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Getting it white

Popular in the 1980s, recovered memory syndrome is now viewed with considerable scepticism, but that hasn't deterred a self-help author, now a South Island resident, from penning a book about what she remembers of her father's incest.

Leslie Kenton answers the door to the inner sanctum of her high-walled Governors Bay home dressed in white. Behind her in a white kitchen her youngest son, Aaron, in white shirt and trousers, has just finished making tea. White tea, naturally.

White also features symbolically on the cover of Kenton's latest book, Love Affair, which shows a young girl wearing a white dress, her knees slightly parted as she holds an innocent white daisy between her legs.

Although she insists the preference for the colour of purity is of no significance, Kenton, in her current website broadcast promoting a permanent weight-loss programme, wears a white Star Trek-like top that looks like Karen Walker's take on something a Heaven's Gate member might wear.

If you look back, Kenton has favoured the trademark white since the former Harpers & Queen writer became a cele­brated raw foodist after publishing Raw Energy: Eat Your Way to Radiant Health and The Joy of Beauty in the 80s. I read those books, slavishly followed their diets and advice for a short, weak while, and now decades later feel vaguely overawed. For starters, I feel conspicuously at odds with the colour theming - although I have complied with a request to leave my black boots outside.

Comfortable lounge chairs are arranged in a semi-circle as if therapy sessions have taken place, but Kenton eschews the chairs for the carpeted floor. Conducting the interview on the floor has the effect of diffusing journalistic cynicism and making me feel like a small girl who has been invited for a play date by an older, wiser child.

The veteran health, beauty and spirituality writer of more than 30 self-help books on female concerns from cellulite to menopause has a collection of vitamin pills in front of her. The 68-going-on-38 beauty strikes a series of quasi yoga poses as she talks about Love Affair, her memoir about her incestuous relationship with her famous father.

According to the memoir, jazz musician Stan Kenton was a big-noting band leader who molested his daughter when they shared a bed while touring the US in the 1950s, when she was aged between 10 and 13.

Although their unnaturally close bond raised eyebrows among his inner circle of band members, the incest went unchecked. But not unnoticed, as Kenton is careful to back up her claims with verification by Audree Coke Kenton, who was affiliated with the band at the time and became Stan's last wife.

To say Kenton had an unconventional childhood is a massive understatement, even by Mommie Dearest standards. Her mother, Violet, was an icy Grace Kelly blonde (in family photographs Leslie looks like a Violet mini me) who was obsessed with her own beauty and devoted what talents she had to her husband's career. Violet lacked the know-how and inclination to look after Leslie, so handed over the lioness' share of her care to her mother, "Mom". One day when Violet caught her mom breastfeeding Leslie, she was horrified but not horrified enough to take over her daughter's care.

However, Kenton's memories of her grandmother are fond: "In her own way she loved me and knew I had her number", even though "Mom" dallied with oddball fringe movements and people, entertaining Scientology founder Ron L Hubbard at Hollyridge, the Kentons' Hollywood Hills home.

In the early years when Stan and Violet weren't touring, the family lived in Mom's garage. As Leslie got older, she joined her parents on the road for long stints during which she would entertain and educate herself with comics and books in the back of a Buick; dine on junk food at truck stops; and meet famous people such as Ronald Reagan and Nat King Cole.

Eventually Violet grew tired of touring and, desirous of a stable home and a better sex life (Stan had hang-ups), divorced Stan. Leslie and Stan were shattered, but Leslie took his side and the father-daughter relationship intensified as a result of his lengthy almost-nightly phone calls from the road.

One night, post-concert in Connecticut, Stan had one too many of the whiskies his watchful daughter used to water down. As Leslie piercingly remembers it, she woke to her father on top of her and, "Like the shell of an oyster I was prized open." The next morning Stan denied the rape took place, his abject denial apparently symptomatic of a dissociative identity disorder, a condition where the sufferer, due to previous trauma, breaks off into several different identities, or "shards of a mirror", as Kenton describes it. She believes his trauma was the result of a twisted upbringing by his mother, Stella, a woman he described as a witch and from whom Leslie recoiled.

"I used to say that Stella could walk on puppies and feel no remorse."

According to one of the many disturbing accounts in a memoir that travels to the sharper edge of weird, Stella lent her granddaughter out to fringe theatre people who took advantage of her until she blacked out. The family had a history of strange rituals, manipulation and neglect.

During such events Leslie distinctly remembers hearing an inner voice telling her: "No matter what they do, you will never be harmed, you will never be like them."

As Leslie matured, her father, fearful his increasingly precocious daughter would reveal their incestuous past, importuned Violet to rein in the teenager. He need not have worried. Leslie's traumatised brain had apparently wiped the incest from her memory.

Violet was unaware that Stella had committed her granddaughter to a shadowy mental institution where she was, according to the book, subjected to electroconvulsive therapy to obliterate any troubling memories. This followed a suicide attempt.

It wasn't until Leslie had had her second child, at age 21, that she, during a medically supervised course of LSD treatments, says she recovered the memories of incest and abuse.

Love Affair is a strange amalgamation of recovered memory syndrome, fashionable in the 90s and now treated with considerable scepticism, with what can only be seen as a radical changed game plan on how to survive incest with your love for the offending parent still intact. What sets this autobiography apart from other get-it-off-your-chest incest confessions is Kenton's apparent lack of bitterness toward a father to whom she dedicates the book with a brazen "For Stanley, with all my love".

Her loyalty is difficult to understand, as Stan comes across as an alcoholic, self-pitying, delusional character suffering at one point from a Ron L Hubbard-inspired delusion that he was Christ. When I put it to the author that her parents, now dead, emerge from her pages as vain and self-absorbed, pallid people, she says that was not her intention.

Kenton defends her father with a setpiece ramble that appears in other interviews: "We [Stan and I] had so much in common. When the wind blew, when it rained and snowed, we went outside and stood in it and laughed. We played music at such a volume you'd never want to be in the house. We just did things, like Stanley suddenly decided to build a retaining wall. He didn't know how to but we just did it."

In Love Affair Kenton goes so far as to compare the passionate Stan/Leslie relationship to Cathy and Heathcliff and includes the passage from Wuthering Heights where Cathy explains to Nelly the nature of her ties: "My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath ... [continuing on until the emphatic] ... I AM Heathcliff."

Her father, Kenton insists, was blessed with charismatic vitality, and when I ask if she has inherited that, she looks heavenward to the mezzanine and yells out to a concealed presence: "Aaron, would you say I have a lot of vitality?"

Her son, 28, involved with his mother on a number of projects, obliges by replying in the affirmative.

A bond between two vitality-blessed people, she preaches, is a "gift from the Gods", something she did not experience in her relationships with any of the four different fathers of her children, but one that has resurfaced with one particular child. No need to guess which one.

At pains to emphasise that she is disgusted by and in no way condones incest, Kenton says she wanted to write the book about Stanley to show the light and darkness in each of us. It's a noble intention, but even the book's title leaves her wide open to being misinterpreted. She seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to reconcile Bad Dad with Good Dad, but it doesn't matter how much white and self-helpery she throws at it, it's still a bad business that she seems to have survived by becoming a New Age dabbler and healer.

It's no surprise Kenton believes she has been here before. "God, it sounds so naive it's embarrassing, but I thought, 'Great, I'm going to come here to bring light into the darkness', and thought I could absurdly fly the flag, when all of a sudden I found myself in the poisoned womb of a woman who didn't eat for nine months and smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol."

Laughing as she says this, the teacher of Shamanic studies believes we derive from "spirit that is vast", that we have come here to play some sort of game. "And the game we love playing the most is bringing light into darkness, for the light longs for the depth of the soul of the darkness, and the darkness aches for the light to be seen for what it is, because it has many gifts to be given up." Some people can be their own worst enemies.

Unconcerned that some might think there is a spark of lunacy, Kenton says she decided to write the memoir after Dame Gail Rebuck, CEO and chairwoman of Random House, encouraged her to, on the premise it would knit her past work with what's to come after. After predicting Love Affair'scontent would make her tabloid fodder, Kenton is both surprised and delighted that most of the media have "kind of got it".

So, what's a charming, self-made, white New Age witch doing in a Governors Bay house that feels like a hovercraft parked at the end of Lyttelton Harbour? Apparently there's something about the South Island, apart from its uncrowdedness and beaches, that has a "smell" that told her this is the right place to be.

"There is a possibility that out of New Zealand, which is such a young place geologically and politically, we are able to give birth to something that is totally transformative and new."

After many visits here to hold lectures and workshops, she suggested her oldest son immigrate, which he did immediately, and the other children obligingly followed, giving her the family centre of gravity required by New Zealand Immigration to grant her residency. While waiting for that, Kenton bided her time in a campervan in Blenheim Rd till discovering the Governors Bay property, which wasn't on the market. Aaron, whom she credits with having great taste, among a myriad of talents, rated it the best house he'd ever seen.

It is hard to understand why Kenton wrote the new book, a painful exercise during which she broke her back and had to Greta-Garbo herself away for four years. Love Affair tapers off when Leslie is in her mid-twenties and she confronts her father about the incest after a long and hurt hiatus. He apologises to her.

When I ask how she sees herself, she says she doesn't really "see" herself ­but puts her hand up to being a bona-fide "passionate human being" who believes that by writing Love Affair she has ­created a map for human development, a way to navigate out of victimhood into the light to find a transformation of the soul.

"When we find something for ourselves that has meaning, it is in our nature to share it with others. It isn't a virtue, it's just the way it is."

At the end of the three-hour interview I am left feeling all the D words - dazed, dazzled, drained, disoriented. It's as if I've had a course of spiritual ECT. Despite everything that has happened to her, Kenton doesn't show the scarred surfaces of a survivor but emits the calm of a guru. Maybe the wearing of that very whitest of hats, of rising above the terrestrial mess of her troubled past, is her way of coping - and making a living out of it.