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10 February 2021

How Joan Didion broke free

The chronicler of American counterculture was tormented by neuroses – until she learned to turn them to her advantage.

By Leo Robson

Joan Didion – the author of three memoirs, two political travelogues, five novels, and now, with Let Me Tell You What I Mean, seven collections of essays – was born in northern California, in 1934. Her upbringing was somewhat fraught. Her father drank and suffered breakdowns, her mother intoned the dirge-like motto, “what difference does it make?”, and Sacramento County unfolded its annual cycle of fire, flooding, wind and drought. Meanwhile, beady, small-boned Joan passed the time reflecting on the fact – or so it seemed to her – that nothing matters, and scratching away in the notebook she had been handed, at the age of five, to stop her “whining”.

As a means of psychic survival – to keep the world from “eating her up”, in the words of the critic Alfred Kazin – she generated an array of defences and dependencies which are now part of Didion lore: the nicotine and nosebleeds, the sunglasses and sweet tooth. There was also, Christopher Isherwood reported in his diary, a voice that she wielded as an “instrument of aggression”, and “the most thrilling medicine cabinet” – beside her own mother’s – that the film producer Julia Phillips had ever seen. A paradox defined her marriage to the writer John Gregory Dunne. He was always by her side, and always “a hothead”. What would set him off, she was asked? “Everything.” Just as the “order” symbolised by Los Angeles swimming pools affirmed her fear of water as “uncontrollable”, so Dunne insulated Didion from that sense of pervasive precariousness of which he was also a courier. She needed reassurance that things would be OK – and also that she was justified in feeling under siege.

But what really kept her going – gave her the keenest sense of the relationship between engulfment and mastery – was the quest for perfect prose. A belief in that idea will have its downside, or side effects. “There certainly is what doctors call a ‘migraine personality’,” she wrote in her essay “In Bed”, “and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organised, perfectionist.” But the kind of person who testifies to a more-or-less equal terror of having an article killed (“soul-searing”), of witnessing “one’s own words in print” (“mortal humiliation”) and of committing to paper any sentence that would “expose me as not good enough” is likely to produce something worthwhile.

[see also: Anxious in America: On writing the life of Joan Didion]

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Since the appearance of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), the first and best of her non-fiction books, the sound of Didion’s sublimated whine has been among the most distinctive in Anglophone letters. (Who rivals her, among living writers of American prose, for potency and intensity and influence? If the question isn’t rhetorical, the only conceivable reply is Don DeLillo.)

The critic Hilton Als, in his superb foreword to Let Me Tell You What I Mean – the longest piece in this rather random gathering of previously uncollected essays written over a 40-year period – declares that Didion’s non-fiction reads like fiction. But he’s far too quick to narrow the parameters. “Or, more specifically,” he clarifies, “has the metaphorical power of great fiction.”

Less specifically, Didion’s essays can be treated as companions to novels including Run River (1961) and A Book of Common Prayer (1977), or as a series of dazzling linked short stories, with a narrator who waxes and wanes, sometimes violently, in her awareness of the role played by her own perspective in mediating experiences and generating reactions. When, towards the end of a feature on Gamblers Anonymous, reprinted in the new book, she decides there was “something not quite right, something troubling”, only the second ­formulation rings true. Didion tells us that she associates the often-used noun “serenity” with death; she prefers to be in places where “no one counted days”. She may feel troubled by all this, but how much can it really be said to dent the legitimacy – the “rightness” – of the fellowship or its approach to recovery?

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***

It’s a problem that’s liable to occur when, for largely financial reasons, a world-class neurasthenic with a novel on the go assumes a rationalist position –“Didion the Opiner”, in Als’s term. At points, though never reliably, Didion recognised this conundrum. In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she acknowledges that her writing “reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel”. At the end of “Notes from a Native Daughter”, an elegy to Sacramento written in 1965, she wonders if she has been “playing out unawares” the role of the girl in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “Spring and Fall”, who thinks she is grieving the arrival of autumn, but is really mourning for herself.

In “On Keeping a Notebook”, another essay collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she says she sometimes imagines that her “notebook is about other people”, but of course “it is not”; the common denominator is “the implacable ‘I’”. In a 1968 column about the underground press, the opening item in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Didion complains about the “factitious” objectivity of most journalism.

During the same period, Didion also published what is probably these days her most beloved essay, “Goodbye to All That”, originally printed as “Farewell to the Enchanted City”, a sublime piece of evocation – basically a string of unforgettable details – that is also a masterpiece of myopia. It concerns Didion’s experience of falling out of love with New York. When things got “very bad” in the early months of 1962, she recalled: “There were certain parts of the city which I had to avoid… I hurt the people I cared about, and insulted those I did not… I cried until I was not even aware when I was crying and when I was not, cried in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries.” Didion visited a doctor. He told her that she was depressed, and recommended a “specialist”, but, she recalls: “I did not go.” Didion’s own diagnosis, looking back, was that New York is a city “for only the very young” – surely she hadn’t been expecting the doctor to say that? – and so Didion and Dunne moved to California.

But, as things turned out, that didn’t mark the end of tears and terror. In June, 1968, Didion suffered an attack of vertigo and nausea, and this time she did “go”– to the outpatient psychiatric clinic at St John’s Hospital, in Santa Monica. Basic “reality contact”, the resulting report concluded, was “obviously and seriously impaired”.

Writing at the end of 1969, in her often-quoted first column for Life – which explains that she and Dunne have travelled to Hawaii “in lieu of filing for divorce” – Didion displayed a degree of clarity about her “emotional shock” that had been entirely absent from “Goodbye to All That”. She could easily turn her gaze outwards, she explains, blaming the larger “cultural breakdown”, but that would be “just one more stylish shell game”. She was not, she conceded, “the society in microcosm”, just a 34-year-old woman with “bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come”.

And yet in “The White Album”, the title essay of Didion’s second collection, which appeared in 1979, Didion appears all too happy to engage in shell games. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the first section begins. She expands: “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.”

If, at a certain point in 1962, she struggled to “live”, that was because stories stopped making sense. As she had written in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, her electrifying portrait of hippies in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco: “The centre was not holding.” It is obvious to most Didion readers, as it had been to Didion, that the centre was really inside herself, but in that essay and elsewhere, she encountered strong corroboration. Who wouldn’t feel that things were falling apart if they were confronted, as Didion was, by a five-year-old girl wearing white lipstick and tripping on acid?

***

Let Me Tell You What I Mean reprints half a dozen essays that first appeared in 1968 and deal with subjects like Nancy Reagan’s frantic self-promotion and William Randolph Hearst’s “phantasmagoric” castle. Too often, though, Didion’s choice of subject is correlative to her mood or mindset, and plainly ill-suited to the purpose. In “The White Album”, Didion quotes a chunk of her psychiatric report; it’s terrifying. The “only” comment that Didion offers, a whole decade on, is that the state described does not seem “an inappropriate response” to Los Angeles during that summer – though many of the events she depicts in fact occurred later – just as crying in a Chinese laundry was not an inappropriate response to being a resident of Manhattan at the age of 28.

“The White Album” describes her encounter with the Doors and the Black Panthers, the night Janis Joplin came by and asked for “brandy-and-Benedictine” (“Music people never wanted ordinary drinks”), but doesn’t consider such potentially pertinent factors as her neglectful upbringing, Dunne’s rages, the imminent publication of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, or the fact she had recently adopted a daughter.

In another essay, “On the Morning After the Sixties”, written in 1970 just months after Didion said she wasn’t a microcosm of society, she declares that she is “a child of my time”, then proceeds to argue that her contemporaries at Berkeley had been obedient or quietist because collective action was just “one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate”. Another way of escaping the personal is to claim kinship with a generation and membership of a species, then ascribe to both your own penchant for nihilism. (In the Hopkins poem, the “blight man was born for” was something broader: know-ledge of death.)

This tendency towards “intellectualisation” and “projection”, to borrow the terms of the report, also governs the thinking of Maria Wyeth in Didion’s most enduring novel, Play It As It Lays (1970). Maria has lost all faith in “‘reasons’” and causality, and is convinced she is right to do so, despite being institutionalised. (At one point she compares herself to the heroine of Gaslight.) But then Wyeth is not the author – or even the sole narrator – of Play It As It Lays. Didion’s fiction exhibits a degree of unconscious self-insight lacking from the personal journalism – unless, that is, we choose to read the journalism as something else.

[see also: Joan Didion on Netflix tells the stories we already know – and some we don’t]

An essay, “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice”, reprinted in the new book explains that, on being rejected by Stanford, Didion “thought about swallowing the contents of an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin” while picturing herself in an oxygen tent with the director of admissions “hovering outside”. It’s possible to believe that Didion is relaying these details with a degree of detachment, or bafflement, or amusement. Such a ­pretence is harder to sustain in the case of the 1978 reminiscence “Telling Stories”, which descends into a blow-by-blow account of a minor professional setback Didion had a decade before; the extreme reaction here is the essay.

In “The White Album”, Didion recalls that her loss of faith in stories or a narrative line lasted until 1971. But her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement” exhibits the closely related belief that, in the words of the report, “all human effort is foredoomed to failure”. In 1974, she described the history of Bogotá as “a mirage” and remembered, of her time there, “mainly images” that were “difficult to connect”. “The White Album” itself – which was completed in 1978 – is a several-thousand-word justification of her despair, which concludes with the none-too-triumphant realisation that writing about her experience of late-1960s Los Angeles “has not yet helped to see what it means”.

At the start of her next book, Salvador (1983), Didion claims that “no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable”. Paul Theroux, writing as an expert on the region, couldn’t understand what she meant. El Salvador, he said, is “a miserably poor, overpopulated, badly governed, and politically and religiously divided police state”. Didion’s snapshots of an atomised West Coast, like her memories of a meaning-deprived East Coast metropolis, provide a matchless, if covert, record of depression, and her piece of extended reportage was, in Theroux’s reading, an “excellent account of being nervous”.

***

The way forward required a perspectival shift. Didion couldn’t reverse or deny her exhaustion. But she needed to embrace it, once and for all, as her own. The first sign of a turning point came – not very surprisingly – in a work of fiction. “Cards on the table,” the narrator “Joan Didion” announces near the start of Democracy (1984). Then she alludes to “a point in my life when I lacked certainty… lacked conviction, lacked patience in the past and interest in memory; lacked faith even in my own technique.” No mention is made of the times, or a summer, or ephemerally elating New York. The implacable “I” had returned.

In her non-fiction, too, Didion managed to repurpose her ingrained sense of futility – so long the licence for a shrug and head shake, and the basis for dubious claims – as a genuine tool of critical analysis. As she had shown in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and other early essays – on a murder in the San Bernardino Valley and marriage in Las Vegas and Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence – she needed a certain kind of subject matter. Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, found it for her: American politics. And now her work had an added dimension.

In the essays collected in Sentimental Journeys (1993) and Political Fictions (2001), she covered the coverage, scrutinising memoirs of Reagan and the writing of Newt Gingrich, poring over the Starr Report that investigated Bill Clinton, laying waste to the “political pornography” of the reporter Bob Woodward, exploring “fables” and “fixed ideas”. Like Janet Malcolm, probably her greatest contemporary, Didion developed a critical method in which the old-fashioned close reading she had learned as a student at Berkeley was underpinned by a type of post-modernism, the body of ideas associated with despair, emptiness and scepticism about the “grand narrative”.

[see also: How we misunderstand depression]

In 1988, just before she covered the national conventions, Didion moved back to New York (despite not being young at all) and later wrote long essays on the public myths encoded in the handling of the Central Park jogger case – when five black and Latino youths were wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a white woman – and the World Trade Center attacks of 11 September 2001. Then, in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), she wrote a meta-memoir – an account of widowhood that is also an essay on the literature of illness and grief – as well as a reflection on her own ability to seem “rational” while being secretly “delusionary”, including her tendency to talk about herself in the guise of looking outwards. (For the first time in 40 years, she quoted Hopkins’s poem.)

Let Me Tell You What I Mean ends with two examples of Didion in this refreshed, possessed, newly conscious mode. “Last Words” explores the decision on the part of Hemingway’s heirs – the appointed protectors of his literary legacy – to ignore the instructions for unfinished work. In “Everywoman.com”, she considers the phenomenon of Martha Stewart with the help of an unofficial website and an authorised biography. “This is a story about love and death in the golden land,” she wrote in 1966, at the start of the essay that opens Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Later, once her natural gift for sense-making was gone, she needed something obviously false or sentimental to resist. A circuitous route, perhaps, but as the closing passage of the new book shows, it got her there:

This is not a story about a woman who made the best of traditional skills. This is a story about a woman who did her own IPO. This is the “woman’s pluck” story, the dust-bowl story… The dreams and the fears into which Martha Stewart taps are not of “feminine” domesticity but of female power, of the woman who sits down at the table with the men and, still in her apron, walks away with the chips.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean
Joan Didion
4th Estate, 192pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair