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Saint Joan


Brian Cullman's Brief Encounter

I met Joan Didion with a neighbor at a local restaurant called The New French.


When I say "met," I mean "met."



End of conversation.

She kept her dark glasses on throughout dinner.

I was worried that she might a preying mantis that had gone on a crash diet.

It took her nearly an hour to eat two shrimp.

But at the end there was nothing left.

No shells.

No plate.

No silverware.


Bruce Taylor: Being Joan Didion

Joan Didion dared to be Joan Didion. To be herself and tell us about it all, regardless of what we thought. It was not an easy task.

Susan Zakin: Didion's Superpower Was Dispassionate Clarity

There was something unexpected yet unsurprising when Joan Didion’s obituaries mentioned that she had died from complications of Parkinson’s disease. No writer, it seemed, could resist having their say about Didion, yet few remarked on the cause of death.

If you’ve ever known anyone with Parkinson’s - and I have known many, most of them writers, particularly journalists - the diagnosis follows a lifetime of a peculiar blindness. The blindness I’m talking about resembles the odd phenomenon of face blindness, the inability to recall the features of a person. In this case, the blindness is to feelings, particularly the feelings of others. These friends of mine are genuinely surprised that a barbed remark, or perhaps a decade of infidelity, might actually hurt someone’s feelings. They are not just surprised; they are uncomprehending. Recent research into Parkinson’s and a lack of “emotion recognition” bears this out.

I remember one longtime friend, a well-published male journalist whose precise, rather elegant writing had earned him accolades for his half a dozen books. He regaled me at lunch with a clever but blazingly insensitive remark he’d made about a colleague’s impending divorce. The colleague, infuriated, had simply walked away. “Of course, he was upset with you!” I said. I will never forget his expression of utter blankness. We dropped the subject.

Whether the colleague in question deserved the implicit judgment is not an irrelevant question. He did. He was a difficult man, a narcissist, and, to put a more sympathetic light on him, dealing with his own demons of instability.

And that is just the point: the remark made by my friend, who later developed Parkinson’s, was not only clever. It was very much on point. If you live long enough, you learn that every deformity, every deficit, carries with it an associated type of benefit. For Parkinson's, perhaps it is second sight.

Dispassionate clarity was Joan Didion’s superpower. Icepick awareness infused her work from the briefest sentence to the most sweeping insight. There are many encomiums to launch at Didion. I believe she invented contemporary nonfiction and her influence will last longer than the New Journalists, whose indulgences seem dated now. She is not one of them, not exactly, and that is all to the good. It is that quality of dispassionate clarity that lends Didion’s work such uncanny prescience, both in form and content.

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After her death on Dec. 23, every American writer seemed to feel the need to invoke the Didion essay that has the most meaning to him or her. Here is mine. The deeply ironic title is “New York: Sentimental Journeys” from the Jan. 17, 1991 edition of The New York Review of Books.

Of course, as an environmental writer, I adored the early work. There is no better channeling of the West, and by that I mean America, than 1968’s “John Wayne: A Love Story” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion visited the set where Wayne, who had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, was shooting a movie. What she recalled was her introduction to Wayne, not on the movie set, but in a Sacramento theater.

We went three and four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”


As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that ben din the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.

I never forgot the line “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow,” although it is not Didion’s, but the screenwriter’s. To me, it was everything I yearned to find in the West, and much later, it remained everything I had found. This, too, showed Didion’s grasp of exactly what the Western landscape was, and is, still, despite the depredations visited upon it.

"To truly know the West is to lack all will to write it down.”

That line came from Didion's review of The Executioner’s Song, the Norman Mailer book about that quintessential Western anti-hero, Gary Gilmore, a tragic, doomed killer who had more in common with John Wayne’s archetypal Western anti-hero in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance than many would, still, care to admit. The Western hero is the wild man of Bernard DeVoto's frontier, a social isolate, an outsider. A killer.

As time went on, Didion’s ear became more acutely attuned to the interplay between cultural mythology ("the artificial rain") and tragic action.

By 1991, when she wrote about the Central Park Five for The New York Review of Books, she had almost certainly read Neil Postman’s seminal book on rhetoric Amusing Ourselves to Death. While Postman wrote about the de-contextualizing and trivializing of our discourse, he also presaged the substitution of real news with a kind of flimsy newsreel made of, well, shit, as Steve Bannon would later memorably say.

Before that, like the rest of the country, Didion must have read Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President, a book that is more important than ever in light of Donald Trump’s ascendancy. McGinniss chronicled the first made-for-TV presidential election, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

As a Westerner, Didion was steeped in myth. The roots ran deep, all the way back to a great-great-great-grandmother who was part of the Donner Party but wisely took another route to the coast. Nostalgia suffuses every Western. You either embrace myth or debunk it. Or you tangle with the very nature of mythology. 


That is what Didion did. When she returned to New York in the 1980s, giving the lie to her oft-quoted 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That” that limned a previous departure, she saw the city whole. She saw  an empire steeped in delusion, a city enamored of its own myth, a place where five black boys accused of raping and beating a white jogger must be guilty. 


Her essay gives the lie to contemporary critics, usually Latinos in California, who rail against Didion’s elitism and, worst of all, her whiteness, which, after all, nobody can help, and certainly Joan Didion had too much self-respect to traffic in the smarmy rhetoric of allyship.

She was, after all, a writer of another generation. In those days, not so long ago, a writer of her caliber could be given thousands of words and tens of thousands of dollars to plumb the underpinnings of inequality in a city as histrionic and media-obsessed as New York. 


Remember this is 1991. Critical race theory was, for the most part, confined to law schools. Yet Didion begins by citing specific stories of the rapes of women of color ignored by the press. Then she compares these to the obsessive coverage of the particularly brutal rape and beating of the woman who became known as the Central Park Jogger. She does not, for the record, omit class from her analysis, as is so often done in our contemporary discourse. 

Susan Brownmiller, during a year spent monitoring newspaper coverage of rape as part of her research for Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, found, not surprisingly, that “although New York City police statistics showed that black women were more frequent victims of rape than white women, the favored victim in the tabloid headline…was young, white, middle-class and ‘attractive.’” In its quite extensive coverage of rape-murders during the year 1971, according to Ms. Brownmiller, the Daily News published in its four-star final edition only two stories in which the victim was not described in the lead paragraph as “attractive”: one of these stories involved an eight-year-old child, the other was a second-day follow-up on a first-day story which had in fact described the victim as “attractive.” The Times, she found, covered rapes only infrequently that year, but what coverage they did “concerned victims who had some kind of middle-class status, such as ‘nurse,’ ‘dancer’ or ‘teacher,’ and with a favored setting of Central Park.


As a news story, “Jogger” was understood to turn on the demonstrable “difference” between the victim and her accused assailants, four of whom lived in Schomburg Plaza, a federally subsidized apartment complex at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 110th Street in East Harlem, and the rest of whom lived in the projects and rehabilitated tenements just to the north and west of Schomburg Plaza. Some twenty-five teenagers were brought in for questioning; eight were held. The six who were finally indicted ranged in age from fourteen to sixteen. That none of the six had a previous police record passed, in this context, for achievement; beyond that, one was recalled by his classmates to have taken pride in his expensive basketball shoes, another to have been “a follower.” I’m a smooth type of fellow, cool, calm, and mellow, one of the six, Yusef Salaam, would say in the rap he presented as part of his statement before sentencing:


I’m kind of laid back, but now I’m speaking so that you know

I got used and abused and even was put on the news….

I’m not dissing them all, but the some that I called

They tried to dis me like I was an inch small, like a midget, a mouse, something less than a man.


The victim, by contrast, was a leader, part of what the Times would describe as “the wave of young professionals who took over New York in the 1980’s,” one of those who were “handsome and pretty and educated and white,” who, according to the Times, not only “believed they owned the world” but “had reason to.” She was from a Pittsburgh suburb, Upper St. Clair, the daughter of a retired Westinghouse senior manager. She had been Phi Beta Kappa at Wellesley, a graduate of the Yale School of Management, a Congressional intern, nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, remembered by the chairman of her department at Wellesley as “probably one of the top four or five students of the decade.” She was reported to be a vegetarian, and “fun-loving,” although only “when time permitted,” and also to have had (these were the Times’s details) “concerns about the ethics of the American business world.”

Again, this was 1991. New York City was emerging from an economic downturn in the 1980s. A vulgar triumphalism was in the air, and underneath it, an uneasiness. The divide between the rich and poor was widening. The middle class was being flattened throughout the U.S. but this trend was, as everything always is, harsher and more vivid in New York.

Money had always been the lingua franca in New York. Money drove the narrative, as Didion clearly understands. Greed, rather. Corruption. New York is the template for the country; it reflects America, and with its stranglehold on media, it creates America. The arrogance and cruelty of The Apprentice and Business Uber Alles became the narrative. The narrative became the social order. The social order, as always, must be upheld. T’was ever thus, but more so as we embarked on the project of amusing ourselves to death. 

New York's myth reached as far back as the frontier, too. Didion quotes William R. Taylor of the State University of New York at Stony Brook on the stories of O. Henry: “These sentimental accounts of relations between classes in the city have a specific historical meaning: empathy without political compassion.”


Ain't that America?

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Didion in her New York kitchen. She and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, moved back to the city in 1988. She kept her California driver's license and they migrated between the coasts.

In 1991, the Age of Trump was already upon us, even if we didn’t know it yet. Not fully, not the full catastrophe, especially if we weren’t in the city. Donald Trump, as it happens, was one of the loudest voices braying for the blood of the young black men called the Central Park Five.

In that essay, with the curdled title "Sentimental Journeys," Didion wrote of the inevitability of the court's verdict. This Western transplant to the Upper East Side understood, to invoke the name of the Bill Moyers series of interviews with Joseph Campbell, the power of myth. Call it culture. Call it religion. It is the same. And it is the reason you cannot have a rational conversation with a Trump voter.

So fixed were the emotions provoked by this case that the idea that there could have been, for even one juror, even a moment’s doubt in the state’s case, let alone the kind of doubt that could be sustained over ten days or twelve, seemed, to many in the city, bewildering, almost unthinkable: the attack on the jogger had by then passed into narrative, and the narrative was about confrontation, about what Governor Cuomo [Mario; Andrew's father] had called “the ultimate shriek of alarm,” about what was wrong with the city and about its solution. What was wrong with the city had been identified, and its names were Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, and Steve Lopez.

In 2002, these men - yes, say their names - were completely exonerated. But the myth rolled on; in fact, the myth grew more powerful. It elected a president. It nearly brought down a country.

The jury is still out on that one.

If you read the whole essay, what’s notable is the superb, comprehensive research and reporting by a writer who is better known for injecting the personal into the political. A dogged reporter, a gatherer and synthesizer of facts, a chronicler of history, Didion was as unsparing with herself as she was with her subjects. She was not, like her contemporary New Yorker writer Janet Malcom, mean. She was merely clinical. But it was more than that.

As Frank Bruni noted in The New York Times, Didion leapfrogged over inane debates over journalistic “objectivity” a phrase that was already out of vogue thirty years ago when I attended journalism school. We strived for fairness, a noble concept, but one that placed us in the seat of authority. I’m not averse to journalists sitting there: we work hard to earn that place. But the right has been questioned, nonetheless.

What Didion did, Bruni wrote on Dec. 24 was this:

She conceded her subjectivity. Traced her blind spots. Showed her hand. Instead of mimicking the swagger and voice-of-God authority that many other journalists affected, she stipulated — sometimes as the very subject of an essay, other times in its margins — to what a peculiar narrator she could be. She cataloged her own oddities, and she did so not as an exercise in narcissism but as an act of candor.... Didion had the boldness and brilliance to realize, ahead of her time, that she bolstered her credibility and cemented her bond with readers if she volunteered that her sensibilities invariably steered her in certain directions and circumscribed her observations. So she owned up to her prejudices and parameters. She copped to her leanings and limits.

Telling people how you feel, what you think, in an unvarnished way can be seen as a particularly female way of writing. There’s a modesty in that kind of first person, rather than the egotism of the writer saying, in the old joke: “Enough about me, let’s talk about me.” Didion’s use of the first person places the writer on an equal footing with the reader.

“I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together,” she wrote.

Bruno tells us that Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, was with her. “I avoid his eyes,” she wrote. “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”

I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.

What’s more female than confiding that your marriage is going to hell? And dispensing with hierarchy? It’s never been our friend.

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Most people haven't read Didion's long, ruminative pieces in The New York Review of Books. They refer to Didion’s early work when they talk about her, or The Year of Magical Thinking, a perfect book, not a word out of place, written after the death of her husband and daughter, a time when many of us would have trouble standing upright, much less writing a book. That dispassionate clarity may have helped her survive as well as write. The book helps those of us who have suffered grief less articulately.

Much has been made of Didion’s remark in a documentary made by her nephew about witnessing a hippie couple in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury dose their five-year-old with LSD.

When she was asked whether “Let me tell you, it was gold,” she told her nephew, Griffin Dunne. “You live for moments like that if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Is that proto-Parkinson’s or merely a journalist talking? While her particular brain chemistry may have been a torment to Didion (the migraines, a generally bleak prognosis, those Santa Ana winds) her way of seeing was a watershed for literature.

As a young writer, Didion reportedly typed out Hemingway’s novels to hone her ability to chisel out sentences. Like Hemingway, Joan Didion changed American writing. It wasn’t her novels, where her lack of emotion could be unsatisfying, but in her nonfiction. None of us would write the way we do if it hadn’t been for Didion. You can’t say that about many men. You can say it about even fewer women.

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A Tennessee Williams Heroine?

"Didion will always look in the absolute worst places for her directions; this trait we share. What is fascinating is what she will make of her botched cues, wrong turns, markers lost in fog or rain or the migraines of the morning. When she makes her way back to the comfortable home, with the right china and silver, the fragrant and flawless flowers, the potpourri in tidy bowls, candles on the table, what does she remember? Like an attenuated princess in a Grimm fairy tale, she must gather her woolens about her and sigh in amazement that she narrowly escaped death, injury, the third revision of the script at Fox, the snub at the restaurant, the receipt that blew out the window of the cab as it drove down Park, an act that caused her to miss the newly planted tulips.

"These acts of outrage and inconvenience will lead her to her own pale judgment, and her anger will produce those flawless, toxic sentences: fortunes from cookies dipped in arsenic and placed on the perfect Spode plate. Didion knows the price and the cost of everything: one dies in a dress that was on lay-a-way, with $3.85 owing; one flies from New York to Los Angeles not only first class but having left behind a sick child and a husband who may or not be having an affair heading to a room at the Wilshire with a credit card bearing a limit of two hundred dollars.

"There is so much waiting for us, and so little to bring to its fruition--in terms of money, physical and psychic strength, courtesy, simple energy.

"You wear the right clothes, smile at the right people, dab on some Fracas, and step boldly into the party at which you need to be seen, but always there is a snake in the garden, a wind in the mountains that may bring fire or corrosive dust, an incipient migraine or an affair or a joke gone bad that erases that thirteen-episode commitment that would have paid for the apartment, the school, the summer home, the sports car that might have satisfied the randy husband.

"We are all doomed, but we smile and we move and we greet the pale judgment - or whatever surface on which we imprint our lives. We do what we can.”

- Interview with James Grissom for Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and The Women of the Fog

Bonnie Friedman: The Telling Detail

When I think of Joan Didion, I think of her almost fetishistic respect for the specific fact.  Idlewild Temporary Terminal. A thermostat set at 35 degrees. The precise number of bullets that killed Gary Gilmore. The  exact length of time it took for the ambulance to arrive after her husband collapsed. The particulars that compose the world evoked from her a certain almost fixated reverence, as if each was a doorway to mysteries, a bridge between the detectable world and the larger constellation that structures reality. She taught an alertness to specifics, as if each data point were deeply obscure and illuminating at once. I began each semester of creative nonfiction writing by looking at "Goodbye to All That" with my students, to show them the specific work it takes to be a writer. It is a lesson that I'm never done learning.  Joan Didion was almost chillingly good, and of a very different temperament from my own. Her work drew me as a salt lick draws a deer; I always returned to her. She to me is like one of those essential facts she reverenced: brimming with information both above and below the surface. I was shocked when I heard that she had died. That this wondrous and mythic and fragile life had come to an end. This number of pages and not a word more.

The Radical Transparency of Joan Didion

Frank Bruni : The New York Times

But she also stood out — and had enormous impact — for something else: She conceded her subjectivity. Traced her blind spots. Showed her hand. Instead of mimicking the swagger and voice-of-God authority that many other journalists affected, she stipulated — sometimes as the very subject of an essay, other times in its margins — to what a peculiar narrator she could be. She cataloged her own oddities, and she did so not as an exercise in narcissism but as an act of candor.

In the news business over recent years, there has been significant discussion about whether any one writer can be wholly objective and neutral, whether it’s wise to assert (or, perhaps, pretend) as much, whether the idea that a particular account could have been produced in its exact form by any number of different reporters is patently false on its face. Some outlets now give their audiences more information about the people bringing them the news or permit those journalists to create profiles on social media that are a kind of piecemeal, steadily accruing autobiography. That’s not intended as a surrender to subjectivity. It’s meant as transparency.

Well, Didion was there long ago. Her signature essays from the 1960s and 1970s — which, for the true Didion cultist, mattered infinitely more than her novels or than anything else until her grief memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, in 2005 — were radically transparent. That’s not to say that she didn’t selectively edit the aspects of her life that she presented for public consumption, hold on to secrets, turn herself into a character of her choosing. Every writer does that. Every human does that.

But Didion had the boldness and brilliance to realize, ahead of her time, that she bolstered her credibility and cemented her bond with readers if she volunteered that her sensibilities invariably steered her in certain directions and circumscribed her observations. So she owned up to her prejudices and parameters. She copped to her leanings and limits.

Read the whole thing at The Times.

Joan Didion Was Our Bard of Disenchantment

Megan Dauber: The Atlantic

In 1988, Joan Didion joined a scrum of reporters on the tarmac of the San Diego airport to witness the writing of the first draft of history. The assembled journalists were trailing the Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. She was trailing the journalists. Didion watched as a baseball was procured, a staffer tossed the ball to the candidate, he tossed it back—and as the cameras dutifully captured the exchange. She watched as presidential fitness was redefined as athletic prowess with the consent of the national media—as the myths that shape, and limit, Americans’ sense of political possibility were manufactured in real time. She documented the moment in an essay for The New York Review of Books. It was titled “Insider Baseball,” and it has since been, like so many of Didion’s essays, so widely imitated that its innovations can be easy to overlook. But the piece was singular, and scathing: a collective profile of, as she wrote, “that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”

Didion died today at 87, still one of this moment’s most debated and admired and consequential writers. Thinking about her wide body of work—essays, novels, memoirs, pieces of criticism, each with their own tendrils and limbs—I keep coming back to “Insider Baseball,” because it captures something so essential about her approach. She was a storyteller who rejected mythology. She had no patience for the pablum sold in the hectic American marketplace: bootstraps, merits, salvations. Her most common subject, instead, was entropy. And her second-most-common subject was grief. She observed the world that was, even as she mourned the world that might have been.

The first line of “The White Album,” Didion’s partially autobiographical account of L.A. in the 1960s, goes like this: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” What is sometimes forgotten is the series of lines that comes after it. “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices,” she writes, in part. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” 


Read the rest at The Atlantic here.