First Person

I Wanted Joan Didion’s Heart to Be Messy


Many of us expect our women writers to lay their emotions bare. But as this excerpt from 'Slouching Toward Los Angeles' reveals, emotion does not define meaning for California's native daughter—and that can be a hard lesson.



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For a long time, I wanted Joan Didion’s heart. I wanted her heart because of how I venerated the exacting lucidity and fearsome organization of her mind. I wanted her heart to be as messy as mine, but I could never find that mess etched on her pages. I couldn’t see myself in her willowy limbs, or her biography, but perhaps inside her I could discover that we shared some primordial swamp of longing and shame and rage.

But even when her life became redefined by grief, even in her self-revelation, she remained unreachable. She may have shattered, but the glass between us didn’t. Her later memoirs of enduring the deaths of her husband and daughter refused to offer the emotional enmeshment and catharsis I sought, even when she exposed, in writing, her survival of the unimaginable.

It’s a lousy thing to gripe about. I’m not complaining that she didn’t suffer enough, only noting the sheer control with which she carved her story of a life utterly out of control. That’s what she makes; that’s how she’s made. Decades before those deaths, in an essay that she wrote in 1969 after a breakdown—her psychic rupture and the culture’s alike—she tells us that she wants us to know, as we read her, precisely who she is and where she is and what is on her mind. She says she is someone who needs “to try harder to make things matter” (“In the Islands,” The White Album); perhaps the baby, for example, never the work. What matters is what she witnesses, not how she feels about it. And that’s only a problem if you’re her husband, or her daughter—or a reader—trying to connect with her feeling. It’s become our Didion aphorism, that she writes to find out what she thinks—what she sees and what it means, as she writes. In the American chaos, she sees with startling clarity. That is where the meaning lies. It’s not a place of passion.

Yet what once maddened me, I’ve come to embrace, and see today as powerfully antithetical to the once-and-future popular modes of writing and womanhood alike. For Didion, emotion is not currency, nor does it hold necessary or defining meaning. Nor will she exist as the mirror of any of us, and certainly not all of us. Such tenets and practices are at odds with what we expect of our women writers, our women at all. Didion’s work remains, in a scriptural sense, in the world but not of it. There is no fray that claims her, no quicksand that she wades into alongside us, to be swallowed whole. “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,” she writes in “In the Islands.”

In “The Women’s Movement,” her thoughts on feminism’s tidal Second Wave, Didion briefly admits to living in the shared womanhood she defines as “that dark involvement with blood and birth and death.” But her entry into the female fracas was not written to express solidarity but profound irritation—essentially, that the making of an omelet does not amount to indentured servitude. To note, there’s a grand class issue in much of her writing, sometimes effective, sometimes galling. But that’s a discussion for another essay. Didion would not become anyone’s idea of a woman: the helpmate or the revolutionary. She would not politicize her gender. While the writing about death—so much messy death, yet written with absolute control—would come later in considering her own loss; the writing about blood and birth never would.

To that point, I often think of how Didion became a mother. Giving birth does not make a woman a mother, any more than motherhood makes one a woman. But consider how radically separate she lives from so many of us. On a New Year’s sail off Catalina with a friend who’d starred opposite Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo, talk was of cocktails and babies. After quite a few of the former, the friend suggested Didion contact a certain pediatrician to discuss adopting one of the latter. This pediatrician had patient files labelled Garbo, Garland, and Taylor, and was with Bobby and Jackie in the intensive care unit the night Kennedy was assassinated. Some time later the phone rang. A baby had been born. They drove to see friends in Beverly Hills, and got smashed there on drinks chilled with ice from a crystal bucket. Over the next few days, Didion tells us, she bought a layette at Saks and brought her daughter home in a silk-lined cashmere blanket. Then she bought a collection of pastel dresses and a parasol and planned a trip to Saigon. She wanted to report on the war. It didn’t occur to her, she has written, that she shouldn’t just bring the baby.

Didion deems the Saks layette worthy of storytelling—but not the miscarriages her biographer, and others, have written she suffered. Does she owe us that blood? The mess of her life back then, as she shares it, is when Roman Polanski spills red wine on the short silk dress she was buying at the moment Bobby Kennedy was shot—the dress she wore with dark glasses to her own wedding. She will not take off those glasses if she chooses not to. The self remains largely unexcavated, the mess largely unplumbed, compared with many of our brilliant female minds, even among those like Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick, whose rise came a decade earlier, built on pages of sex, yearning, doubt, loneliness. Such revelations are not Didion’s fare. She fits neatly nowhere, not in the decades of women writers to follow, who have written in menses’ ink, who have mined miscarriages and miscalculations, constructing connection through the medium of mess itself. She isn’t interested in reflecting our personal chaoses, any more than she is interested in reflecting society. Alongside her exactitude in reporting and writing alike, this is where her power lies.

She has become a literal icon, an image of a holy figure, in part because she exists at a remote distance from the lives of her readers. Her iconography is the cigarette and the Stingray, and later, the Celine ads, not the work at all. But the work is what matters. She is the work and the work is her. This is what is evident in her writing about motherhood, marriage, the mania of an era, which swallowed so much of her generation. Yet she gazes, cigarette in hand, from the cathedral walls flanked almost entirely by a markedly different pantheon of female writer. To see only aspirational cool is to worship the icon, not the writing itself, to miss how she trains her eyes on the Babel, not Bethlehem, of her homeland and her era, the “odd things going around town.” On death, always death, finding its threat, its completion, everywhere, long before it so dramatically and wholly ransacked her own home. And how she enforces order in the anarchy, through absolute restraint, word after word, sentence after sentence. In detached observation she makes incomparable meaning from the meaningless. Meaning is not synonymous with opinion. That fact undergirds most of her writing. And yet, in our era of hot takes—boiled in emotional hemorrhage—that distinction strikes me as utterly lost.

Didion gave Slouching Toward Bethlehem its name not just because the center famously could not hold, but for the entirety of the Yeats epigraph she chose: two long stanzas she said had vibrated in her head for years. The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity. During those years, she was an exception within a new vanguard of nonfiction, a New Journalism that exulted in mess, and the pugilism of nonstop opinion, guillotining so-called objectivity. Just as she opted out of the conventions of how a woman should write, or raise a child, she defined herself as separate from the journalists who brought the first person roaring into reporting, pasting together what I see with what I think. Manhattan was the headquarters of New Journalism’s swaggering, tumescent male domain. Goodbye to all that, etc. Instead of pontificating on Dick Cavett, Didion excused herself to hang her curtains in the land of the golden dream, making meaning of America by cutting crystal of its senselessness.

Opinion has become the mess of our time, just as anarchic collapse defined Didion’s 1960s. The blood that connects us today, regardless of identity, is one defined by the passionate intensity that troubled her in the years even before the Manson murders, before the Panthers, before Bobby Kennedy got shot. That blood does not bathe her in passionate intensity. That absence of passionate intensity may have frustrated me once, a younger me, who yearned to connect and see myself in her. That may have frustrated me when we were merely swirling in this political and cultural gyre, before we’d dropped fully into its depths. Now that we have, the only yearning I feel is for her clarity.

Excerpted from Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light, an anthology that pays homage to California’s native daughter and literary giant Joan Didion, edited by Steffie Nelson, now available now from Rare Bird.

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