For the longest time, all through my twenties and well into my thirties, if someone asked me who my favorite writer was, I would say Joan Didion. Then, I stopped saying it, not because I no longer liked her writing, but because I had so many temporary crushes on other writers that I would say I no longer had one favorite writer.

Then I read The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and the swoon returned. She is just the best, I felt again. How does she do that? How does she make me feel these things so deeply? How do I get to this level of understanding with her? How do I hear the deep enduring questions?

Every time I open a book of hers and read just one page, I feel once again that she is my favorite writer. Not for her subject matter, but for her writing.

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

These are the first lines of The Year of Magical Thinking, the entry into a gut-wrenching journey with Didion as she takes us along on the first year after the sudden and unexpected death of her long-time husband, John Gregory Dunne. They were living in Manhattan at the time. He was 71 and she was 69. She did some of her best writing in the eighteen years after his death.

“We had come home.
We had discussed whether to go out for dinner or eat in.
I said I would build a fire, so we could eat in.
I built the fire, I started dinner, I asked John if he wanted a drink.
I got him a Scotch and gave it to him in the living room, where he was reading in the chair by the fire where he habitually sat.
The book he was reading was by David Fromkin, a bound galley of Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?
I finished getting dinner, I set the table in the living room where, when we were home alone, we could eat within sight of the fire. I find myself stressing the fire because fires were important to us. I grew up in California, John and I lived there together for twenty-four years, in California we heated our houses by building fires. We built fires even on summer evenings, because the fog came in. Fires said we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe through the night. I lit the candles. John asked for a second drink before sitting down. I gave it to him. We sat down. My attention was on mixing the salad.
John was talking. Then he wasn’t”(9-10).

This is her description of the moment her husband of four-decades died. If one were to take these sentences apart and examine the words, they would find nothing particularly special. And yet, the way Didion puts them together, the detail she chooses to include and omit, the pacing and the cadence she creates with their rhythm, makes her verse exceptional.

She says just enough, not too much, at once transmitting meaninglessness and meaningfulness. She is unquestioningly one of the top writers of our time, capturing the last sixty years in pieces eloquent and enduring—succinct and moving time capsules.

Often in her writing you don’t know what to feel but then you realize that is the point. There is an eerie truth lurking, the hollowed out reality many of us are living.

One of the best American writers of all time

Didion was popular, not only for her writing. She had a lot of friends, many of them famous, and she hosted lots of parties. Though her writing is cool and detached, which is part of its power, people who knew her found her warm, loving and fun. She started out as a “Goldwater Republican,” but her views evolved through time.

Though she may have remained somewhat conservative, often when people say that about Didion they are responding to her analytical, critical eye, which is a stamp and trademark of her work. Not wholly taking someone’s word, going for fads or easy platitudes, she instead  devoted her work to trying to get under the surface gloss and rhetoric to the truth or motivation beneath. She had a precise and accurate sixth sense that she followed. Her critical eye kept her always at a distance culturally. But this was not true of her as a person or in her personal life. The critical eye was how she worked, it was her tool and her gift.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

I had not planned on reading the title essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem from her book of the same name for this post. That famous piece about the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco at the height of the hippie era. I had read it so many other times. I thought there couldn’t be anything left for me to get from it. Yet I felt pulled to read it again.

In the preface of my old yellowed copy, I noticed for the first time Didion commenting on how that particular essay, the one that helped raise her to prominence, had been received. She felt most people had missed her point. Didion writes:

“It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder. That was why the piece was important to me. And after it was printed I saw that, however directly and flatly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read and even liked the piece, failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads. Disc jockeys telephoned my house and wanted to discuss (on the air) the incidence of “filth” in the Haight-Ashbury, and acquaintances congratulated me on having finished the piece “just in time,” because “the whole fad’s dead now, fini, kaput.” I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) the I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point”(xii). That essay was written in 1967.

Joan Didion was trying to warn us about a breakdown—the atomization— of our culture and the ramifications it may have on our future. As with so much of her writing, her words remain a valid clarion call. She is often called prophetic and it seems in reading her work, that we have still not arrived at an understanding of all she was trying to tell us.

Though conservative pundits have capitalized on what they call “family values,” that is not what Didion is talking about. Conservatives and liberals alike can agree that the loss of community and feelings of alienation that stalk our country and our youth were and remain a huge issue. Only being made worse by the arrival of social media platforms, the danger of a disenfranchised and disconnected youth combined with what someone with ill intentions can do to capitalize on that angst is what Slouching Towards Bethlehem is about.

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem Didion writes about the so called hippie culture of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the 1960s but she is also calling out those who came into the district to take advantage of this lost youth. She states with prescient clarity the danger of people no longer able to think for themselves when manipulators move in and tell them what to think and what to do. How this group of disenfranchised youth or people can become a powerful army for anyone who wants to manipulate them. This vacuum that was created by the end of WW2, the changes in the culture and then the advent of the Vietnam War created a population ripe for this.

“One did not have to be a political analyst to see it; the boys in the rock groups saw it, because they were often where it was happening. “In the Park there are always twenty or thirty people below the stand,” one of the Dead complained to me. “Ready to take the crowd on some militant trip.”

But the peculiar beauty of this political potential, as far as the activists were concerned, was that it remained not clear at all to most of the inhabitants of the District, perhaps because the few seventeen-year-olds who are political realists tend not to adopt romantic idealism as a life style. Nor was it clear to the press, which at varying levels of competence continued to report, “the hippie phenomenon” as an extended panty raid; an avant-guard led by such comfortable YHMA regulars as Allen Ginsberg; or a thoughtful protest. . .Of course the activists—not those whose thinking had become rigid, but those whose approach to revolution was imaginatively anarchic—had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game”(122-123).

This theme of disillusion and dissolution in the America Didion was sold in youth, the dissolution in the American dream, the American story we are all sold, is a strong theme in Didion’s writing. In her essay Where I Was From (2003), she writes of her extreme love for where she was from: Sacramento, California, and the stories sold to her about how it was settled by brave pioneers, among whom many of her ancestors can be counted. But she slowly comes to understand how California was settled, how the land was sold off to corporate greed, the wealth accumulated by few who often did not step foot on the land.

“A close reading of Didion’s work reveals that a prime agenda was to expose the moral bankruptcy of the myth of the golden land and the entire rhetoric of westward expansionism. Her subject was the American empire. It took her years to fully grasp and articulate this, in part because she resisted it, especially as long as her parents were alive. “I didn’t want to figure out California because whatever I figured out would be different from the California my mother and father had told me about,” she said in 2006”(WAJD 45).

And yet her constant and arduous practice of self-reflection would not let her not do it. She is  not only critical of others and movements and policy and fads, she is hypercritical of herself and holds up a mirror to us all as well.

Our human nature, our deeply held sentiments and beliefs, our own romantic notions are on the line in Didion’s critical gaze. And it can be hard as hell to stand in this line of fire.

All The Truth, No Slant

First and foremost, Joan Didion is a reporter. I was first introduced to her in one of my undergraduate writing courses under the heading of “new journalism.” I was instantly blown away by her voice; unabashedly powerful, strong, sure and clean. Authoritative. Smart as hell. Wise. Discerning. Provocative. Evocative. American. Modern. She was a beacon for me. It felt like the voice of someone I knew, not a person from England, France or another generation. Joan Didion was from my worldview and she was writing about it and most importantly, Joan Didion was a woman, with a woman’s point of view.

Her book Salvador (1983) so ominously detailed and exposing of what the U.S. government’s involvement in countries south of the border was creating was so brutally revealing that I shuddered for days after I read it.

This brutal honesty is what I refer to by titling this piece All the Truth, No Slant. Emily Dickinson advised women to tell the truth of their experience but tell it slant, to protect themselves from the onslaught they would receive if they told it outright. Didion certainly rejects that advice. Didion tells it how she sees it.

We want to be thankful to her for that. For  her strong, powerful and unwaveringly confident voice.  She opened that door for us.

“As the novelist Zadie Smith wrote in the New Yorker after Didion’s death, “When women writers of my generation speak in awed tones of Didion’s ‘style,’ I don’t think it’s the shift dresses or the sunglasses, the cigarettes or commas or even the em dashes that we revere, even though all those things were fabulous. It was the authority. The authority of tone. There is much in Didion one might disagree with personally, politically, aesthetically. I will never love the Doors. But I remain grateful for the day I picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem and realized that a woman could speak without hedging her bets, without hemming and hawing, without making nice, without poeticisms, without sounding pleasant or sweet, without deference, and even without doubt”(WAJD 231).

Joan Didion was a reporter for Vogue, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Esquire, The New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker. Together with John Gregory Dunne, she wrote and “fixed” screenplays to pay her bills, including A Star is Born and True Confessions. It is true that she was stylish but she wore sunglasses mostly because she suffered all her life from migraines, a sickness the women in her family suffered from for generations.

Joan Didion and the Women’s Movement

Also in the essay, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, there is a very powerful section which shows Didion to be not quite the anti-feminist people like to portray her as.

She is reporting on a woman named Barbara who is on the “woman’s trip” and is taking care of everyone in her group by cooking and caring for them as a form of resistance.

“Barbara is on what is called the woman’s trip to the exclusion of almost everything else. When she and Tom and Max and Sharon need money, Barbara will take a part-time job, modeling or teaching kindergarten, but she dislikes earning more than ten or twenty dollars a week. Most of the time she keeps home and bakes. “Doing something that shows your love that way,” she says, “is just about the most beautiful thing I know.” Whenever I hear about the woman’s trip, which is often, I think a lot about nothin’-says-lovin’-like-something-from-the-oven and the Feminine Mystique and how it is possible for people to be the unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level, but I do not mention this to Barbara”(113).

So Didion has read second-wave feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and is reasserting its premise here. That interested me and prompted me to return to the matter of that scathing rebuke of the Women’s Movement in the essay of the same name in Didion’s The White Album (1979). Reading that takes a feminist’s breath away for sure.

I want to be careful with my words here, for many reasons. I am not absolving Didion of her harsh attack on the second-wave Women’s Movement and I am not going to try to convince you she was a feminist that just didn’t call herself one. She was certainly a working mother and struggled with work-life balance. She also experienced discrimination based on her sex and knew she did. I do want to shine a light on the subtle point she was trying to make in that essay and how once again, it may have been prophetic.

In her essay The Women’s Movement (1972), she touches on something unspoken at the time and what has come to be an even more dangerous powder keg to give voice to today. How the Women’s Movement, in her opinion, was erasing the bodily experience of being born female, or a person with a uterus. That in calling on women to see no differentiation in their experience than men, in demanding to be treated the same as men, females or people with uteri’s realities were being erased.

“All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it— that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death—could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all(WTOS 262).

Play It As It Lays

For Didion, the experience of being in a female body was fundamental to how one experienced the world. And fundamental to how the world impressed itself upon the female body. In her novels she took this on more fully, writing stories about women’s lives lived not only against the backdrop of the patriarchy but capitalism and again, the American dream, culture and ethos. And it is brutal and devastating.

I had read her first three novels in my twenties. For this piece I decided to reread one of them and chose Play It As It Lays (1970). I remembered the female characters she created as being lost and rudderless. I was stunned by Didion’s portrayal of the emptiness in their lives having bought a dream that turned out to be a lie.

I remembered her warning about the empty dream of Americana, of Hollywood, of glamour and stardom, but I hadn’t remembered that the main character in Play It As It Lays is living her deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood, birth and death declared invalid. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking novel.

What is more important is that it is the experience of a female, a person with a uterus, written in a way it had not been written before. For 1970 it was groundbreaking.

Maria Wyeth, pronounced Mar-eye-ah, has a four-year-old daughter, Kate, who has been sent away to a facility because of an undisclosed disability. Maria is torn up over this and is spiraling into depression. Her feelings are not taken seriously by the people around her who want her to snap out of it and get back to the way she was before.

Nothing means anything to Maria except Kate. She is unable to articulate her experience and even if she could, it is clear no one would want to listen. She drives for hours on the freeway for no reason at all.

We meet her when she discovers she is pregnant from an affair she is having.

“Although the heat had not yet broken she began that week to sleep inside, between white sheets, hoping dimly that the white sheets would effect some charm, that she would wake in the morning and find them stained with blood. She did this in the same spirit that she had, a month before, thrown a full box of Tampax into the garbage: to be without Tampax was to insure bleeding, to sleep naked between white sheets was to guarantee staining. To give the charm every opportunity she changed the immaculate sheets every morning. She wore white crêpe pajamas and no underwear to a party”(63).

Affairs are not out of the ordinary in the circle Maria moves in. Her husband has had a few and is currently engaged with someone else, but when he finds out she is pregnant, he tells her if she does not abort the baby, he will no longer allow her to see Kate.

Maria goes through with the abortion, at a time when it is illegal. Didion leads us through the illegal abortion in haunting, stark prose. It’s difficult to read. Once again, all the truth, no slant. Maria experiences complications and hemorrhages yet attempts to push through it while filming a new movie, Interstate 80.

“The bleeding came and went and came again. By late afternoon of her third day’s work on Interstate 80 there were involuntary pain lines on her forehead and she could not stand entirely upright for more than a few seconds. She sat back in the shadows on the edge of the set and prayed that the cameraman would be so slow with the set-ups that the day’s last shot would be delayed until morning. At five-thirty they got the shot in three takes and later in the parking lot she could not remember doing it.

By midnight the blood was coming so fast that she soaked three pads in fifteen minutes. There was blood on the bed, blood on the floor, blood on the bathroom tiles”(92).

Finally, the placenta is expelled and the bleeding stops.

In The World According to Joan Didion by Evelyn McDonnell notes:

“At the time, abortion was illegal and adoption facilitated by doctors were common. Women’s roles as child bearers and caregivers were a frequent subject of Didion’s writing especially in her fiction. Interestingly, Joan was one of the few of her peers to write openly about abortion. In Play It As It Lays, Maria had her pregnancy terminated in the bedroom of a tract house in Encino. The illicit procedure leaves the actor with disturbing memories and physical complications that temporarily impede her ability to work. These were real situations women dealt with in the 1950s and ’60s, stories that needed to be told”(150).

In her novels, Didion gave voice to the unseen, undisclosed underground reality of many women’s lives. For her much of this is inseparable from the experience of living in a body with a uterus, being a mother, being mothered and bleeding. Regardless of what gender one chooses to identify as, this is true for many people. Didion is correct in warning us to not let this experience be erased. At this point in the political climate of our culture, amplifying that experience becomes even more urgent.

McDonnell quotes the writer Caitlin Flanagan who says of Didion:

“I do feel that that is sort of the gift that she has given to us, as writers, that she empowers writers, women writers, in particular, and helps us find our voice. She was not putting on any airs or trying to be one of the boys; it was very feminine, but it was never messy or overly emotional, but it was still revealing and even vulnerable”(WAJD 211).

For a woman who practiced writing by typing out Hemingway novels and aspired to write like the men of literary legend who came before her, this was a brave and brilliant stepping beyond what had gone before in American literature. She achieved what men before her had achieved without writing like a man.

Joan Didion is a Nasty Woman Writer.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2024

Works cited:

Didion, Joan. Play It As It Lays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1970.

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Simon and Schuster. 1968.

Didion, Joan, The Year of Magical Thinking. Knopf. 2005.

Didion, Joan. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction. Everyman’s Library. Knopf. 2006.

McDonnell, Evelyn. The World According to Joan Didion. HarperOne. 2023.