On the Edge of Total Depravity: A Love Letter to Joan Didion
Saam Niami Jalinous
It’s late September; I’m wearing the only winter coat I owned throughout high school in Oakland, California. It’s already getting too cold in Middletown, Connecticut, and I have only been here for a month. I know cold; I lived in D.C. for thirteen years before moving to the New Frontier. But, California has a way of making you forget wherever it is that you came from.
I am also up way too early on a Monday. I’m rushing to make it to my English seminar, half focused on eating the breakfast I promised my mother I’d eat every day. I hardly know anyone yet and I run, half panting, into class.
“Sorry, Professor.” My professor is the scariest person I have ever met, because I have never known anyone who could so easily help me become a writer as she can. Her opinion of me mattered way too much.
“That’s OK, dear. We’re just starting.” I take my seat and take out the course packet, a hundred pages that I haven’t even gotten through a third of, and that I am expected to read all of by today. I’m beginning to question whether or not literature is my thing, after applying to this school solely for the English program.
“Before we start today,” my professor begins, “I want to know: what do you all think an essay is?” We look around, not entirely sure what the question means. “I mean, literally, what’s an essay?”
No one speaks. No one wants to say the wrong thing, quite yet.
“Thesis, body paragraphs, conclusion?”
“It’s nonfiction, usually.”
“I guess so.”
We really have no clue what she wants from us.
“An essay, my dears, is an argument, for anything. It’s just a statement.”
We can’t believe it’s that simple. There must be more to what she means.
“For next class, you’re reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem by one of the best American essayists, Joan Didion. Who has heard of Joan Didion?”
A handful of people, not including me, raise their hands.
“Excellent. Get ready to understand what it means, really, to write.”
I am inspired by that session, her words, her conviction, the power she puts behind literature that I had never knew in high school. I really want to impress her. I go home and I write an essay, a snapshot from a traumatic time in my childhood. It’s dark, edgy, and full of angst. The perfect first display of my skill.
I bring it to her office hours and beg her to give her opinion. She leafs through a few pages, and puts it down, unfinished.
“Sweetheart, I want to say something to you, because I can tell already, you want to be a writer, and I want to help you do that. This is something you will always need to remember, so please listen carefully. No one cares about your feelings.”
It isn’t until that night, as I finish Slouching Towards Bethlehem at 2am just before the library closes, that I understand what she meant.
I fell in love with Joan Didion during my first semester of college, and just as quickly as she filled me with total excitement for the art form of essay writing, she showed me that there’s a lot I have to learn. Writing is not about the dark feelings I experienced through my childhood, it’s about putting someone else right there with me so that I don’t even need to tell them how it felt because they know. Because they’re a part of the show.
There’s a lot that Didion and I share; or, at least I like to think so. We’re both madly in love with the Bear Republic. And we both have a deep, unsettling anxiety toward the east coast. Mine developed as I grew in the disingenuous and cold city of Washington, hers developed because she chose to endure the chill of New York.
Didion is America’s concerned mother, whom we all hate to agree with so much, because what she loves to remind us is that human beings have an inherent desire to trust in naïveté. The hippie movement is based on social distress; Hollywood is an empty landscape occupied by empty people; we all are in a constant dance around, looking for meaning in a meaningless existence. She takes you by the ear, pulls you over, and says, “You’re going to hear every word, and you’re going to feel them in your soul.” I felt an immediate love for her, because, really, she makes you feel right there. She doesn’t need to tell you what it was like, because she forces you into the equation. She doesn’t need to tell you how she feels about it, because she makes you feel it yourself.
Didion became a litmus test for me: “What would Didion think of this piece if she read it?” It was an incredible fortune for my writing that I was attempting to rise through the ranks of the University newspaper at the same time Didion came into my life. My pieces became more refined, more personal. Instead of being a passive observer, I became a third party with a voice. Journalism really is that, journaling; observing human beings in their natural disposition instead of attempting to impose an expected bias. Didion spills a social movement onto the floor, and instead of describing the shape of the puddle, she rushes to the basement and writes down what falls through the cracks. She shows us what we would rather not observe, what we are far too afraid to see.
This really becomes apparent when reading her later political work for The New York Review of Books. Her piece on the Central Park Five, “Sentimental Journeys”, the controversial case of a middle-class white woman supposedly being raped and murdered by five black and brown boys, brought to light not a search for the truth, but rather the obvious hypocrisies in the public’s view of the case. It took over ten years for the men to finally be exonerated for wrongful conviction, but Didion discovered the glaring truth early on: five colored boys raping an attractive middle-class white woman was just too perfect.
She does not accept the obvious; she actively searches for the contradiction. Her piece on Vice President Dick Cheney, “Cheney: The Fatal Touch”, and her piece on President-elect Barack Obama, “Obama: In the Irony-Free Zone”, written with Darryl Pinckney, observe these epic figures as exactly that which the public forgot they are: men. Men with goals; men with human faults; men who hold offices; men who have been publicly transformed into gods. Her scrutiny of Cheney as a wicked person with far too much power (an uncertain opinion at the time), and her depiction of Obama as not a man but an impossibly good figure, display her nature of precisely understanding the public and its natural tendency to reject truth for hope. She is far less concerned with the way people ought to be, or the way people appear to be, while being far more concerned with the way people are. The way we move, the way we think, the way we act matter far more than the ways which we say one should move, or think, or act.
I was not one to write on such grand discourse when I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion and the world of chaos and fear she depicted were far beyond my literary reaches, because I did not understand such a social mess. I was writing television reviews and just trying to understand what it means to be a writer, what “true” writing is. Whatever it is, I thought, she knows it.
Time passed and I progressed as a writer, by doing what we all must do: write. The time called for it. Just as Didion said in her essay on Obama, “The social revolution of the 1960s was not babies in cute T-shirts but the kind of resistance to that decade’s war that in the case of our current wars, unmotivated by a draft, we have yet to see.” I moved on from television reviews to social commentary, investigative pieces on local religion and institutional oppression, and the personal ramifications of political turmoil. The world she describes in Slouching Towards Bethlehem was emerging. Revolution is exactly as it sounds, a revolving door outside of human control. We’re just walking through it. It is foolish to tame it; it is just as foolish to claim to understand it. It is something you feel. It is something you think. It is beyond our dreams of wrapped linens and dancing in the streets of San Francisco. How can we do that if San Francisco has become uninhabitable? Where is the America she found for us?
Hope has become a scarce commodity in our modern day, and I think of Didion when I try to understand how to cover such a day. It is a bore to sing the same old song; Donald Trump bad; Democrats aged; young people disquieted. The turmoil we are experiencing is becoming un-coverable, moving faster than we can understand it. The boom of journalistic fever from the likes of those exposing Hollywood misconduct and vigilantly monitoring the happenings of our once-respected government have become standard instead of prodding. It is time, now, to turn on the television, turn off the sound, and look instead of listen. It is no longer enough to just pay attention. Hope must be put aside for reason. Faith rests in our own ability to remain perceptive.
I founded the publication that this essay appears in on principles inspired by Didion: a dedication to the truth.
I was working with a writer a while ago on his first piece, a cultural examination of the student body. He knew the piece wasn’t done, but he wasn’t sure where to go next with it.
“It all depends on you,” I say. “It depends on what you want to do with it. It depends on whether or not you want it to be good. The moment you start asking yourself if you’re just writing something because it feels like it’s what you should be doing and not what you want to be doing, stop and rewrite it. That’s all that matters.”
He nodded. “Do you have any recommendations on how to format it? Like, how present should I be?”
I thought for a moment. “Have you ever heard of Joan Didion?”
I smiled. “Excellent.”
I recently watched the new documentary on Ms. Didion, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. I had a strange feeling of disappointment, like it didn’t accurately depict her, as if I know her better than her nephew, Griffin Dunne, who made the film. It would not be outrageous for Dunne to actually know Ms. Didion better than I do, but I digress. It was too stilted, too organized, too much of a narrative. It was more about her career than who she is as a person, which is not how Didion would make a movie about Didion. But, after all, she probably cares far less than I do. The one thing I did appreciate, though, was the depiction of Ms. Didion as the cultural icon that she is. Her appearance in 1960s Los Angeles, her constant presence in social commentary, and her continued and everlasting relevance. She was, is, and always will be, the only Joan Didion.
I hope to never meet Ms. Didion, for my image of her is too perfect (although it would be my absolute pleasure). I'm sure Ms. Didion would disapprove of the larger-than-life caricature I've painted of her, ascending her beyond her humanity. However, when depriving meaning from the likes of society, politics, and culture, meaning must be found in that which moves us. For someone who has taught me the frivolity of meaning, I must grant her some praise, no matter the irony. Also, no matter how fierce my conviction on the merit of her works, I must admit my imperfection in holding her to such a regard. I imagine her to be ten feet tall with sunglasses for eyes and pens for fingers. She could slit my throat with no more than a comment on my fashion or general conduct. She could disgrace my family with a mere footnote in a piece on the general discord our society is descending into. She is my hero, and she is all I ever want her to be. No matter how Ms. Didion may actually be in real life, perhaps a five-foot-two woman with a shy attitude but a wonderful smile, she will always be, to me, exactly as she has depicted herself to be: a dark knight of the human condition.