What We Talk About When We Talk About Joan Didion

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The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without. . . Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life–is the source from which self-respect springs. . . People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt . . . They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds . . . To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent.

–On Self-Respect, Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

In 2007, my mother and I traveled to New York to see Vanessa Redgrave portray Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking.”  We had been through a lot in the few years prior, including my younger sister’s diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer at 28.  From the outside, I guess it would appear strange that we traveled across the country to see a play about death not long after my sister survived a cancer she shouldn’t have.  But there were myriad reasons we went — our shared love of literature and Didion, her memoir of the same title (we had both been floored by her exploration of grief after her husband suddenly died), not to mention the fact that my mother had never been to New York.  And then there was Quintana. I vividly remember when we found out Didion’s only child had died within two years of her husband, just weeks before Magical Thinking was published, my mom and I looked at each other and said, “How is she going on? How is she still here, writing and living?” The one-woman play was proof of her survival, a tangible message that Didion was indeed still here.

I imagine, too, we were still wondering about our own grief, as my mother had nearly lost her youngest child; me my only sibling. We still carried vestiges of this almost loss with us as we adapted back to post-cancer life, and moreover to my sister’s new rules.  She was understandably so anxious to leave cancer behind that she seemed to be trying to move forward as if it had never happened, acting at times if my mother, stepfather and I hadn’t been right there at her side for a year, fighting to save her life. This manifested in declarations that we had taken away her privacy when she was sick, and she needed it back.  Her marriage was new, and it needed protecting, she claimed, and going forward, she would see us on her terms and her terms only. It was as if a switch had been flipped and we were no longer the protectors, we were the interlopers. This too, is why we went to New York. In the face of losing her again in a wholly different way, we wanted to understand what the shape of our lives would have been if my sister hadn’t survived and how to cope now with her absence. In part, we hoped Didion could tell us.

~

Didion has been a thread through both my mother’s life and mine, one I didn’t fully realize the impact of until I read Caitlin Flanagan’s recent essay, “The Autumn of Joan Didion,” in The Atlantic. Although at times reductive about Didion’s talents as a writer and downright snarky about her recent work, not to mention her mothering skills, Flanagan does clearly illuminate Didion’s effect on young women.  We come to Didion at a certain time in our lives, she writes, in late adolescence or that abyss that is the early 20s, when we are no longer girls but not yet women. Didion was herself at that awkward stage when she wrote many her most famous essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. Her piercing presence in these pieces, coupled with her fragility and vulnerability pulled us to her as she seemingly overcame her flaws of personality (and ours, at least on the page) with sentences that transcended – from images you could taste and smell to people famous made familiar, the whole world boiled down to a kind of sense we’d never seen before.

I read her for the first time in 1993, as an undergrad at Berkeley. I was 22.  Her essays have been a part of my conciousnesss ever since, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” in particular.  Didion was reporting on a murder in 1964, that of wife killing husband in the nether lands outside of Los Angeles, that hot, cookie cutter world full of promise that somehow gets lost in the desert winds. She writes, “This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. . . the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers school.” The wife, Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller, was accused of drugging her husband, dragging him into their VW, dousing him and the car in gasoline, then lighting everything on fire. I could see the Lucille, her twisted, mascara-stained face and sagging beehive, her sweat-stained dress. Moreover, I could feel her: her desperation, her hatred for her depressed dentist husband, her delusional hope about a new life with a lover. I could smell the gasoline. Didion’s tricks on the page were nothing short of magic.

Reading Didion was a revolution to me not only because of the beauty and depth of her prose, but because it also opened up the idea that I could be something more than what I was — a white girl from suburbia who had done nothing in college (or life) beyond pledging a sorority and getting drunk at frat parties. During my time at one of the most famous universities in the world, I had joined no causes, protested nothing. For this, I was deeply ashamed. Then I discovered that Didion and I had a few things in common. She was a self-proclaimed nobody from Sacramento. She pledged the Tri-Deltas at Cal and wasn’t sure what else to do with herself there. She famously writes that when she started reporting, she was so small and quiet, people forgot she was in the room. I wasn’t small or quiet, but I felt just as invisible most of the time. Reading Didion hinted at the possibility that I was perhaps more interesting than I realized, that eventually I might have something to say. It would take me years to manifest this idea, but in the meantime, I spent many afternoons staring out my bedroom window of my sorority at the Tri-Delt house across the street.  I used to imagine Didion there, back she was lost and still a girl. I could almost see her hiding behind her signature sunglasses on the front porch, smoking cigarettes while absentmindedly smoothing out the wrinkles of her pale pink shift dress, waiting for the rest of her life to happen.

My mother read Didion in 1969, when she was 23. She was working at the dean’s office at Berkeley while my dad was pursuing his MBA. (He would later quit before finishing his thesis and enroll in the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa.) Didion was an even more powerful influence on my mother, in part because she appeared just at the beginning of the woman’s movement. Even if Didion doesn’t align herself with the feminists of the time, she was an almost singular voice rising above the din of her male counterparts in journalism, and like me, my mother found her writing all-encompassing, engrossing, magic. In 1978, long after Berkeley and Iowa, a few years before they divorced, my mother calligraphied the opening quote to this essay from Didion’s “On Self-Respect” for my father. By then he had been depressed for years, having never recovered from the suicidal despair he experienced while writing his thesis at Iowa. He had long abandoned writing and had stopped reading as well, my parents’ main sources of connection. Instead, he worked in sales and drank. By 1978, his drinking was steadily increasing and he often didn’t come home at night. When they divorced in 1980, he had moved my mother 17 times in 15 years; each new place holding an illusive happiness that evaporated the moment they arrived.

My mother has told me that she couldn’t write in her own voice for most of those years, that her journals from that period are full of quotes from other people: writers, philosophers, artists. “You can tell by what I’ve written down what I was going through,” she said. “But I was still too terrified to put my feelings down on paper in my own words.”

In that light, the lines she chose to calligraphy from Didion’s essay are especially poignant to me. They seem at once a plea for my father to look inside and find himself, to somehow resuscitate the vestiges of the man she used to love and take responsibility for his life.  I believe, too, they also represent my mother’s changing perspective on her marriage and future. I have no doubt as she made the deliberate and delicate brush strokes that brought those sentences to life, she was acknowledging her own growing self-respect and the strength of character that would soon make it impossible for her to stay with him.

My father left this piece of calligraphy behind in the divorce. I found it many years later in 2001, not long after I had been accepted at an MFA program.  My mom had it framed and sent it to me. It has hung above my desk in every place I’ve lived since.  I read it over and over again during the darkest times of my own writing and/or failure to write. It serves as a pointed reminder that I cannot follow my father’s path, that I have no choice but to gamble everything to do what I love. I’m aware of the odds of success, but as Didion writes, anything worth having has its price.

~

I have only a handful of photos from that trip to New York. My favorite one is the theater’s marquee at dusk, The Year of Magical Thinking in bright lights. Regrave’s performance was by turns brilliant and devastating as she regally channeled Didion’s grief.  A simple set of charcoal canvas backgrounds undulated gently behind her, symbolizing the surf in Malibu or the river outside Quintana’s room in the ICU or the view from Didion’s apartment.  One line from the play stayed with me for days; it had also been in the book: “I love you more than one more day.” It was something Quintana and her father used to say to one another. This is how I feel about my mother. I took her hand at some point during the show and didn’t let go.

We sat silently when the curtain fell.  Then my mother said, “It makes me think of her. Do you think she will regret this? What if she gets sick again and we have missed all this time? I know she needs the space, but–” Her voice trailed off.

My mother was careful not to say all that much about my sister’s choices, other than to support her attempt to find herself, her new true self post-cancer, a self that my mother understood needed to be formed, in part, outside of our influence. Everything my sister was doing played into what our mother had taught us our whole lives: be honest, ask for what you need, take care of yourself, fight for who you are, don’t surrender your power to anyone. However, the truth as I saw it was this: my sister was acting like an asshole. This was not something I said in that moment, because I too wanted our family to make sense again, the way it had for so many years. I wanted to say that my sister would snap out of it, she would come back to us and we would all get back to that place of good. We could get back to that place without another illness or catastrophe, I was sure of it. But the words never came.

~

Now, it is five years later and my mother has cancer, the terminal kind, where there will be no remission, no time for us all to regroup and regain our privacy.  Now, Didion is with us again, come full circle with Blue Nights. My mother and I have waited years for this book, and we read about death in the midst of her dying for much the same reason we went to New York — Didion’s words help us to traverse the darkness together, provide clues as to how to survive the seemingly unsurvivable.  From the very opening lines of the book, I understand that my mother embodies the eerie blue light that Didion writes about, and the nights so long and full of this light that you believe they will last forever and so will you; but these nights are really about the fading, the change of summer to fall, of lightness to dark.

Whatever your opinion of the book, it is a powerful meditation on death, aging and loss.  Many readers are disappointed with it, as they expected a book solely focused on Didion and Quintana, a dissection or revelation about that relationship. I think the answers are there if you look closely enough. Their connection, while real and devoted, was mysterious, tenuous, and for whatever reason, nearly impossible for Didion to put on the page. She does tell us, however, that she herself was distant and Quintana troubled. She remains consumed with guilt about what she could and couldn’t do to ease her daughter’s pain, perhaps in particular the chronic alcoholism that some speculate caused Quintana’s tragically early death at 39. I also can’t help but consider Didion’s most infamous line: “Writers are always selling somebody out.” I wonder if it was simply too much to sell Quintana out. She wouldn’t, didn’t want to, can’t or won’t.

We may never know, but what I can discern amidst Didion’s signature descriptions of white peacocks and stephanotis blossoms and plumeria blossom tattoos and red-bottomed Christian Louboutin shoes, is the fierce, endless love a mother has for her child. I recognize it because it is the love my mother has for both my sister and me. My sister has remained distant from us these last few years, and has separated herself almost entirely in the midst of our mother’s illness. She has done this for reasons I both do and don’t understand. What I do know is that our mother is dying and she is not here. We have not come back to good. None of it stops my mother from loving her entirely and unreasonably, much the way I think Didion loved Quintana.  It is all there in those last few lines of Blue Nights. She writes, “The fear is for what is still to be lost. You may see nothing still to be lost. Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.”

Although barely able to speak because of the growing tumor in her brain, my mother can still read. I read Blue Nights aloud to her anyway, as I want us to experience it together.  It is hard to read my mother many parts of the book, but those last pages, those lines where Didion’s laments her ultimate loss, that moment, due old age or death, when she is no longer able to see her daughter in her mind, this seems to me the most devastatingly true. I feel I will live much the same haunted way when my mother dies.

Towards the end of the book, Didion describes the production for the stage version of  The Year of Magical Thinking.  She tells us about the cocktails and fried chicken and green beans they ate most every night backstage, at a table with a checkerboard cloth, complete with an electric candle and a menu that read “Cafe Didion.” It seems she was there for every performance, and she tells us why: “I liked being up there alone with the lights and the play. I liked it all, but most of all I liked the fact that although the play was entirely focused on Quintana there were, five evenings and two afternoons a week, these ninety full minutes, the run time of the play, during which she did not need to be dead. During which the question remained open. During which the denouement had yet to play out.”

My mother interrupts me as I read this part, signaling with her good hand that she needs to say something. She fights to get the words out, and I offer up phrases, questions, about the book, about Didion.

“I didn’t know,” my mother gets out. “She—She–” It takes the better part of 10 minutes before I figure out what she’s getting at.

“Didion was there that night,” I finally say. “The night we saw the play. Wow.”

My mother nods and smiles, and we sit for a few minutes in quiet awe. Didion was there, and she has been with us all along. She was with us when we were each lost girls trying to become women, when I began to write and my mother left my father. She was there the night my mother and I were in New York, looking for the answers. The three of us sat in the darkened theater together, during that time when Quintana did not have to be dead and my mother did not have to be sick. She is here now as my mother slowly fades, our days together full of nothing but blue nights.


Abby Mims’ stories and essays have been published in several literary magazines and anthologies, including but not limited to: The Nervous Breakdown, The Normal School, The Santa Monica Review, Swink, Other Voices and Cassette From My Ex. This piece is a part of her memoir-in-progress, Love in the Time of Glioblastoma. She blogs intermittently and tweets infrequently. More of her musings can be found at www.abbymims.com. More from this author →