R.I.P. Joan Didion

I can’t believe it. Sometimes it’s hard for me to find the words.

It’s amazing that the two chronicler-poets of California – very different writers with very different points of view about their home state would die the same week. Didion came from pioneer stock, the original white settlers, Donner Party types. She hailed from conservative Sacramento. Babitz hailed from Jewish stock, growing up in Hollywood among artists and studio musicians, a rebellious child of the 1950s and 60s, drawn to surfers and gearheads and bad girls and musicians. Both writers understood California. Both celebrated it. But Didion’s California has almost nothing in common with Babitz’s California, and vice versa. But the two “go” together. Comparing/contrasting Didion and Babitz is not sexist, as I’ve seen claimed. Comparing/contrasting them is comparing/contrasting two giants operating in one subject matter.

Someone said that Didion’s (seemingly) simple sentences are like a perfect puzzle. If you remove one line from a paragraph, everything falls apart. Her writing is that well-constructed. She was a notoriously painstaking self-editor. She would work for months on a single paragraph.

My friend Rebecca introduced me to Joan Didion. We were working at this crazy startup together, sitting side by side at a long table, lined with computer monitors. I was new(ish) to New York, only in the city two years. She and I were somehow discussing our experiences of New York, and how vivid it was. The wine bars we loved, the dance nights we loved, the brunch places we frequented … we both came from elsewhere (although both New Englanders). She asked me if I had read “Goodbye to All That”, by Joan Didion. I said no. The next day, she brought me a Xeroxed copy. I read it in one sitting, then and there. It’s one of those essays that enters into your own personal experience, explaining inchoate sensations to yourself, an essay which also changes its shape as you gain other experiences. I could not believe how perfectly she described New York, and the vivid impressions of my first years there. But there was uneasiness in my response too. Because Didion’s essay was “goodbye to all that”, it was an intimation of the future, of times changing, of the ephemeral nature of youth, and there is a point where you realize your youth is over. I didn’t feel young then, but I was young. Unlike Didion, I would stay in New York. But she was right. There was a point when it all ended. And still I stayed on.

One of the fascinating parts of this Rebecca backstory is that Allison (whom I didn’t know at the time) introduced Rebecca to Joan Didion. I met Allison through Rebecca shortly after this. Allison is now one of the most important friends in my life. We were close almost immediately. In fact, the very first post written on this here blog was written from Allison’s apartment and described the day we just had – which, more irony, was a very New York kind of day, the kind of day Didion described so memorably in “Goodbye to All That.” It wasn’t until a couple years later that we put all this together: Rebecca passed Joan Didion on to me, and she got it from Allison. It was like Allison and I were connected by Didion before we even met. Allison grew up in Malibu. Didion’s essays about Malibu speak so strongly to Allison.

A couple years ago, Christian Lorentzen wrote a piece about her political novels, and her political writing, in three of her astonishing novels: A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, and The Last Thing She Wanted. These complicated novels are in the process of being erased, due to the Oprahfication of her legacy brought on by the masses of readers who only came to her through her grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. The Year of Magical Thinking is a wonderful and important book, addressing the unreality and hallucinatory nature of grief. But if that’s all you read of her, it would give you the impression that Didion was a “personal essayist” and “memoirist” primarily. Those late-comer readers would be taken aback by her novels, by her political writing (she went on the campaign trail numerous times). Her novels capture the paranoid cynical 1970s, the shady dealings of the CIA’s involvement in Third World political eruptions, eruptions and civil wars and assassinations financed by the United States. Joan Didion did write personal essays – the aforementioned “Goodbye to All That” a famous example – but they were a small portion of what she wrote about. She wrote about dams, war, freeways, nuclear power, Nancy Reagan, California history, crime, and politics. Her main subject was California. Magical Thinking was an anomaly. In Lorentzen’s very important piece, he expressed concern about this erasure, concerns I share.

This famous picture shows Joan Didion standing in Golden Gate Park in 1967, while she was there trying to figure out *what was really going on* with all the “hippies” flocking to San Francisco. The essays she wrote about this time – mainly “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album” – are masterpieces. Look at the contrast. She’s wearing white tights. She does not blend in.

In 1967, Didion wrote a great essay about Howard Hughes. It’s important to see here, in the following excerpt, another version of her famous quote “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”, from the famous essay “The White Album”. People have interpreted that quote as “all our stories matter”, thereby totally missing the point, sidestepping it, AVOIDING it. Didion was much chillier than nursery school-level sentiments. She had her romanticisms, but her vision was cold and clear. “Stories” in her lexicon meant fantasy/narrative, often indistinguishable from lies and false narratives, or at least fantasy erected to stave OFF reality. Dangerous, in other words. Politically dangerous. She saw it in operation in late-60s Haight-Ashbury. Didion doesn’t condemn our story-generating impulses. Condemnation was not her style. Instead, she was interested in what the stories we tell reveal about ourselves. This comes into play in her essay about Howard Hughes.

By July of 1967 Howard Hughes is the largest single landholder in Clark County, Nevada. “Howard likes Las Vegas,” an acquaintance of Hughes’s once explained, “because he likes to be able to find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich.” Why do we like those stories so? Why do we tell them over and over? Why have we made a folk hero of a man who is the antithesis of all our official heroes, a haunted millionaire out of the West, trailing a legend of desperation and power and white sneakers? But then we have always done that. Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Titanic: how the mighty are fallen. Charles Lindbergh, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe: the beautiful and damned. And Howard Hughes. That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of power and money in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.

“The stories we tell” is also in operation in one of my favorite pieces Didion wrote, “Girl of the Golden West”, about Patricia Hearst. The Hearst story includes the formation of California, and how this history shapes California’s citizens (whether they are aware of it or not), and how big events – like 60s Haight-Ashbury, like student protests in the late 1960s, like the Cotton Club murder, like the Manson murders, like the creation of the freeway system and/or the dam system in Californial, like the military-industrial engine of California’s economy , etc. illuminate what is really going on in California. Didion was interested in the narrative beneath the narrative. As I mentioned, way too often when people quote Didion’s “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” they betray their misunderstanding. People take LA freeways for granted. Didion did not and excavated their history and functionality and what all this revealed about the character of California. Geography determines character. Same with water distribution. And Patricia Hearst’s story was often understood in terms of the irrational bent of radical politics at the time. The madness of it. This is not a misreading.

But Didion saw Hearst’s story primarily as a story of “the Golden West”, a California story, in other words. It could only have happened in California, populated as it was by descendants of pioneering types (Didion’s ancestors), with backstories of Donner Party horrors, everyone driven by escapist tendencies and a longing vanish into a future disconnected from the past.

The Patty Hearst article shows Didion’s absolute primacy in this arena. She was obsessed not with the subject itself but with figuring out what was REALLY going on.

It was a family in which the romantic impulse would seem to have dimmed. Patricia Campbell Hearst told us that she “grew up in an atmosphere of clear blue skies, bright sunshine, rambling open spaces, long green lawns, large comfortable houses, country clubs with swimming pools and tennis courts and riding horses”. At the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Menlo Park she told a nun to “go to hell”, and thought herself “quite courageous, although very stupid”. At Santa Catalina in Monterey she and Patricia Tobin, whose family founded one of the banks the SLA would later rob, skipped Benediction, and received “a load of demerits”. Her father taught her to shoot, duck hunting. Her mother did not allow her to wear jeans into San Francisco. These were inheritors who tended to keep their names out of the paper, to exhibit not much interest in the world at large (“Who the hell is this guy again?” Randolph Hearst asked Steven Weed when the latter suggested trying to approach the SLA through Regis Debray, and then, when told, said, “We need a goddamn South American revolutionary mixed up in this thing like a hole in the head”), and to regard most forms of distinction with the reflexive distrust of the country club.

Yet if the Hearsts were no longer a particularly arresting California family, they remained embedded in the symbolic content of the place, and for a Hearst to be kidnapped from Berkeley, the very citadel of Phoebe Hearst’s aspiration, was California as opera. “My thoughts at this time were focused on the single issue of survival,” the heiress to Wyntoon and San Simeon told us about the fifty-seven days she spent in the closet. “Concerns over love and marriage, family life, friends, human relationships, my whole previous life, had really become, in SLA terms, bourgeois luxuries.”

This abrupt sloughing of the past has, to the California ear, a distant echo, and the echo is of emigrant diaries. “Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can,” one of the surviving children of the Donner Party concluded her account of that crossing. “Don’t worry about it,” the author of Every Secret Thing reported having told herself in the closet after her first sexual encounter with a member of the SLA. “Don’t examine your feelings. Never examine your feelings – they’re no help at all.” At the time Patricia Campbell Hearst was on trial in San Francisco, a number of psychiatrists were brought in to try to plumb what seemed to some an unsoundable depth in the narrative, that moment at which the victim binds over her fate to her captors. “She experienced what I call the death anxiety and the breaking point,” Robert Jay Lifton, who was one of those psychiatrists, said. “Her external points of reference for maintenance of her personality had disappeared,” Louis Jolyon West, another of the psychiatrists, said. Those were two ways of looking at it, and an other was that Patricia Campbell Hearst had cut her losses and headed west, as her great-grandfather had before her.

Nobody did it better.

To say I will miss her doesn’t even begin to approach how I feel right now.

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3 Responses to R.I.P. Joan Didion

  1. John Vail says:

    A very insightful tribute. I came to Didion through her political novels, which I admired but never quite loved, and from there to her essays which always seemed miraculously constructed. The piece on the Central Park 5, or 9/11, and Goodbye to all That: what a range and what a writer.

    • sheila says:

      // The piece on the Central Park 5 //

      One of her masterpieces – and she was way way early on public criticism of what was going on. She saw through it all – not to mention the causes (influx of Yuppies, etc.)

      Her range really was something.

  2. Barb says:

    Thank you for this piece.

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