I first encountered Joan Didion in my first year at NYU. We got off on the wrong foot.

A professor assigned “Goodbye to All That,” an essay following the dissolution of Didion’s love affair with New York City. As a two-week resident of New York and newly head-over-heels with the city, I was outraged, mistaking her ambivalence toward those years for cynicism. I didn’t return to her work until this winter when I read The White Albumwhich hit a raw nerve.

In it she writes: “We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of the narrative line upon disparate images… or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.”

The White Album is a selection of essays Didion wrote between 1968 to 1978: a period marked by a different sort of American identity crisis. The early 60’s saw the March on Washington and the myth of Camelot. The late 60’s saw the assassination of Martin Luther King and Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter murders. Social activists resisted police brutality, exposed misogyny and questioned the integrity of the American government. The national and geopolitical debates of the day stratified Americans into ideological factions with conflicting visions of the path forward. Natural disasters raged and man-made structures dominated an under-appreciated landscape.

In the essays, Didion captures the national mood of the decade and explores her rising sense of emotional alienation. The result is a thought-provoking (if not comforting) glance into the interior life of a woman “revising the circuitry of her mind” in the face of social upheaval and political uncertainty.

Didion approaches her subjects not unlike a case study, honing in on a specific symptom or flaw. “Notes Toward a Dreampolitik” addresses disaffected rural teens and the mythology of “the West” through bike movies: genre-films popular with teenagers which portrayed bike gangs as clans of righteous outlaws, riding through anything or anyone who gets in their way until they die in a final blaze of glory. For Didion, the popularity of these films points a blinking traffic arrow toward the disaffected audience consuming them: “These children of vague ‘hill’ stock who grew up absurd… children whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made. These children are, increasingly, everywhere, and their style is that of an entire generation.”

Her analysis of the generational and geographical stratification of American culture is not far off from contemporary discussions about urban liberal bubbles and discontented rural communities. But to appreciate these differences, then as now, it was necessary to look for news beyond.

Themes of the romanticization and false promise of the West appear frequently in the collection, particularly in relation to Didion’s home state of California. In “Holy Water,” she writes, “The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.” A strong statement, but when she writes of the “bureaucratic terrorism” embodied in the Los Angeles freeway or describes the sight of her Malibu neighborhood engulfed in wildfire, it’s hard to argue. Even her remarks about Hollywood or California politics speak to the physical and social constructions we impose upon our environment in pursuit of money, power and beachfront properties.

Didion’s stance of the second-wave feminist movement is trickier territory. She’s sensitive to the existence of institutional sexism, most directly in her essay on Georgia O’Keefe. She also skewers daily casual misogyny — interactions with men like Linda Kasabian’s lawyer, who pose obscure trivia questions to confirm women’s “essential in-educability” as Didion mockingly explains.

So, it comes as a bit of a shock to discover Didion skepticism towards the feminist activism of the early 70’s. In “The Women’s Movement,” she criticizes feminist literature for peddling in “half-truths” and “bitter fantasies” — exaggerations which have unmoored the cause by overgeneralizing the female experience and oversimplifying the mechanizations of sexism.  

Agree or disagree with her critiques, her perspective provides contemporary feminists with food for thought as we advocate for substantive action rather than superficial solutions.

But there is nevertheless an obvious dismissiveness toward the whole feminist enterprise which doesn’t age particularly well. A less visceral version of this ambivalence extends to other social movements like the Black Panther Party and student protests.

It’s interesting to consider her less-than-progressive stances through the “state of profound emotional shock” which she alludes to in several essays which dogged her over the course of the decade. She warns that when you read her work, “You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people… misplaced whatever slight faith she had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.” With her most basic beliefs shattered, it’s less surprising that she wouldn’t place much stock in someone else’s manifesto.

None of this neutralizes the somewhat nihilistic tone of her perspective, but these glimpses into her mind allow the reader to understand how she’s interpreting her environment. The resonance of the collection lies in this interplay between critique and subjective experience. The essays weave Didion’s reportorial observations of the country with her personal negotiations with marriage, personal health and her faith in America. Her honesty, for better or worse, might be the most unsettling part about it.

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