November 2011

Arts & Letters

When the centre cannot hold

By Inga Clendinnen
Joan Didion’s 'Blue Nights'

Along with many others, I was first drawn to Joan Didion when I read her 1967 essay ‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’. It presented a confession of her own precarious psychological state in intimate counterpoint with an astute analysis of the wider political scene: a combination that would become a Didion trademark. She had written it, she told us, at a time when she felt herself unable to write because she was unable to come to terms with what looked to be a dissolving society: “It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.” She had found the evidence at Haight–Ashbury, the district of San Francisco where the last energies of the flower-power generation were disintegrating into drug-addled squalor. Didion clinched her case with the image of five-year-old Susan, routinely fed acid and peyote by her feckless addicted mother.

A disintegrating society, an exacerbated sensibility disintegrating in lock step – it was a powerful brew. But even then I had moments of resistance. On Berkeley campus a year later I would listen to the same bands, share my first reefer, and also be deeply impressed by the sheer political savvy of the student leaders and their (remarkably disciplined) followers. And why was she so tough on Joan Baez, dismissed as “the Madonna of the disaffected … always there where the barricade was”? The “barricade” in those years, especially in the South, was a seriously tough place to be. Why, in her next collection of essays, The White Album (1979), did she choose to give Doris Lessing such a drubbing? Why so waspish towards contemporary feminists?

Nonetheless she remained for me a potent feminist exemplar: the ace girl reporter, solitary, incorruptible, in indefatigable pursuit of the evasions, hypocrisies and crass moral indifference lurking behind the pretty veils of American political rhetoric. I usually disliked the novels, with their classy heroines in their classy silk shifts falling apart in exotic places, whether from ennui, angst or terminal narcissism, but I remained addicted to the essays, their compulsive introspection coupled with rare political acumen. I especially liked her evocation of the pioneer California of her childhood, with its tough terrain and its old-fashioned virtues. Her forbears had been people of conscientiously sturdy character. Didion preserved the moral austerity (she is relentlessly judgemental) but has steadfastly refused to develop any ‘character’ at all. Instead she presents herself as chronically burdened by existential anxiety inflamed from childhood by a dread that sees a snake in every jasmine, or coiled in every cot.

As for her personal as opposed to her inner life – she tells us, rather en passant, that her marriage in 1964 had been: “a very good thing to do but badly timed … I had never before understood what ‘despair’ meant … but I understood that year … I could not work. I could not even get dinner with any degree of certainty.” The new husband therefore moved his sad wife from New York to Los Angeles, where the moon still hung over the Pacific and the smell of jasmine was heavy in the air.

And that is all we hear of the husband for several years, except for a startling but passing remark in an essay written from Hawaii in 1969: “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”

Then on a December night in 2003, when he was 71 years old, John Gregory Dunne died of a heart attack at his own dinner table. Didion was bereft. How she survived the next year is exhaustively recounted in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). I was surprised to discover that theirs had been a close marriage: that the two writers (he was a journalist and novelist too) shared a writing room; that when they were separated they would talk on the phone three or four times a day; that they sustained a vivid social life studded with celebrities. That Dunne had supervised the development of the distinctive Didion style: that he edited every word she wrote, including that tense reference to divorce. Didion was therefore not the isolated, beleaguered female sensibility I had taken her to be.

Didion confesses her helpless dependence on “magical thinking”, as she refuses to erase his voice on the answering machine or to throw out his shoes or to take any action that would acknowledge him to be irrevocably gone. And here the claim to unique experience fails. Surely we all engage in magical thinking as we struggle to ease intolerable loss? How many new widows toss out their husband’s shoes or wilfully erase his voice? They are much more likely to enshrine a room or a photograph, or to wear his old fishing jacket to bed. My elderly aunt walked to Kew cemetery every day to discuss the day’s affairs with her husband-in-the-ground. She had no belief in an afterlife, but she needed that conversation. For me, after decades, particular ghosts still haunt a particular room, signal from a particular headland, walk a particular beach. That is how memory fractured by loss, then refracted by grief, works. There is no remedy for the enduring insult of a beloved person gone, and we deal with it in whatever ways we can.

In Magical Thinking, Didion also supplies an outline of what was happening to their adopted daughter Quintana Roo. In December 2003 an apparently trivial flu had precipitated a cascade of medical crises that put her into intensive care. Five days later, her father died. Then, in August 2005, when Didion was in New York promoting Magical Thinking, Quintana died too.

Who could survive this sequence of blows – especially someone who already saw ‘fate’ as baleful? Again, by engaging in the tough trade of writing. In Blue Nights (Fourth Estate, 192pp; $27.99) Didion strives to make some stable sense out of her memories of her daughter. This, in outline, is the narrative that emerges.

Two years after they married, Joan and John – with what seems minimal preparation or bureaucratic fuss – adopted a baby girl. She was given to them four days after her birth. For each of the three nights the baby remained in the hospital Didion tells us she would wake from a nightmare: the baby, left sleeping in a drawer while its novice parents went out to dinner or a movie, would wake alone, crying and hungry, with no one to tend her. This mother-to-be knew herself to be unready for motherhood.

Didion also confesses that through Quintana’s infant years she regarded her child as a doll, to be dressed, admired, shown off. We are told that the baby came home from hospital wrapped in silk-lined cashmere; that by the time of her formal christening she had been given 60 tiny dresses (“wisps of batiste”) by her parents’ friends. We are also constantly reminded that she was beautiful: that when her parents celebrated her formal adoption by lunching at a chic restaurant they were immediately escorted to the best table in homage to her beauty. Later we glimpse her father mesmerised as he watches her run from his car to school, then bringing her mother to feast on the sight. Didion’s passion for and confidence in visual effects, honed by her extensive cinematic work, is given full play in the long and luscious account of her daughter’s wedding with which the book opens.

And this baby was not only beautiful. She was destined to be exceptional. Why else would Joan and John fix on ‘Quintana Roo’, then an obscure province of Mexico, as a suitable name for their very small daughter?

Meanwhile, Didion was in deepening trouble. From the title essay of The White Album: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Now Didion “began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition, but one I found troubling”.

This is Didion’s (characteristically intellectualised) account of a kind of breakdown she suffered from “around 1966 and continued until 1971”. While she continued to write and to publish, to run a hospitable household, to give and to go to parties, the connective tissue holding experiences together had gone:

I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience. 

There is plenty to brood about in this passage, but what interests me at this moment is that those years of dislocation from narrative meaning coincided with Quintana’s first five years of life. Over those years, what narrative, what ‘character’, was Quintana forging out of the flashcards of her own experience? What was that experience? It is odd that we have no clear picture of who it was who physically cared for the child, though ‘Arcelia’, the (live-in?) Spanish-speaking help, is mentioned, and also a “pretty teenager” who sometimes travelled with the family. The family travelled a lot, for work or pleasure, or for both. By the time Quintana was five she was learning to manage the enclosed life of a child in large hotels.

Her mother was also beginning to recognise her as a person: a mind, and a sensibility. Accordingly, when she was “four or five”, Didion took her to see Nicholas and Alexandra, a film on the final years of the last tsar and tsarina of Russia, and ending with their deaths, along with their four children, when they were shot by Bolsheviks in a dark cellar. You will ask: What could have possessed her? A few years later and Quintana, taken to see Jaws, ran into the waves as soon as she returned to the family’s beachfront home. Was she demonstrating that, unlike her mother, she knew how to conquer fear? At four she had set herself to weed a derelict tennis court: a tough but modest task, and manageable by steady labour.

Quintana also practised a brisk way with anxiety: at five she rang a psychiatric facility “to find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy”; at six she rang Twentieth Century Fox “to find out what she needed to do to be a star”. For me the most painful story is of Quintana, still at nursery school, waiting on the stairs of a sleeping household for her parents to come home from a film and then informing them of “a new problem”. Pulling back her hair to expose a chicken-pox sore: “I just noticed I have cancer.” Didion does not attempt to construct a narrative out of that performance of heroic calm.

Some ironies of adoption cannot be remedied. Didion was and remains spectacularly slight: not quite 5’2”, weighing all of 43 kilograms. Blue Nights has no photographs of Quintana, and Magical Thinking has only one (why so few when we are told about many?). There the child looks pleasantly sturdy. At what point did she overtop her mother? Didion was also often ill, writing, or – given the demands of her profession – absent. Quintana surely noticed: when she formed her first ‘club’ with a small friend, she posted as the equivalent of an ‘Adults Keep Out’ sign a list of ‘Mother’s Sayings’. It was a short list: Brush your teeth; Brush your hair; Shush I’m working. Didion vehemently defends herself against the charge that Quintana’s childhood could be thought of as ‘privileged’. That does not seem to me the problem.

Then comes a curiously muffled account of how, at some undefined time but possibly when she was close to her final year at school, Quintana suffered her own psychological meltdown, and after the usual diagnostic circlings and mumblings was diagnosed to be suffering from “borderline personality disorder”. We know neither how nor whether she was treated nor how long she took to recover: only that suddenly she is back in the world again, at college, working at (largely unspecified) jobs, then marrying. What narrative do we make out of that?

Didion also frets about the commonplace misery of getting old. She feels herself to be losing physical and mental competence. She grieves that she can no longer wear the red suede sandals with four-inch heels or the gold hoop earrings she used to favour. I happen to have been born in 1934, the same year as Didion, so I understand too much that slow leak of confidence, and even about the sandals – altogether too precarious. But the earrings? Do appearances matter so much?

I have also acquired a flamboyant medical history: a replaced liver, assorted cancers, lung disease, a bouquet of diseases of the heart. Nonetheless I have fetched up with what is, for a septuagenarian, adequate health, and also with an abiding trust in the medical profession (a few dummkopfs aside), who I believe will continue to do what they can to keep me alive until they cannot. Since her third decade Didion has endured a more comprehensively demoralising series of maladies, bundled unhelpfully under the label ‘neuropathy’: a collection of disorders that occur when nerves of the peripheral nervous system are damaged. (Advanced technology decisively scotched an earlier diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.) She therefore disliked and mistrusted medicos, especially neurologists, even before her daughter fell ill.

Many will find each one of these books poignant, cour-ageous and moving, as I did much of her earlier work, but Blue Nights has hardened my ambivalence regarding Didion into something close to impatience. She says she is attempting a new directness, while I am still being irritated by her reiterations, her obsession with questions, by her etiolated paragraphs dwindling to a phrase; by a flinching sensibility masquerading as moral analysis. Mean-minded of me? Yes. We are always mean-minded when disappointed by those we love. I grant she is trying to do something difficult: to inscribe her inner state directly on the page. In Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness William Styron made us comprehend something of the terrible desolation of depression but his words made no pretence of immediacy; with Didion, I am left with a resentful sense of manipulation.

I was also offended by her expansive notion of the right of the non-fiction writer to make use of the people closest to them (though an exception tugs at my sleeve: Philip Roth’s unfailingly tender evocation of his father in Patrimony). Would John Dunne have minded his sentimentalities and his marital ups and downs dramatised so publicly? Probably not: after all, he had honed the Didion style. Would Quintana have minded being her mother’s subject? That is at once more delicate, and simpler: how many children, especially girls, want their mother to explain them to the world? But my main concern is for someone outside the family triangle: Quintana’s husband Gerry. We know he was usually beside her in her various sickrooms; that he and Didion left the hospital together on the day that Quintana died. We are not told how they met, nor his occupation; we rarely hear his voice. He remains a shadow, allocated no more than a walk-on part in the Didion family drama.

From Blue Nights: “Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.” But there can be no narrative when “memory” is persistently saturated with present mood. It is then that the earth shifts under your feet.

Inga Clendinnen
Inga Clendinnen is an academic, historian and writer. Her book Reading the Holocaust was judged Best Book of the Year by the New York Times in 1999.

Joan Didion alone with memories, 2005. © Kathy Willens/AP Photo
Cover: November 2011

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