would believe it, and the tabloids would go wild.” And Gail said, “Who cares? This book will be the bridge between what you have done before and the work you will do afterwards.”’
For decades, there have been hints that the woman known as the high priestess of the real beauty movement – she advocated high-raw, high-vegetable diets and detoxifying way back in the 70s, created the Origins range and imported the skincare tablet Imedeen to Britain – had built her luminous present from a murkier past.
‘I was not enamoured of the world I grew up in,’ she told an interviewer in 1993 when asked about her father, the American jazz band leader Stan Kenton, and her mother Violet. ‘I felt alienated.’ Two years later, she revealed a childhood suicide attempt. Now we learn in Love Affair the full extent of the horrors and the secret incest at its heart.
This dignified book took her years to write. ‘It ripped me to shreds,’ she says. While working on it, she retreated to her rambling house perched atop an extinct volcano on New Zealand’s South Island. Sipping tea in her library, she presents a picture of calm, her two cats leaping balletically from the shelves behind her. She also maintains a flat in Primrose Hill, London, which she bought after she left America in the 60s and materialised among us like a honey-hazed vision.
Balancing her job as health and beauty editor of Harpers & Queen with three – later four – children, her rangy beauty was the best advertisement for her own lifestyle. Today, at 68, her energy is undimmed. ‘I get up in the morning and my first thought is, “It’s a new day! What am I going to do?”’
Love Affair is dedicated to her father – ‘For Stanley, with all my love’ – a tribute as startling as it is sincere. For her first three years, Leslie hardly knew her parents. They farmed her out to her maternal grandmother who raised her with slap-happy discipline while Stanley toured with his dance band across America. After her parents reclaimed her, she joined them on the road, shuttling from the back seat of their Buick into smoky dance halls, only intermittently attending school.
In the end, the beautiful Violet tired of this circus and exchanged her dark, charismatic husband for a stolid mark two, taking her daughter to live in suburban California. Leslie was furious. ‘Stanley and I would get excited about the same things,’ she says of their passion for jazz and Stravinsky. They shared a playful sense of humour. ‘He was very childlike, and that was the best part of my father. It created a deep bond. I think I was the only person on earth he felt he could be himself with. He would ring me in the middle of the night in a state and I would do everything I could to try to reassure him.’
‘I think I was the only person he felt he could be himself with’
During the summer of 1952, she met him on tour, sharing his hotel room, sleeping back to back. He was drinking heavily while she, though aged only ten, was trying to police him, this six-foot four-inch man. He was, in many ways, treating her as a substitute for Violet. One night the final boundary was crossed and he raped his daughter. It was the beginning of an incestuous relationship that lasted until she was 13.
During visits, the days were as sunny as ever. They shared a unique exhilaration when together. Some nights he left her alone. ‘I believe he tried his best to resist touching me. Then, drowning in a sea of alcohol, he would come to my bed, only to deny the next morning that he’d been there.’ This was not cynical. Stanley had become so skilled in keeping secrets he could hide his guiltiest one even from himself. ‘He was born into guilt. As a child he was taught by his mother, “There’s something wrong with you, Stanley.”’ From talking to relatives, Leslie has learnt of a highly dysfunctional family with a history of manipulation, neglect and bizarre cult-like rituals.
‘I do not know how to express the damage that a family like this does. This is a disease that’s passed on. Some people survive it and others are deeply damaged.’ Leslie thinks Stanley experienced a condition known as dissociative identity disorder, involving selective amnesia, which she also developed as she blocked out the incest.
Her body, though, provided mute testimony. She suffered intense fevers and pains. ‘I believe my body was processing a lot of trauma and getting it out. I had the same recurring dream where I was being chased across rooftops and I was terrified, and I looked behind only to see myself come up over the side of the building.’ She ripped the flesh from the soles of her feet, tore at one of her nails. ‘There was no way
I could stop doing that.’
Band members, she has since learnt, thought the father-daughter relationship unnatural. ‘My mother definitely did not want to notice because she only wanted to see what she considered beautiful. She loved Stanley all her life. She married the wrong man [second time around] and felt trapped.’
Years later, though, when an adult Leslie told Violet what had happened, ‘she was horrified but not surprised. The moment
I told her, everything came together for her. She remembered him ringing to tell her I’d become a pathological liar.’ Leslie was – and remains today – truthful to the point of bluntness. Stanley’s accusation pointed to his desperation.
‘Despite the disassociation, he was [unconsciously] terrified of someone finding out,’ Leslie reasons. He raged and screamed at his daughter. ‘One night he shook me to the point where it didn’t matter to me if he killed me. Something broke in me and my relationship with him broke. Basically, I said, deep inside, “I don’t belong to you any more. Never again, will I let you in in that way.” It was a turning point in my life.’
Although the incest ended, Leslie was traumatised. She took an overdose of Stanley’s uppers and downers and ended up in hospital, having her stomach pumped.
Aged 17, when she enrolled at Stanford University, she remained suicidal. ‘I was in survival [mode] – terrible anxiety, terrible – and fear. And the fear was like – of what?’ She remembered nothing. ‘I had my first child when I was 18 and that saved my life.’
Her four children – Branton, 50, an entrepreneur; Susannah, 46, an actress and writer; Jesse, 44, a plastic surgeon; and Aaron, 28, a filmmaker – are from four different relationships. This once seemed the badge of a free spirit, a woman thumbing her nose at convention. ‘It was hard – you raise four kids on your own and earn all the money to support them – and yet it grounded me.’
Today, she harbours regrets about marrying twice (she did not love either husband, at least not in any wifely sense) but says of ex-lovers and male friends, ‘I’ve been very fortunate because the men in my life have been really valuable to me.’ Of one typical relationship, she explains, ‘I could ring him in the middle of the night and say, “I’m in trouble. I don’t know what it is.” He would listen and I would find my way out of chaos. But that [need to talk] hasn’t happened recently.’
London psychiatrist Joyce Martin, at the time one of a handful of doctors licensed to
use small doses of LSD to rediscover repressed memories, played a crucial role. During the course of treatment in 1967, Leslie experienced searing pain. Two sessions later, she recalled the first rape. It would be years before all the memories gradually resurfaced, including the weird role of Stella, Stanley’s mother, in two shady drugged rituals. Leslie also recalled Stella incarcerating her, aged 13, in a sanatorium for brutal ECT treatment to further ‘fry’ her memories. She has been able to verify some details by speaking to others, including the family friends who cared for her in her fragile state afterwards. Leslie confronted Stanley in 1972 when he visited London to record a show for the BBC.
‘I was a little scared of him. But do you know what? He knew! He knew something was
going to happen. I said, “I’ve discovered what happened between us,” and he went as white as a sheet. He was a big man and he physically crumpled.’ The next day, he told her, ‘All I can say is that I’m so sorry. At that part of my life,
I didn’t know what was going on.’
‘And that,’ comments his daughter, with wry humour rather than bitterness, ‘was a little inaccurate. For a lot of his life he didn’t know what was going on.’
Drinking and smoking heavily, suffering from chronic ill health, Stanley died in 1979. He had married twice more, to a woman much younger than himself whom he physically abused, and finally to an old friend. Leslie saw him two weeks before his death. ‘He’d been drinking cheap wine and was in his boxer shorts and looked
like a bum.’ She told him she loved him more than anyone in the world. ‘I needed him to realise that I loved him no matter what he did. And I do love him, very much. That doesn’t mean in any way that I would like to go back and repeat what happened.
‘There’s no question in my mind that what ultimately destroyed my father was his relationship with me. He was horrified by what he had done, yet he could never really face it. He was always so insecure and deeply unhappy that he never composed the music he wanted to create. I don’t think I can take any credit for being benevolent. I’ve been through periods when I’ve hated him and there were periods when he hated me. When I was seeing Dr Martin I would drive back home after a session and I would be fearful that my father was in the back seat of the car: “Oh my God! He’s there!” I was programmed that if I told anyone I would self-destruct.’ How does she think of him today? ‘With sadness… He was so tortured and it was not necessary because my life was good.’
Unpredictable, occasionally infuriating, endlessly curious, Leslie is now working on a book about creativity, which prompts her to explain her views on the unconscious before veering off on to the subject of shamanism, in which she once trained. But there’s a singleness of purpose to these apparently esoteric interests and, indeed, to her life’s work.
‘We all carry a lot of false beliefs about ourselves. You don’t have to be raped and have your brain fried to have traumas. If you dare to bring light into your darkness, your own unconsciousness, those things lift off, in the same way that if the body is toxic physically and you do a cleansing diet, the stuff just lifts off. My father never had that opportunity. If you can only look at the baggage you carry and not identify with it, recognise that the essence of who you are is far deeper and richer!’ A lot of her shamanic practice seems to be aimed at bringing self-acceptance to her father, mother and other relatives beyond the grave.
I mention to Leslie that at no point in the book does she use the word ‘abuse’, which is the accepted terminology for what happened, electing instead to use ‘incest’. She is surprised. ‘I had no idea. It was certainly not a conscious decision. My sense is, the way people are trapped by their family, their upbringing, their genetic inheritance…honest to God, the suffering I saw in my family, in Stanley, in Stella who lived in such darkness, it’s hardly appropriate to call me abused. I ended up with so much beauty and so much life.’
Is the choice of words to prevent victimhood? ‘I think I’ve experienced myself as a victim at times. I think we all do. I hate it when I feel like that. It’s like a child that feels sorry for itself.’
She is often dubbed ‘new age’, but bats that one back vehemently. ‘There are a lot of people who want to become “spiritual”, which I have a little bit of – but I hate new-agey stuff. They want everything to be beautiful. Well, I’m sorry, life feeds on life and there’s a horror involved in that, and to not pay attention to that is just to be naive.’
Then she adds (probably relishing the paradox), ‘It is my sense very strongly that
each one of us chooses the life we come into. I definitely chose my parents, and I would not change that for the world. Both of them were such unique, interesting creatures and it was bloody, and also exciting. This is going to sound even weirder: I’m fortunate to have had the experience I had with my father. Do you know the children’s book called Ferdinand The Bull? All he did was sit in the field and smell the flowers. I’ve often thought that had I not had heavy challenges, I would be Ferdinand. All of life’s experience defines us. It gives us what our real values are.’
AN EXTRACT FROM LOVE AFFAIR
It was Violet who eventually gave me the news of their break-up. It was early morning. Stanley had gone to a rehearsal. She and I were alone. I remember everything about that morning: the smell of her perfume (it was called Tabu), the way the sun pours through the french doors of the dining room… I’m piling a mountain of white sugar on half a grapefruit. Sugar crystals stick to the silver spoon. They tickle my tongue as I lick them off – something I am normally forbidden to do. I find it strange that my mother doesn’t tell me off for doing this.
‘I have something to tell you, Leslie.’
I hardly hear her.
‘Leslie, we’re leaving Hollyridge [their home in Hollywood]. We are going to live with Uncle Jimmy.’
‘No! What about Stanley?’ I ask.
‘We’re not going to live with him any more.’
My own tears flood my face, my neck, my blouse… I throw my spoon on the table. ‘I’m not going. I’m not, I’m not!’
From that day on, I often looked upon Violet as though she were some kind of monster. It had to be her fault. To my young mind, she had treated Stanley horribly. It was obvious how much he needed her. In spite of his bravado and his big feet, anyone could see he was not as much like Superman as he pretended to be.
Thus did my father become the ‘innocent’ one – the ‘wounded’ one – the victim of a callous woman who had torn us asunder. The morning Violet and I climbed into her car to leave, I made a dangerous vow: ‘Stanley, somehow, somewhere, some way,
I’ll do my best to make it up to you.’