Joan Didion

Joan Didion

I was reading The White Album, Joan Didion’s 1979 collection of essays when I came across a passage describing student unrest at San Francisco State University in 1968. Didion admits that she had missed the really big student protests earlier at Berkeley and Columbia, and that while she was expecting much of the same at SFSU, she was disappointed.

“The place simply never seemed serious,” she recalls in the title essay. Students and the administration weren’t locked in opposition to each other, and the latter seemed rather happy to help the former achieve most if not all of their goals, including providing easy access to the media to publicize their grievances.

“Everyone seemed joined in a rather festive camaraderie, a shared jargon, a shared sense of moment: the future was no longer arduous and indefinite but immediate and programmatic, aglow with the prospect of problems to be “addressed” and plans to be “implemented.” It was agreed all around that the confrontations could be “a very healthy development,” that maybe it took a shutdown “to get something done.” The mood, like the architecture, was 1948 functional, a model of pragmatic optimism.”

I was reminded of the wave of 2017 student protests at Evergreen, Arizona State, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Brown, Reed, Cincinnati, Pennsylvania and, yes, Berkeley, which were met by administrations eager to capitulate to student demands no matter how extreme. It struck me that the presidents and deans and faculty of today are either the descendents or the very same students of 1968, and that if Didion is to be believed, the crisis in higher education was well underway 50 years ago, with the mood of 2017 being very much 1968 functional, like much of the architecture.

It’s with shame that I’m forced to admit that I’ve finally gotten around to reading Joan Didion only after watching a documentary about her on Netflix. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Holdbegins with Canned Heat on the soundtrack and the camera panning over scenes of San Francisco’s late ‘60s counterculture while the writer talks about the realization that she had gone there to come to terms with what she calls “disorder.”

The film rewinds to her childhood in the rather uncompromising strictures of a family of patrician pioneers, a Californian who admits that she finds the place “a wearying enigma.” Precocious and creative, she wins an essay contest as a Berkeley senior that lands her a job at Voguemagazine in New York, and with that her career and her life begin.

The film, directed by her nephew, the actor Griffin Dunne, is fond and candid up to a certain point. The point at which that candour peaks is glimpsed in a New Yorkerreview, which describes the moment at which Didion’s career as an essayist catches fire.

Didion had been tasked by a magazine to go to San Francisco to observe the counterculture: the hippie culture and the kids arriving there from all over the country and the world. On the way, Didion gets a vision of that “disorder” she talks about in the opening minutes, distilled in the spectacle of a 5-year-old girl reading a comic book in a pea coat and white lipstick who has been given LSD by her mother.

In theNew Yorkerstory, Didion’s reaction to this scene, nearly 50 years later, is raptly anatomized. She says “Well, it was…” and pauses. The writer fills in the blank for us, and imagines what was going on in her mind: Well, it was appalling. I wanted to call an ambulance. I wanted to call the police. I wanted to help. I wanted to weep. I wanted to get the hell out of there and get home to my own two-year-old daughter, and protect her from the present and the future.”

Instead, Didion describes it as “gold.”

“You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece,” she says. “Good or bad.”

It is, to be sure, a horrow show of a moment, but it embodies that spiraling “disorder” Didion found in a single, unforgettable image upon which the whole piece – contained in her Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her first collection of essay – hangs. That book, and much of The White Album, are fascinating documents of culture and society at a watershed moment, and I’m ashamed that I’ve never seen fit to read Didion’s eyewitness account before.

It would be impossible to cast Didion or her late husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, or her circle of friends and colleagues as anything less than the products and the embodiment of a now-old-school liberal intellectual establishment. Didion has spent her career writing for publications like Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, the New York Times, and the New York Review of Books. Until I actually read Didion, I listed her name among the many novelists, essayists and journalists who told stories that confirmed the worldview of the people who once read the Sunday New York Timesover the course of a week, at first with a gourmand’s greedy fervor over brunch and coffee, and then piecemeal, like leftovers, for the next six days.

I wasn’t prepared for Didion’s 1972 essay on the women’s movement, which it describes up front as explicitly Marxist, even Stalinist, and pityingly looks upon its inability to overcome ideology when confronted with the inconvenient prerogatives of, say, creative fiction.

“To those of us who remain committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities, the feminist analysis may have seemed a particularly narrow and cracked determinism,” Didion writes.

“Burn the literature, Ti-Grace Atkinson said in effect when it was suggested that, even come the revolution, there would still remain the whole body of ‘sexist’ Western literature.”

“If the family was the last fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family. If the necessity for conventional reproduction of the species seemed unfair to women, then let us transcend, via technology, ‘the very organization of nature,’ the oppression, as Shulamith Firestone saw it, ‘that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself’.”

From the perspective of 2018, these decades-old words seem prophetic, but they’re merely the observations of a more-than-decent journalist who had an inkling of where we were headed – of the approach of galloping “disorder.”

Didion and her peers were very much like the executives and academics of today, who pay lip service to the apparently self-evident virtues of progressive politics and social justice, but who comport themselves and raise their families with the provable benefits of venerable institutions, and a moral code that would be recognizeable to their grandparents, like the tech billionaire who restricts the access of his children to cell phones and screens.

The tragedy of Didion’s story, as told in her nephew’s documentary, is the death of her husband and her daughter less than two years apart. Being a mother and a wife and part of a family was clearly grounding and restorative and of paramount importance to someone like Didion, who has been frank about her abiding sense of alienation and lingering personal neuroses in her work.

Which is why an anecdote in the film about their early family life was so poignant. After adopting their daughter as an infant – the birth mother and her circumstances are never explained – Didion and Dunne have to wait two weeks to have their baby baptized. Despite being an outspoken lapsed Catholic, Dunne is unable to bear the thought of risking his daughter to the infant purgatory of limbo, and so sneaks off one night after everyone has gone to sleep and baptizes the child himself in a bathroom sink.

Didion’s books are considered modern classics and remain in print, and the film ends with her at the White House, receiving a National Humanities Medal from Barack Obama. But much of what she wrote in books like The White Albumand Slouching Towards Bethlehemprobably wouldn’t see print today outside the niche imprints of conservative publishers or websites whose writers are frequently banned from Twitter. The goal posts have been moved so far by now that we are playing, for all intents and purposes, a whole different game.