Let sadness tell you what to read. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion begins her essay “The White Album” by recalling a time when, she says, she had mislaid the script of life. She who had reread all of George Orwell on the beach of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu is talking about her loss of faith in the intelligibility of narrative: “I suppose this period began in 1966 and continued until 1971.” Her evocation of what the late Sixties were like in her feckless part of Los Angeles displays the gifts of her style, starting with a California Old Settler dryness. She may have had an attack of “vertigo and nausea” in the early summer of 1968, and she may have been an outpatient at the psychiatric clinic at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, and the long excerpt from her psychiatric report that she inserts into her story may, indeed, have said that she was suffering from a depressive view of the world, but her passivity is a front, her dangerous observer’s disguise.
Didion remembers that an acquaintance referred to her large, peeling house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood as being in a “senseless-killing neighborhood.” On October 30, 1968, not too far away, Ramon Novarro, a silent film–era actor, was murdered by two hustler brothers; and for many people Didion knew, she says, the Sixties ended on August 9, 1969, when word spread through her neighborhood that Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, and four other people at a house on Cielo Drive had been murdered the night before. It was on July 27, 1970, that Didion found herself choosing a dress for Linda Kasabian, a member of the Manson family (whom she’d interviewed, presumably), to wear as a witness for the prosecution in the Manson trial. It was 11:20 when she delivered the dress to Kasabian’s attorney outside his office on Rodeo Drive. He was wearing a porkpie hat. “‘Dig it,’ Gary Fleischman was always saying.” Didion’s precision of detail is structure, balance of tone.
The White Album was published in 1979 and was the first collection of nonfiction by Didion that I read. A few of the essays in it I had maybe come across before in The New York Review, but it enlarged the idea of her that I’d gotten from the women protagonists in the two of her three early novels that I’d read, Play It as It Lays (1970) and A Book of Common Prayer (1977). Didion was not shy about killing off a heroine at the end of the story if she had to. Joan “Bad Vibes” Didion, someone called her after reading her first nonfiction collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). In those days, people said that a magazine needed only to report the news and trends from New York City to succeed nationally, and part of the mystique of Didion for me was that she reversed the formula and told us what was happening or had happened out there.
She was sitting on the floor in a Sunset Boulevard studio, counting the seventy-six control knobs on an electronic panel and watching the Doors wait and wait for Jim Morrison. In her Los Angeles, dinner was at nine, unless it was at 11:30, twenty for sushi, or a table somewhere else for fourteen. Desires, rather than plans, could change in a moment, because David Hockney might stop by, because somebody had the whereabouts of Ultra Violet that night. The Living Theater would have to wait until cigarettes were finished. People she had not much relation to came and went in her house. Janis Joplin wanted brandy and Benedictine in a water tumbler. She kept in a drawer a list of the license numbers she’d written down of panel trucks she’d seen circling the block. “In another sense the Sixties did not truly end for me until January of 1971, when I left the house on Franklin Avenue and moved to a house on the sea.”
Didion is one of two women included in Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson’s landmark anthology, The New Journalism (1973). Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, is among the volume’s several showmen of subjectivity. In the 1970s you couldn’t catch the subway at the 72nd and Broadway station without someone in your group pointing to branches in a triangular patch of dark across the street and saying that that was Needle Park and that Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne had written the screenplay for The Panic in Needle Park (1971). It was known that they had an East Coast life and a West Coast life, a book world and a film world, which seemed to make them exceptions in both. She wasn’t an outsider so much as she managed to remain unclaimed by the worlds she moved in.
In the Seventies, we kept comparing ourselves to the Sixties, wanting either to fulfill the decade’s promises or to get over it, stop tripping. The chapter in which Eldridge Cleaver accuses James Baldwin of wanting to have a baby by a white man was all I’d read of Soul on Ice (1968). Cleaver published Soul on Fire, his hustle of the Christian conversion narrative, in 1978, and the rumor was that the Black Panther fugitive had come back from exile and surrendered in order to get the royalties from Soul on Ice held in escrow. After so much unquestioning support for the Panthers, including Baldwin’s, The White Album’s title essay, composed, Didion tells us, between 1968 and 1978, is striking in its sobriety of mind about black revolution.
She summarizes the origins of the Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1966 and the early-morning confrontation in Oakland a year later between Huey P. Newton and John Frey, a white police officer, that led to Frey’s death. Newton and another police officer were wounded in the gunfire. In the spring of 1968, when Newton was awaiting trial for murder, Didion was allowed to see him:
I am telling you neither that Huey Newton killed John Frey nor that Huey Newton did not kill John Frey, for in the context of revolutionary politics Huey Newton’s guilt or innocence was irrelevant. I am telling you only how Huey Newton happened to be in the Alameda County Jail, and why rallies were held in his name, demonstrations organized whenever he appeared in court.
She isn’t sure the likable Newton understood that he was of more use to the revolution behind bars than he was on the street.
Cleaver has press credentials, like Didion, and the two other journalists present in the hot room of fluorescent light. What Cleaver wants from Newton are statements, messages to the outside,
prophecy to be interpreted as needed…. “There are a lot of people interested in the Executive Mandate Number Three you’ve issued to the Black Panther Party, Huey. Care to comment?” And Huey Newton would comment. “Yes, Mandate Number Three is this demand…”
Everything sounded like quotation or pronouncement, Didion says. Newton would not talk about himself. The personal was to be avoided, “even at the cost of coherence.” Safety lay in generalization, she notes. Yet she appreciated the Panther proposition “that political power began at the end of the barrel of a gun,” and even more that Newton in an early memorandum had been specific: “Army .45; carbine; 12-gauge Magnum shotgun with 18” barrel, preferably the brand of High Standard; M-16; .357 Magnum pistols; P-38.”
She couldn’t scale that cinder block wall of Panther rhetoric; there hadn’t been anywhere on the surface to get hold of. Newton’s repetitive Marxist phrases were an autodidact’s recitation, and after she gives examples of how conformist that was, she provides an excerpt from the testimony before the Alameda County grand jury of the nurse who was in charge of the emergency room at the Oakland hospital where Newton sought help after getting shot by one of the police officers that October morning in 1967. The nurse wouldn’t let “this Negro fellow” see a doctor until he’d registered and shown her his insurance card. He shouted that he’d been shot and was bleeding, but she insisted. The nurse’s testimony illustrated a “collision of cultures” for Didion, and she pinned a copy of the testimony above her desk, until she learned that Newton did have an insurance card for that hospital system.
One morning in 1968 she went to see Cleaver in his San Francisco apartment. She had to ring the bell and step into the street where she could be scrutinized from the apartment and then buzzed in. Kathleen Cleaver was in the kitchen frying sausages; he was in the living room listening to Coltrane; and there were people everywhere, in the hallways, on the telephone, standing in doorways. Soul on Ice was being published that day. Didion says they talked of Cleaver’s advance, the size of his first printing, the advertising budget, in what bookstores copies were available:
It was a not unusual discussion between writers, with the difference that one of the writers had his parole officer there and the other had stood out on Oak Street and been visually frisked before coming inside.
Just as liberal Hollywood was “a kind of dictatorship of good intentions,” so Didion viewed the disorder of the student strike at San Francisco State College in the fall of 1968 as an “amiable evasion of routine” for everyone except the black militants, who at least were dictating the rules. She’d been to meetings and debates in Los Angeles in 1968, her house had been a meeting place for Communist screenwriters in the 1930s and 1950s, and she is put off by the vanity and irrelevance of goodwill in these Hollywood experiences and Hollywood histories. In the postscript-like essay “On the Morning After the Sixties,” Didion concludes that if she thought going to the barricades would affect man’s fate she’d go to the barricades, “but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.”
Murray Kempton liked to say that Didion was not one of nature’s liberals. He pointed out that it was William F. Buckley Jr. who first published her, in the pages of his National Review. It is hard to stay on your feet in a pulling tide. Susan Sontag never reprinted that essay on her trip to Cuba in 1970. I doubt that Didion has little Casterbridges like that. For one thing, she didn’t get ideological enthusiasms; instead she got phone calls from former neighbors into Scientology. To think about the Sixties, Didion returns to the Fifties, to Berkeley and the humanism and skepticism that were her generation’s points of intellectual reference. She reviews the “litany of trivia” about the domestic in the literature of second-wave feminism, recognizing that it was “a key technique in the politicizing of women who had perhaps been conditioned to obscure their resentments even from themselves.” The personal may be social, but individuals cannot be the solutions to social problems that we want them to be. The fault is in ourselves. People will let people down.
The Sixties had Didion define what she called her commitment to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities. She once described how she liked to look first at the small items at the bottom of the newspaper page, to read the page from the bottom up, and to read the newspaper from back to front. The reflections she proposed came together from patient, impartial-seeming scrutiny of the language people expressed themselves in, of what we, noisome society, meant, consciously and otherwise. The detachment of the observer guarded against the kind of disillusion that brings writer’s block, modest expectations of human behavior being self-protective as well as philosophical. But for a writer associated with control, manipulation, coolness of voice, Didion’s work is full of feeling.
An essay that exemplifies her independence as an interrogator of the American scene is “New York: Sentimental Journeys,” which first appeared in the January 17, 1991, issue of The New York Review and was then included in her collection After Henry (1992). It is an extraordinary examination of a miscarriage of justice in New York City.
On April 20, 1989, a woman was found unconscious in Central Park near the connecting road at 102nd Street:
Her skull had been crushed, her left eyeball pushed back through its socket, the characteristic surface wrinkles of her brain flattened. Dirt and twigs were found in her vagina, suggesting rape. By May 2, when she first woke from coma, six black and Hispanic teenagers, four of whom had made videotaped statements concerning their roles in the attack and another of whom had described his role in an unsigned verbal statement, had been charged with her assault and rape and she had become, unwilling and unwitting, a sacrificial player in the sentimental narrative that is New York public life.
The public outcry against the defendants was intense, the presumption of their guilt vehemently asserted by politicians and press: “Teen Wolfpack Beats and Rapes Wall Street Exec on Jogging Path.” Two trials in 1990 resulted in their convictions. Crimes are news to the extent that they offer “a story, a lesson, a high concept,” Didion says. The trial, the Daily News announced, was about “the rape and the brutalization of a city.” For Didion, it was about a city “rapidly vanishing into the chasm between its actual life and its preferred narratives.” She concentrates on how the accused were presented in the news as opposed to the images of the victim, “a young woman of conventional middle-class privilege and promise whose situation was such that many people tended to overlook the fact that the state’s case against the accused was not invulnerable.” None of the defendants had police records, which, Didion observes ruefully, was somehow seen as an achievement. There were confessions, but no forensic evidence.
There are competing, conflicting narratives in her analysis. For black people, the case could be read as a confirmation of their victimization and of the white conspiracy at the heart of that victimization. The Amsterdam News called the trial “a legal lynching.” Black people when asked said they believed the confessions had been wrenched from the accused. The criminal justice system could not function equitably when a black man was accused of raping a white woman. Didion is conscious of the “emotional undertow” derived from the taboos in black American history associated with the idea of the rape of a white woman. For blacks, rape was at “the very core of their victimization.” She discusses the differences in the handling of assault cases involving white women and black women, the vulnerability of women to the well-meaning official procedures in rape cases, the recent deaths of other white girls by misadventure in the city, and why the case of the Central Park jogger set off such public anger.
Didion argues that the case allowed the white middle class, unnerved by drug culture and violent crime, to express its rage against thugs without guilt: “It was precisely in this conflation of victim and city, this confusion of personal woe with public distress, that the crime’s ‘story’ would be found, its lesson, its encouraging promise of narrative resolution.” The attack on the jogger passes into a narrative about confrontation and Governor Mario Cuomo’s characterization of the crime as “the ultimate shriek of alarm.” The narrative was about what was wrong with the city and the solution to the problem. What was wrong with the city, in the press and TV reports, were the accused. The solution was to partake of the symbolic body and blood of the jogger: “The imposition of a sentimental, or false, narrative on the disparate and often random experience that constitutes the life of a city” means that much of what happens will be lost in a “sentimental reading of class differences and human suffering.”
“New York: Sentimental Journeys” is one of the bleakest portraits of New York City in the age of crack and AIDS and “wildings” and its first black mayor. The real problems of the city could go on being ignored: the adverse effects of the financial crisis of 1987 on the city’s psyche; the city’s underlying criminal ethic; its undermining customs of patronage, like in a third world city; and a bureaucracy reduced to voodoo. Yet Didion concedes that “a New York come to grief on the sentimental stories told in defense of its own lazy criminality” will nevertheless go on, not learn, because “the city’s inevitability remained the given, the heart, the first and last word on which all the stories rested.” “New York: Sentimental Journeys” was a dramatic dissenting opinion at the time. The victim’s injuries had been life-threatening, but the righteousness of the rage alerted Didion’s suspicion that a troubled city was being driven by a lust for the cathartic. She kept her balance and was not pulled by the tide. The five black youths were exonerated in 2002, when an inmate in a state prison suddenly confessed to the rape, and the confession was then corroborated by DNA evidence.
Robert Silvers, coeditor of The New York Review, was particularly proud of this essay. In The Fifty-Year Argument, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about the Review, Didion laughs that the more trouble she had with it, the longer he wanted it, trusting every turn and digression she would make. It has a novel’s scope and is about New York City rather than race, which unsettled me at the time. I was used to the racial aspect being the primary focus of the Central Park Five story and was impressed that she cast as cold an eye on the black activist Al Sharpton as she did on District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, pulling back to a wide view of the “grave and disruptive problems” of the city: “problems of not having, problems of not making it, problems that demonstrably existed, among the mad and the ill and the under-equipped and the overwhelmed, with decreasing reference to color.”
Bob adored her and she brought out the best in him as an editor. Didion’s pieces on El Salvador in the early 1980s helped to relieve his and his coeditor Barbara Epstein’s problem of whom to trust on Central America (in the days before the brilliant Alma Guillermoprieto). They’d been determined not to get duped over Nicaragua; they had some regrets over some of the pieces about Vietnam that they’d published. Barbara compared Didion’s political reportage to Mary McCarthy going to Hanoi and meeting with dismay and distaste the language of the North Vietnamese government. She and Bob treasured Didion for the way she lined up and then knocked down what someone was saying, or trying to get away with saying.
In “Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History,” her critique of the war on terror, published in these pages in 2003, Didion is contemptuous of the easy, galling ironies that the Bush administration’s deadly policies supply her with. In this essay, she is alive to “a disconnect between the government and the citizens.” And as eager as Bob had been to get Didion to cover, say, a Republican National Convention, her not being one to be taken in maybe came from an Old Settler ambivalence about electoral politics. It was people at their worst. Politics were power relations; the rest was a mug’s game. (“Now, Darryl. Shut up!” she said way back there as I defended a pre–welfare reform, pre-Monica Bill Clinton early in his first term.)
The seriousness of her reportage adjusted for me the light on her early fictions and confirmed that she had been up to something in them. Everything was deception, a strategy, and behind those fictional portraits of diffidence, fragility, the sensitivities of women who lived too well and thought too hard, stood an authorial ruthlessness. She was not afflicted with the disease that hindered some contemporary women novelists on a mission—that of liking their heroines too much. “Writers are always selling somebody out,” Didion said. We were used to writers who employed techniques of fiction in their nonfiction, whereas the reportorial or the clinical—what to call it?—became an ever more pronounced element in her later novels. The writer admits to being the narrator of Democracy (1984), her novel set largely in Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War. The narrator rather talks into her own frame, into the story of a senator’s wife’s long romance with a CIA guy capable of love. The allusion to Henry Adams’s novel of Washington political intrigue, Democracy: An American Novel (1880), is to the point, but Didion’s woman, unlike Adams’s widow who is too useful to men, doesn’t have to ask herself whether America is right or wrong.
The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) is about Didion’s hatred of the all-conquering male. It is a novel about politics, Florida/Cuban/contra-style. The authorial voice is blunt about what it doesn’t want to waste time on, but this very thing in the narrator’s voice—“not quite omniscient,” it says of itself—is what leaves you somewhat puzzled. Like sitting before a box so wonderfully wrapped that you just assume that what’s inside is something you really want, and you open it to find a gift more in the giver’s taste than in yours, but it’s not one of those times when the giver’s taste is in question. In the case of The Last Thing He Wanted, the giver’s taste is better than yours.
Elizabeth Hardwick called Didion a poet of “the airplane and the airport.” In an essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem about coming to New York for the first time, Didion can name the model of aircraft she deplaned from. Hardwick was fascinated by the aesthetic challenges Didion’s sensibility set before her in the novel form, how to devise a structure for “the fadings and erasures of experience” that were her subject: “This author is a martyr of facticity, and indeed such has its place in the fearless architecture of her fictions. You have a dogged concreteness of detail in an often capricious mode of presentation.” And yet it reassures the reader, is a part of the muscular confidence of the narrator. Hardwick used to speak of what she called Didion’s “masculine knowledge,” an interest in systems and how things are put together, an asset in composition that she believed Didion shared with George Eliot.
I see her in black at Barbara’s round dining-room table in low light and the slow white cigarette smoke of the period. John Gregory Dunne and Murray Kempton are booming at each other, West Hartford, Connecticut, and Baltimore, Maryland, North and South, firing their cannons. Lizzie and Barbara are in that mood where one refuses to give ground to the other, and so they are talking at each other, at the same time, getting louder. I look across to Joan and mentally wag my tail, wait for a sign, a shared gesture of Get a load of this. Her elbows are on the table and her chin on crossed hands. Nothing, not an eyebrow.
Our lady of deadpan: “During the years when I found it necessary to revise the circuitry of my mind I discovered…” Her genius was at exploring the paradoxes and contradictions in the stories we tell ourselves, and then the sort of double tragedy that would befall a Didion character happened to her, and storytelling became something else. Blue Nights (2011) is a lamentation for her troubled daughter, an indictment of herself for somehow failing her as a mother. The memoir is anguished about what she does not say, cannot yet say, in that earlier memoir about the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). Dunne and Didion came home one night and he suffered a heart attack as he was about to make them drinks. It does not say: We came home from the hospital where our daughter lay in a coma, and he suffered a heart attack. Didion said in Griffin Dunne’s documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold that she was trying to cope, that to write had been her trying to cope with it. She throws out an arm, almost involuntarily, as she explains.
Barbara used to say that Joan was completely dependent on John, that he protected her, took care of her, was not competitive with her, made her writing possible, but as frail as Joan appeared, she was tough as iron. Work, like gin, dims pain, Didion said. Those kinds of women were fine if something happened to the husband, Barbara said. That turned out not at all to be her fate. I think of her friends, especially those New York women, who banded together after his death and set up for her a life in which she was tenderly looked after.
Katherine Anne Porter wrote of Katherine Mansfield, “I see no sign that she ever adjusted herself to anything or anybody, except at an angle where she could get exactly the slant and the light she needed for the spectacle.” In this pandemic, certain deaths have added weight: this is the passing of, this is the end of, she was the last of…