The ice cold search for gold: Joan Didion and a brutality that journalists celebrate as brilliance
Writers make excuses for all kinds of cruelty in pursuit of 'material'.
When I finally find Otto he says, “I got something at my place that’ll blow your mind,” and when we get there I see a child on the living-room floor, wearing a reefer coat, reading a comic book. She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick.
“Five years old,” Otto says. “On acid.”
The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me that 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, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach.
She remembers going to the beach once a long time ago, and wishes she had taken a bucket. For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote. Susan describes it as getting stoned.
I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.
“She means do the other kids in your class turn on, get stoned,” says the friend of her mother’s who brought her to Otto’s.
“Only Sally and Anne,” Susan says.
“What about Lia?” her mother’s friend prompts.
“Lia,” Susan says, “is not in High Kindergarten.”
— an excerpt from ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, the title essay of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
Griffin Dunne: What was it like to be a journalist in the room when you saw the little kid on acid?
Joan Didion: Well… it was… let me tell you, it was gold. That’s the long and the short of it. You live for moments like that if you’re doing a piece.
The moment in Griffin Dunne’s 2017 documentary — The Center Will Not Hold — when he asks the subject — his aunt, Joan Didion — about how she felt seeing a five-year-old high on acid is one of its most striking. It’s journalism’s most mercenary instincts presented unvarnished and unmediated; the fragile-looking Didion is not a songbird in the branches but a hawkeyed predator.
Later, as they discuss a piece she wrote about being in Hawaii with her husband and fellow writer John Gregory Dunne “in lieu of filing for divorce” — which he edited — it’s clear how casually her own closest relationships could be picked at like carrion. Griffin asks whether his aunt and uncle had “an agreement” about what experiences could be mined for their writing. Didion replies:
We didn’t have an agreement… we didn’t see it as a deal or a dealbreaker. We thought generally that you used your material. You wrote what you had and that was what I happened to have at that moment.
The 1969 “in lieu of divorce” pieces became ‘In the Islands’, one of the essays in Didion’s 1979 collection The White Album. She and Dunne didn’t divorce. In fact, their collaboration extended right up until his sudden death in 2003, an event that was the catalyst for The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), Didion’s first non-fiction book not comprised of previously commissioned essays.
It is not surprising that Didion’s response to both Dunne’s death and that of their daughter Quintana Roo the following year was to write. Her irresistibly quotable line from The White Album — “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…” — was repurposed of the title a 2006 compendium of her work but a less polished expression of her mindset in the preface to Slouching…
My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: Writers are always selling someone out.
The Diggers, a group of community anarchists who were active in Haight-Ashbury at the time Didion was writing ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ for The Saturday Evening Post, were suspicious of this instinct to “[sell] someone out”.
They accused Didion of “media poisoning”…
Arthur Lisch gets pretty nervous whenever he sees me now because the Digger line this week is that they aren’t talking to “media poisoners,” which is me.
… The Connection offers to “check me out.”
I take off my dark glasses so he can see my eyes. He leaves his on.
“How much you get paid for doing this kind of media poisoning?” he says for openers.
I put my dark glasses back on.
… and gave her short shrift. Didion in turn kept her distance and delivered the story of collapse her editors were after. The sunglasses — a prop that she held onto throughout her career — are part of that: Didion the character out in the world of the strangers.
The dark glasses, like the dresses, the sharp hair, the cigarettes, and the bright yellow corvette all play a part in brand Didion. She can be sketched out through them and her essays can be boiled down to sentences; easier for Insta, better to applique, print on t-shirts, and toss around for a delectable frisson of frosty intellectual cool. What comes after “We tell ourselves stories in order to live?” Complications. Didion immediately clarifies: “Or at least we do for a while.”
The vignette of Susan — the 5-year-old on acid — is a story that fits the sense of coming collapse that Didion wanted to convey in that assignment. She took her title from W.B Yeats’ The Second Coming and opened the essay with a stark warning that echoed him: “‘The centre wasn’t holding.”
The centre hasn’t been holding for some time now; actually the centre was never holding, and never will hold. Probably all writers are at some point briefly under the impression that they are among the first to live and work after things fell apart.
The particular disillusion that Didion sought to present in Slouching… was more future prediction than present presented. As Louis Menand noted in his 2015 review of Tracy Daugherty’s Didion biography 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 that had smoked marijuana.
Didion was 32 when she met Susan; a paid tourist in Haight Ashbury and the world of the Hippies with the icy eye of a professional hack. She was out for shock to share with newspaper readers, many of whom would have identified, like her, as “Goldwater Republicans”.
As professional irritant and New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat notes in yet another piece about ‘cancellations’, Didion — a National Review contributor — wrote her fair share of pieces that conservatives could cheer:
… Didion on the romance of John Wayne, Didion on the bureaucracy, Didion casting a cold eye on the hippies and what became the Summer of Love, Didion taking down all of 1960s-era liberal Protestantism in “James Pike, American,” her brutal backward glance at a celebrity bishop.
With a deadline and a word count, Didion was not there to empathise with “the missing children [who] were gathering and calling themselves ‘hippies’” but to observe them as phenomena; she is the naturalist on the plains, noting down and analysing their behaviour. Her attempts at interviews and deeper reporting fell flat, stone-walled by suspicion or the word “groovy” recited over and over.
Didion is one of those writers who other writers moon over because, as Frank Bruni gushed in The New York Times, she was “a sorceress of syntax, with a cadence to her words and a music to her paragraphs that were utterly spellbinding.” At its worst, that kind of sentiment can be a little like how some guitar players get off on long solos filled with virtuosic shredding while the ‘casual’ listener aches for something to sing.
Made an icon by Instagram repetition and now sanctified by obituaries and a steadily selling back catalogue, it will be harder to write truly critically about Didion for a while. An aside in the introduction to a Guardian piece of her most memorable quotes (“a feminist figurehead for many, an overprivileged white woman for others…”) — now deleted — led to an explosion of opprobrium on social media and a particularly painful David Aaronovitch column on the concept of “privilege” (spoiler: He’s not big on it).
But perhaps in time that ice at the heart of many of Didion’s essays, typified by how she described the encounter with Susan in that interview with Griffin Dunne — will be cracked and studied more closely. And with it the wider tendency among writers and journalists to seek “material” whatever the cost.
In A Sort of Life, his 1971 autobiography, Graham Greene writes about convalescing in hospital after suffering from appendicitis. A ten-year-old boy who had been occupying another bed in the ward dies suddenly. When the child’s parents arrive, the screens are drawn and the other young patients keep their headphones on. Not Greene:
All my companions but not myself. There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer. I watched and listened. There was something which one day I might need: The woman speaking, uttering the banalties she must have remembered from some woman’s magazine, a genuine grief that could communicate only in clichés.
In her memoir of friendship with Greene1 (Green on Capri), Shirley Hazzard says that the “splinter of ice” was, in fact, “the tip of the iceberg”. The same might be said of every hack whose first thought upon encountering someone else’s pain is what good material it will make.
The Independent’s Didion obituary reflects a common view among journalists on ‘material’, concluding that her recollection of Susan and the LSD in The Center Will Not Hold showed “[the] restrained detachment, coupled with a piercing gaze that refused to look away [that] defined Didion’s style.”
That, as the piece goes on to say, Didion “retained that same sense of cool scrutiny even when turning her gaze on herself,” makes no difference to me. A writer taking the icy cold instruments of rhetoric to themselves is their own business, but other people’s lives shouldn’t be simply “material”, no matter how expensive the sunglasses you peer at them through or polished the sentences those experiences provoke.
Greene applied that ‘ice’ to his business dealings too: When his long-time publisher poo-pooed the title Travels With My Aunt, he sent a telegram: 'Easier to change publishers than title.'