The Books: Where I Was From, by Joan Didion

Still on the essays shelf. Where I Was From by Joan Didion, is not a book of essays, but, like her books Miami and Salvador, a book about a place, and in this case it is California, her home state, “where I was from”. I am struck by the fact that the title is in the past tense. Interesting. Joan Didion was born in California, went to college in California, then got a job at Vogue after college and moved to New York. She lived there for ten years (described so memorably and hauntingly in her essay “Goodbye to All That”) before getting married and moving back to California, where she stayed for the next couple of decades. She and her husband and their daughter Quintana lived in Malibu, mainly, and she wrote screenplays, essays, novels. She and her husband moved back to New York, and so there was always a tension, for Didion, between the coasts. New York had, in some respects, set her free. It’s the kind of city that can do that. It’s not just a city, it’s a symbol. But her mind was always drawn back to California, and in many ways (even though California and New York are part of the same country), she had an exile’s love for her homeland. James Joyce never lived in Ireland after de-camping to Europe with Nora Barnicle in his early 20s, but all he ever wrote about was Ireland. Often it is the exile that can see things with clarity. Those who live there sometimes can’t see the big picture. Didion treats California like that, and California is one of her primary topics. Certainly her novel Play It As It Lays is a great and bleak California novel. The book would not work separated from its environment of deserts, freeways, and Hollywood. When she wrote about a murder trial, it became a story of the San Bernardino Valley. She writes a lot about Sacramento, her home town. One of my favorite Didion essays is about the freeway system in Los Angeles. Her ongoing obsession with water management obviously has deep roots in her childhood in a desert state. She understood the Reagans as a purely Californian phenomenon. They were not a Washington couple, they were a California couple, and a specific kind of California couple: the studio system movie industry couple, NOT the country-club Sacramento California couple. Patricia Hearst can only be understood as the quintessential California story. Then, of course, she and her husband were writers in Hollywood, which opens up a whole other area of California life to her eyes, and what’s interesting about her essay about the writer’s strike is her speculation on geographical reasons for the divide in Hollywood, a detail that only a local would even perceive. One of her best essays is about the Cotton Club preliminary hearing. She is tireless when it comes to California. It obsesses her.

Clearly it was just a matter of time before Didion wrote an entire book about California.

There are some memoir aspects to Where I Was From, her childhood in Sacramento, but the memoir aspect is always there as an opportunity to expand out into contemplations on the state as a whole. She wonders why certain things were the way they were (the decorations, the lighting in the homes, the pottery): what was it about California that made certain things a popular aesthetic? (Granted, Didion is writing from a particular class, something her critics often throw in her face, which I find baffling. Why should she try to write from a class that is not her own? Why is it her fault that she grew up a certain way? We should dismiss her voice because of it? That’s ridiculous.) She goes into the history of certain regions, the major players, the pioneer spirit (the people who actually made it to California had to be tough).

The majority of the book, actually, is taken up with an investigation into the situation in Lakewood, California, when the “Spur Posse” story broke. Anyone remember that awful story? A bunch of feral teenage boys terrorized their community, especially the young girls? I remember it dominating the news, as much as it could in those days, and it was one of those stories that tapped into an overall anxiety about the youth of today, and what is wrong with these kids, and what is wrong with us? If you do a little research on these kids, you will see that all of them came to tremendously bad ends, which is interesting. The signs were there when they were teenagers, sorry to say. These were bad kids. But it was treated at the time similarly to the Columbine shootings: this was a nice community, look at the nice houses and picket fences, how could these kids come out of THIS environment (which is a tremendously stupid analysis, but clearly we are attached to it since we keep doing it when horrible things happen). But Didion deconstructs the Spur Posse in a way that was, for me anyway, totally illuminating. She looks at it as a local. The rest of the country had an image of Lakewood as this idyllic suburb. That was how the press spun it. Didion knew better. Lakewood’s reason for existence was the giant defense contracts that caused a proliferation of military bases and military compounds all over California (she knows of what she speaks: her father managed some of those contracts). In many ways, the “creation” of California suburbia was actually more along the lines of the old mill towns on the East Coast (I grew up in one of them), towns that erupted around factories, towns with big rambling houses that used to be boarding houses for all of the workers, clustered around the factory. Lakewood was NOT a “Pleasantville” suburb town, and therein lies the main difference, and an element that the press entirely missed in covering the story. This comes close to talking about class, which is a big no-no in American cultural life, but Didion is brave enough to go to the heart of it. The people who lived in Lakewood all were employed by the military, and worked in the military factories, making jets, etc. At the time, many of these military operations were on the verge of shutting down, the defense contracts running out. So there was a great deal of anxiety in places like Lakewood, whose only reason to exist was to be near the military factories. There was nothing else THERE. The fathers and mothers of the Spur Posse, and everyone else there, depended on those defense contracts and they fully assumed that their kids would also work at the same plants. This was not a town where kids were shuffling off to Ivy League schools. This is a once-removed-from-blue-collar neighborhood, and it was also a neighborhood that was about to cease to exist. 1950s America, with its progress and its industry (and also its conformity) had helped provide a better life for millions of people who wanted to go for it. To live in a place like Lakewood, as opposed to a slum or a tenement or a boarding house, was a giant leap forward. But all that seemed like it was coming to an end. These kids, roaming the streets and sexually harassing girls as young as 9, 10 years old, had no future. Their parents seemed to know it, and felt anxious about it. If they didn’t work at the plant then what would happen to them? They clearly were not the brightest bulbs that America had to offer.

If you only watched the news, then you would be forgiven for getting the impression that Lakewood was akin to , say, Quincy, Mass, an adorable idyllic suburb on the outskirts of a giant city, where the best and the brightest grew up and went on to Harvard or Princeton. That was how it was spun.

Didion watched this spin and thought: “Do these people know ANYthing about California? Lakewood?? Let me tell you a little something about Lakewood.”

The social and class anxiety of the residents of Lakewood was quite appropriate. They were about to be obliterated with the closing of the plants. Their kids would have nowhere to go. Maybe they could be security guards. Maybe they could go to a community college if they could afford it. The real story of the Lakewood Spur Posse was far more interesting than the cliched one presented to us by the media.

It’s worth it to read this book just to read the gigantic section on the Spur Posse. Didion outdoes herself. It takes some real reportage too. Yes, she reads books on the area, and the history of the defense contracts and what that said about Lakewood, but she talks to the families, she is allowed into their homes. We hear their voices in a nuanced way (Didion is the queen of nuance), and she seems to get things out of them that the regular media was not getting. Clearly not since the regular media was getting the whole story wrong to begin with.

The Spur Posse part is difficult to excerpt, since it has a slow build, each section capitalizing on the last, so I will excerpt something from an earlier section, where she talks about all of the different Californias.

Where I Was From is not one of Didion’s better-known books and that should change. I highly recommend it.

Where I Was From, by Joan Didion

Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one an other. The separation, of north from south – and even more acutely of west from east, of the urban coast from the agricultural valleys and of both the coast and the valleys from the mountain and desert region to their east – was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture. My mother made the trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles in 1932, to see the Olympics, and did not find reason to make it again for thirty years. In the north we had San Francisco, with its Beaux Arts buildings and eucalyptus, its yearnings backward and westward, its resolutely anecdotal “color”; a place as remote and mannered as the melancholy colonial capitals of Latin America, and as isolated. When I was at Berkeley and had gone home to Sacramento for a weekend I would sometimes take the Southern Pacific transcontinental City of San Francisco back down, not the most convenient train (for one thing it was always late) but one that suggested, carrying as it did the glamour of having come across the mountains from the rest of America, that our isolation might not be an indefinite sentence.

I see now that the life I was raised to admire was entirely the product of this isolation, infinitely romantic, but in a kind of vacuum, its only antecedent aesthetic, and the aesthetic only the determined “Bohemianism” of nineteenth-century San Francisco. The clothes chosen for me as a child had a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite, muted greens and ivories, dusty rose, what seems in retrospect an eccentric amount of black. I still have the black mantilla I was given to wear over my shoulders when I started to go to dances, not the kind of handkerchief triangle Catholic women used to keep in their pockets and glove compartments but several yards of heavy black lace. It had been my great-grandmother’s, I have no idea why, since this particular great-grandmother was from Oregon, with no reason to have bought into a romance-of-the-ranchos scenario. We lived in dark houses and favored, a preference so definite that it passed as a test of character, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken, which was said to “bring out the pattern”. To this day I am put off by highly polished silver: it looks “new”. This predilection for the “old” extended into all areas of domestic life: dried flowers were seen to have a more subtle charm than fresh, prints should be faded, rugs worn, wallpaper streaked by the sun. Our highest moment in this area was the acquisition, in 1951, of a house in Sacramento in which the curtains on the stairs had not been changed since 1907. These curtains, which were of unlined (and faded, naturally) gold silk organza, hung almost two stories, billowed iridescent with every breath of air, and, if touched, crumbled.

Stressing as it did an extreme if ungrounded individualism, this was not an ambiance that tended toward a view of life as defined or limited or controlled, or even in any way affected, by the social and economic structures of the larger world. To be a Californian was to see oneself, if one believed the lessons the place seemed most immediately to offer, as affected only by “nature”, which in turn was seen to exist simultaneously as a source of inspiration or renewal (“Born again!” John Muir noted in the journal of his first trip into Yosemite) and as the ultimate brute reckoning, the force that by guaranteeing destruction gave the place its perilous beauty. Much of the California landscape has tended to present itself as metaphor, even as litany: the redwoods (for a thousand years in they sight are but as yesterday), the Mojave (in the midst of life we are in death), the coast at Big Sur, Mono Lake, the great vistas of the Sierra, especially those of the Yosemite Valley, which, Kevin Starr has pointed out, “offered Californians an objective correlative for their ideal sense of themselves: a people animated by heroic imperatives”. Thomas Starr King saw Yosemite in 1860 and went back to the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco determined to inspire “Yosemites in the soul”. Albert Bierstadt saw Yosemite in 1863 and came back to do the grandiose landscapes that made him for a dozen years the most popularly acclaimed painter in America. “Some of Mr. Bierstadt’s mountains swim in a lustrous, pearly mist,” Mark Twain observed with some acerbity, “which is so enchantingly beautiful that I am sorry the Creator hadn’t made it instead of him, so that it would always remain there.”

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5 Responses to The Books: Where I Was From, by Joan Didion

  1. Kent says:

    She is an endless, deep reflection of herself… her time and locale. Like two opposing mirrors.

  2. sheila says:

    Kent – Yes, I still don’t know how she does it.

    This was the book I told you about that I kept flashing on when I was watching After the Triumph Of Your Birth. I still want to incorporate some of it into whatever I end up writing.

    I don’t know California all that well. I love to see it through her eyes.

  3. Kent says:

    Yes, I can see why After The Triumph Of Your Birth would bring Didion to mind. The great tension of the film derives from stated examples and feelings of dread running over shots of breathtaking beauty. Overflowing paradise. Abundant desperation. Like the intricate composition of Didion, the remarkably patient composition of Akin evokes a love of craft, and passion for work. These underlying feelings are diametrically opposed to articulated dread. Joy of creation. It dominates everything that has gone on or is going on. A burnished patina almost invisible to the eye, yet the core of the work.

  4. sheila says:

    And also the sense of being “without history” – or at least trying to be. The journey to the sea … something that all pioneers longed for, ached to see … his journey on foot thru the blasted-out landscape, but you can FEEL the giant-ness of the Pacific even though you never even see it until the very end …

    and you’re right: articulated dread. A push-pull. There’s a softness in some of the relationships – but there’s always the dread of that terrifying Answer Man, or even the landscape itself.

  5. Kent says:

    Music without source. Dialogue ahead of character. Anachronisms and no calender. This is what it feels like to walk long distances in California. That is why most people choose drive one block to the corner store. Woody Guthrie liked to walk and talk though, and he was good at it.

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