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American Truth and Hysteria: The Evolution of Joan Didion

By Sam Diamond.

In the mid-1960s, Joan Didion spent time in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in an attempt to understand the lifestyles and politics of a generation of hippies and dropouts. The tone of her account, which was first published in 1967 under the title Slouching Towards Bethlehem, conflicted with many others of the time, which presented the counterculture as utopian and liberating. Instead, Didion honed in on the climate of disorder she witnessed rather than the utopia others had noted. In a particularly shocking section, Didion recounts her experience of meeting a preschool-age child who has been given LSD by her parents:

The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me she is in High Kindergarten. She lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, ice cream, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach.

For Didion, the girl is a symbol of the anarchic, dangerous and ultimately damaging disorder at the heart of the movement. In fact, she goes further than this: by noting that the girl likes Coca-Cola, ice cream, the beach, it’s as if this girl is a representation of the youth of America. But despite the shocking nature of the account, these wider suggestions are misleading. As Louis Menand noted in his New Yorker review of Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Didion The Last Love Song, ‘when Didion’s article came out, only one percent of college students reported having tried LSD […] In 1969, only four per cent of adults said they had smoked marijuana.’ Didion’s argument was hyperbolic, stemming from her own rigid moral standards.

The popular image of Didion is from this period in her career. She appears as the intrepid but invisible reporter, leaning up against her Corvette. She knew anyone and everyone in 1960s Los Angeles and chronicled the decade’s steady deterioration and decay. You can even buy a leather jacket emblazoned with Didion’s picture. Her quotes float around Facebook, styled as self-help mantras, imposed across pictures of her smoking and staring stone-faced into the camera. The dominance of this image of Didion is extremely limited, and unfair on a writer who deserves recognition befitting the full shape of her corpus.

Over the course of her long career, Didion changed her politics, the focus of her work, and her literary style. She became a markedly better and more illuminating writer. It might be tempting to equate her with the image of the young, cool reporter – or the Céline model – but this would be a disservice to a writer whose approach to journalism and truth can teach us so much about our current situation. Ignoring her later journalism makes no sense. Particularly when it’s so good.

If in Slouching Towards Bethlehem Didion is certain but misled, another of her well-read collections displayed a greater sense of ambivalence. The White Album sees Didion unable to impose the same level of meaning on events as she had in San Francisco, and the results are far more interesting. As Patricia Lockworth argued in a recent article in the London Review of Books, Didion’s style resembles pointillism, a technique of painting in which small, distinct dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the larger image made up of smaller patches of colour is coherent. If the same principle was applied to The White Album, the larger image would be a mess of colour, perhaps an impressionistic blur.

Didion meets Manson murderer Linda Kasabian, who she notes is perfectly put-together and holds the innocent glow of youth, which for Didion sits uncomfortably with the fact that she is a murderer. In another section, Huey Newton of the Black Panthers is shot and seeks medical care at a Kaiser Foundation hospital but refuses to sign the admission form, ‘a classic instance of a historical outsider confronting the established order at its most petty and impenetrable level.’ But Newton, Didion learns, is, in fact, enrolled in the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan – he has health insurance. He doesn’t fit the image Didion instinctually has of him. Didion cannot make sense of these conflicts, noting that ‘Certain of these images did not fit into any narrative I knew.’ Rather than force these impressions into coherence, or ignore those that do not fit the narrative, she presents them in their incoherence. This represents an important evolution. It is a move away from distorted argument and polemic to accurate representation, embracing the incoherence of reality.

Following The White Album, Didion’s focus shifted. After the events she had covered in that collection demonstrated that the truth is never straightforward and rarely coherent, much of her work began to focus on debunking false claims or narratives in the public realm, a focus which in turn led to a shift in her politics. This work is among the best in her career.

The most enlightening instance, identified by Menand, comes in Where I Was From, a work of memoir which Didion began as early as 1973, although it did not see publication until after the death of her parents (it was published in 2003). Didion introduces her adopted daughter Quintana to a reconstruction of Sacramento, California as it existed in the 1850s, when Didion’s father had owned a saloon there. While explaining this to Quintana, Didion realises that ‘in fact, I had no more attachment to this wooden sidewalk than Quintana did: it was no more than a theme, a decorative effect […] It was only Quintana who was real.’

This realisation is the basis for an exploration of Californian false consciousness. Before this moment, Didion had been in thrall to the idea of California as the fulfilment of manifest destiny and pioneer spirit, a living monument to a particular resourceful and dynamic American character. She recreates this impression through reproducing the travel accounts of her ancestors, who made the treacherous journey across the country.  She includes the text of a speech she gave at school as a young girl in June 1948: ‘They who came to California were not the self-satisfied, happy and content people, but the adventurous, the restless, and the daring.’

But in fact, the Californian reality is a little different. The development of the state relied on heavily subsidised agriculture and federally-funded industry, and so the image of California as a dynamic, independent land of pioneers is an illusion:

The extreme reliance of California on federal money, so seemingly at odds with the emphasis on unfettered individualism that constitutes the local core belief, was a pattern set early on, and derived in part from the very individualism it would seek to belie.

This observation sees Didion take the opposite role to that she had been guilty of assuming in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Rather than further her own narrative, she witnesses the false narratives implicit in the public consciousness and debunks them in the service of truth.

Didion is also capable of using this technique to evaluate urgent political events with laser-sharp focus. In New York, Sentimental Journeys, a piece which was published in 1991 in the New York Review of Books under the editorship of Robert B. Silvers, Didion takes as her subject the media coverage of the Central Park jogger rape case, which had caught the imagination of the city.

The crux of Didion’s argument is as follows: the brutal rape of a female jogger running through Central Park had been adopted by the media as a symbol of a city overrun by crime, specifically street crime, perpetrated by the black population. This had the effect of advancing New York’s image as an exciting and dynamic city, held back only by its unfortunate crime problem, while also enlivened by it. The foregrounding of the image of the rape of a young, white, attractive, female investment banker as she jogged through Central Park by four black men and one Latino man enabled the city to focus on an overstated black crime problem rather than its more pressing issues, such as a lack of tax revenue and a failing economy. Didion sums this up in her cogent dissection of the New York Times‘s coverage of the case:

New York, the Times concluded, “invigorated” the jogger, “matched her energy level.” At a time when the city lay virtually inert, when forty thousand jobs had been wiped out in the financial markets and former traders were selling shirts at Bergdorf Goodman for Men, when the rate of mortgage delinquencies had doubled, when fifty or sixty million square feet of office space remained unrented (sixty million square feet of unrented office space is the equivalent of fifteen darkened World Trade Towers) and even prime commercial blocks on Madison Avenue in the Seventies were boarded up, empty; at a time when the money had dropped out of all the markets and the Europeans who had lent the city their élan and their capital during the eighties had moved on, vanished to more cheerful venues, this notion of the city’s “energy” was sedative, as was the commandeering of “crime” as the city’s central problem.

Although she does not state it directly, it is clear that Didion suspected the men to be innocent, their arrests a symptom of the New York establishment’s racist outlook.

Despite the best efforts of Donald Trump, who took out a full-page ad in the New York Daily News calling for the return of the death penalty, they were cleared of the crime years later in 2002, and received compensation from the city of New York for $41 million. Didion’s ability to see the truth below the hysterical media and public atmosphere here is impressive, and the essay stands among her finest work. It also follows the opposite approach to that which had taken in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, where she had joined the public outcry.

This new approach to truth through a finely-tuned skepticism seems to have transformed Didion’s politics. In New York, Sentimental Journeys, her distanced perspective granted Didion the ability to view the case as representative of wider ideological trends, a distillation of a city being pulled in opposite directions by capital and reality, a flashpoint in the battle between competing economic and social forces. Although Didion was mistaken in thinking that high finance and gentrification would lose this battle, she was incisive in identifying the lines of contention that would dominate the city in the following decades.

Following these lines of enquiry, Didion turned her focus to the grounds of electoral politics, where she found similar themes at play. In an essay on the 1988 election campaign, Insider Baseball, her attempt to uncover genuine political narratives is thwarted by the fact that politics has become nothing more than a media exercise operated on the behalf of capital. The title refers to a scene she witnessed on several occasions while on the election trail with Michael Dukakis. Dukakis’s aids identify that he has a problem appearing as a man-of-the-people, that he seems removed from the regular guy on the street. In response to this, they orchestrate a series of press opportunities where after landing at a campaign stop Dukakis throws a baseball on the runway with his campaign staff while the press pack watch on. Rather than report the clearly ridiculous, desperate and artificial nature of this, the press relay dutifully that Dukakis is ‘just a regular guy.’ As Didion notes, the press has a shared understanding; only someone ‘too naive to know the rules of the game’ would report the artificial nature of the baseball set-piece. Politics and the media are one and the same, enforcing their shared ideology for mutual gain and unable to engage with reality.

In order to fight this false consensus, Didion economised her style. In an essay on the 1992 election campaign entitled Eyes on the Prize, she steps away from the material on which she is reporting and lets it stand for itself, avoiding the instinct to polemicise. For example, observing Bill Clinton, Didion recalls that ‘By the time the candidate reached Madison Square Gardens he had incorporated into his acceptance speech the very line with which the incumbent Republican president, in February 1992 at Concord, New Hampshire, had formally opened his campaign for reelection: “If we can change the world we can change America.”’ What is the reader supposed to take from this quote? Didion provides no supplementary commentary, and the quote is left to hang in the air. Is the quote an example of a spokesman for the vacuous political class sloganeering to no end? Is it, as Didion has been arguing, an instance of the Democratic party distancing itself from issues in favor of personality? Does it represent a narrowing of the political field, the exponential growth of the middle section of a Venn diagram enveloping Right and Left?

There is the impression that although it could be any or all of these things, it is important that Didion does not do the thinking on behalf of the reader, following this quote with a break in the text. In this silence, the reader is forced to draw their own meaning. This approach serves to democratise her perspective. These spaces, which appear with increasing frequency in her later work, grant the reader the opportunity to reach their own conclusion – a rhetorical style which enables reader participation.

By stepping away from the text and giving the reader space, Didion avoids the prescriptiveness that those she is implicitly criticising are guilty of. The way to come to a helpful, accurate and understood version of the truth and escape the manipulation of the media-political class is not to use their own techniques against them, it is to strip away the distortions without replacing them with one’s own. Didion leaves room for the readers themselves to enter the text, ensuring that they join her in the project of elucidation rather than submit to her control. This approach has much to teach us in the current nadir of political falsehood. Didion’s technique served to aid the exposure of a New York real estate mogul in New York: Sentimental Journeys. We should hope that such an approach might help again now that he’s President.

Sam Diamond is originally from London. He currently lives in Berlin, where he works in technology. He is in the process of completing a PhD on the history of the concept of authenticity in US literature in the latter half of the 20th Century at Queen Mary University of London. You can find him on Twitter at @samueldiamond.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 30th, 2018.