Interview: Leslie Kenton, beautician and health specialist

Best known for her pioneering work in health, beauty and spirituality, Leslie Kenton harboured a dark secret – an incestuous relationship with her famous father. Perhaps even harder to grasp is the fact that she says she will never love anyone more than the man who hurt her so badly

• Writer, broadcaster and activist Kenton today

IT'S a hot July night in Connecticut. An 11-year-old girl kneels on the white tiles of a hotel bathroom, mopping up blood as if her life depended on it. "If I can clean this up," she thinks, "everything will be okay. If I get rid of this blood – my blood – it will be as if nothing happened and this searing pain in my belly will disappear." This little girl is Leslie Kenton. She's bleeding because her father Stanley – known to the rest of the world as the great jazz man S

Attractive and articulate, Leslie Kenton has become famous in her own right, thanks to her work in health, beauty and spirituality. In addition to a string of bestselling books, she conceived the Origins range for Este Lauder, was the first chairperson of the Natural Medicine Society in Britain and consulted with the European Parliament on behalf of the Green Party.

She regards herself as a bringer of light, and it's easy to see why. She really does glow with good health and radiant vitality, even though when we meet in a Russian tea room in Primrose Hill, she's both jet-lagged and recently bereaved. But Kenton is the last person you would pick out of a crowd if you were speculating about which stranger harboured the darkest secrets.

I can't help wondering what critics and readers will make of her book, which challenges us to contemplate horrific events with an open and empathetic mind, one unafraid to examine and embrace the personal demons that drag some of us to hell and back. It starts with the title – Love Affair. Generally, I tell Kenton, these stories bear titles like Mummy, Make Him Stop! "I'm going to call my publisher and have it changed!" she laughs, before adding, "But this isn't a misery memoir. There's an irony to the title. It has to do with the whole theme of the relationship. The best image is that of the double helix, like DNA, one strand of which was forged in terror and fear and rage and guilt, and the other, which was forged in an extraordinary luminosity and a childlike joy in being alive."

Kenton entered the world in June 1941. Her mother, Violet – a Hitchcock blonde devoted to glamour – was alone in the Los Angeles hospital. Her husband of six years, "a 6ft 4in, lanky piano player with size 131/2AAA feet and ambitions to match" – was away rehearsing for a show in Balboa, California.

The early years were spent crisscrossing America, chasing gigs and adventures in equal measure. It sounds glamorous and exciting, but this peripatetic life was peppered with stretches when the toddler was left with her grandmother, known to everyone as Mom. Although Kenton now says that thinking about Mom makes her laugh, she wrote that being in Mom's care taught her "the appropriate relationship to my body was to punish it".

Mom, with her strict rules and regulations, wasn't the oddest or most toxic member of the family: that was Stanley's mother, Stella, whose behaviour was often more ferocious than Stanley's sexual abuse. All part of the family legacy, Kenton explains, for Stella herself was brutalised, and in turn pulled Stanley's strings like a master puppeteer.

• Kenton as a child with her father, Stanley

Kenton has identified this family legacy as "dissociative behaviour", which in the old days, she says, was known as having multiple personalities. "I don't know if I can explain, but you need to understand the nature of identity. The book is about a whole bloodline where this has been carried on. When you are dissociative, your energy field, your psyche, becomes split into shards, like pieces of a puzzle. When you're in one piece you do not know what's going on in another piece. "It tends to come out of a lot of trauma. You find it a lot in Gulf War veterans as well. The double helix, in parts it was luminous – which had nothing to do with the incest, though that became involved with it eventually. Stanley and I adored the same things. He was the person I was closest to in the whole world. But because he was such a damaged human being – and his mother was terribly, terribly damaged – because of that he could never trust anyone."

In person and on the page, she describes a relationship that sounds unhealthy, even without the incest. Catching up after the interview via telephone, she says Stanley's irresponsibility was quite phenomenal, and that he never really grew up. Possessed by self-doubt and a sense of inadequacy, he relied heavily on others both emotionally and practically. His entire life he searched for a "fix", trying everything from Freud to Dianetics. The "fix" he mainly clung to was alcohol.

At one point Stanley told his daughter, "You are like an unbounded person, I feel more myself with you than I do on my own, being myself."

She was equally enthralled. "The interesting thing about a child, particularly if it's a child that happens to love all the stuff that you love, is that you feel safe with them. My father felt safe with me, and this enabled him to be what he was with me. He knew that children are totally accepting of their parents from a very early age."

Yet his behaviour was totally unacceptable. Kenton nods. "It was horrible, let's be clear about it. It split me into shards. You learn that one, you must be wrong or the (incest] wouldn't have happened; two, it must be all right, because he's my father, and three, oh, okay then, I'm not supposed to say anything or remember anything. But this is not a conscious decision."

During that first rape, Kenton came away from her body. Looking down at her 11-year-old self on the bed, she felt indifferent. "Up here there is no sound, no sweat, no pain. Here everything's made of crystal."

Memories of the abuse would come and go, not returning fully until she was an adult. But there were symptoms that something was horribly wrong. She suffered debilitating fevers, and reckons this was her body's way of burning off some of the damage done to her psyche.

Did she never worry about getting pregnant by Stanley? "No, I did not even think about it. When all of that (first] happened, I was really a child, not an adolescent. Two years down the road I suddenly understood that I was a girl and there were boys out there. I was in a different place. But no, it never occurred to me that I could get pregnant.

"The experience of the connection – and I'm not talking about a sexual connection here, but the larger connection – was so all-encompassing. We were only alive when we were together. On his part, I think he saw in me a light that he felt he'd never touched before because he had so much guilt and was so confused and split up inside. I think he had this sense of freedom with me that he could say what he wanted, be what he wanted, and he knew that I would always accept him. This started much younger than the incest."

Still, a little girl is hardly a grown man's peer. Isn't it a little pathetic that he could only connect with someone he could dominate? "My father had very inadequate relationships with women all his life. He was driven by this terrible pain and fear and the need to make a mark in the world. He was also driven by this deep, and this is not the right word, but it'll have to do, romanticism: his best music comes from there.

"He felt very vulnerable when he wrote music. He wasn't in control any more. He was a leader and he was admired, but he couldn't bear criticism of any kind. He'd become like a small child and think, 'Oh my God, they're right. I'm a failure. I've always been a failure.'"

• Kenton with her famous father on her wedding day

Stanley's emotional problems were surely compounded by alcohol. The minute he stepped off stage he started drinking, and almost never stopped on this side of sobriety. That alone would account for blackouts, with their convenient amnesia, making it easier to deny misdeeds to himself and to others. The morning after he raped her, when Kenton asked, "How could you do that to me?" Stanley denied everything, before adding, "Anything you got, you asked for."

Does Kenton not feel that by exploring the context for Stanley's behaviour, she's apologising for and rationalising it? That's definitely not her intention, she asserts. "I don't think I apologise for Stanley whatsoever. My desire was to show that we are all light and dark. The relationship was wondrous and it was horrific. I am providing a template for a new way of looking at the dark and light within each of us. When you understand that love is far stronger than horror and shock, you can forgive yourself for your own inadequacies too."

Back to that context, then. One cause of dissociative behaviour, she believes, is an extreme fear of death. It's unclear, however, whether Stanley had to fight for his life as a child. We're told that horrible things happened, but they're not spelled out. Kenton does talk about Stella's double life: respectable church-goer by day, and by night a denizen of the louche and disreputable strata of society. She came from a family of farmers given to spooky rituals, including animal sacrifices. She spoke to Stanley in a private language and fed him mind-altering plants and drugs. Kenton says she doesn't know all that went on. "I have trouble imagining him having a sexual relationship with his own mother. But she did take him on her lap – he was 6ft 41/2in, for God's sake! And she told Violet she was taking her little boy away from her. It's pretty weird."

If Stella disliked Violet, she despised Kenton. After Kenton overdosed on pills, Stella stepped up her whispering campaign, insisting that she was unhinged and out of control. She sent Kenton to a sanatorium, where she was subjected to electro-shock therapy. It was, she writes, like being "on fire, wiped out, obliterated". She was 13 years old.

All this secret activity went on largely unobserved because Kenton was leading two lives. Stanley and Violet had divorced in 1950, and Violet quickly remarried. Kenton spent summers and holidays with Stanley, who was looked after at different points by both Mom and Stella.

Violet and Kenton never got on particularly well, though they came to appreciate one another when Kenton was pregnant, at 21, with her second child. "My mother wasn't content in her body, though she was very beautiful, strong and healthy. When I became pregnant with Susannah she invited me to stay, and it was a marvellous experience.

"She was deeply unhappy; she should never have been married to my stepfather. We were together for about six or seven months, and my mother just opened her heart to me. She was always asking me to show her things. She was smart and gifted but always felt inadequate. She really gave up her life for Stanley, and when she'd had enough and she fell in love with Uncle Jimmy – it was a sexual thing – she was so happy for a year, and so beautiful."

But Violet was chronically unable to deal with anything "unpleasant". She and Jimmy had a daughter, Christi, in 1953, born with her intestines outside her body. Violet didn't visit the baby during the six weeks she was in hospital, appalled that Christi was less than perfect. When the baby came home, Kenton effectively became her mother.

It sounds as if your parents had you so that you could take care of them, I suggest. Kenton agrees. "That does happen with children sometimes. One of the curses of that is that I'm so bloody responsible that it makes me want to throw up. People never worry about how you are, because you are fine – you're always fine. But actually I'd like someone to worry about me once in a while."

It's plausible that Violet really didn't know about the incest. Much later, Kenton discovered that some of the Kenton Orchestra musicians found her relationship with Stanley a bit "off", but she's certain Violet hadn't a clue.

Yet looking at old movies – part of a vast collection of memorabilia she unearthed while researching this book – she found one taken around her 13th birthday, when Stanley visited Violet and Jimmy's house. It's disturbing, she writes, the way Stanley "behaves as if he doesn't want to take his hands off me. I appear uncertain how to handle his attentions... I wonder that neither Violet nor Jimmy ever noticed that his behaviour towards me verged on the predatory".

Their blindness, whether adopted or genuine, was abetted by Kenton's own ability to dissociate. She writes, "I was forced to hold the secrets so tightly that they separated me from myself. Somewhere deep inside, the part of me which carried memory and pain went silent as death... it had divided itself off so completely... that I didn't even know it was there. Nor did I have any idea then that the fear and rage, the grief and chaos locked inside this mute creature, had begun to live its own life, and that, without warning, it would break through, wiping out any sense I once had that I could rely on myself."

Eventually the incest stopped. Her relationship with Stanley grew strained. He had remarried and had more children, and accused Kenton of vile misdeeds. He rang Violet, insisting that Kenton was a pathological liar. When she visited, he would come into her room at night, weeping, pouring out his insecurities, and the next night he would turn on her in a bellowing rage.

In 1959, when she was an 18-year-old undergraduate at Stanford, Kenton fell pregnant. Stanley was outraged. Abortion was illegal, so he insisted that she either marry or have the baby adopted. She did as her father said and married, but the relationship was doomed.

At one point she fell in love with another man, and confessed this to her father. He reacted "as though it was he I was betraying, not Peter. He accused me of being heartless, of disregarding all he had done for me, of being a 'loose woman' unfit to be his daughter".

Her second child was conceived during a night of passion with an old friend. Stanley called her a two-time loser who would never amount to anything. This marked the beginning of years of estrangement between the two, as well as a severe deterioration in Stanley's health.

Nevertheless, what shines out from every page in her book is the intensity of Kenton's bond with this man. Some may be startled to read the dedication: "For Stanley, with all my love." Kenton has worked on her own and with therapists to process her experiences. She confronted Stanley, told her mother, her lovers and her children. The very last time she saw her father, in 1979, he was a fortnight from death. Her parting words were, "I love you more than anyone in the world. I guess I always will."

Some years earlier, over dinner in Paris – she was by then re-married, and mother to three of her four children – she found herself thinking that there, in the seat opposite, was a man who was utterly obsessed by her. But it was Stanley. In that moment, she recalled both joyous laughter and chasms of grief, and felt that their relationship existed beyond ordinary rules and regulations.

Bemoaning his failings, Stanley said, "I can draw the best from other men, but I can't get anything from myself. It's like trying to squeeze blood from a stone."

Her reaction? "I am silent, overflowing with love for him."

This is the sort of emotion that may be difficult for some readers to understand, I reiterate. The nearest analogy I can draw is to families who find it within themselves to forgive their loved ones' murderers. Except that Kenton has already told me, half in jest, that she doesn't believe in forgiveness – and never has. Years of introspection have taught her, she says, "We are each of us perpetrator and victim, the rapist and the raped, the torturer and the tortured".

She calls Love Affair the bridge between the work she has done to date and the work she will do in the future, and is currently writing a book about creativity. "Once one comes to a genuine acceptance of their core being, they can connect with their creativity, which is more essentially human than anything else.

"When you see the truth of what it is to be human, and how f***ing hard it is to be human, and the courage that it takes, you see that, underneath, we're all incredibly luminous."

Love Affair is out now (Vermillion, 12.99)

This article was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on 21 February 2010