By Helena Waumsley (she/her)
Reading Joan Didion’s work, in particular her non-fiction, it still feels just as relevant now as it did then, and in some cases, eerily prophetic. This may be partly because the themes Joan dealt with are often those universally experienced, like loss and delusion. I think also in part because Joan had an instinct for sifting through sediment until she reached the truth of a matter. In order to have such an instinct you need to be able to identify what is sediment and what is valuable; and Joan’s characteristic ability to discern between fact and fiction allowed her this skill. What primarily concerned Joan’s non-fiction was the fictions she encountered, both personally and within the cultural consciousness.
Joan was one of the first journalists to suggest that the Central Park Five were innocent. She also criticised the feminist movement of the 60s, primarily for their infantilization of women and their lack of material progress – a criticism which remains just as applicable to the current feminist movement. She was able to form such accurate insights because of her analysis of the narratives which clouded each of these events. Joan wrote that, ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’: this quote is often misinterpreted as a sort of romantic statement of the human capacity to express themselves through storytelling, but what Joan really meant was that in order to interpret the world around us, we project our own rules and fantasies onto it. Often in doing so, we lose the ability to see what is really going on, and as Zadie Smith so deftly puts it; ‘a sentence meant as an indictment has transformed into personal credo’. Projecting a romantic narrative onto Joan’s own writing is to miss her sharp humour and irony. In mythologizing realities, nuance is lost.
Critic Barbara Grizzutti Harrison once said of Joan, ‘her subject is always herself’. In a sense this statement was true: she inserted herself into all the stories that she told. She resides in them not just as a silent narrator but a bystander, constantly analysing. In the present online era, shortening of attention spans and a focus on engagement means that it is much harder to imbue content with nuance and understanding. The centring of the self remains (see the personal essay boom), but lacking self-reflection it becomes boring and, inevitably, repetitive. For Joan, whilst she is always present in her writing she is just as often the subject of her own narrative analysis as anything else is. She is not always a reliable narrator, but she was also aware of this. She was able to step outside of herself and subject herself to the same criticism that she projected outwards; this is what made her so significant.
When Joan writes about herself, she is still analysing narratives, but here she looks at the narratives which pervade her own thoughts. Life is unpredictable and follows no specific pattern; what Joan focussed on was the ways in which her thoughts would attempt to deal with that. It is easy to impose rules where there are none, comforting to believe that what you do and what happens exist in a close causal relationship. Joan spent her whole life encountering the fact that these beliefs are not true – perhaps this is why she had such a desire to find what she saw as the truth of the matter. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking Joan considers the ways in which the grief she felt after losing her husband impacted the way that she saw the world. Magical thinking is the mapping of interior superstitions on to the exterior world, a way of thinking which Joan discovered she clung to after the loss of her husband. Joan is often described as having a cold remove from the topics that she talks about, a coolly rational way of observing them. This can seem especially true in her exposition of her own feelings of grief, her quiet analysis of her mental processes. However, I think that to solely focus on this would be to miss what Joan was really aiming at when she describes her grief for her husband: beneath her apparently removed descriptions of how she felt lies the true impact of her feelings of loss – a desperation to make sense of a life-altering event, and an immense tenderness and proximity to her late husband.
My favourite of Joan’s work is her 1961 essay on self-respect. In it, Joan characterises self-respect not as self-love but as self-knowledge. In Joan’s continued self-analysis throughout the rest of her career, and her refusal to allow others the same delusions, she embodied self-respect as she knew it. I hope that Joan will be remembered not just as America’s favourite cool girl, but also as someone with immense empathy and respect for the subjects that she wrote about, including herself.