TAKE A LEAF
Within little more than a week - in December, 2021 - we lost two of the most original and distinctive writers of our time. Both American, both women, and vastly different from each other. bell hooks was a widely admired and influential writer on the themes of love, equality and justice. She fully committed her life to feminism and a lifelong struggle against what she always referred to as White Supremacy. She was born in Hopkinsville, a small, racially-divided town in Kentucky, and she died there 69 years later, on December 15, 2021. Her death triggered an outpouring of affection and respect, especially from fellow women writers and her many supporters on her mission to nurture a kinder, more loving less vicious world.
Joan Didion was born in California, yet she came to represent the very essence of starved-to-perfection New York chic, to borrow Tom Wolfe's characteristically ironic/acerbic phrase. Joan was invariably attired in Vogueish glamour and detached from such uncool behaviours as passion or commitment to a cause. She was suspicious of feminism, or any other ideology, often looking in from outside yet equipped with emotional accuity, and sometimes sympathy. She could express herself in her writing with manic intensity but never raised her voice She was conservative in her politics though radically liberal in her writing. She died, aged 87, on December 23, 2021 after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. Her death was front-page news in heavy newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. GD
[TAKE A LEAF is a new - and emblematic - page on amaze, dedicated to creative writing of all kinds, most especially work written with passion and purpose. As discussed, passion is certainly not the word for Didion but it is the perfect word for hooks. Purpose, along with integrity and singularity, are words that suit them both.]
Mary Lloyd Estrin
We open with compelling extracts from bell hooks' work, preceded by some of the many impassioned responses to her death, interspersed with quotations which will surely continue to resonate in future discussions on power and its abuses, love and its absence.
"We can’t combat white supremacy unless we can teach people to love justice. You have to love justice more than your allegiance to your race, sexuality and gender. It is about justice. "
"The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem."
"For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?"
REMEMBERING BELL HOOKS
by Joshunda Sanders
Mourning bell hooks—who died on December 15, 2021, at age 69 after giving us four decades of trailblazing feminist scholarship—means celebrating everything she taught us about what it means to be a Black woman in love with herself and the world, and with the life of the mind. With her passing, there will be one fewer pair of hands holding up Black women—all women—as inherently valuable. For decades she has helped me in my journey to become myself; her legacy will live in my bones, and in the minds and hearts of all she awakened and inspired.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1952, hooks honored her matrilineal line by taking her maternal great-grandmother’s name as her nom de plume in a lowercase version to emphasize “the substance of books, not who I am.” She influenced several well-known luminaries and writers to adopt the same practice...
Maybe honoring her elders and ancestors played a role in enabling her to speak and write her fame into existence, to hear her family tell it. Like most Southern towns, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, was stratified by race and class; hooks’s father was a janitor, and her mother a maid.
“Gloria learned to read and write at an early age and even proclaimed she would be famous one day,” her family said in a statement. “Growing up, the girls shared an upstairs bedroom, and she would always keep the light on well into the night. Every night we would try to sleep, but the sounds of her writing or page turning caused us to yell down to Mom to make her turn the light off.”
Her family went on to say that Gloria always had at least 10 serious books she was reading simultaneously, whether Shakespeare, Little Women, or other classics, which quenched her “great thirst for knowledge, which she incorporated into her life’s work.” Against the backdrop of the great civil rights struggles, she graduated from a newly integrated high school. Her intellectual acumen and writer’s gifts were apparent early, and she majored in English literature at Stanford University, then earned her MA from the University of Wisconsin and her PhD from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she wrote her dissertation on Toni Morrison.
She thrived in the classroom, and her criticism and charisma quickly acquired a following both in and beyond academic circles. I first encountered her during one of my many trips to my local New York library at age 13 and was instantly in awe. Hooks wrote with confident wisdom and ease about topics I had never read from a Black woman’s perspective; she seemed so like me, even if she was from a different part of the country and a different generation. We were kindred spirits.
“What gives me the greatest joy about bell hooks’s work,” Rachel Kahan, hooks’ editor at William Morrow told Oprah Daily, “is that it’s being eagerly embraced by so many new readers right now in our current cultural moment, not only in the U.S. but around the world. When All About Love hit the New York Times bestseller list last year for the very first time, two decades after it was first published, bell and I shared an incredibly emotional moment on the phone, laughing—almost giddy. We were both so thrilled to see that the fruits of her labor kept multiplying from generation to generation.”
My dog-eared copy of Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery was the gateway to reprogramming myself. The microaggressions, the confusing pauses and rudeness that came my way because of my dark skin and natural hair—bell hooks helped me understand that these were the manifestations of social constructs she interrogated, not figments of my imagination. Her writing about writing, the way she mined the role of self-love and self-care: All these things and more marked her as a visionary. Radical, yes, for her positions on racism and patriarchy and capitalism. Radical, too, for attending to the hearts of Black women. For saying that we were not just our work, but we deserved, as much as anyone, our own affection and tenderness. The world would not give it to us, not without a fight.
by Margaret Busby
A trailblazing cultural theorist and activist, public intellectual, teacher and feminist writer, bell hooks authored around 40 books in a career spanning more than four decades. Exploring the intersecting oppressions of gender, race and class, her writings additionally reflected her concerns with issues related to art, history, sexuality, psychology and spirituality, ultimately with love at the heart of community healing.
Using storytelling as effectively as social theory, she was creatively agile in a range of genres, including poetry, essays, memoir, self-help and children’s books, as well as appearing in documentary films and working in academia. However, her outstanding legacy may be her pivotal contribution to Black feminist thought, first articulated in her 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, which examined both historical racism and sexism, going back to the treatment of Black women from enslavement to give context to continuing racial and sexual injustice.
The daughter of Veodis Watkins, a postal worker, and his wife, Rosa Bell (nee Oldham), she was born Gloria Jean Watkins in the small rural town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and her upbringing was affected by being part of a working-class African-American family in the US south, initially educated at racially segregated schools. A gifted child, she enjoyed the poetry of William Wordsworth, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Gwendolyn Brooks, and was encouraged to write verse of her own well before she reached her teens. Scholarships enabled her to study at Stanford University, in California, where she earned a BA in English in 1973, and she took an MA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1976.
That year she began teaching at the University of Southern California, and during her time there her first publication, the poetry chapbook And There We Wept (1978), appeared under the pseudonym bell hooks – a name she adopted in tribute to her maternal great-grandmother, styling it in lowercase so as to keep the focus on her work rather than on her own persona.
She had begun writing her major work, Ain’t I a Woman – its title referencing a celebrated speech by the 19th-century Black abolitionist Sojourner Truth – as an undergraduate. Harshly criticised from some quarters, the book eventually achieved influential status as a classic that centres Black womanhood. Another key title, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), is a critique of mainstream feminist theory in which Black women exist only on the margins, with the women’s liberation movement being primarily structured around issues relevant to white women with class privilege.
The journalist and media consultant Joan Harris recalled the historical context, when “it was almost considered anathema, almost traitorous, if you were Black also to be a ‘feminist’” and joining a white women’s group was not an option, given the differing concerns at the time. Harris said: “Bell’s work clarified things … Her work, her presence, made me, and so many others, feel validated during a truly fraught time.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, hooks taught at a number of educational institutions, among them Yale University, Oberlin College and the City College of New York. In 2004 she joined the faculty of Berea College in her native Kentucky, where in 2014 the bell hooks Institute was established. She received the American Book awards/Before Columbus Foundation award for Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (1990) and was nominated for an NAACP Image award for her 1999 children’s book Happy to Be Nappy.
An advocate of anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-capitalist politics, she produced radical writings that shaped popular and academic discourse. Her books illuminated a wide range of topics, evidenced by just a selection of the titles: Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989); Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (with Cornel West, 1991); Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992); Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies (1996); We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004); and Soul Sister: Women, Friendship, and Fulfillment (2005).
Her writing resonated far beyond the US, and her work was translated into 15 languages. Invited to London for the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books in 1991, she spoke and took part in debates and readings, engaging with local activists. In my 1992 anthology Daughters of Africa I included the title essay from her collection Talking Back, which in many ways encapsulates the origins, motivation and inspiration that propelled her forward from early in life.
“In the world of the southern black community I grew up in, ‘back talk’ and ‘talking back’ meant speaking as an equal to an authority figure. It meant daring to disagree and sometimes it meant just having an opinion,” she explained. For a child, to speak when not spoken to was to invite punishment, so was a courageous act, an act of risk and daring. It was in that world that the craving was born in her “to have a voice, and not just any voice, but one that could be identified as belonging to me … Certainly for black women, our struggle has not been to emerge from silence into speech but to change the nature and direction of our speech, to make a speech that compels listeners, one that is heard.”
Her spirit refused to be crushed by the somewhat harsh reception her first work received and, tellingly, she wrote: “Now when I ponder the silences, the voices that are not heard, the voices of those wounded and/or oppressed individuals who do not speak or write, I contemplate the acts of persecution, torture – the terrorism that breaks spirits, that makes creativity impossible. I write these words to bear witness to the primacy of resistance struggle in any situation of domination (even within family life); to the strength and power that emerges from sustained resistance and the profound conviction that these forces can be healing, can protect us from dehumanisation and despair.”
For hooks, it was “that act of speech, of ‘talking back’, that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice”.
"All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity."
"Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, revelling in our differences; this is the
process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community."
"Marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation. In fact I was
saying just the opposite: that it is also the site of radical possibility, a
space of resistance."
. Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
Karjean Levine/Getty Images
THE WIDE-ANGLE VISION
by Jennifer Schuessler
The news that bell hooks had died at 69 spread quickly across social media, prompting a flood of posts featuring favorite quotes about love, justice, men, women, community and healing, as well as testimonials about how this pioneering Black feminist writer had changed, or saved, lives.
If the outpouring felt more intense than the usual tributes to departed scholars, admirers say that merely reflected the extraordinary way she mixed the emotional with the intellectual in her quest to make the experiences of Black women not just visible, but central to a sweeping reimagining of society.
“I think we can’t overstate her influence,” Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton said.
“For so many people, bell hooks was their first introduction to social theory, critiques of patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism.”
But even more, she said, hooks’s writing — and her impact — was personal.
“She came from this really sophisticated world of cultural theory, but she connected it to her very particular experience of growing up in Jim Crow Kentucky,” Perry said. “She had all the chops to write in this more traditional, drier academic style, but she chose differently because she wanted to connect with everyday people.”
Perry first met hooks in the early 1990s. She was working as an intern at South End Press, which had published Ain’t I a Woman, hooks’s groundbreaking 1981 book about the impact of both racism and sexism on Black women.
It was a book about intersectionality, before there was a word for it — just one example of how the more than 30 books she wrote anticipated debates and concepts, from self-care to cultural appropriation, that are mainstays today.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar who coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989, said that hooks’s work gave theoretical ballast to political organizing that was happening on the ground. It helped make it possible to critique both white-led feminism and the male-dominated antiracism movement “without feeling like a traitor.”
“Sometimes people say things, or write things, that so capture your experience that you forget never not knowing it or thinking it,” Crenshaw said. “bell is one of those people."
Ain’t I a Woman, which hooks began writing when she was 19, was part of a wave of Black women’s writing in the 1970s, from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Tony Cade Bambara’s anthology The Black Woman (both from 1970), through Alice Walker’s landmark 1975 essay In Search of Zora Neale Hurston and Angela Davis’s 1981 “Women, Race and Class.”
In her next book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, hooks gave a crisp definition of feminism as “the struggle to end sexist oppression.” If she was critical of “white, bourgeois, hegemonic dominance of feminist movements,” she also warned against using such critiques to “trash, reject or dismiss” feminism itself.
In the late 1980s, hooks came to broader prominence in the heyday of a new generation of university-based Black public intellectuals, and she was the rare woman in a circle seemingly defined by male scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr., Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West (with whom she wrote “Breaking Bread” in 1991).
But while hooks spent her entire career in the academy, teaching at Yale, Oberlin, Berea College in Kentucky and other institutions, she was not solely of it. For her, theory wasn’t an abstract exercise, but a tool for self-understanding and survival.
“I came to theory because I was hurting,” she wrote in her 1991 essay Theory as Liberatory Practice, “I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend — to grasp what was happening around and within me.”
She saw the university setting, which was dismissed by some as an elitist space, instead as a site of revolutionary possibility. But she also engaged with popular culture, in essays that could be as rhetorically blunt as they were intellectually serpentine.
In Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?, included in her 1992 book Black Looks: Race and Representation, she unpacked the singer’s groin-grabbing appropriation of “phallic Black masculinity,” which she used to “taunt” white men with what they lack. (“Madonna may hate the phallus, but she longs to possess its power,” hooks wrote.)
In another chapter, she criticized the 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning for failing to “interrogate whiteness,” and instead glorifying and sanitizing a drag culture grounded in “the fantasy that ruling-class white culture is the quintessential site of unrestricted joy, freedom, power and pleasure.” But her critiques of Black culture were more complicated than the bite-size quotes in media interviews might have suggested. In a 1993 article in The New York Times about the boiling controversy over gangsta rap, she likened it to crack. “It’s like we have consumed the worst stereotypes white people have put on Black people,” she said.
But later, she lamented that a 1993 interview she did with Ice Cube in Spin magazine had been “cut to nothing,” as part of a “mass media setup” all too familiar to Black thinkers.
“To white-dominated mass media, the controversy over gangsta rap makes a great spectacle,” she wrote. Journalists and producers that called seeking “the hard-core ‘feminist’ trash of gangsta rap,” she noted, usually lost interest when they encountered instead “the hard-core feminist critique of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
She was not without her critics, including among other Black feminists. In a 1995 article in The Village Voice, Michele Wallace (whose 1979 book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman came out two years before Ain’t I a Woman ) derided what she saw as her repetitive, dogmatic style:
“Without the unlovely P.C. code phrases, ‘white supremacy,’ ‘patriarchal domination’ and ‘self-recovery,’ hooks couldn’t write a sentence.”
And in 2016, hooks’s critical remarks about Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade,” which she described as “capitalist moneymaking at its best,” caused a furor among fellow Black feminist scholars and writers.
“It’s all about the body, and the body as commodity,” she wrote in The Guardian. “This is certainly not radical or revolutionary. From slavery to the present day, black female bodies, clothed and unclothed, have been bought and sold.”
To some, hooks had grown “detached from the hearts and minds of Black women,” as a writer for Ebony put it. But as with her earlier criticisms of Beyoncé as being complicit in the visual “construction of herself as a slave,” hooks’s assessment was more nuanced than the headline-making quotes suggested. And if her criticisms seemed out of step with the evolving pop-culture-savvy Black feminist thought she had helped birth, they also illustrated its depth.
“We learned we could disagree with her,” the historian Anthea Butler, who was critical of hooks at the time, wrote this week at msnbc.com: “Looking back, hooks’s criticism of Beyoncé was a moment to embrace how feminists, specifically Black feminists, embrace other paradigms of feminist power.”
hooks became intellectually famous mostly the old-fashioned way: by writing. She was on television infrequently (and only briefly on Twitter), but her work resonated with younger, very online feminists. In 2015, the feminist site Jezebel declared that “saved by the bell hooks,” which added (rigorously footnoted) quotes from her books to screenshots from the white-bread television show “Saved by the Bell,” was the Tumblr account of the year.
Perry, the Princeton professor, said that students she knew were just as likely to come to hooks’s work through personal reading as through course assignments. That may have been particularly true for her books on love, a subject she turned to in the early 2000s in a series of books including “All About Love” “Communion” and “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love.” (Feminist writing, hooks said in the book, too often “did not tell us about the deep inner misery of men.”)
Today, those titles are often shelved in bookstores under self-help. And on the internet, hooks can seem to share the double-edged canonization of one of her childhood muses, Emily Dickinson, another radical woman writer whose words lend themselves to decontextualized poster-ready #inspo.
But if interpersonal relationships struck some as an unserious subject, hooks was unfazed. Love, she said in a 2017 interview with the website Shondaland, “requires integrity, that there be a congruency between what we think, say
Love, she said, “is first and foremost about knowledge.”
"The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others."
"It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement; but rather than resigning myself to this appropriation I choose to re-appropriate the term ‘feminism’, to focus on the fact that to be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression."
"To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiri- tual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin."
The promises feminism made - and broke
Bel Hooks 1999
When I walk out the door of my old tenement building, I step into a world of incredible affluence, a world that is straight and gay, hip and stylish, and increasingly all white and well-to-do. There are no signs that read White Only. Yet when I go to the deli, I am asked whose girl am I or who I work for. Or, when I ask a black woman for a bit of washing powder in the corner laundry, she tells me the lady she works for measures each cup. Her apology is laced with shame. These days, no one in the US wants to talk about class.
Long ago, anybody who wanted to make it as a writer dreamed of coming to New York City, of inhabiting spaces where great writers lived and worked. That dream was a difficult one for women to fulfil - the struggle to come to voice, to find the room of one's own, to produce, to publish. I live in Greenwich Village, where Margaret Mead, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Parker and a host of others once made their homes.
It was as a young poet struggling to find her voice that I entered the feminist movement and was swept away by the glorious revolution that promised to change our lives forever. Living here, I daily face the triumphs of feminism (one being my own presence here as a successful writer) and see its harshest failures.
The feminist movement we dreamed would change the lives of all women for the better has had little impact on the lives of masses of women. It has most positively changed the lives of well-educated women with varying degrees of class privilege. Thirty years ago, most of those women were white; today they come in varying shades. But as their class power has increased, and with it their acceptance into mainstream, male-dominated worlds, they have abandoned all concern for women who are working-class and poor.
Sometimes when I am on these streets, I feel I am in the old South; in the affluent world around me, dark-skinned nannies tend the children of the mostly white women who are "liberated" - free to have careers, to stay out all night, to pay someone else to do the dirty work of childcare and housework.
The professional women feminism liberated are for the most part not interested in the disenfranchised females who must remain subordinated if they are to be free. They do not want to be reminded that we did not end patriarchy, that feminism has become more cool lifestyle than real politics; they see no connection between their fate and the lot of masses of women who daily enter the ranks of the unemployed, the poor and the disenfranchised.
We live in the country that proclaims it has given the world "the" vision of women's liberation, yet when the white supremacist patriarchal capitalist government attacks single working-class mothers and daily dismantles welfare, the voice of feminism is barely heard. No feminist activists called for us all to take to the streets to defend the rights of working-class and poor women who are one pay cheque or welfare payment away from dire poverty and homelessness. No one wants to talk about poor women giving birth to babies they do not want and cannot support because abortions are fast becoming a luxury. Yet the state will sterilise a poor woman any time, at no cost to her. Feminism has not been looking out for these women or looking at them. Like all the poor in the United States, they are invisible.
There are more than 30 million citizens living in poverty in this nation. A vast majority are female. Yet the "power feminism" of today ignores their plight. There is no door-to-door education that takes feminist thinking out of elite colleges and off the theory page to tell folks, especially women, what it's all about, how and where they can join, learn and transform their lives.
Most women work outside the home and inside, are paid less, do the childcare and housework, have little sexual satisfaction and stay in their place because they do not see any place else to go. Feminism promised to show them the way. That promise has not been fulfilled.
bell hooks' impressive and influential first book, published in 1981. She began her research for this book as a
For Rosa Bell, my mother—
who told me when I was a child that she had once written poems—that I had inherited my love of reading and my longing to write from her.
Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience
In a retrospective examination of the black female slave experience, sexism looms as large as racism as an oppressive force in the lives of black women. Institutionalized sexism— that is, patriarchy—formed the base of the American social structure along with racial imperialism. Sexism was an integral part of the social and political order white colonizers brought with them from their European homelands, and it was to have a grave impact on the fate of enslaved black women. In its earliest stages, the slave trade focused primarily on the importation of laborers; the emphasis at that time was on the black male. The black female slave was not as valued as the black male slave.
On the average, it cost more money to buy a male slave than a female slave. The scarcity of workers coupled with the relatively few numbers of black women inAmerican colonies caused some white male planters to encourage,
persuade, and coerce immigrant white females to engage in sexual relationships with black male slaves as a means of producing new workers. In Maryland, in the year 1664, the first anti-amalgamation law was passed; it was aimed at curtailing sexual relationships between white women and enslaved black men. One part of the preamble of this document stated:
That whatsoever freeborn woman shall intermarry with any slave, from and after the last day of the present assembly, shall serve the masters of such slaves during the life of her husband; and that all the issue of such free born women, so married shall be slaves as their fathers were.
The most celebrated case of this time was that of Irish Nell, an indentured servant sold by Lord Baltimore to a southern planter who encouraged her to marry a black man named Butler. Lord Baltimore, on hearing of the fate of Irish Nell, was so appalled that white women were either by choice or coercion co-habiting sexually with black male slaves that he had the law repealed. The new law stated that the offspring of relationships between white women and black men would be free. As efforts on the part of outraged white men to curtail inter-racial relationships between black men and white women succeeded, the black female slave acquired a new status.
Planters recognized the economic gain they could amass by breeding black slave women. The virulent attacks on slave importation also led to more emphasis on slave breeding. Unlike the offspring of relationships between black men and white women, the off-spring of any black slave woman regardless of the race of her mate would be legally slaves, and therefore the property of the owner to whom the female slave belonged. As the market value of the black female slave increased, larger numbers were stolen or purchased by white slave traders.
White male observers of African culture in the 18th and 19th centuries were astounded and impressed by the African male’s subjugation of the African female. They were not accustomed to a patriarchal social order that demanded
not only that women accept an inferior status, but that they participate actively in the community labor force. Amanda Berry Smith, a 19th century black missionary, visited African communities and reported on the condition of African women:
The poor women of Africa, like those of India, have a hard time. As a rule, they have all the hard work to do. They have to cut and carry all the wood, carry all the water on their heads, and plant all the rice. The men and boys cut and burn the bush, with the help of the women; but sowing the rice, and planting the cassava, the women have to do. You will often see a great, big man walking ahead with nothing in his hand but a cutlass (as they always carry that or a spear), and a woman, his wife, coming on behind with a great big child on her back, and a load on her head. No matter how tired she is, her lord would not think of bringing her a jar of water, to cook his supper with, or of beating the rice, no, she must do that.
The African woman schooled in the art of obedience to a higher authority by the tradition of her society was probably seen by the white male slaver as an ideal subject for slavery. As much of the work to be done in the American colonies was in the area of hoe-agriculture, it undoubtedly occurred to slavers that the African female, accustomed to performing arduous work in the fields while also performing a wide variety of tasks in the domestic household, would be very useful on the American plantation.
While only a few African women were aboard the first ships bringing slaves to the new world, as the slave trade gathered momentum, females made up one-third of the human cargo aboard most ships. Because they could not effectively resist capture at the hands of thieves and kidnappers, African women became frequent targets for white male slavers. Slavers also used the capture of women important to the tribe, like the daughter of a king, as a
means of luring African men into situations where they could be easily captured. Other African women were sold into slavery as punishment for breaking tribal laws. A woman found guilty of committing an act of adultery might be sold into bondage.
White male slavers did not regard the African female as a threat, so often aboard slave ships black women were stored without being shackled while black men were chained to one another. The slavers believed their own safety to be threatened by enslaved African men, but they had no such fear of the African female. The placing of African men in chains was to prevent possible uprisings. As white slavers feared resistance and retaliation at the hands of African men, they placed as much distance between themselves and black male slaves as was possible on board.
It was only in relationship to the black female slave that the white slaver could exercise freely absolute power, for he could brutalize and exploit her without fear of harmful retaliation. Black female slaves moving freely about the decks were a ready target for any white male who might choose to physically abuse and torment them. Initially every slave on board the ship was branded with a hot iron. A cat-o’-nine-tails was used by the slavers to lash those Africans that cried out in pain or resisted the torture. Women were lashed severely for crying. They were stripped of their clothing and beaten on all parts of their body. Ruth and Jacob Weldon, an African couple who experienced the horrors of the slave passage, saw “mothers with babes at their breasts basely branded and scarred, till it would seem as if the very heavens might smite the infernal tormentors with the doom they so richly merited.”
After the branding all slaves were stripped of any clothing. The nakedness of the African female served as a constant reminder of her sexual vulnerability. Rape was a common method of torture slavers used to subdue recalcitrant black women. The threat of rape or other physical brutalization inspired terror in the psyches of displaced African females. Robert Shufeldt, an observer of the slave trade, documented the prevalence of rape on slave ships. He asserts, “In those days many a negress was landed upon our shored already impregnated by someone of the demonic crew that brought her over.”
Many African women were pregnant prior to their capture or purchase. They were forced to endure pregnancy without any care given to their diet, without any exercise, and without any assistance during the labor. In their own communities African women had been accustomed to much pampering and care during pregnancy, so the barbaric nature of childbearing on the slave ship was both physically harmful and psychologically demoralizing.
Annals of history record that the American slave ship Pongas carried 250 women, many of them pregnant, who were squeezed into a compartment of 16 by 18 feet. The women who survived the initial stages of pregnancy gave birth aboard ship with their bodies exposed to either the scorching sun or the freezing cold. The numbers of black women who died during childbirth or the number of stillborn children will never be known. Black women with children on board the slave ships were ridiculed, mocked, and treated contemptuously by the slaver crew.
Often the slavers brutalized children to watch the anguish of their mothers. In their personal account of life aboard a slave ship, the Weldons recounted an incident in which a child of nine months was flogged continuously for refusing to eat. When beating failed to force the child to eat, the captain ordered that the child be placed feet first into a pot of boiling water. After trying other torturous methods with no success, the captain dropped the child and caused its death. Not deriving enough satisfaction from this sadistic act, he then commanded the mother to throw the body of the child overboard. The mother refused but was beaten until she submitted. The traumatic experiences of African women and men aboard slave ships were only the initial stages of an indoctrination process that would transform the African free human being into a slave.
An important part of the slaver’s job was to effectively transform the African personality aboard the ships so that it would be marketable as a “docile” slave in the American colonies. The prideful, arrogant, and independent spirit of the African people had to be broken so that they would conform to the white colonizer’s notion of proper slave demeanor. Crucial in the preparation of African people for the slave market was the destruction of human dignity, the removal of names and status, the dispersement of groups so that there would exist no common language, and the removal of any overt sign of an African heritage.
The methods the slaver used to de-humanize African women and men were various tortures and punishments. A slave might be severely beaten for singing a sad song. When he deemed it necessary, the slaver would slaughter a slave so as to inspire terror in the enslaved onlookers. These methods of terrorization succeeded in forcing African people to repress their awareness of themselves as free people and to adopt the slave identity imposed upon them. Slavers recorded in their log-books that they were sadistically cruel to Africans aboard the slave ships as a way of “breaking them in” or “taming” them.
African females received the brunt of this mass brutalization and terrorization not only because they could be victimized via their sexuality but also because they were more likely to work intimately with the white family than the black male. Since the slaver regarded the black woman as a marketable cook, wet nurse, housekeeper, it was crucial that she be so thoroughly terrorized that she would submit passively to the will of white master, mistress, and their children. In order to make his product saleable, the slaver had to ensure that no recalcitrant black female servant would poison a family, kill children, set fire to the house, or resist in any way. The only insurance he could provide was based on his ability to tame the slave.
Undoubtedly, the slave ship experience had a tremendous psychological impact on the psyches of black women and men. So horrific was the passage from Africa to America that only those women and men who could maintain a will to live despite their oppressive conditions survived. White people who observed the African slaves as they departed from the ships on American shores noted that they seemed to be happy and joyful. They thought that the
happiness of the African slaves was due to their pleasure at having arrived in a Christian land. But the slaves were only expressing relief. They believed no fate that awaited them in the American colonies could be as horrific as the slave ship experience.
Traditionally, scholars have emphasized the impact of slavery on the black male consciousness, arguing that black men, more so than black women, were the “real” victims of slavery. Sexist historians and sociologists have provided the American public with a perspective on slavery in which the most cruel and de-humanizing impact of slavery on the lives of black people was that black men were stripped of their masculinity, which they then argue resulted in the dissolution and overall disruption of any black familial structure.
Scholars have argued further that by not allowing black men to assume their traditional patriarchal status, white men effectively emasculated them, reducing them to an effeminate state. Implicit in this assertion is the assumption that the worst that can happen to a man is that he be made to assume the social status of woman. To suggest that black men were de-humanized solely as a result of not being able to be patriarchs implies that the subjugation of black women was essential to the black male’s development of a positive self-concept, an idea that only served to support a sexist social order.
Enslaved black men were stripped of the patriarchal status that had characterized their social situation in Africa but they were not stripped of their masculinity. Despite all popular arguments that claim black men were figuratively castrated, throughout the history of slavery in America black men were allowed to maintain some semblance of their societally defined masculine role. In colonial times as in contemporary times, masculinity denoted possessing the attributes of strength, virility, vigor, and physical prowess. It was precisely the “masculinity” of the African male that the white slaver sought to exploit. Young, strong, healthy African males were his prime target. For it was by the
sale of virile African men “would-be workers” that the white slave trader expected to receive maximum profit return on his investment.
That white people recognized the “masculinity” of the black male is evident by the tasks assigned the majority of black male slaves. No annals of history record that masses of black slave men were forced to execute roles traditionally performed exclusively by women. Evidence to the contrary exists, documenting the fact that there were many tasks enslaved African men would not perform because they regarded them as “female” work. If white women and men had really been obsessed by the idea of destroying black masculinity, they could have physically castrated all black men aboard slave ships or they could easily have forced black men to assume “feminine” attire or perform so-called “feminine” tasks.
White slave-holders were ambivalent in regards to their treatment of the black male, for while they exploited his masculinity, they institutionalized measures to keep that masculinity in check. Individual black men were castrated by their owners or by mobs but the purpose of such acts was usually to set an example for other male slaves so that they would not resist white authority. Even if enslaved black men had been able to maintain completely their patriarchal status in relationship to enslaved black women, it would not have made the reality of slave life any less tolerable, any less brutal, or any less de-humanizing.
Oppression of black men during slavery has been described as a de-masculinization for the same reason that virtually no scholarly attention has been given to the oppression of black women during slavery. Underlying both tendencies is the sexist assumption that the experiences of men are more important than those of women and that what matters most among the experiences of men is their ability to assert themselves patriarchally. Scholars have been reluctant to discuss the oppression of black women during slavery because of an unwillingness to seriously examine the impact of sexist and racist oppression on their social status. Unfortunately this lack of interest and concern leads them to deliberately minimize the black female slave experience. Although it in no way diminishes the suffering and oppressions of enslaved black men, it is obvious that the two forces, sexism and racism, intensified and magnified the sufferings and oppressions of black women. The area that most clearly reveals the differentiation between the status of male slaves and female slaves is the work area.
The black male slave was primarily exploited as a laborer in the fields; the black female was exploited as a laborer in the fields, a worker in the domestic household, a breeder, and as an object of white male sexual assault. While black men were not forced to assume a role colonial American society regarded as “feminine,” black women were forced to assume a “masculine” role. Black women labored in the fields alongside black men, but few if any black men labored as domestics alongside black women in the white household (with the possible exception of butlers, whose status was still higher than that of a maid). Thus, it would be much more accurate for scholars to examine the dynamics of sexist and racist oppression during slavery in light of the masculinization of the black female and not the
de-masculinization of the black male.
In colonial American society, privileged white women rarely worked in the fields. Occasionally, white female indentured servants were forced to work in the fields as punishment for misdeeds, but this was not a common practice. In the eyes of colonial white Americans, only debased and degraded members of the female sex labored in the fields. And any white woman forced by circumstances to work in the fields was regarded as unworthy of the title “woman.” Although enslaved African women had labored in the fields in African communities, there these tasks were seen as an extension of a woman’s feminine role. Transplanted African women soon realized that they were seen as “surrogate” men by white male slavers. On any plantation with a substantial number of female slaves, black women performed the same tasks as black men; they plowed, planted, and harvested crops. On some plantations black women worked longer hours in the fields than black men. Even though it was a widespread belief among white plantation owners that black women were often better workers than their male counterparts, only a male slave could rise to the position of driver or overseer.
Given their African heritage, it was easy for enslaved black women to adapt to farm labor in the colonies. Not only was the displaced African man unaccustomed to various types of farm labor, he often saw many tasks as “feminine” and resented having to perform them. In the states where cotton was the main staple to market, harvesting of crops depended heavily on the labor of black females. Although both black women and men labored to pick the ripe cotton, it was believed that the more delicately tapered fingers of the black female made it easier for her to gather the cotton from the pod.
White overseers expected black female workers to work as well if not better than their male counterparts. If a black female worker failed to accomplish the amount of work expected of her, she was punished. White men may have discriminated against black women slaves in choosing to allow only males to be drivers or overseers, but they did not discriminate in the area of punishment. Female slaves were beaten as harshly as male slaves. Observers of the slave experience claim that it was common on a plantation to see a black female stripped naked, tied to a stake, and whipped with a hard saw or club.
On large plantations not all black women labored in the fields. They worked as nurses, cooks, seamstresses, washer-women, and as maids. The popular notion that black slaves working in the white household were automatically the recipients of preferential treatment is not always substantiated by the personal accounts of slaves. House slaves were less subjected to the physical hardships that beset field workers, but they were more likely to suffer endless cruelty and torture because they were constantly in the presence of demanding mistresses and masters. Black females working in close contact with white mistresses were frequently abused for petty offenses. Mungo White, an ex-slave from Alabama, recalled the conditions under which his mother worked:
Her task was too hard for any one person. She had to serve as maid to Mr. White’s daughter, cook for all de hands, spin and card four cuts of thread a day, and den wash. Dere was one hundred and forty-four threads to de cut. If she didn’t get all dis done she got fifty lashes dat night.
House slaves complained repeatedly about the stress and strain of being constantly under the surveillance of white owners. Racist exploitation of black women as workers either in the fields or domestic household was not as de-humanizing and demoralizing as the sexual exploitation. The sexism of colonial white male patriarchs spared black male slaves the humiliation of homosexual rape and other forms of sexual assault.
While institutionalized sexism was a social system that protected black male sexuality, it (socially) legitimized sexual exploitation of black females. The female slave lived in constant awareness of her sexual vulnerability and in perpetual fear that any male, white or black, might single her out to assault and victimize. Linda Brent in the narrative of her slave experience expressed her awareness of the black female’s plight:
Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and suffering, and mortifications peculiarly their own.
Those sufferings peculiar to black women were directly related to their sexuality and involved rape and other forms of sexual assault. Black female slaves were usually sexually assaulted when they were between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. One female slave autobiographer declared:
The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her masters and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these failed to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will.
Black female slave narratives that provide information concerning the sexual education of girls suggest that they knew little about their bodies, where babies came from, or about sexual intercourse. Few slave parents warned their daughters about the possibility of rape or helped them to prepare for such situations. The slave parents’ unwillingness to openly concern themselves with the reality of sexual exploitation reflects the general colonial American attitude regarding sexuality.
“…the academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice
These are the concluding thoughts of this, Bell Hook's first book to deal directly with education, published in 1994, by which time she was a well-respected academic, much loved by her students.
A Revolution of Values
The Promise of Multicultural Change
Two summers ago I attended my twentieth high school reunion. It was a last-minute decision. I had just finished a new book. Whenever I finish a work, I always feel lost, as though a steady anchor has been taken away and there is no sure ground under my feet. During the time between ending one project and beginning another, I always have a crisis of meaning. I begin to wonder what my life is all about and what I bave been put on this earth to do. It is as though immersed in a projectI lose all sense of myself and must then, when the work is done, rediscover who I am and where
I am going.
When I heard that the reunion was happening, it seemed just the experience to bring me back to myself, to help in the process of rediscovery. Never having attended any of the past reunions, I did not know what to expect. I did know that this one would be different. For the first time we were about to have a racially integrated reunion. In past years, reunions had always been segregated. White folks had their reunion on their side of town and black folks had a
None of us was sure what an integrated reunion would be like. Those periods in our adolescent lives of racial desegregation had been full of hostility, rage, conflict, and loss. We black kids had been angry that we had to leave our beloved all-black high school, Crispus Attucks, and be bussed halfway cross town to integrate white schools. We had to make the journey and thus bear the responsibility of making desegregation a reality. We had to give up the familiar and enter a world that seemed cold and strange, not our world, not our school.
We were certainly on the margin, no longer at the center, and it hurt. It was such an unhappy time. I still remember my rage that we had to awaken an hour early so that we could be bussed to school before the white students arrived. We were made to sit in the gymnasium and wait. It was believed that this practice would prevent outbreaks of conflict and hostility since it removed the possibitity of social contact before classes began. Yet, once again, the burden of this transition was placed on us. The white school was desegregated, but in the classroom, in the cafeteria, and in most social spaces racial apartheid prevailed.
Black and white students who considered ourselves progressive rebelled against the unspoken racial taboos meant to sustain white supremacy and racial apartheid even in the face of desegrega tion. The white folks never seemed to understand that our parents were no more eager for us to socialize with them than they were to socialize with us. Those of us who wanted to make racial equality a reality in every area of our life were threats to the social order. We were proud of ourselves, proud of our willingness to transgress the rules, proud to be courageous. Part of a small integrated clique of smart kids who considered ourselves "artists," we believed we were destined to create outlaw culture where we would live as Bohemians forever free; we were certain of
Days before the reunion, I was overwhelmed by memories and shocked to discover that our gestures of defiance had been nowhere near as daring as they had seemed at the time. Mostly, they were acts of resistance that did not truly challenge the status quo. One of my best buddies during that time was white and male. He had an old gray Volva that I loved to ride in. Every now and then he would give me a ride home from school if l missed the bus - an action which angered and disturbed those who saw us. Friendship across racial tines was bad enough, but across gender it was unheard of and dangerous. (One day, we found outjust how dangerous when grown white men in a car tried to run us off the road.)
Ken's parents were religions. Their faith compelled them to live out a belief in racial justice. They were among the first white folks in our community to invite black folks to corne to their house, to eat at their table, to worship together with them. As one of Ken's best buddies, I was welcome in their house.
After hours of discussion and debate about possible dangers, my parents agreed that I could go there for a meal. It was my first time eating together with white people. I was 16 years oid. I felt then as though we were making history, that we were living the dream of democracy, creating a culture where equality, love, justice, and peace would shape America's destiny.
After graduation, I lost touch with Ken even though he always had a warm place in my memory. I thought of him when meeting and interacting with liberal white folks who believed that having a black friend meant that they were not racist, who sincerely believed that they were doing us a favor by extending offers of friendly contact for which they felt they should be rewarded. I thought of him during years of watching white folks play at unlearning racism but walking away when they encountered obstacles, rejection, conflict, pain.
Our high school friendship had been forged not because we were black and white but because we shared a similar take on reality. Racial difference meant that we had to struggle to claim the integrity of that bonding. We had no illusions. We knew there would be obstacles, conflict, and pain. In white supremacist capitalist patriarchy - words we never used then - we knew we would have to pay a price for this friendship, that we would need to possess the courage to stand up for our belief in democracy, in racial justice, in the transformative power of love. We valued the bond between us enough to meet the challenge.
Days before the reunion, remembering the sweetness of that friendship, I felt humbled by the knowledge of what we give up when we are young, believing that we will find something just as good or better someday, only to discover that not to be so. I wondered just how it could be that Ken and I had ever lost contact with one another.
Along the way I had not found white folks who understood the depth and complexity of racial injustice, and who were as willing to practice the art of living a nonracist life, as folks were then. In my adult life I have seen few white folks who are really willing to go the distance to create a world of racial equality - white folks willing to take risks, to be courageous, to live against the grain.
I went to the reunion hoping that I would have a chance to see Ken
face-to- face, to tell him how much I cherished all that we had shared, to tell him -in words which I never dared to say to any white person back then-simply that I loved him.
Remembering this past, I am most struck by our passionate commitment to a vision of social transformation rooted in the fundamental belief in a radically democratic idea of freedom and justice for all. Our notions of social change were not fancy. There was no elaborate postmodern political theory shaping our actions. We were simply trying to change the way we went about our everyday !ives so that our values and habits of being would reflect our commitrnent to freedom. Our major concern then was ending racism.
Today, as I witness the rise in white supremacy, the growing social and economic apartheid that separates white and black, the haves and the
have-nots, men and women, I have placed alongside the struggle to end racism a commitment to ending sexism and sexist oppression, to eradicating systems of class exploitation. Aware that we are living in a culture of domination, I ask myself now, as I did more than twenty years ago, what values and habits of being reflect my/our commitment to freedom
In retrospect, I see that in the last twenty years I have encountered many folks who say they are committed to freedom and justice for all, even though the way they live, the values and habits of being they institutionalize daily, in public and private rituals, help maintain the culture of domination, help create an unfree world. In the book Where Do We Got From Here? Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King, Jr. told the citizens of this nation, with prophetic insight, that we would be unable to go forward if we did not experience a "true revolution of values." He assured us that
"the stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientífic and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing"-oriented society to a "person"-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy."
Today, we live in the midst of that floundering. We live in chaos, uncertain about the possibility of building and sustaining community. The public figures who speak the most to us about a return to old-fashioned values embody the evils King describes. They are most committed to maintaining systems of
domination - racism, sexism, class exploitation, and imperialism. They promote a perverse vision of freedom that makes it synonymous with materialism. They teach us to believe that domination is "natural," that it is right for the strong to rule over the weak, the powerful over the powerless. What amazes me is that so many people claim not to embrace these values and yet our collective rejection of them cannot be completesince they prevail in our daily !ives.
These days, I arn compelled to consider what forces keep us from moving forward, from having that revolution of values that would enable us to live differently. King taught us to understand that if ''we are to have peace on earth" that "our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation." Long before the word "multiculturalism" became fashionable, he encouraged us to "develop a world perspective." Yet, what we are witnessing today in our everyday life is not an eagerness on the part of neighbors and strangers to develop a world perspective but a return to narrow nationalism, isolationisms, and xenophobia. These shifts are usually explained in New Right and neoconservative terms as attempts to bring order to the chaos, to return to an (idealized) past.
The notion of family evoked in these discussions is one in which sexist roles are upheld as stabilizing traditions. Not surprisingly, this vision of family life is coupled with a notion of security that suggests we are always most safe with people of our same group, race, class, religion, and so on. No matter how many statistics on domestic violence, homicide, rape, and child abuse indicate that, in fact, the idealized patriarchal family is not a "safe" space, that those of us who experience any form of assault are more likely to be victimized by those who are like us rather than by some mysterious strange outsiders, these conservative myths persist.
lt is apparent that one of the primary reasons we have not experienced a revolution of values is that a culture of domination necessarily promotes addiction to lying and denial. That lying takes the presumably innocent form of many white people (and even some black folks) suggesting that racism does not exist anymore, and that conditions of social equality are solidly in place that would enable any black person works hard to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Forget about the fact that capitalism requires the existence of a mass underclass of surplus labor. Lying takes the form of mass media creating the myth that feminist movement has completely transformed society, so much so that the politics of patriarchal power have been inverted and that men, particularly whitemen, just like emasculated black men, have become the victims of dominating women.
So, it goes, all men (especially black men) must pull together (as in the Clarence Thomas hearings) to support and reaffirm patriarchal domination. Add to this the widely held assumptions that blacks, other minorities, and
white women are taking jobs from white men, and that people are poor and unemployed because they want to be, and it becomes most evident that part of our contemporary crisis is created by a lack of meaningful access to truth. That is to say, individuals are not just presented untruths, but are told them in a manner that enables most effective communication. When this collective cultural consumption of and attachment to misinformation is coupled with the layers of lying individuals do in their personal !ives, our capacity to
face reality is severely diminished as is our will to intervene and change
If we examine critically the traditional role of the university in the pursuit of truth and the sharing of knowledge and information, it is painfully clear that biases that uphold and maintain white supremacy, imperialism, sexism, and racism have distorted education so that it is no longer about the practice of freedom. The call for a recognition of cultural diversity, a rethinking of ways of knowing, a deconstruction of old epistemologies, and the concomitant demand that there be a transformation in our classrooms, in how we teach and what we teach, has been a necessary revolution-one that seeks to restore life to a corrupt and dying academy.
When everyone first began to speak about cultural diversity, it was exciting. For those of us on the margins (people of color, folks from working class backgrounds, gays, and lesbians, and so on) who had always felt ambivalent about our presence in institutions where knowledge was shared in ways that reinscribed colonialism and domination, it was thrilling to think that the vision of justice and democracy that was at the very heart of civil rights movement would be realized in the academy. At !ast, there was the possibility of a learning community, a place where difference could be acknowledged, where we would finally all understand, accept, and affirm that our ways of knowing are forged in history and relations of power. Finally, we were all going to break through collective academic denial and acknowledge that the education most of us had received and were giving was not and is never politically neutral.
Though it was evident that change would not be immediate, there was tremendous hope that this process we had set in motion would lead to a fulfillment of the dream of education as the practice of freedom.
Many of our colleagues were initially reluctant participants in this change. Many folks found that as they tried to respect "cultural diversity" they had to confront the limitations of their training and knowledge, as well as a possible loss of "authority." Indeed, exposing certain truths and biases in the classroom often created chaos and confusion. The idea that the classroom should always be a "safe," harmonious place was challenged. It was hard for individuals to fully grasp the idea that recognition of difference might also require of us a willingness to see the classroom change, to allow for shifts in relations between students.
A lot of people panicked. What they saw happening was not the comforting "melting pot" idea of cultural diversity, the rainbow coalition where we would all be grouped together in our difference, but everyone wearing the same
have-a-nice-day smile. This was the stuff of colonizing fantasy, a perversion of the progressive vision of cultural diversity. Critiquing this longing in a recent interview, Critical Multiculturalism and Democratic Schooling (in the International Journal of Educational Reform), Peter McLaren asserted:
Diversity that somehow constitutes itself as a harmonious ensemble of benign
cultural spheres is a conservative and liberal model of multiculturalism that, in my mind, deserves to be jettisoned because, when we try to make culture an undisturbed space of harmony and agreement where social relations exist within cultural forms of uninterrupted accords we subscribe to a form of social amnesia in which we
forget that all knowledge is forged in histories that are played out in the field
of social antagonisms.
Many professors lacked strategies to deal with antagonisms in the classroom. When this fear joined with the refusa! to change that characterized the stance of an oid (predominantly white male) guard, it created a space for disempowered collective backlash.
All of a sudden, professors who had taken issues of multiculturalism and cultural diversity seriously were backtracking, expressing doubts, casting votes in directions that would restore biased traditions or prohibit changes in faculty and curricula that were to bring diversity of representation and perspective. Joining forces with the old guard, previously open professors condoned tactics (ostracization, belittlement, and so on) used by senior colleagues to dissuade junior faculty members from making paradigm shifts that would lead to change.
In one of my Toni Morrison seminars, as we wentaround our circle voicing critical reflections on Morrison's language, a sort of classically white, blondish, J. Crew coed shared that one of her other English professors, an older white man (whose name none of us wanted her to mention), confided that he was so pleased to find a student still interested in reading literature -words- the language of texts and "not that race and gender stuff." Somewhat amused by the assumption he had made about her, she was disturbed by his conviction that conventional ways of critically approaching a novel could not coexist in classrooms that also offered new perspectives.
I then shared with the class my experience of being at a Halloween party. A new white male colleague, with whom I was chatting for the first time, went on a tirade at the mere mention of my Toni Morrison seminar, emphasizing that Song of Solomon was a weak rewrite of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Passionately full of disgust for Morrison he, being a Hemingway scholar, seemed to be sharing the often-heard concern that black women writers/thinkers are just poor imitations of "great" white men.
Not wanting at that moment to launch into Unlearning Colonialism, Divesting of Racism and Sexism 101, I opted for the strategy taught to me by that in-denial-of-institutionalized-patriarchy, self-help book Women Who Love Too Much.
I just said, "Oh!" Later, I assured him that I would read For Whom the Bell Tolls again to see if I would make the
Both these seemingly trivial incidents reveal how deep-seated is the fear that any decentering of Western civilizations, of the white male canon, is really an act of cultural genocide. Some folks think that everyone who supports cultural diversity wants to replace one dictatorship of knowing with another, changing one set way of thinking for another. This is perhaps the gravest misperception of cultural diversity. Even though there are those overly zealous among us who hope to replace one set of absolutes with another, simply changing content, this perspective does not accurately represent progressive visions of the way commitment to cultural diversity can constructively transform the academy. In all cultural revolutions there are periods of chaos and confusion, times when grave mistakes are made. If we fear mistakes, doing things wrongly, constantly evaluating ourselves, we will never make the academy a culturally diverse place where scholars and the curricula address every dimension of that difference.
As backlash swells, as budgets are cut, as jobs become even more scarce, many of the few progressive interventions that were made to change the academy, to create an open climate for cultural diversity are in danger of being undermined or eliminated. These threats should not be ignored. Nor should our collective commitment to cultural diversity change because we bave not yet devised and implemented perfect strategies for them. To create a culturally diverse academy we must commit ourselves fully. Learning from other movements for social change, from civil rights and feminist liberation efforts, we must accept the protracted nature of our struggle and be willing to remain both patient and vigilant.
To commit ourselves to the work of transforming the academy so that it will be a place where cultural diversity informs every aspect of our learning, we must embrace struggle and sacrifice. We cannot be easily discouraged. We cannot despair when there is conflict. Our solidarity must be affirmed by shared belief in a spirit of intellectual openness that celehrates diversity, welcomes dissent, and rejoices in collective dedication to truth.
Drawing strength from the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr, I am often reminded of his profound inner struggle when he felt called by his religious beliefs to oppose the war in Vietnam. Fearful of alienating conservative bourgeois supporters, and of alienating the black church, King meditated on a passage from Romans, chapter 12, verse 2, which reminded him of the necessity of dissent, challenge and change: "Be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewal of your minds." All of us in the academy and in the culture as a whole are called to renew our minds if we are to transform educational institutions - and society - so that the way we live, teach, and work can reflect our joy in cultural diversity, our passion for justice, and our love of freedom.
From the beginning Bel Hooks avoided the dense texts and abundant footnotes of most academic writing. She reached straight out to the reader, who could be a professor or, just as likely, someone catching a few sentences on the subway journey to work, or school. For sure, many readers will have kept books by Bell Hooks on their bedside table. Not least this one, published in 2000 and on the New York Times best sellers list 20 years later.
When I was a child, it was clear to me that life was not worth living if we did not know love. I wish I could testify that I came to this awareness because of the love I felt in my life. But it was love’s absence that let me know how much love mattered. I was my father’s first daughter. At the moment of my birth, I was looked upon with loving kindness, cherished and made to feel wanted on this earth and in my home. To this day I cannot remember when that feeling of being loved left me. I just know that one day I was no longer precious. Those who had initially loved me well turned away. The absence of their recognition and regard pierced my heart and left me with a feeling of brokenheartedness so profound I was spellbound. Grief and sadness overwhelmed me. I did not know what I had done wrong. And nothing I tried made it right. No other connection healed the hurt of that first abandonment, that first banishment from love’s paradise. For years I lived my life suspended, trapped by the past, unable to move into the future. Like every wounded child I just wanted to turn back time and be in that paradise again, in that moment of remembered rapture where I felt loved, where I felt a sense of belonging. We can never go back. I know that now. We can go forward. We can find the love our hearts long for, but not until we let go grief about the love we lost long ago, when we were little and had no voice to speak the heart’s longing.
All the years of my life I thought I was searching for love I found, retrospectively, to be years where I was simply trying to recover what had been lost, to return to the first home, to get back the rapture of first love. I was not really ready to love or be loved in the present. I was still mourning—clinging to the broken heart of girlhood, to broken connections. When that mourning ceased I was able to love again. I awakened from my trance state and was stunned to find the world I was living in, the world of the present, was no longer a world open to love. And I noticed that all around me I heard testimony that lovelessness had become the order of the day. I feel our nation’s turning away from love as intensely as I felt love’s abandonment in my girlhood. Turning away we risk moving into a wilderness of spirit so intense we may never find our way home again. I write of love to bear witness both to the danger in this movement, and to call for a return to love. Redeemed and restored, love returns us to the promise of everlasting life. When we love we can let our hearts speak.
Justice: Childhood Love Lessons
Severe separations in early life leave emotional scars
on the brain because they assault the essential
human connection: The [parent-child] bond which
teaches us that we are lovable. The [parent-child]
bond which teaches us how to love. We
cannot be whole human beings—indeed,
we may find it hard to be human—without
the sustenance of this first attachment.
We learn about love in childhood. Whether our homes are happy or troubled, our families functional or dysfunctional, it’s the original school of love. I cannot remember ever wanting to ask my parents to define love. To my child’s mind love was the good feeling you got when family treated you like you mattered and you treated them like they mattered. Love was always and only about good feeling. In early adolescence when we were whipped and told that these punishments were “for our own good” or “I’m doing this because I love you,” my siblings and I were confused. Why was harsh punishment a gesture of love?
As children do, we pretended to accept this grown-up logic; but we knew in our hearts it was not right. We knew it was a lie. Just like the lie the grown-ups told when they explained after harsh punishment, “It hurts me more than it hurts you.” There is nothing that creates more confusion about love in the minds and hearts of children than unkind and/or cruel punishment meted out by the grown-ups they have been taught they should love and respect. Such children learn early on to question the meaning of love, to yearn for love even as they doubt it exists. On the flip side there are masses of children who grow up confident love is a good feeling who are never punished, who are allowed to believe that love is only about getting your needs met, your desires satisfied. In their child’s minds love is not about what they have to give, love is mostly something given to them.
When children like these are overindulged either materially or by being allowed to act out, this is a form of neglect. These children, though not in any way abused or uncared for, are usually as unclear about love’s meaning as their neglected and emotionally abandoned counterparts. Both groups have learned to think about love primarily in relation to good feelings, in the context of reward and punishment.
From early childhood on, most of us remember being told we were loved when we did things pleasing to our parents. And we learned to give them affirmations of love when they pleased us. As children grow they associate love more with acts of attention, affection, and caring. They still see parents who attempt to satisfy their desires as giving love. Children from all classes tell me that they love their parents and are loved by them, even those who are being hurt or abused. When asked to define love, small children pretty much agree that it’s a good feeling, “like when you have something to eat that you really like” especially if it’s your f-a-v-o-r-i-t-e. They will say, “My mommy loves me ’cause she takes care of me and helps me do everything right.” When asked
how to love someone, they talk about giving hugs and kisses, being sweet and cuddly. The notion that love is about getting what one wants, whether it’s a hug or a new sweater or a trip to Disneyland, is a way of thinking about
love that makes it difficult for children to acquire a deeper emotional understanding.
We like to imagine that most children will be born into homes where they will be loved. But love will not be present if the grown-ups who parent do not know how to love. Although lots of children are raised in homes where they are given some degree of care, love may not be sustained or even present. Adults across lines of class, race, and gender indict the family. Their testimony conveys worlds of childhood where love was lacking—where chaos, neglect, abuse, and coercion reigned supreme.
In her recent book Raised in Captivity: Why Does America Fail Its Children?, Lucia Hodgson documents the reality of lovelessness in the lives of a huge majority of children in the United States. Every day thousands of children in our culture are verbally and physically abused, starved, tortured, and murdered. They are the true victims of intimate terrorism in that they have no collective voice and no rights. They remain the property of parenting adults to do with as they will.
There can be no love without justice. Until we live in a culture that not only respects but also upholds basic civil rights for children, most children will not know love. In our culture the private family dwelling is the one institutionalized sphere of power that can easily be autocratic and fascistic.
As absolute rulers, parents can usually decide without any intervention what is best for their children. If children’s rights are taken away in any domestic household, they have no legal recourse. Unlike women who can organize to protest sexist domination, demanding both equal rights and justice, children can only rely on well-meaning adults to assist them if they are being exploited and oppressed in the home. We all know that, irrespective of class or race, other adults rarely intervene to question or challenge what their peers are doing with “their” children.
At a fun party, mostly of educated, well-paid professionals, a multiracial, multigenerational evening, the subject of disciplining kids by hitting was raised. Almost all the guests over thirty spoke about the necessity of using physical punishment. Many of us in the room had been smacked, whipped, or beaten as children. Men spoke the loudest in defense of physical punishment. Women, mostly mothers, talked about hitting as a last resort, but one that they deployed when necessary. As one man bragged about the aggressive beatings he had received from his mother, sharing that “they had been good for him,” I interrupted and suggested that he might not be the misogynist woman-hater he is today if he had not been brutally beaten by a woman as a child.
Although it is too simplistic to assume that just because we are hit as kids we will grow up to be people who hit, I wanted the group to acknowledge that being physically hurt or abused by grown-ups when we are children has harmful consequences in our adult life.
A young professional, the mother of a small boy, bragged about the fact that she did not hit, that when her son misbehaved she clamped down on his flesh, pinching him until he got the message. But this, too, is a form of coercive abuse. The other guests supported this young mother and her husband in their methods. I was astounded. I was a lone voice speaking out for the rights of children. Later, with other people, I suggested that had we all been listening to a man tell us that every time his wife or girlfriend does something he does not like he just clamps down on her flesh, pinching her as hard as he can, everyone would have been appalled. They would have seen the action as both coercive and abusive. Yet they could not acknowledge that it was wrong for an adult to hurt a child in this way.
All the parents in that room claim that they are loving. All the people in that room were college educated. Most call themselves good liberals, supportive of civil rights and feminism. But when it came to the rights of children they had a different standard.
One of the most important social myths we must debunk if we are to become a more loving culture is the one that teaches parents that abuse and neglect can coexist with love. Abuse and neglect negate love. Care and affirmation, the opposite of abuse and humiliation, are the foundation of love. No one can rightfully claim to be loving when behaving abusively. Yet parents do this all the time in our culture. Children are told that they are loved even though they are being abused. It is a testimony to the failure of loving practice that abuse is happening in the first place.
Many of the men who offer their personal testimony in Boyhood, Growing Up Male tell stories of random violent abuse by parents that inflicted trauma. In his essay “When My Father Hit Me,” Bob Shelby describes the pain of repeated beatings by his dad, stating: “From these experiences with my father, I learned about the abuse of power. By physically hitting my mother and me, he effectively stopped us from reacting to his humiliation of us. We ceased to protest his violations of our boundaries and his ignoring our sense of being individuals with needs, demands and rights of our own.”
Throughout his essay Shelby expresses contradictory understandings about the meaning of love. On the one hand, he says: “I have no doubt that my father loved me, but his love became misdirected. He said he wanted to give me what he didn’t have as a child.” On the other hand, Shelby confesses: “What he most showed me, however, was his difficulty in being loved. All his life he had struggled with feelings of being unloved.”
When Shelby describes his childhood it is clear that his dad had affection for him and also gave him care some of the time. However, his dad did not know how to give and receive love. The affection he gave was undermined by the abuse. Writing from the space of adult recollection, Shelby talks about the impact of physical abuse on his boyhood psyche: “As the intensity of the pain of his hits increased, I felt the hurt in my heart. I realized what hurt me the most were my feelings of love for this man who was hitting me. I covered my love with a dark cloth of hate.”
A similar story is told by other men in autobiographical narrative—men of all classes and races. One of the myths about lovelessness is that it exists only among the poor and deprived. Yet lovelessness is not a function of poverty or material lack. In homes where material privileges abound, children suffer emotional neglect and abuse. In order to cope with the pain of wounds inflicted in childhood, most of the men in Boyhood sought some form of therapeutic care. To find their way back to love they had to heal.
Many men in our culture never recover from childhood unkindnesses. Studies show that males and females who are violently humiliated and abused repeatedly, with no caring intervention, are likely to be dysfunctional and will be predisposed to abuse others violently. In Jarvis Jay Masters’s book Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row, a chapter called “Scars” recounts his recognition that a vast majority of the scars covering the bodies of fellow inmates (not all of whom were on death row) were not, as one might think, the result of violent adult interactions. These men were covered with scars from childhood beatings inflicted by parenting adults. Yet, he reports, none of them saw themselves as the victims of abuse: “Throughout my many years of institutionalization, I, like so many of these men, unconsciously took refuge behind prison walls. Not until I read a series of books for adults who had been abused as children did I become committed to the process of examining my own childhood.”
Organizing the men for group discussion, Masters writes: “I spoke to them of the pain I had carried through more than a dozen institutions. And I explained how all these events ultimately trapped me in a pattern of lashing out against everything.” Like many abused children, male and female, these men were beaten by mothers, fathers, and other parental caregivers.”
When Masters’s mother dies he feels grief that he cannot be with her. The other inmates do not understand this longing, since she neglected and abused him. He responds: “She had neglected me, but am I to neglect myself as well by denying that I wished I’d been with her when she died, that I still love her?”
Even on death row, Masters’s heart remains open. And he can honestly confess to longing to give and receive love. Being hurt by parenting adults rarely alters a child’s desire to love and be loved by them.
Among grown-ups who were wounded in childhood, the desire to be loved by uncaring parents persists, even when there is a clear acceptance of the reality that this love will never be forthcoming. Often, children will want to remain with parental caregivers who have hurt them because of their cathected feelings for those adults. They will cling to the misguided assumption that their parents love them even in the face of remembered abuse, usually by denying the abuse and focusing on random acts of care.
In the prologue to Creating Love, John Bradshaw calls this confusion about love “mystification.” He shares: “I was brought up to believe that love is rooted in blood relationships. You naturally loved anyone in your family. Love
was not a choice. The love I learned about was bound by duty and obligation. . . . My family taught me our culture’s rules and beliefs about love . . . even with the best intentions our parents often confused love with what we would now call abuse.”
To demystify the meaning of love, the art and practice of loving, we need to use sound definitions of love when talking with children, and we also need to ensure that loving action is never tainted with abuse. In a society like ours, where children are denied full civil rights, it is absolutely crucial that parenting adults learn how to offer loving discipline. Setting boundaries and teaching children how to set boundaries for themselves prior to misbehavior is an essential part of loving parenting. When parents start out disciplining children by using punishment, this becomes the pattern children respond to. Loving parents work hard to discipline without punishment. This does not mean that they never punish, only that when they do punish, they choose punishments like time-outs or the taking away of privileges. They focus on teaching children how to be self-disciplining and how to take responsibility for their actions. Since the vast majority of us were raised in households where punishment was deemed the primary, if not the only, way to teach discipline, the fact that discipline can be taught without punishment surprises many people.
One of the simplest ways children learn discipline is by learning how to be orderly in daily life, to clean up any messes they make. Just teaching a child to take responsibility for placing toys in the appropriate place after playtime is one way to teach responsibility and self-discipline. Learning to clean up the mess made during playtime helps a child learn to be responsible. And they can learn from this practical act how to cope with emotional mess...
My friend’s daughter turns to me to intervene if there is a misunderstanding or miscommunication between her and her mom. Here’s one small example. My adult friend had never received an allowance as a child and did not feel she had the available extra money to offer an allowance to her daughter. She also believed her daughter would use all the money to buy sweets. Telling me that her daughter was angry with her over this issue, she opened up the space for us to have a dialogue. I shared my belief that allowances are important ways to teach children discipline, boundaries, and working through desires versus needs. I knew enough about my friend’s finances to challenge her insistence that she could not afford to pay a small allowance, while simultaneously encouraging her not to project the wrongs of her childhood onto the present.
As to whether the daughter would buy candy, I suggested she give the allowance with a statement of hope that it would not be used for overindulgence and see what happened. It all worked out just fine. Happy to have an allowance, the daughter chose to save her money to buy things she thought were really important. And candy was not on this list. Had there not been another adult parenting figure involved, it might have taken these two a longer time to resolve their conflict, and unnecessary estrangement and wounding might haveoccurred.
Significantly, love and respectful interaction between two adults exemplified for the daughter (who was told about the discussion) ways of problem solving. By revealing her willingness to accept criticism and her capacity to reflect on her behavior and change, the mother modeled for her daughter, without losing dignity or authority, the recognition that parents are not always right.
Until we begin to see loving parenting in all walks of life in our culture, many people will continue to believe we can only teach discipline through punishment, and that harsh punishment is an acceptable way to relate to children. Because children can innately offer affection or respond to affectionate care by returning it, it is often assumed that they know how to love and therefore do not need to learn the art of loving.
While the will to love is present in very young children, they still need guidance in the ways of love. Grown-ups provide that guidance. Love is as love does, and it is our responsibility to give children love. When we love children we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights—that we respect and uphold their rights. Without justice there can be no love.
listen little sister
angels make their hope here
in these hills
I will guide you
I will guide you
word for word
mouth for mouth
all the holy ones
all our kin
making home here
grace these mountains
we have earth to bind us
can never be broken
vows to live and let live
From Appalachian Elegy
Kentucky University Press
Janet Fries / Getty Images
"I WRITE TO
WHAT I AM
"I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
What I want and what I fear."
"I know what the fear is. The fear is not for what is lost. What is lost is already in the wall. What is lost is
already behind the locked door. The fear is for what is still to be lost."
"We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals
alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were."
Hollywood, 1968. Julian Wasser
In my late teens and twenties I was enthralled by Joan Didion. Her staccato, disconnected way of describing the world excited me. At times the writing even seemed unhinged from reality. Could I take it seriously? Was the writer herself perhaps unhinged? (This was a question one of her editors put to her directly, when he was taking on the text of an early novel. I don't know how she responded, but I learnt later that she had a number of encounters with mental illness. And you can see in the photographs how frequently they appear to convey fragility and pain, sometimes confusion, as well as a sinewy strength.
I assume now that because, rather than despite, these complications her way of seeing has affected my own. I came to value, and even trust, how she described America, an important reality -and fantasy- in my own life - and in the lies, perhaps, of has the world. At the time I was reading her often, I was a young journalist with creative instincts, seeking to work out my own way of making sense of things. And Joan Didion's flash cuts and stripped-away prose seemed to be something I could learn from. She also wrote with pictures, concentrating on what she could see rather than making conjecture about what lay beneath the surface.
Back then, the late sixties and seventies, she was bundled up into a marketing package with Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and others, as a representative of the New Journalism. This was a brand in which high subjectivity and extreme length might revolutionise reportage. But she seemed to me to go beyond journalism to a much more imaginative, emotionally volatile space. And her tone of voice was unlike any other I had encountered. GD
With her Corvette 1971 Julian Wasser
Nathan Heller December 23, 2021
When Joan Didion died, at eighty-seven, she left behind sixteen books, seven films, one play, and an impulse to make sense of what remained. It was tempting to note that, like her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, whose passing shaped The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), she died during the Christmas holiday. It was easy to see, as she did in her daughter’s lethal illness that same season, larger gears at work.
Didion was a pattern-seeker—a writer with an uncanny ability to scan a text, a folder of clippings, or an entire society and, like a genius eying figures, find the markers pointing out how the whole worked. Through her efforts, the
craft of journalism changed. She helped expand the landscape of what matters on the page.
Though Didion spent half her life in New York (first as a junior editor at Vogue, then, in a later stint, as a short-statured lioness of letters), much of her best-known work was done in California, where she’d grown up in mid-century Sacramento. Her ominous, valley-flat style channelled the Pacific terrain, with its beauty and severity and restless turns.
“This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school,” she wrote in Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, the essay that opened her first collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). That book announced her subject—the long, crazed shadow of the frontier mentality—and her style, which carried across five novels and several screenplays, not least A Star Is Born (1976), which she co-wrote with Dunne.
Today, readers know what’s meant by “Didionesque.” Like most strong stylists, though, Didion worked up her craft as a sensitive reader of other masters. She had been an English student, at Berkeley, in the nineteen-fifties, a high point for the New Criticism and its close reading, and the approach became part of her lifelong methodology, applied equally to language she encountered as a reporter and to literary work.
In a New Yorker essay about Hemingway, her early influence, she performed an unmatched reading of the beginning of A Farewell to Arms, noting how the sudden, pattern-breaking absence of a “the” before the third appearance of “leaves” casts “exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition.” It was characteristic of Didion to work this way, in the danger zone between sensibility and objectivity: to be receptive to a passing feeling, a change in cast, and then to bear down, with unsparing rigor, in the work of understanding why.
What she came to understand was the vastest change that American society had seen in fifty years. Like many writers, Didion was on the spot in the late sixties, as the social fabric, the ideal of common institutions and of a shared society, came apart. Unlike many, she saw the long-term stakes of this rupture at a moment when most observers were fretting over whether to don love beads or to follow draft cards. Didion reported on the hippies—they’re the subject of the title essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which created a technique, later germane to her fiction, of telling a story through jagged juxtapositions that she called “flash cuts”—but recognized that what she saw in the Haight-Ashbury was less about them than about an “atomization” of communication and connection across America. It was a curiously durable insight for the period; it remains vivid and pressing today.
Didion often gets identified, along with Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and other snappy dressers, as part of the New Journalism, by which people usually mean long narrative reporting imprinted with a writer’s style and point of view. But her goal, in the best work, was never sensibility or affect. Early on, and again at the end of her life, Didion was known for her first-person writing, and subjective perception was always at the heart of her impulses as a reporter and as an essayist. (“Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me,” she once explained, in an interview with Hilton Als.)
Subjectivity was paramount, yet her thinking, as it developed in the pages of The New York Review of Books, was basically systemic: in Miami (1987), about the Cold War dialogue between the U.S. and the atomized powers of Latin America; in Sentimental Journeys (1991), about the Central Park jogger case, and the mythologies that eroded New York’s civil and economic structure; in Where I Was From (2003), about the governmental policies supporting California’s frontier image of itself. Her target was what she called sentimentality: the prefabricated story lines, or fairy tales, that spread within a culture and that cause society to rip apart. Didion started out a Goldwater Republican and ended up one of her cohort’s keenest champions of the social pact. She came to see that the way stories were told—an individualized project—had deep stakes for the societal whole.
Famous styles often make fossils of their practitioners. Didion’s work will last because it was the product of a restless mind. “In retrospect, we know how to write when we begin,” she once said. “What we learn from doing it is what writing was for.” How to put together a paragraph, whether to add a “the” or not: by the time you’re thirty, the sound of your best writing is already in your mind’s ear, and the hardest part is listening. What to do with those sentences, how to turn the craft of storytelling away from shared delusion, is the effort of a life. Many—most—writers never make it the full distance. Didion did. Her work was her own answer to the question of what writing and living are for. It ought to be ours, too.
Dorothy Hong / The Guardian
Our first extract is not from the days of New Journalism but a fragmentary reminiscence of that time, written in 2016 for
The New York Review of Books. This was a title (and institution) that committed itself to her in her later years.
March 23, 2016
I had told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that I would cover the Patty Hearst trial, and this pushed me into examining my thoughts about California. Some of my notes from the time follow here. I never wrote the piece about the Hearst trial, but I went to San Francisco in 1976 while it was going on and tried to report it. And I got quite involved in uncovering my own mixed emotions. This didn’t lead to my writing the piece, but eventually it led to
—years later—Where I Was From (2003).
When I was there for the trial, I stayed at the Mark. And from the Mark, you could look into the Hearst apartment. So I would sit in my room and imagine Patty Hearst listening to Carousel. I had read that she would sit in her room and listen to it. I thought the trial had some meaning for me—because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.
The first time I was ever on an airplane was in 1955 and flights had names. This one was “The Golden Gate,” American Airlines. Serving Transcontinental Travelers between San Francisco and New York. A week before, twenty-one years old, I had been moping around Berkeley in my sneakers and green raincoat and now I was a Transcontinental Traveler, Lunching Aloft on Beltsville Roast Turkey with Dressing and Giblet Sauce. I believed in Dark Cottons. I believed in
Small Hats and White Gloves. I believed that transcontinental travelers did not wear white shoes in the City. The next summer I went back on “The New Yorker,” United Airlines, and had a Martini-on-the-Rocks and Stuffed Celery au Roquefort over the Rockies.
The image of the Golden Gate is very strong in my mind. As unifying images go this one is particularly vivid.
At the Sacramento Union I learned that Eldorado County and Eldorado City are so spelled but that regular usage of El Dorado is two words; to UPPER CASE Camellia Week, the Central Valley, Sacramento Irrigation District, Liberator bombers and Superfortresses, the Follies Bergere [sic], the Central Valley Project, and “such nicknames as Death Row, Krauts, or Jerries for Germans, Doughboys, Leathernecks, Devildogs.”
Arden School class prophecy:
In Carnegie Hall we find Shirley Long
Up on the stage singing a song.
Acting in pictures is Arthur Raney’s job,
And he is often followed by a great mob.
As a model Yavette Smith has achieved fame,
Using “Bubbles” as her nickname…
We find Janet Haight working hard as a missionary,
Smart she is and uses a dictionary…
We find Joan Didion as a White House resident
Now being the first woman president.
Looking through the evidence I find what seems to me now (or rather seemed to me then) an entirely spurious aura of social success and achievement. I seem to have gotten my name in the paper rather a lot. I seem to have belonged to what were in context the “right” clubs. I seem to have been rewarded, out of all proportion to my generally undistinguished academic record, with an incommensurate number of prizes and scholarships (merit scholarships only: I did not qualify for need) and recommendations and special attention and very probably the envy and admiration of at least certain of my peers. Curiously I only remember failing, failures and slights and refusals.
I seem to have gone to dances and been photographed in pretty dresses, and also as a pom-pom girl. I seemed to have been a bridesmaid rather a lot. I seem always to have been “the editor” or the “president.”
I believed that I would always go to teas.
This is not about Patricia Hearst. It is about me and the peculiar vacuum in which I grew up, a vacuum in which the Hearsts could be quite literally king of the hill.
I have never known deprivation.
How High the Moon, Les Paul and Mary Ford. High Noon.
I have lived most of my life under misapprehensions of one kind or another. Until I was in college I believed that my father was “poor,” that we had no money, that pennies mattered. I recall being surprised the first time my small brother ordered a dime rather than a nickel ice cream cone and no one seemed to mind.
My grandmother, who was in fact poor, spent money: the Lilly Daché and Mr. John hats, the vicuña coats, the hand-milled soap and the $60-an-ounce perfume were to her the necessities of life. When I was about to be sixteen she asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I made up a list (an Ultra-Violet lipstick, some other things), meaning for her to pick one item and surprise me: she bought the list. She gave me my first grown-up dress, a silk jersey dress printed with pale blue flowers and jersey petals around the neckline. It came from the Bon Marché in Sacramento and I knew what it cost ($60) because I had seen it advertised in the paper. I see myself making many of the same choices for my daughter.
At the center of this story there is a terrible secret, a kernel of cyanide, and
the secret is that the story doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference,
The snow still falls in the Sierra.
The Pacific still trembles in its bowl.
The great tectonic plates strain against each other while we sleep and wake.
Rattlers in the dry grass.
Sharks beneath the Golden Gate.
In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.
How could it have come to this.
I am trying to place myself in history.
I have been looking all my life for history and have yet to find it.
The resolutely “colorful,” anecdotal quality of San Francisco history.
“Characters” abound. It puts one off.
In the South they are convinced that they are capable of having bloodied their land with history. In the West we
lack this conviction.
Beautiful country burn again.
The sense of not being up to the landscape.
There in the Ceremonial Courtroom a secular mass was being offered.
I see now that the life I was raised to admire was infinitely romantic. The clothes chosen for me had a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite, the medieval. Muted greens and ivories. Dusty roses. (Other people wore powder blue, red, white, navy, forest green, and Black Watch plaid. I thought of them as “conventional,” but I envied them secretly. I was doomed to unconventionality.) Our houses were also darker than other people’s, and we favored, as a definite preference, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken carefully in all the engraved places, to “bring out the pattern.” To this day I am disturbed by highly polished silver. It looks “too new.”
This predilection for “the old” carried into all areas of our domestic life: dried flowers were seen to have a more lasting charm than fresh, prints should be faded, a wallpaper should be streaked by the sun before it looks right. As decorative touches went our highest moment was the acquisition of a house (we, the family, moved into it in 1951 at 22nd and T in Sacramento) in which the curtains had not been changed since 1907. Our favorite curtains in this house were gold silk organza on a high window on the stairwell. They hung almost two stories, billowed iridescently with every breath of air, and crumbled at the touch. To our extreme disapproval, Genevieve Didion our grandmother replaced these curtains when she moved into the house in the late 1950s. I think of those curtains still, and so does my mother.
Oriental leanings. The little ebony chests, the dishes. Maybeck houses. Mists. The individual raised to mystic level, mysticism with no religious basis...
When I contrast the houses in which I was raised, in California, to admire, with the houses my husband was raised, in Connecticut, to admire, I am astonished that we should have ever built a house together.
Climbing Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, a mystical ideal. I never did it, but I did walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, wearing my first pair of high-heeled shoes, bronze kid De Liso Debs pumps with three-inch heels. Crossing the Gate was, like climbing Tamalpais, an ideal...
My father and brother call it “Cal” (i.e., the University of California at Berkeley). They were fraternity men, my father a Chi Phi, my brother a Phi Gamma Delta. As a matter of fact I belonged to a house too, Delta Delta Delta, but I lived in that house for only two of the four years I spent at Berkeley.
There used to be a point I liked on the Malibu Canyon road between the San Fernando Valley and the Pacific Ocean, a point from which one could see what was always called “the Fox sky.” Twentieth Century Fox had a ranch back in the hills there, not a working ranch but several thousand acres on which westerns were shot, and “the Fox sky” was simply that: the Fox sky, the giant Fox sky scrim, the big-country backdrop.
By the time I started going to Hawaii the Royal Hawaiian was no longer the “best” hotel in Honolulu, nor was Honolulu the “smart” place to vacation in Hawaii, but Honolulu and the Royal Hawaiian had a glamour for California children who grew up as I did. Little girls in Sacramento were brought raffia grass skirts by returning godmothers. They were taught “Aloha Oe” at Girl Scout meetings, and to believe that their clumsiness would be resolved via mastery of the hula. For dances, later, they wanted leis, and, if not leis, bracelets of tiny orchids, “flown in” from Honolulu. I recall “flown in” as a common phrase of my adolescence in Sacramento, just “flown in,” the point of origin being unspoken, and implicit. The “luau,” locally construed as a barbecue with leis, was a favored entertainment. The “lanai” replaced the sun porch in local domestic architecture. The romance of all things Hawaiian colored my California childhood, and the Royal Hawaiian seemed to stand on Waikiki as tangible evidence that this California childhood had in fact occurred.
I have had on my desk since 1974 a photograph that I cut from a magazine just after Patricia Campbell Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment. This photograph appeared quite often around that time, always credited to Wide World, and it shows Patricia Hearst and her father and one of her sisters at a party at the Burlingame Country Club. In this photograph it is six or seven months before the kidnapping and the three Hearsts are smiling for the camera, Patricia, Anne, and Randolph. The father is casual but festive—light coat, dark shirt, no tie; the daughters flank him in long flowered dresses. They are all wearing leis, father and daughters alike, leis quite clearly “flown in” for the evening. Randolph Hearst wears two leis, one of maile leaves and the other of orchids strung in the tight design the lei-makers call “maunaloa.” The daughters each wear pikake leis, the rarest and most expensive kind of leis, strand after strand of tiny Arabian jasmine buds strung like ivory beads.
Sometimes I have wanted to know what my grandmother’s sister, May Daly, screamed the day they took her to the hospital, for it concerned me, she had fixed on me, sixteen, as the source of the terror she sensed, but I have refrained from asking. In the long run it is better not to know. Similarly, I do not know whether my brother and I said certain things to each other at three or four one Christmas morning or whether I dreamed it, and have not asked.
We are hoping to spend part of every summer together, at Lake Tahoe. We are hoping to reinvent our lives, or I am.
The San Francisco Social Register. When did San Francisco become a city with a Social Register. How did this come about? The social ambitiousness of San Francisco, the way it has always admired titles, even bogus titles.
All my life I have been reading these names and I have never known who they were or are. Who, for example, is
C. Vann Woodward: “Every self-conscious group of any size fabricates myths about its past: about its origins, its mission, its righteousness, its benevolence, its general superiority.” This has not been exactly true in San Francisco...
I am at home in the West. The hills of the coastal ranges look “right” to me, the particular flat expanse of the Central Valley comforts my eye. The place names have the ring of real places to me. I can pronounce the names of the rivers, and recognize the common trees and snakes. I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places.
Joan Didion circa 1956, when she received a BA degree in English at the University of California, Berkeley. In that year she won an essay competition, with the prize of a job as a research assistant at placement at Vogue
magazine in New York. She stayed there until 1964.
Joan Didion chronicled American disorder with
her own unmistakable style
by Parul Sehgal
Joan Didion was five years old when she wrote her first story, upon the instruction of her mother, who had told her to stop whining and to write down her thoughts. She amused herself by describing a woman who imagines she is about to freeze to death, only to die burning instead.
“I have no idea what turn of a 5-year-old’s mind could have prompted so insistently ‘ironic’ and exotic a story,” she later wrote. “It does reveal a certain predilection for the extreme which has dogged me into adult life.”
For half a century, Didion was the grand diagnostician of American disorder in essays of strong, unmistakable cadence, churning with floods and fire. A fifth-generation Californian, she once said: “Don’t you think people are formed by the landscape they grew up in?”
She was our landscape. She fashioned a style that was dominant, inescapable, catchy. “I’m not much interested in spontaneity,” she once said. “I’m not an inspirational writer. What concerns me is total control.” Her great subjects — the temptation and corruption of self-delusion, the fabrication of political narratives — are now staples of journalism. Her heroines — those chic, obliquely wounded sylphs — seem ubiquitous in contemporary fiction. The rapt self-fascination she demonstrated in essays about her possessions, her rituals — she could make migraines sound aspirational — are the lingua franca of a certain kind of personal writing on the internet. She essentially created the modern grief memoir with her book The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she memorialized her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, who died of a sudden heart attack in 2003.
She was a writer preoccupied with, and troubled by, mythos — of youth, of America’s founding, of social movements, of the ’60s — and preternaturally gifted at fashioning her own. To recount her origins feels like revisiting a fairy tale: that first story written at five; her learning to type by obsessively copying Hemingway’s sentences; her habit of storing drafts in the freezer; the way she returned to her childhood home to finish her first four books, in a bedroom painted carnation pink with green vines growing over the windows, filtering the light.
As a junior editor at Vogue magazine, Didion wrote short essays and captions for photographs. Her enigmatic novels followed, and the generation-defining essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, as well as screenplays, reporting from Central America, political thrillers and a pair of memoirs marking the deaths of Dunne and, a year and a half later, her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. She stopped publishing new material in 2011, but collections of her journalism have since followed.
Didion captured her time, often reporting from the borders of her body — a seismologist of the self — sharing details from her own psychiatric reports (“an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968”).
“Can nothing be done to cheer this woman up?” Darcy O’Brien asked in a review of The White Album. The case for the prosecution has been her snobbery, self-absorption, humorlessness, conservatism and overweening privilege. “Ridiculously swank,” Pauline Kael described the novel Play It as It Lays. “I read it between bouts of disbelieving giggles.” “An unrelenting exercise in class superiority,” the journalist Maria Bustillos wrote of Didion’s work. “It will soon be as unendurable as a minstrel show. It is the calf-bound, gilt-edged bible of neoliberal meritocracy.”
But can anyone lampoon her style without relying on it? To condemn the “Didion narrative” and all that a sentimental attachment to her obscures — her mockery of early feminist organizing, for example — is to rely upon a form of criticism that she, more than anyone else, refined.
In the 2017 documentary on Didion, “The Center Will Not Hold,” directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, Didion recalled the notorious scene from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in which she met a five-year-old girl named Susan living in the heart of Haight-Ashbury. The child was sitting on the floor, reading a comic book, wearing white lipstick. Her mother had given her LSD.
“Let me tell you, it was gold,” Didion recalled to Dunne, her eyes shining. “You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”
That arresting hardness, the curious mix of detachment and furiously fixed gaze, were always part of her appeal. Her heroes included John Wayne and Georgia O’Keeffe — “this angelic rattlesnake,” she wrote. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she noted with strange, painful pride that her husband’s doctors called her a “cool customer.” “I don’t know what falling in love means,” she told Dunne in the documentary. “It’s not part of my world.”
But it is love she elicited — not mere admiration. What else explains our ability to hold all her contradictions or the fetishizing inspired by the details of her diet (Coca-Cola first thing in the mornings, salted almonds, cigarettes), her packing list (Scotch, leotard, shawl, typewriter). The 50 yards of yellow theatrical silk she hung in her apartment in New York, sodden with rain. Love too that explains readers’ febrile identification and distortion: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest,” she once wrote, “remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
Though the young Didion — of the “fulfilled paranoia” and the frangipani leis, who boarded planes barefoot and wept as she walked down the wedding aisle — seems lodged in the imagination, she was a writer of greater variety and evolution than she is often credited for. But one thread zigzags through her work, a bit eccentrically — an identical epiphany arrived at repeatedly, and each time felt anew.
Coming out of youth she compared herself to Raskolnikov, berating herself for thinking she was exempt from consequences; later, she wrote of “the golden rhythm” breaking, then again of being disabused of the “conviction that the lights would always turn green for me.” Watching her daughter grow up, again she experiences that startling awareness: the vanishing of “the entire enchantment under which I had lived my life.” This writer could not tire of telling her reader, telling herself, that luck runs out — perhaps because she never really believed it, not when there was more life to be lived. She once wrote:
“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misplaced even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing- persons reports, then moved on themselves. It was not a country in open revolution.
It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant
I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves “hippies.” When I first went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.
A sign on Haight Street, San Francisco:
Last Easter Day
My Christopher Robin wandered away. He called April 10th
But he hasn’t called since
He said he was coming home
But he hasn’t shown.
If you see him on Haight
Please tell him not to wait I need him now
I don’t care how
If there’s hope
Please write me a note
If he’s still there
Tell him how much I care
Where he’s at I need to know
For I really love him so!
I am looking for somebody called Deadeye and I hear he is on the Street this afternoon doing a little business, so I keep an eye out for him and pretend to read the signs in the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street when a kid, sixteen, seventeen, comes in and sits on the floor beside me.
“What are you looking for,” he says.
I say nothing much.
“I been out of my mind for three days,” he says. He tells me he’s
been shooting crystal, which I already pretty much know because he does not bother to keep his sleeves rolled down over the needle tracks. He came up from Los Angeles some number of weeks ago, he doesn’t remember what number, and now he’ll take off for New York, if he can find a ride. I show him a sign offering a ride to Chicago. He wonders where Chicago is. I ask where he comes from. “Here,” he says. I mean before here. “San Jose. Chula Vista, I dunno. My mother’s in Chula Vista.”
A few days later I run into him in Golden Gate Park when the if he found a ride to New York. “I hear New York’s a bummer,” he says.
Deadeye never showed up that day on the Street, and somebody says maybe I can find him at his place. It is three o’clock and Deadeye is in bed. Somebody else is asleep on the living-room couch, and a girl is sleeping on the floor beneath a poster of Allen Ginsberg, and there are a couple of girls in pajamas making instant coffee. One of the girls introduces me to the friend on the couch, who extends one arm but does not get up because he is naked. Deadeye and I have a mutual acquaintance, but he does not mention his name in front of the others. “The man you talked to,” he says, or “that man I was referring to earlier.” The man is a cop.
The room is overheated and the girl on the floor is sick. Deadeye says she has been sleeping for twenty-four hours now. “Lemme ask you something,” he says. “You want some grass?” I say I have to be moving on. “You want it,” Deadeye says, “it’s yours.” Deadeye used to be an Angel around Los Angeles but that was a few years ago. “Right now,” he says, “I’m trying to set up this groovy religious group—‘Teenage Evangelism.’”
Don and Max want to go out to dinner but Don is only eating macrobiotic so we end up in Japantown again. Max is telling me how he lives free of all the old middle-class Freudian hang-ups. “I’ve had this old lady for a couple of months now, maybe she makes something special for my dinner and I come in three days late and tell her I’ve been balling some other chick, well, maybe she shouts a little but then I say ‘That’s me, baby,’ and she laughs and says ‘That’s you, Max.’”
Max says it works both ways. “I mean if she comes in and tells me she wants to ball Don, maybe, I say ‘O.K., baby,
it’s your trip.’”
Max sees his life as a triumph over “don’ts.” Among the don’ts he had done before he was twenty-one were peyote, alcohol, mescaline, and Methedrine. He was on a Meth trip for three years in New York and Tangier before he found acid. He first tried peyote when he was in an Arkansas boys’ school and got down to the Gulf and met “an Indian kid who was doing a don’t. Then every weekend I could get loose I’d hitchhike seven hundred miles to Brownsville, Texas, so I could cop peyote. Peyote went for thirty cents a button down in Brownsville on the street.” Max dropped in and out of most of the schools and fashionable clinics in the eastern half of America, his standard technique for dealing with boredom being to leave. Example: Max was in a hospital in New York and “the night nurse was a groovy spade, and in the afternoon for therapy there was a chick from Israel who was interesting, but there was nothing much to do in the morning, so I left.”
We drink some more green tea and talk about going up to Malakoff Diggings in Nevada County because some people are starting a commune there and Max thinks it would be a groove to take acid in the diggings. He says maybe we could go next week, or the week after, or anyway sometime before his case comes up. Almost everybody I meet in San Francisco has to go to court at some point in the middle future. I never ask why.
I am still interested in how Max got rid of his middle-class Freudian hang-ups and I ask if he is now completely free.
Nah,” he says. “I got acid.”
Max drops a 250- or 350-microgram tab every six or seven days. Max and Don share a joint in the car and we go over to North Beach to find out if Otto, who has a temporary job there, wants to go to Malakoff Diggings. Otto is pitching some electronics engineers. The engineers view our arrival with some interest, maybe, I think, because Max is wearing bells and an Indian headband. Max has a low tolerance for straight engineers and their Freudian hang-ups. “Look at ‘em,” he says. “They’re always yelling ‘queer’ and then they come sneaking down to the Haight-Ashbury trying to get the hippie chick because she fucks.”
We do not get around to asking Otto about Malakoff Diggings because he wants to tell me about a fourteen-year-old he knows who got busted in the Park the other day. She was just walking through the Park, he says, minding her own, carrying her schoolbooks, when the cops took her in and booked her and gave her a pelvic. “Fourteen years old,” Otto says. “A pelvic.”
“Coming down from acid,” he adds, “that could be a real bad trip.”
I call Otto the next afternoon to see if he can reach the fourteen-year-old. It turns out she is tied up with rehearsals for her junior-high- school play, The Wizard of Oz. “Yellow-brick-road time,” Otto says. Otto was sick all day. He thinks it was some cocaine-and-wheat somebody gave him.
There are always little girls around rock groups—the same little girls who used to hang around saxophone players, girls who live on the celebrity and power and sex a band projects when it plays—and there are three of them out here this afternoon in Sausalito where the Grateful Dead rehearse. They are all pretty and two of them still have baby fat and one of them dances by herself with her eyes closed.
I ask a couple of the girls what they do.
“I just kind of come out here a lot,” one of them says.
“I just sort of know the Dead,” the other says.
The one who just sort of knows the Dead starts cutting a loaf of French bread on the piano bench. The boys take break and of
them talks about playing the Los Angeles Cheetah, which is in the old Aragon Ballroom. “We were up there drinking beer where Lawrence Welk used to sit,” Jerry Garcia says.
The little girl who was dancing by herself giggles. “Too much,” she says softly. Her eyes are still closed.
Somebody said that if I was going to meet some runaways I better pick up a few hamburgers and Cokes on the way, so I did, and we are eating them in the Park together, me, Debbie who is fifteen, and Jeff who is sixteen. Debbie and Jeff ran away twelve days ago, walked out of school one morning with $100 between them. Because a missing-juvenile is out on Debbie—she was on probation because her mother had once taken her to the police station and declared her incorrigible—this is only the second time they have been out of a friend’s apartment since they got to San Francisco. The first time they went over to the Fairmont Hotel and rode the outside elevator, three times up
and three times down. “Wow,” Jeff says, and that is all he can think to say, about that.
I ask why they ran away.
“My parents said I had to go to church,” Debbie says. “And they wouldn’t let me dress the way I wanted. In the seventh grade my skirts were longer than anybody’s—it got better in the eighth grade, but still.”
“Your mother was kind of a bummer,” Jeff agrees.
“They didn’t like Jeff. They didn’t like my girlfriends. My father thought I was cheap and he told me so. I had a C average and he told me I couldn’t date until I raised it, and that bugged me too.”
“My mother was just a genuine all-American bitch,” Jeff says. “She was really troublesome about hair. Also she didn’t like boots. It was really weird.”
“Tell about the chores,” Debbie says.
“For example I had chores. If I didn’t finish ironing my shirts for the week I couldn’t go out for the weekend. It was weird. Wow.”
Debbie giggles and shakes her head. “This year’s gonna be wild.”
“We’re just gonna let it all happen,” Jeff says. “Everything’s in the future, you can’t pre-plan it. First we get jobs, then a place to live. Then, I dunno.”
Jeff finishes off the French fries and gives some thought to what kind of job he could get. “I always kinda dug metal shop, welding, stuff like that.” Maybe he could work on cars, I say. “I’m not too mechanically minded,” he says. “Anyway you can’t pre-plan.”
“I could get a job baby-sitting,” Debbie says. “Or in a dime store.”
“You’re always talking about getting a job in a dime store,” Jeff says.
“That’s because I worked in a dime store already.”
Debbie is buffing her fingernails with the belt to her suede jacket. She is annoyed because she chipped a nail and because I do not have any polish remover in the car. I promise to get her to a friend’s apartment so that she can redo her manicure, but something has been bothering me and as I fiddle with the ignition I finally ask it. I ask them to think back to when they were children, to tell me what they had wanted to be when they were grown up, how they had seen the future then.
Jeff throws a Coca-Cola bottle out the car window. “I can’t remember I ever thought about it,” he says.
“I remember I wanted to be a veterinarian once,” Debbie says. “But now I’m more or less working in the vein of being an artist or a model or a cosmetologist. Or something.”
I hear quite a bit about one cop, Officer Arthur Gerrans, whose name has become a synonym for zealotry on the Street. “He’s Officer Krupke,” Max once told me. Max is not personally wild about Officer Gerrans because Officer Gerrans took Max in after the Human Be-In last winter, that’s the big Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park where 20,000 people got turned on free, or 10,000 did, or some number did, but then Officer Gerrans has busted almost everyone in the District at one time or another. Presumably to forestall a cult of personality, Officer Gerrans was transferred out of the District not long ago, and when I see him it is not at the Park Station but at the Central Station on Greenwich Avenue.
We are in an interrogation room, and I am interrogating Officer Gerrans. He is young and blond and wary and I go in slow. I wonder what he thinks “the major problems” in the Haight are.
Officer Gerrans thinks it over. “I would say the major problems there,” he says finally, “the major problems are narcotics and juveniles. Juveniles and narcotics, those are your major problems.”
I write that down.
“Just one moment,” Officer Gerrans says, and leaves the room. When he comes back he tells me that I cannot talk to him without permission from Chief Thomas Cahill.
“In the meantime,” Officer Gerrans adds, pointing at the notebook in which I have written major problems: juveniles, narcotics, “I’ll take those notes.”
“In the meantime,” Officer Gerrans adds, pointing at the notebook in which I have written major problems: juveniles, narcotics, “I’ll take those notes.”
The next day I apply for permission to talk to Officer Gerrans and also to Chief Cahill. A few days later a sergeant returns my call.
“We have finally received clearance from the Chief per your request,” the sergeant says, “and that is taboo.”
I wonder why it is taboo to talk to Officer Gerrans.
Officer Gerrans is involved in court cases coming to trial.
I wonder why it is taboo to talk to Chief Cahill.
The Chief has pressing police business.
I wonder if I can talk to anyone at all in the Police Department.
“No,” the sergeant says, “not at the particular moment.”
Which was my last official contact with the San Francisco Police Department.
Norris and I are standing around the Panhandle and Norris is telling me how it is all set up for a friend to take me to Big Sur. I say what I really want to do is spend a few days with Norris and his wife and the rest of the people in their house. Norris says it would be a lot easier if I’d take some acid. I say I’m unstable. Norris says all right, anyway, grass, and he squeezes my hand.
One day Norris asks how old I am. I tell him I am thirty-two. It takes a few minutes, but Norris rises to it. “Don’t worry,” he says at last. “There’s old hippies too.”
It is a pretty nice evening and nothing much happening and Max brings his old lady, Sharon, over to the Warehouse. The Warehouse, which is where Don and a floating number of other people live, is not actually a warehouse but the garage of a condemned hotel. The Warehouse was conceived as total theater, a continual happening, and I always feel good there. What happened ten minutes ago or what is going to happen a half hour from now tends to fade from mind in the Warehouse. Somebody is usually doing something interesting, like working on a light show, and there are a lot of interesting things around, like an old Chevrolet touring car which is used as a bed and a vast American flag fluttering up in the shadows and an overstuffed chair suspended like a swing from the rafters, the point of that being that it gives you a sensory-deprivation high.
One reason I particularly like the Warehouse is that a child named Michael is staying there now. Michael’s mother, Sue Ann, is a sweet wan girl who is always in the kitchen cooking seaweed or baking macrobiotic bread while Michael amuses himself with joss sticks or an old tambourine or a rocking horse with the paint worn off. The first time I ever saw Michael was on that rocking horse, a very blond and pale and dirty child on a rocking horse with no paint. A blue theatrical spotlight was the only light in the Warehouse that afternoon, and there was Michael in it, crooning softly to the wooden horse. Michael is three years old. He is a bright child but does not yet talk.
This particular night Michael is trying to light his joss sticks and there are the usual number of people floating through and they all drift into Don’s room and sit on the bed and pass joints. Sharon is very excited when she arrives. “Don,” she cries, breathless. “We got some STP today.” At this time STP is a pretty big deal, remember; nobody yet knew what it was and it was relatively, although just relatively, hard to come by. Sharon is blond and scrubbed and probably seventeen, but Max is a little vague about that since his court case comes up in a month or so and he doesn’t need statutory rape on top of it. Sharon’s parents were living apart when last she saw them. She does not miss school or anything much about her past, except her younger brother. “I want to turn him on,” she confided one day. “He’s fourteen now, that’s the perfect age. I know where he goes to high school and someday I’ll just go get him.”
Time passes and I lose the thread and when I pick it up again Max seems to be talking about what a beautiful thing it is the way Sharon washes dishes.
“Well it is beautiful,” Sharon says. “Everything is. I mean you watch that
blue detergent blob run on the plate, watch the grease cut—well, it can be a real trip.”
Pretty soon now, maybe next month, maybe later, Max and Sharon plan to leave for Africa and India, where they can live off the land. “I got this little trust fund, see,” Max says, “which is useful in that it tells cops and border patrols I’m O.K., but living off the land is the thing. You can get your high and get your dope in the city, O.K., but we gotta get out somewhere and live organically.”
“Roots and things,” Sharon says, lighting another joss stick for Michael. Michael’s mother is still in the kitchen cooking seaweed. “You can eat them.”
Maybe eleven o’clock, we move from the Warehouse to the place where Max and Sharon live with a couple named Tom and Barbara. Sharon is pleased to get home (“I hope you got some hash joints fixed in the kitchen,” she says to Barbara by way of greeting) and everybody is pleased to show off the apartment which has a lot of flowers and candles and paisleys. Max and Sharon and Tom and Barbara get pretty high on hash, and everyone dances a little and we do some liquid projections and set up a strobe and take turns getting a high on that. Quite late, somebody called Steve comes in with a pretty, dark girl. They have been to a meeting of people who practice a Western yoga, but they do not seem to want to talk about that. They lie on the floor awhile, and then Steve stands up.
“Max,” he says, “I want to say one thing.” “It’s your trip.”
Max is edgy. “I found love on acid. But I lost it. And now I’m finding it again. With nothing but grass.”
Max mutters that heaven and hell are both in one’s karma.
“That’s what bugs me about psychedelic art,” Steve says.
“What about psychedelic art,” Max says. “I haven’t seen much psychedelic art.”
Max is lying on a bed with Sharon, and Steve leans down to him.
“Groove, baby,” he says. “You’re a groove.” Steve sits down then and tells me about one summer when he was at a school of design in Rhode Island and took thirty trips, the last ones all bad.
I ask why they were bad. “I could tell you it was my neuroses,” he says, “but fuck that.”
A few days later I drop by to see Steve in his apartment. He paces nervously around the room he uses as a studio and shows me some paintings. We do not seem to be getting to the point.
“Maybe you noticed something going on at Max’s,” he says abruptly. It seems that the girl he brought, the dark pretty one, had once been Max’s girl. She had followed him to Tangier and now to San Francisco. But Max has Sharon. “So she’s kind of staying around here,” Steve says.
Steve is troubled by a lot of things. He is twenty-three, was raised in Virginia, and has the idea that California is the beginning of the end. “I feel it’s insane,” he says, and his voice drops. “This chick tells me there’s no meaning to life but it doesn’t matter, we’ll just flow right out. There’ve been times I felt like packing up and taking off for the East Coast again, at least there I had a target. At least there you expect that it’s going to happen.” He lights a cigarette for me and his hands shake. “Here you know it’s not going to.”
I ask what it is that is supposed to happen.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Something. Anything.
Arthur Lisch is on the telephone in his kitchen, trying to sell VISTA a program for the District. “We already got an emergency,” he says into the telephone, meanwhile trying to disentangle his daughter, age one and a half, from the cord. “We don’t get help here, nobody can guarantee what’s going to happen. We’ve got people sleeping in the streets here. We’ve got people starving to death.” He pauses. “All right,” he says then, and his voice rises. “So they’re doing it by choice. So what.”
By the time he hangs up he has limned what strikes me as a pretty Dickensian picture of life on the edge of Golden Gate Park, but then this is my first exposure to Arthur Lisch’s “riot-on-the-Street-unless” pitch. Arthur Lisch is a kind of leader of the Diggers, who, in the official District mythology, are supposed to be a group of anonymous good guys with no thought in their collective head but to lend a helping hand. The official District mythology also has it that the Diggers have no “leaders,” but nonetheless Arthur Lisch is one. Arthur Lisch is also a paid worker for the American Friends’ Service Committee and he lives with his wife, Jane, and their two small children in a railroad flat, which on this particular day lacks organization. For one thing the telephone keeps ringing. Arthur promises to attend a hearing at city hall. Arthur promises to “send Edward, he’s O.K.” Arthur promises to get a good group, maybe the Loading Zone, to play free for a Jewish benefit. For a second thing the baby is crying, and she does not stop until Jane Lisch appears with a jar of Gerber’s Junior Chicken Noodle Dinner. Another confusing element is somebody named Bob, who just sits in the living room and looks at his toes. First he looks at the toes on one foot, then at the toes on the other. I make several attempts to include Bob in the conversation before I realize he is on a bad trip. Moreover, there are two people hacking up what looks like a side of beef on the kitchen floor, the idea being that when it gets hacked up, Jane Lisch can cook it for the daily Digger feed in the Park.
Arthur Lisch does not seem to notice any of this. He just keeps talking about cybernated societies and the guaranteed annual wage and riot on the Street, unless. I call the Lisches a day or so later and ask for Arthur. Jane Lisch says he’s next door taking a shower because somebody is coming down from a bad trip in their bathroom. Besides the freak-out in the bathroom they are expecting a psychiatrist in to look at Bob. Also a doctor for Edward, who is not O.K. at all but has the flu. Jane says maybe I should talk to Chester Anderson. She will not give me his number.
Chester Anderson is a legacy of the Beat Generation, a man in his middle thirties whose peculiar hold on the District derives from his possession of a mimeograph machine, on which he prints communiques signed “the communication company.” It is another tenet of the official District mythology that the communication company will print anything anybody has to say, but in fact Chester Anderson prints only what he writes himself, agrees with, or considers harmless or dead matter. His statements, which are left in piles and pasted on windows around Haight Street, are regarded with some apprehension in the District and with considerable interest by outsiders, who study them, like China watchers, for subtle shifts in obscure ideologies. An Anderson communique might be doing something as specific as fingering someone who is said to have set up a marijuana bust, or it might be working in a more general vein:
Pretty little 16-year-old middle-class chick comes to the Haight to see what it’s all about & gets picked up by a 17-year-old street dealer who spends all day shooting her full of speed again & again, then feeds her 3,000 mikes & raffles off her temporarily unemployed body for the biggest Haight Street gangbang since the night before last.
The politics and ethics of ecstasy. Rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street. Kids are starving on the Street. Minds and bodies are being maimed as we watch, a scale model of Vietnam.
Somebody other than Jane Lisch gave me an address for Chester Anderson, 443 Arguello, but 443 Arguello does not exist. I telephone the wife of the man who gave me 443 Arguello and she says it’s 742 Arguello. “But don’t go up there,” she says. I say I’ll telephone. “There’s no number,” she says. “I can’t give it to you.” “742 Arguello,” I say. “No,” she says. “I don’t know. And don’t go there. And don’t use either my name or my husband’s name if you do.” She is the wife of a full professor of English at San Francisco State College. I decide to lie low on the question of Chester Anderson for awhile.
Paranoia strikes deep—
Into your life it will creep—
is a song the Buffalo Springfield sings.
With her daughter Quintana Roo. Julian Wasser
Joan Didion and the
voice of America
by Hilton Als
December 29, 2021
No country but America could have produced Joan Didion. And no other country would have tolerated her. Think about it. Born in 1934, and gone this month, eighty-seven years later, Didion came of age during Stalin’s reign, at a time when South Africa was instituting apartheid, when India and Pakistan were almost drowning in the aftermath of Partition. Would Mao’s China have welcomed her? Or England—the country of saying the opposite of what you think so as not to cause offense? Not likely. Plus, she didn’t like England. “Everything that’s wrong here started there,” she told me once, when she was thinking of cancelling a trip to London. “Also, so obsequious,” she added. “ ‘Yes, Miss Didion. No, Miss Didion.’ ” Beat. “And they don’t mean it.”
Global in mind but a small-town girl at heart, Didion stayed close to home because she was, first and foremost, a writer, and she was interested in what constituted an American voice. Including her own. She loved Norman Mailer’s, especially the laconic, Western tone he adopted in his 1979 book
The Executioner’s Song, which she, in a Times review of the book, called a voice “heard often in life but only rarely in literature, the reason being that to truly know the West is to lack all will to write it down.”
I think she was drawn to V. S. Naipaul’s pessimism-as-style, too, less because of what it sprang from—the displaced Trinidadian with race and class envy—than because Naipaul’s unwillingness to hope, viewed from a certain angle, mirrored Didion’s own fascination with failure. Indeed, she could never quite reconcile herself to the fact that her country rarely grappled with, or acted on, its own principles.
Didion believed in citizenship. Raised in a white Republican family in Sacramento, she grew up with the rights and privileges of her class. But, as she moved away from that world and into the larger realm of her mind and her experience, she began to see the cracks, and to wonder what those cracks meant. The first crack had to do with her own “I”—what it meant to have her skeptical, philosophical mind and not to have been born a man. You know those early essays. The ones about marriage and motherhood and migraines and life in Malibu, essays that are fetishized time and time again, mostly because they’re read wrong—as a kind of articulation of, and nostalgia for, what is now called white-woman fragility. To be fair, Didion’s early tone was an early tone; her later romance with despair couldn’t have happened had she not once lived with hope. So what if it was buried under California gothic: there was always, on the horizon of that flat Western landscape, a new wagon train approaching. Things would be different when . . . Dad would be less depressed after . . .
The schism between that kind of hope and knowing a thing for what it is affects all writers as they mature. The trick is to match the words to what you see and what you know. Didion had to learn to say no to her upbringing. That requires a lot of power, physical and otherwise, and, make no mistake about it, to be female was to be a target. In her 1979 review of Elizabeth Hardwick’s book Sleepless Nights, Didion wrote, “Perhaps no one has written more acutely and poignantly about the ways in which women compensate for their relative physiological inferiority, about the poetic and practical implications of walking around the world deficient in hemoglobin, deficient in respiratory capacity, deficient in muscular strength. . . . ‘Any woman who has ever had her wrist twisted by a man recognizes a fact of nature as humbling as a cyclone to a frail tree branch,’ [Hardwick] observed in an essay on Simone de Beauvoir some years ago, an assertion of ‘women’s difference’ at once so explicit and obscurely shameful that it sticks like a burr in one’s capacity for wishful thinking.”
What constituted Didion’s wishful thinking? Girls who came to adulthood during the Eisenhower Presidency were socialized to accommodate, to make a family before making themselves. They were supposed to shut up and like it, to be central to a man’s life and to his success. But, as Didion wrote in early essays, such as 1961’s On Self-Respect, maybe one could choose not to shut up but to remake the idea of womanhood in one’s own image. She would be Joan Didion thanks to self-discipline,
It is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk . . . that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds. That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. . . . To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.
“I didn’t want to be Miss Lonelyhearts,” Didion said to me one afternoon in 2005. We were in her apartment on the Upper East Side, and, in the course of interviewing her, I’d asked why she had shifted away from the more personal style of her first two collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. Those books were touchstones for me on how to avoid snark and skepticism—the easy tools of journalism—and try something harder: analysis informed by context, even if what you were analyzing was yourself. She said that Bob Silvers, her editor at The New York Review of Books, had given her the courage to move forward “intellectually,” she who had written so intelligently about why she wasn’t an intellectual (her incapacity to think abstractly, her love of the specific). That courage allowed not so much for a new way of thinking as for an expansion of what she was already thinking about, which included America’s two great subjects: race and gender.
It hasn’t been much remarked upon, but Didion wrote trenchantly about race throughout her career. When her early books were reviewed, her primarily white critics remarked on what she had to say about any number of things—Nancy Reagan, Alcatraz, John Wayne, headaches, Manhattan—but rarely addressed her position on the subject of race. Always it was there for me, though. Along with her thoughts on self-respect and morality, her early examinations of race in America were gripping in a different way than her personal narratives because they showed her becoming an independent voice. To this day, I cannot read this section from the title essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem without feeling a shooting pain go up my spine. You know the scene. It’s 1967, and she’s writing a piece about things falling apart in Northern California, where she went to school. (She graduated with a degree in English from Berkeley, in 1956.) She’s in Golden Gate Park with a few of her subjects, runaways and speed freaks, mostly. She writes:
Big Brother is playing in the Panhandle, and almost everybody is high, and it is a pretty nice Sunday afternoon between three and six o’clock . . . and who turns up but Peter Berg. He is with his wife and six or seven other people . . . and the first peculiar thing is, they’re in blackface. . . .
The Mime Troupers get a little closer, and there are some other peculiar things about them. For one thing they are tapping people on the head with dimestore plastic nightsticks, and for another they are wearing signs on their backs: HOW MANY TIMES YOU BEEN RAPED, YOU LOVE FREAKS? and things like that. . . .
I walk over to where the Mime Troupers have formed a circle around a Negro. Peter Berg is saying, if anybody asks, that this is street theater, and I figure the curtain is up because what they are doing right now is jabbing the Negro with the nightsticks. They jab, and they bare their teeth, and they rock on the balls of their feet, and they wait.
“I’m beginning to get annoyed here,” the Negro says. “I’m gonna get mad.” By now there are several Negroes around, reading the signs and watching.
“Just beginning to get annoyed, are you?” one of the Mime Troupers says. “Don’t you think it’s about time?”
“Listen, here,” another Negro says. “There’s room for everybody in the Park.”
“Yeah?” a girl in blackface says. “Everybody who?”
“Why,” he says, confused. “Everybody. In America.” . . .
“What’d America ever do for you?” the girl in blackface jeers. . . .
“Listen,” the Negro says helplessly. “You’re gonna start something here, this isn’t
“You tell us what’s right, black boy,” the girl says.
To begin with, this section—along with the rest of the piece—is a primer about looking. Didion is learning to see purely, which is to say, without performing a minstrel show of womanhood or making herself a character in the story. Still, in order to understand difference in others, you first have to understand it within yourself. As a teen-ager, Didion repeatedly identified with those who did
It occurred to me during the summer of 1988 . . . that it had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations. They had not gone on to Yale or Swarthmore or DePauw, nor had they even applied. They had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the first night of the rest of their lives with a midnight drive to Carson City and a five-dollar ceremony performed by a justice of the peace still in his pajamas. . . . They were never destined to be, in other words, communicants in what we have come to call, when we want to indicate the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States, “the process.”
When Didion finally woke up from her Sacramento girlhood—jettisoning who she had been raised to be in favor of who she was—she saw a number of things, including how the illusion of a free society is trumped by race, which is, in itself, an illusion. In her 1979 essay The White Album, Didion shares a packing list she kept taped inside her closet door while working as a reporter in Hollywood, which included
“2 skirts / 2 jerseys or leotards / 2 pullover sweaters / 2 pair shoes / stockings.”
“Notice the deliberate anonymity costume,” she writes. “In a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture.”
The ability to pass on either side of the culture has less to do with what you wear—although that helps—than with the color of your skin. Didion could pass in Golden Gate Park because she was white and female and less likely to be targeted than a Black man in that situation ostensibly devoted to free love. For a writer, though, the point of passing is to use it: you cannot afford to turn away when it comes to the story, which is life itself. From her 1967 essay about Hawaii, Letter from Paradise:
Perhaps because Hawaii sells itself so assiduously as the very model of a modern melting pot, the entire area of race relations is conversationally delicate. “I wouldn’t exactly say we had discrimination here,” one Honolulu woman explained tactfully. “I’d say we had a wonderful, wonderful competitive feeling.” Another simply shrugs. “It’s just something that’s never pressed. The Orientals are—well, discreet’s not really the word, but they aren’t like the Negroes and the Jews, they don’t push in where they’re not wanted.” . . . “There are very definitely people here who know the Chinese socially,” one woman told me. . . . “The uncle of a friend of mine, for example, has Chinn Ho to his house all the time.” Although this seemed a statement along the lines of “Some of my best friends are Rothschilds,” I accepted it in the spirit in which it was offered—just as I did the primitive progressivism of an island teacher who was explaining, as we walked down a corridor of her school, about the miracles of educational integration the war had wrought. “Look,” she said suddenly, grabbing a pretty Chinese girl by the arm and wheeling her around to face me. “You wouldn’t have seen this here before the war. Look at those eyes.”
Didion knew that America was built on exclusion: the exclusion of one class or race in favor of another. New York: Sentimental Journeys, a 1991 piece, in The New York Review of Books, about the Central Park Five case—which she understood long before most other reporters did—remains, for me, a seminal text on the convergence of race, sex, and class. As with the Golden Gate Park section of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I have a physical reaction to what Didion says here regarding the fantasy of white-female fragility as it was applied to the then unnamed Central Park Jogger. The press’s emphasis on the jogger’s “perceived refinements of character and of manner and of taste,” she writes, “tended to distort and to flatten, and ultimately to suggest not the actual victim of an actual crime but a fictional character of a slightly earlier period, the well-brought-up maiden who briefly graces the city with her presence and receives in turn a taste of ‘real life.’ The defendants, by contrast, were seen as incapable of appreciating these marginal distinctions, ignorant of both the norms and accoutrements of middle-class life.”
Later in the piece, Didion details an incident during the trial in which the mother of one of the accused boys catches sight of a Black journalist, Bob Herbert, among the reporters waiting to enter the courtroom and begins to harangue him: “You are a disgrace. Go ahead. Line up there. Line up with the white folk. Look at them, lining up for their first-class seats while mypeople are downstairs, behind barricades . . . kept behind barricades like cattle . . . not even allowed in the room to see their sons lynched. . . . Is that an African I see in that line or is that a Negro? Oh, oh, sorry, shush, white folk didn’t know, he was passing.”
These excruciating scenes about shame—class shame and race shame—are indelible because the historical and political motivations behind them have changed little in the decades since Didion captured them. All that separates the Black man in Golden Gate Park from the Central Park Five from the birder Chris Cooper who was wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman in Central Park last year is time.
When she was a little girl, Didion recalls in her 2017 collection, South and West, she, her mother, and her brother would visit her father at the various military posts where he was stationed. “There was that time in Durham,” Didion writes, “when Mother and my brother, Jimmy, and I got on a bus to go out to Duke and the driver would not start because we were sitting in the back of the bus.” Didion and her family had not understood the social rules of North Carolina. An embarrassment, perhaps, but to be white and get it wrong in the white world means you’re doing something right, especially if you want to grow up to be a writer. Developing a voice requires more than feeling outside of things, though; it requires strength, ingenuity, and the discipline to hear what other people are saying—and then to turn it inside out as you try to unravel the mystery underlying the meaning. Didion, as a teen-ager, would type out Hemingway’s sentences to see “how they worked.” Her genius—and it was genius—lay in her ability to combine the specific and the sweeping in a single paragraph, to understand that the details of why we hurt and alienate one another based on skin color, sex, class, fame, or politics are also what make us American.
In the first hot month of the fall after the summer she left Carter (the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills), Maria drove the freeway. She dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time, a cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator, and she dressed very fast, running a brush through her hair once or twice and tying it back with a ribbon, for it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o’clock. Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard, not on her way to the freeway, but actually on the freeway. If she was not she lost the day’s rhythm, its precariously imposed momentum. Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie ¼ Vermont ¾ Harbor Fwy 1. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly. By then she was sleeping not in the house but out by the pool, on a faded rattan chaise left by a former tenant. There was a jack for a telephone there, and she used beach towels for blankets. The beach towels had a special point. Because she had an uneasy sense that sleeping outside on a rattan chaise could be construed as the first step toward something unnameable (she did not know what it was she feared, but it had to do with empty sardine cans in the sink, vermouth bottles in the wastebaskets, slovenliness past the point of return) she told herself that she was sleeping outside just until it was too cold to sleep beneath beach towels, just until the heat broke, just until the fires stopped burning in the mountains, sleeping outside only because the bedrooms in the house were hot, airless, only because the palms scraped against the screens and there was no one to wake her in the mornings. The beach towels signified how temporary the arrangement was. Outside she did not have to be afraid that she would not wake up, outside she could sleep. Sleep was essential if she was to be on the freeway by ten o’clock. Sometimes the freeway ran out, in a scrap metal yard in San Pedro or on the main street of Palmdale or out somewhere no place at all where the flawless burning concrete just stopped, turned into common road, abandoned construction sheds rusting beside it. When that happened she would keep in careful control, portage skillfully back, feel for the first time the heavy weight of the becalmed car beneath her and try to keep her eyes on the mainstream, the great pilings, the Cyclone fencing, the deadly oleander, the luminous signs, the organism which absorbed all her reflexes, all her attention. So that she would not have to stop for food she kept a hard-boiled egg on the passenger seat of the Corvette. She could shell and eat a hard-boiled egg at seventy miles an hour (crack it on the steering wheel, never mind salt, salt bloats, no matter what happened she remembered her body) and she drank Coca-Cola in Union 76 stations, Standard stations, Flying A’s. She would stand on the hot pavement and drink the Coke from the bottle and put the bottle back in the rack (she tried always to let the attendant notice her putting the bottle in the rack, a show of thoughtful responsibility, no sardine cans in her sink) and then she would walk to the edge of the concrete and stand, letting the sun dry her damp back. To hear her own voice she would sometimes talk to the attendant, ask advice on oil filters, how much air the tires should carry, the most efficient route to Foothill Boulevard in West Covina. Then she would retie the ribbon in her hair and rinse her dark glasses in the drinking fountain and be ready to drive again. In the first hot month of the fall after the summer she left Carter, the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills, a bad season in the city, Maria put seven thousand miles on the Corvette. Sometimes at night the dread would overtake her, bathe her in sweat, flood her mind with sharp flash images of Les Goodwin in New York and Carter out there on the desert with BZ and Helene and the irrevocability of what seemed already to have happened, but she never thought about that on the freeway.
The second picture she had made with Carter was called Angel Beach, and in it she played a girl who was raped by the members of a motorcycle gang. Carter had brought the picture in for $340,000 and the studio had saturation-booked it and by the end of the first year the domestic and foreign gross was just under eight million dollars. Maria had seen it twice, once at a studio preview and a second time by herself, at a drive-in in Culver City, and neither time did she have any sense that the girl on the screen was herself. “I look at you and I know that . . . what happened just didn’t mean anything,” the girl on the screen would say, and “There’s a lot more to living than just kicks, I see that now, kicks are nowhere.” Carter’s original cut ended with a shot of the motorcycle gang, as if they represented some reality not fully apprehended by the girl Maria played, but the cut released by the studio ended with a long dolly shot of Maria strolling across a campus. Maria preferred the studio’s cut. In fact, she liked watching the picture: the girl on the screen seemed to have a definite knack for controlling her own destiny. The other picture, the first picture, the picture never distributed, was called Maria. Carter had simply followed Maria around New York and shot film. It was not until they moved to California and Carter began cutting the film together that she entirely realized what he was doing. The picture showed Maria doing a fashion sitting, Maria asleep on a couch at a party, Maria on the telephone arguing with the billing department at Bloomingdale’s, Maria cleaning some marijuana with a kitchen strainer, Maria crying on the IRT. At the end she was thrown into negative and looked dead. The picture lasted seventy-four minutes and had won a prize at a festival in Eastern Europe and Maria did not like to look at it. She had once heard that students at UCLA and USC talked about using her the way commercial directors talked about using actresses who got a million dollars a picture, but she had never talked to any of them (sometimes they walked up to Carter in front of a theater or a bookstore and introduced themselves, and Carter would introduce Maria, and they would look sidelong at Maria while they talked to Carter about coming to see their film programs, but Maria had nothing to say to them, avoided their eyes) and she disliked their having seen her in that first picture. She never thought of it as Maria. She thought of it always as that first picture. Carter took her to BZ and Helene’s one night when BZ was running the picture and she had to leave the house after the titles, had to sit outside on the beach smoking cigarettes and fighting nausea for seventy-two of the seventy-four minutes. “Why does he run it so often,” she had said to Carter later. “Why do you let him keep a print out there, he keeps a print in the house.” “He owns it, Maria. He owns all the prints.” “That’s not what I mean. I said why does he run it so often.” “He wants Helene to see it.” “Helene’s seen it a dozen times. Helene doesn’t even like it, she told me so.” “You don’t understand anything,” Carter had said finally, and they had gone to bed that night without speaking. Maria did not want to understand why BZ ran that first picture so often or what it had to do with Helene. The girl on the screen in that first picture had no knack for anything.
“Maria Wyeth,” she repeated to Freddy Chaikin’s receptionist. The reception room was full of glossy plants in chinoiserie pots and Maria had an abrupt conviction that the plants were consuming the oxygen she needed to breathe. She should not have come here without calling. Only people in trouble came unannounced to see their agents. If Freddy Chaikin thought she carried trouble with her he would avoid her, because trouble was something no one in the city liked to be near. Failure, illness, fear, they were seen as infectious, contagious blights on glossy plants. It seemed to Maria that even the receptionist was avoiding her eyes, fearing contamination. “He’s kind of expecting me,” Maria added in a near whisper. “Maria Wyeth,” the receptionist said. “Mr. Chaikin is in the projection room, do you want to wait? Or could he call you.” “No. I mean yes. But tell him it has to be today or—” The receptionist waited. “Or I’ll talk to him tomorrow,” Maria said finally. In the elevator was an actor she recognized but had never met, the star of a canceled television Western. He was with a short agent in a narrow dark suit, and the agent smiled at Maria as the elevator door closed. “The word on Carter’s dailies is sensational,” the agent said. Maria smiled and nodded. It did not require an answer: it was a cue for the actor, who waited a suitable instant and then picked it up. “Your pocketbook’s open,” he drawled, and the look he gave Maria was dutifully charged with sexual appreciation, meant not for Maria herself but for Carter Lang’s wife. She leaned against the padded elevator wall and closed her eyes. If she could tell Les Goodwin about the actor in the elevator he would laugh. When she got home she thought about calling him, but instead she went upstairs and lay face down on Kate’s empty bed, cradled Kate’s blanket, clutched Kate’s baby pillow to her stomach and fought off a wave of the dread. The time seemed to have passed for telling Les Goodwin funny stories.
Play It as It Lays was published in 1970, one of the handful of novels that sit alongside Joan Didion's essays. The mood and approach of the author are instantly reconisable, and the world being described overlaps with her own. Her central character, Maria, is a film actor whose career, marriage (to a Hollywood producer) and mind are fragmenting. This provokes in her an appropriately L A kind of response: she sets out on a 7,000 mile journey of the California. freeways destination nowhere.
With her husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo.
What we get wrong about
She’s been canonized for impeccable style, but Didion’s
real insights were about
what holds society together, or tears it apart.
By Nathan Heller January 25, 2021
In the spring of 1967, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, freelance writers married to each other and living in Los Angeles, were engaged to write a regular column for the Saturday Evening Post. This was a good gig. The space they had to fill was neither long nor short—about twelve hundred words. The Post paid them well, and Didion and Dunne each had to file one piece a month.
The column, called “Points West,” entailed their visiting a place of West Coast interest, interviewing a few people or no people, and composing a dispatch. Didion wrote one column about touring Alcatraz, another on the general secretary of a small Marxist-Leninist group. The Post was struggling to stay afloat (it went under two years later), and that chaos let the new columnists shimmy unorthodox ideas past their desperate editors. Didion’s first effort was a dispatch from her parents’ house. A few weeks later, her “Points West” was about wandering Newport, Rhode Island. (“Newport is curiously Western,” she announced in the piece, sounding awfully like a writer trying to get away with something.) The column work left time for other projects, and Didion spent the spring through September of 1967 on a ten-thousand-word assignment about the hippie movement, the rest on a novel she’d been struggling with. At some point, an editor suggested that she had the makings of a collection, so she stacked her columns with past articles she liked (a report from Hawaii, the best of some self-help columns she’d churned out while a junior editor at Vogue), set them in a canny order with a three-paragraph introduction, and sent them off. This was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her first nonfiction
book. It has claims to being the most influential essay collection of the past sixty years.
Didion has been an object of fascination ever since, boosted by the black-lace renaissance she experienced after publishing The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), her raw and ruminative account of the months following Dunne’s sudden death. Generally, writers who hold readers’ imaginations across decades do so because there’s something unsolved in their project, something that doesn’t square and thus seems subject to the realm of magic. In Didion’s case, a disconnect appears between the jobber-like shape of her writing life—a shape she often emphasizes in descriptions of her working habits—and the forms that emerged as the work accrued. For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments.
She and Dunne started doing that work with an eye to covering the bills, and then a little more. (Their Post rates allowed them to rent a tumbledown Hollywood mansion, buy a banana-colored Corvette Stingray, raise a child, and dine well.) And yet the mosaic-like nonfiction books that Didion produced are the opposite of jobber books, or market-pitched books, or even useful, fibrous, admirably executed books. These are strange books, unusually shaped. They changed the way that journalistic storytelling and analysis were done.
Because a sentence of Didion is unmistakable, people often presume that her advances were in prose style. The opening of the Slouching Towards Bethlehem collection announced her voice:
The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.
There’s the entwining of sensuous and ominous images. And there’s the fine, tight verbal detail work: the vowel suspensions (“ways an alien place”), the ricocheting consonants (“harsher . . . haunted . . . Mojave”), the softly anagrammatic games of sound (“subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies”). Didion worked hard at her sentences, and no magazine journalist has done better than her best. But style is just the baseline of good writing. Didion’s innovation was something else.
Most writers of nonfiction operate in the sphere of high craft: like a silversmith producing teapots, they work to create elevated and distinctive versions of known objects. A master will produce a range of creative variations, yet the teapots always remain teapots, and the marks of individuation rise from a shared language of form and technique. Didion’s nonfiction was produced in that craftwork tradition, but it operates more in the sphere of art: it declares its own terms and vernacular, and, if successful, conveys meaning in a way that transcends its parts.
The title essay of her second collection, The White Album (1979), offers the clearest glimpse of how that reimagination happens. The heart of the essay is a cluster of “Points West” columns: brief reports on protests at San Francisco State, a Huey Newton press conference, a studio visit with the Doors—her normal craftwork as a working writer. When composing the “White Album” essay, Didion lined those pieces up like flagstones in a path. Together, she knew, they had to tell a bigger story, because they came from the same place (coastal California) in the same time (1968) and from the same vantage (hers). But what was the story?
To figure it out, Didion started adding stones from elsewhere in the quarry: circumstances surrounding the production of the newsstand columns, details from her home life. She included an extract from a psychological evaluation she’d had that summer. (“The Rorschach record is interpreted as describing a personality in process of deterioration with abundant signs of failing defenses.”) She wrote about remembering a line by Ezra Pound on the drive to report at San Francisco State. She threaded these bits with what she called flash cuts, scene changes separated by space breaks; in other words, she started with the craft part—the polished sentences, the tidy magazine page—and built outward, collaging what was already published with what wasn’t, reframing and rejuxtaposing what had been previously pinned in pristine prose. This process of redigesting published craftwork into art is how Didion shaped her nonfiction books for fifty years. It made her farseeing, and a thorny voice about the way public stories were told.
The prickliness of Didion’s project was on my mind as I read her new collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean (Knopf). “New” here refers mostly to the state of the binding, because the newest thing that Didion contributed is twenty years old. The foreword, very fruitful, is by Hilton Als. The volume’s keystone is a few "Points West" columns from 1968 which she in some cases had collaged into previous books but which have not been reprinted in their original, stand-alone form until now. In that sense, Let Me Tell You What I Mean is less a selected essays than a rejected essays, a director’s un-cut of her older work. Traditionally, this is the sort of collection squeezed out by itchy heirs after an author’s death.
It’s happy news, then, that the book still offers some familiar pleasures. The earliest columns, from the late sixties, remain crisp and engaging on the page (not a given for late-sixties writing). Other essays, such as a piece on the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, from 1989, are, if not exactly urgent, nice to have around. Didion stopped publishing new material in 2011, a silence that’s well earned but bittersweet in light of recent events, and Let Me Tell You What I Mean is meant to summon the old feelings. Yet the book ends up a study in the limits of Didion’s prose, because its parts, for all their elegance, don’t make a whole. Devoted readers will find the book unrecognizable as a Didion collection in any real sense.
To understand why, it is useful to go back to the summer of 1967, when Didion was writing her report on the hippies—the title essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The late-sixties youth movements purported to be about community and coming together, but Didion saw them as a symptom of a shared society unravelling and public communication breaking down. (The title comes from a Yeats poem that begins, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer.”)
“It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization,” she later explained. Struggling to describe this dissolution, she decided to express the problem structurally. The hippie essay, written as a series of pruned scenes from the Haight-Ashbury separated by breaks, marked her first true use of flash cuts.
The piece “failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads,” Didion later wrote. But the concept of atomization, and the collage technique, stuck. When Didion was gathering essays for her first collection, she did something notable with a piece she called Los Angeles Notebook. She took one of her Points West columns, about the Santa Ana wind, and put a flash cut after it. She lopped off the opening to a critics piece she’d written on books by Helen Gurley Brown and dropped that in, followed by another cut. In this way, she built a new essay from the wholes and bits of old material, tracing out flares of life around Los Angeles in the mid-sixties. They were part of one story, but, crucially, they did not connect.
Didion had spent four years failing to write a novel called Play It as It Lays. What she disliked in the work in progress, about an actress in Los Angeles, was that it smelled of “novel”; everything seemed formed and directed in a way that was untrue to life. In 1969, after reworking the Los Angeles Notebook essay, Didion saw how to make the novel work. Play It as It Lays (1970) is commonly said to be about anomie, but more specifically it’s about a world in insular pieces, of characters trapped in their Hollywood realms. (Didion envisioned a novel of tight scenes, consumed in a single sitting—a book written as a movie, in other words, and thus caged within the storytelling rhythms of the industry.) The novel’s short chapters, some of them less than a page, change vantage and jump characters among disparate spheres using freeways and white space. “I played and replayed these scenes and others like them, composed them as if for the camera, trying to find some order, a pattern. I found none,” one of her characters says. “Play It as It Lays” was Didion’s first fiction of atomization.
Didion went on to use the collage technique to assemble the long pieces in The White Album and the books that followed, reconsidering her own published craftwork and later bringing that scrutiny to texts produced by other people. Where she saw evidence of atomization in American society, she made efforts to push back.
“The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut off from my brain tissue, very probably by an Associated Press wire, are the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Los Angeles Open City, and the East Village Other,” Didion wrote in a "Points West" column from 1968 which opens the new collection. She likes the alternative press not because it’s good or useful (“I have never read anything I needed to know in an underground paper”) but because it breaks past a communication barrier. These papers assume that the reader “will understand if they talk to him straight; this assumption of a shared language and a common ethic lends their reports a considerable cogency of style.”
Shared language and a common ethic are precisely what Didion had noticed coming apart in the supposedly liberated togetherness of the late sixties. And the problem, in her view, did not fade when the love beads went away. In Insider Baseball, her influential piece for The New York Review of Books, born of tagging along with the Presidential campaigns of 1988, she argued that the so-called “democratic process” had become unlinked from the people it was supposed to speak to and for:
Access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.
Politics had come to be programming produced for élites, by élites, in a bubble disconnected from others. If this warning seemed eccentric on the eve of electing an institutional Vice-President [George H W Bush] and, four years later, the Man from Hope [Bill Clinton], it does not seem so today. The problem Didion first identified in 1967 has been treated as a revelation in recent years.
Her position as a disaffected insider—hanging out with the Doors but crying foul on the Summer of Love, writing for the newsstand but declaiming its idiocy—made her an aggressive contrarian. In fact, her recent canonization notwithstanding, Didion spent most of her career as a magnet for daggers in the letters columns. “Between Joan Didion and me it is still a missed connection,” a reader complained in 1969, responding to a Life column she wrote for a while (abortively, owing to its unpopularity with editors). In The New York Review of Books a decade later: “Evidently where Joan Didion lives, problems of love and psyche evaporate in a haze of margaritas by age twenty-one and folks can get down to the real business of living.”
That was in response to a searing broadside against the films of Woody Allen which Didion published in 1979. Allen had recently released Annie Hall and Manhattan, reaching his peak of appeal among people likely to read essays by Joan Didion in The New York Review of Books. She objected to the films’ urbane-sounding references (“the false and desperate knowingness of the smartest kid in the class”), and she was annoyed by characters’ superficial-seeming efforts to be deep (“They share sodas, and wonder ‘what love is’ ”). In Didion’s view, Allen’s movies were a simpleminded person’s idea of a smart person’s picture. She was needling her readers, naturally, but the objection
also shows a lot about her narrative intelligence and about the way she should be read.
If atomization is one of the key concepts in Didion’s work, another is what she came to call “sentimentality”: belief in a story with a preordained shape and an emotional logic. That kind of storytelling was everywhere in America, she thought. And it was insidious, because it allowed destructive ideas to sneak in underneath the petticoats of right-thinking endeavors. One of the columns in the new collection picks apart a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous. What
irked Didion was that although the meeting seemed to be about taking responsibility, it actually refracted blame.
“I thought that it was simply the predilection of many of the members to dwell upon how ‘powerless’ they were, how buffeted by forces beyond their control,” she wrote. “There was a great deal of talk about miracles, and Higher Presences, and a Power Greater Than Ourselves”—prefab sentimental stories that let gamblers avoid seeing things squarely. Done well, contrarianism is based on the idea that what matters isn’t which team colors you wear but which goal the ball lands in when you kick it. Didion did it well and, as with the hippies, traced how a moment of supposed healing spun toward delusion and drove people farther apart.
Atomization and sentimentality exacerbate each other, after all: you break the bridges of connection across society, and then give each island a fairy tale about its uniqueness. Didion was interested in how that happens. One of her most frequently read essays is a late-sixties account of loving and leaving New York, “Goodbye to All That.” It tends to be remembered as a half-trite paean to a white-collar New York youth, a kind of classed-up precursor to the “Emily in Paris” Weltanschauung. Yet the essay’s actual point is astringent. New Yorkers’ mythology about their city’s sophistication and specialness, Didion suggested, was another sentimental narrative. She had found her place in town by embracing that view, but outgrew it in time—“at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more,” she wrote. And so she moved to Los Angeles, where the grownups live.
This claim for California as a stronghold of urbanity and groundedness was contrary, even petulant. Didion had grown up in Sacramento and began her reporting from California at a moment when the national narrative of the West Coast—what went on there, what it meant—was shaped by editors and emissaries from New York. (That hasn’t changed.) But, where the Eastern press had decided that California stood for futurism, beaches, lush life, and togetherness, Didion insisted on a California of dusty houses, dry inland landscapes, fires and snakes, and social alienation. Like her contemporary the Bay Area poet Robert Hass, she was obsessed with the motions of mind but shy of abstractions; both realized that what is often called “the world of ideas” is vulnerable to tendentious manipulation. And so they pinned their ideas to details of landscape: this realization fixed to this tree, or the sight of the Bevatron at night, that one to a jasmine-covered porch—the Northern California style of intellection. What this meant was that thinking was an experiential process that emerged in movement from place to place—in the flash cuts—and you didn’t need a sentimental narrative in order to give it sense, as you did in New York.
Didion left the city in 1964, but this remained her perception when she returned twenty-four years later:
The insistent sentimentalization of experience . . . is not new in New York. A preference for broad strokes, for the distortion and flattening of character, and for the reduction of events to narrative, has been for well over a hundred years the heart of the way the city presents itself: Lady Liberty, huddled masses, ticker-tape parades, heroes, gutters, bright lights, broken hearts, eight million stories in the naked city; eight million stories and all the same story, each devised to obscure not only the city’s actual tensions of race and class but also, more significantly, the civic and commercial arrangements that rendered those tensions irreconcilable.
This description of “distortion and flattening,” of reducing life to recognizable story lines, is from New York: Sentimental Journeys, a study of the Central Park jogger case that Didion wrote, in 1991, for The New York Review of Books. The case—in which a twenty-eight-year-old female banker was brutalized and raped and five youths of color were convicted, and then, decades later, exonerated—became a Rorschach blot, with some people (largely white) seeing a city “systematically ruined, violated, raped by its underclass” and others (largely of color) seeing a city “in which the powerless had been systematically ruined, violated, raped by the powerful.”
Didion saw something else: a city victimized by decades of fatuous thinking and poor planning. New York, she thought, had clung to sentimental narratives about melting pots and special opportunities—“the assurance that the world is knowable, even flat, and New York its center, its motor, its dangerous but vital ‘energy’ ”—to the extent of being blind to the fraying of its civic and economic fibre. In crisis, New Yorkers simply doubled down, appointing heroes or villains in the jogger case, trying to keep the fairy tale aloft. Sentimental Journeys was a controversial piece when it appeared, yet it offered a frame for New York’s dramas over the next three decades. Even more important, it insisted on a link between the fate of a society and the way that its stories were told.
What it meant to be a writer—imaginatively and morally—had interested Didion since she spent her teen-age years retyping Hemingway sentences, trying to understand the way they worked. Fifty years later, she wrote about his afterlives in Last Words, an essay for this magazine condemning the publication of books that Hemingway had deemed incomplete. To edit a dead author’s near-finished work for publication, Didion thought, was to assume that he or she was playing by the usual rules. But it was precisely not working in this consensus realm that made great artists great.
A common criticism of Didion suggests that the peppering of her prose with proper nouns (the Bendel’s black wool challis dress, the Grès perfume) is somehow unserious. (For whatever reason, these complaints usually come from men.) But the correct way to understand this impulse is in the lineage of front writing. As Adam Gopnik has noted in these pages, it is Hemingway who’s forever telling you which wines to enjoy while fighting in Spain, how to take your brasserie coffee—how to make his particular yours. Didion feminized that way of writing, pushing against the postwar idea that women writers were obliged to be either mini Virginia Woolfs, mincing abstractions from the parlor, or
Shulamith Firestones, raging for liberation. Part of what Didion took from Hemingway, by her account, was a mind-set
of “romantic individualism,” “looking but not joining,” and a commitment to the details that gave distinctiveness and precision to that outside view.
A trip to the Royal Hawaiian in the midst of a rocky marriage, the right soap to pack for a reporting trip while your husband stays with the baby: in Didion’s work, these were as important in their hard details as Hemingway’s crabe mexicaine and Sancerre at Prunier. Hemingway mythologized his authorial life style so well that generations of writers longed to live and work his way. Didion saw what he was doing, and appropriated the technique.
Yet what made the modernists daring was sometimes a weak point of their endeavor: the writing doesn’t always let readers know how it wants to be read. Hemingway’s theory was that if you, the writer, could reduce what you saw in your imagination to the igniting gestures and images—don’t elaborate why you feel sad about your marriage ending; just nail the image of the burning farmhouse that launched you on that train of thought—then you could get readers’ minds to make the same turns at the same intersections, and convey the world more immersively than through exposition. He explained his theory rarely and badly (hence the endless rancid chestnuts about lean prose,
laconic dialogue, and crossing important things out), but Didion didn’t miss the point.
“When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. . . . The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture,” she noted, in Why I Write. And yet she added in signposts Hemingway left out. A first-rate Didion piece explains its terms as it goes, as if the manual were part of the main text. She is perpetually on guard about saying stuff either not clearly enough (the title Let Me Tell You What I Mean emerges from her work) or so clearly as to be subject to “distortion and flattening,” and thus untrue to what she means.
“I wanted not a window on the world but the world itself. I wanted everything in the picture” is how she puts it in Telling Stories, an essay from 1978 included in the new collection. She is explaining why she lost, or maybe never had, a desire to write salable short stories—tightly constructed pieces hung on a “little epiphany.” For her, the key to capturing life on the page without the usual sort of reduction, she says in the same essay, was figuring out how to use the first person across time.
Didion’s “I” ended up nearly as known as Hemingway’s “and,” and carries the same mixed blessing of being caricatured more than characterized. The caricature has Didion as a histrionic oversharer—a kind of literary Tori Spelling. Yet her reasons for embracing the “I” were mostly technical. You had to let readers know who you were and where your camera stood, she thought. It meant that Didion was always in her own crosshairs, and eventually turned the contrarian impulse on herself.
One of the commonest motifs in Didion’s writing is, bizarrely, Oregon Trail-type survivalism. She had been taught that those who colonized California were “the adventurous, the restless, and the daring.” She had been raised to believe that, as her mother put it, California was now “too regulated, too taxed, too expensive.” In (2003), she finally put this origin story of heroic, contrary individualism under the glass.
Didion built the book in her usual way, setting down reported articles and weaving in flashes of personal context. What created California economically and politically, she showed, was actually constant support from the East-reaching web of American society, industry, and, especially, the federal government. “The sheer geographical isolation of different parts of the state tended to obscure the elementary fact of its interrelatedness,” she wrote. The refusal to acknowledge this public interrelatedness, to insist on the determining value of the personal, the private, and the exceptional, had been California’s fragmenting delusion, and her own. I suspect that Where I Was From is among the least read of Didion’s nonfiction books, which is unfortunate, because it’s her “Gatsby”: the book in which she scrutinized her most basic ideas of heroic particularism and found that she had not escaped “the blinkering effect of the local dreamtime.” That’s a moving thing for a writer to acknowledge, and a hard one. The final sentences of the book are Didion’s suggestion that she’s not quite ready, in her life, to give the sentimental story up.
The intense burst of mythologizing that attended Didion’s books about the deaths of her husband (The Year of Magical Thinking) and her daughter (Blue Nights, from 2011) arrived, then, with a certain weirdness. One can now order something called a “Didion dress,” modelled on her late-sixties wardrobe. Not long ago, in a bookshop, I came across a Picador Modern Classics edition of Slouching Towards Bethlehem shrunk down to pocket size, presumably to be carried in the way that certain people carry miniature versions of the Bible or the Constitution. I tried and failed to think of a writer who’d treat such a thing more mercilessly than the author of that book.
An artist who has spent years doing the work on her own terms should not look fashionability in the mouth. But it is odd to find Didion embraced by the world of mainstream sentimental thinking which she charged against for decades. One wonders whether the fans for whom she’s now an Instagram totem, or the many journalists who claim her, realize that she cast her career toward challenging precepts and paragons like theirs.
It matters only because everything matters. Didion once wrote, “Style is character,” and, because the phrase has seemed to apply to her life and work, it often gets quoted to mean that character comes down to nothing more than style. But the line, which appears in an essay about Georgia O’Keeffe, is actually about the burden of creative choice. “Every choice one made alone—every word chosen or rejected, every brush stroke laid or not laid down—betrayed one’s character,” Didion wrote.
Reducing the world, as on the canvas or the page, is a process of foreclosing on its fullness, choosing this way and not that one, and how you make those choices reveals everything about the person that you are. Didion praised O’Keeffe for “hardness” in trying to render in art what sensible people told her was unrenderable. “ ‘The men’ believed it was impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York,” she wrote. She was impressed by O’Keeffe’s snubbing of those who received her work devotedly but unseriously: “This is a woman who in 1939 could advise her admirers that they were missing her point, that their appreciation of her famous flowers was merely sentimental.” And she lauded O’Keeffe’s frank engagement with her time. “She is simply hard, a straight shooter, a woman clean of received wisdom and open to what she sees,” Didion wrote, and she meant it, too.
Joan Didion has always been an acquired taste. Hardly Marmite though - nothing so mundane Maybe a cocktail that is too sharp for some, too sweet for others, with flavours you can't quite put a name to. A very sophisticated and, no doubt, expensive cocktail. With
The Year of Magical Thinking, she broadened her audience, reaching people who would find the themes and style of her other work too far from their lives and interests. But loss and grief are subjects none of us can avoid, however hard we try. I believe this encounter with pain to be a triumph, made yet more triumphant by the introduction of a play that is also deeply satisfying to read. The dramatic presentation uses a very different approach from the book, perhaps handling the theme of grief with even more dexterity and emotional bite than the original. I am presenting the extracts here in reverse order of their publication. GD
In discussion with Al Filreis at a writers' workshop in 2009.
This happened on december 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won't when it happens to you.
And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you.
That's what I'm here to tell you.
We had come home. "Home" meaning an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Early evening, maybe eight o'clock. We discussed whether to go out or eat in. I said we could stay in, I would build a fire.
The fire was the point.
In California we heated our houses by building fires. In Malibu 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 built the fire. I drew the circle.
I have no memory of what I meant to have for dinner.
Memory stops. The frame freezes. You'll find that's something that happens.
I warned you. I'm telling you what you need to know.
You see me on this stage, you sit next to me on a plane, you run into me at dinner, you know what happened to me.
You don't want to think it could happen to you.
That's why I'm here.
John was in his office. I got him a drink. He sat down by the fire to read. He was reading a bound galley of David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? I set the table in the living room, where we could see the fire.
I must have noticed that later. The name of the book. I eventually read it myself, but found no clues.
Wait. I was telling you what happened.
He wanted a second drink. I got it. He asked if I had used single-malt scotch for the second drink. I said I had used whatever I used for the first drink. "Good," he said. "I don't know why but I don't think you should mix them."
I was at the table, making a salad. He was sitting across from me, talking. Either he was talking about why World War One was the event from which the entire rest of the twentieth century flowed or he was talking about the scotch, I have no idea which.
Then he wasn't. Wasn't talking.
I looked up. I said, "Don't do that." I thought he was making a joke.
Slumping over. Pretending to be dead. You've seen people make that kind of tiresome joke. Maybe you've done it yourself. Meaning "this was a hard day, we got through it, we're having dinner, we've got a fire."
In fact neither of us had yet said out loud how hard that day had been.
My next thought was that he had started to eat and choked. I tried to move him so I could do the Heimlich.
He fell onto the table, then to the floor. There was a dark liquid pooling beneath his face.
Within what I now know to have been exactly five minutes, two ambulances came. The crews worked on the living room floor for what I now know to have been exactly forty-five minutes.
I now know these facts because I obtained the documents. I obtained the Emergency Department Nursing Documentation Sheet. I obtained the Nursing Flow Chart. I obtained the Physician's Record. I obtained the log kept by the doormen in our building."Paramedics arrived at 9:20 PM for Mr. Dunne," the log read."Mr. Dunne was taken to the hospital at 10:05 PM."
The distance from our apartment to the ambulance entrance of New York Cornell is six crosstown blocks. I do not remember traffic. I do not remember sirens. When I got out of the ambulance the gurney was already being pushed inside. Everyone was in scrubs. I noticed one man who was not in scrubs. "Is this the wife," he said to the driver. Then he looked at me. "I'm your social worker."
And I guess that was when I knew.
That's something else to remember. If they give you a social worker, you're in trouble.
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
Those were the first words I wrote after it happened.
And after that--
I'm a writer--
But after that I didn't write anything for a long while.
For several weeks after it happened I tried different strategies for keeping on the correct track. One that worked for a while was repeating to myself the last two lines of "Rose Aylmer," Walter Savage Landor's 1806 elegy to the memory of a daughter of Lord Aylmer's who had died at age twenty in Calcutta. I had not thought of "Rose Aylmer" since I was at Berkeley, but now I could remember not only the poem but much of what was said about it in whichever class I heard it analyzed. "Ah what avails the sceptred race!" it begins. "Ah what the form divine! When every virtue, every grace, Rose Aylmer, all were thine!" "Rose Aylmer" worked, the lecturer said, because the overblown and therefore meaningless praise in those first lines gets thrown into sudden, even shocking relief by what he called "the hard sweet wisdom" of the last, which suggest that grief has its place but also its limits: "A night of memories and sighs / I consecrate to thee."
"A night of memories and sighs," he repeated. "A night. One night. It might be all night but he doesn't say all night, he says a night, not a matter of a lifetime, a matter of some hours."
Hard sweet wisdom. Clearly, since "Rose Aylmer" remained embedded in my memory, I believed it to offer a lesson for survival.
I told you I knew when I saw the social worker but I didn't really.
Or more correctly--"correctly" is important to me--I knew but I refused to know.
There's a certain kind of personality--my own, maybe yours--that sets great store on seeing it straight. For certain of us this is a big ego point.
You might think you'll see it straight but you won't.
You'll be standing in some ER and at one level you'll have a pretty clear idea of whatever it was that just happened but you'll see it as a kind of first draft.
Notice the evasion there. "Whatever it was that just happened." The actual words will have vanished from your accessible vocabulary. The only words at hand will have to do with how this can be corrected.
If you're a lawyer you're probably thinking she do