The first time death opened a window on time to make eternity obtrude into my life was in 1977, when I was sixteen years old, on an overcast weekday morning. I was off from school and called a friend of mine, whose house was a second home for me, to see if he was up to hanging out. I heard a pause on the other end, and he asked me if I’d heard. “Heard what?” I said.
The five words he answered with made my lower body feel like it had petrified as I looked up the staircase in the front foyer of our house: My father died this morning.
I stood in the foyer of our house—the weather was warm and the front door was open so that air came in through the screen door, giving a late-morning glow to the white banister leading upstairs. I looked at the banister and at the wallpaper, and I asked them inwardly, as if something was there, how can somebody who was here not be here now?
Minutes later my mother said we had to get over there. She made them a cake. In my friend’s kitchen his mother wept at the sink, wearing a flannel housecoat and cleaning a pan left to soak from the night before, one of those gestures people carry out to normalize time and space in front of the monumental shock of grief.
My friend gave me a distant, sad wave from the kitchen table, bending his head forward and eyeing me with that teenage-guy, I-won’t-dare-let-myself-look-vulnerable-to-you face. Next to him, his little brother, who had his father’s looks, cried and smiled at me, feeling stupid. I didn’t know where to look and sidled up to their mother, who hugged and kissed me while I stiffened and felt her wet face against mine. An endearing laugh emerged from deep in her throat as she choked back tears, a way of covering over the awkwardness she knew came from my lack of experience with these things. She squeezed me to her like she always did, reassuring me, and I managed to say, “I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you, honey.” This was a sanguine, gregarious Italian American woman who had once danced around the living room in the same housecoat she was wearing that day. She had carried her toddler grandson in her arms, holding his arm in the air to teach him to ballroom dance as Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be” blasted on the stereo, leaving my friend, his younger brother, and me laughing until we cried.
Looking at that moment in retrospect, I recognize that perennial adolescent egocentrism that needs to feel affection and belonging at all costs. The first thing I wondered at sixteen, at their house after the leaden fear at home in the foyer when death had walked in, was whether I had any place in their lives in front of the seriousness of this. I went home later and felt deprived because I wasn’t in on the funeral preparations. That was the moment the lines were drawn, when a family was a family and you had no business being there. It was mitigated at the viewing, when my friend, his little brother, and I, as well as my sister, fell into our usual antics as friends once the solemnness broke and people started socializing.
I recount this story as a comparison point for the other deaths that followed in my life, up to that of my own father in 2014. But those first words from my friend knowing his father was gone have the same impact on me now as they did then. Factual, blunt, unremitting: my—father—died—this—morning, uttered as an observation and, given my friend’s personality, not to solicit pity or evoke grief. Life went on, then life stopped. A man who smoked Kents he kept in the pocket of his shirt, a dark-complected southern Italian, smiling at his kids, an introvert with an extrovert wife, a man stomping around the driveway because his boys had committed to be a paper-route hub for the Philadelphia Bulletin and had not bothered to clean the large blue box the papers were stored in so that it had become leaden with congealed wet comics and dirt he had to pick up after as he decried, “You boys are interested in making money but not earning it.” I would not see that man again.
Such is the hierarchy of affection. In adolescence we feel things in ways we never do again, and the things we feel remain throughout life even though they are held up to the looking glass of adulthood. In middle age I weathered with adult propriety and decorum the death of my father and the loss of a nephew to heroin. You play the son, you play the uncle, you help the women cope, and mostly you don’t give in to the fear so much because there are things to be done. Medical equipment to return to its rental company, Social Security to call so your mother gets her benefits, life insurance companies to whom you must prove a death.
So I was shocked at the level of loss I felt when, on December 23, 2021, sitting at a desk in Brooklyn on a Sunday after dusk, the glare of a halogen bulb in my eyes, the Times reported that Joan Didion had died. Although I was well into my fifties and more inured to grief, the same sense hit me: something inside me was now missing. The world, I felt with great solemnity and sadness, was at a great loss. Life went on, you didn’t think about it, then life stopped.
I first read Didion in the fall of 1982 at New York University, when a friend—and now wife—of my college roommate, said to me, “You’re a writer. You have to read Didion.” She had copies of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album—the small, white Simon & Schuster paperback editions of the time—on the bottom of her shelf, and I sat on the floor of her dorm room one Friday night as she and my roommate were preparing to go out, more interested in what Didion had to say than in the conversation in the room. When I got through those, I bought Play It as It Lays and A Book of Common Prayer—which I finished one cold Sunday afternoon that December on the roof of Loeb Student Center, too engrossed in Didion’s sentences to notice a friend who told me later I took no notice of him as he waved to me from a bus. I told myself that day that if I was going to be a writer, Didion was the kind of writer I wanted to be, though I had no confidence whatsoever that I could write a novel. I followed her career unremittingly after that. I waited for the minute Salvador came out in 1983 in a hardcover edition (I was a comparative lit major, with a concentration in Latin American literature), later Miami and After Henry, and, most importantly, I went to a reading she gave in a Broadway house during those years when her daughter, Quintana, was present with friends, gushing in her Valley-girl capriciousness at how her mother overcame her nervousness. (Didion describes herself in “Why I Write” as being “neurotically inarticulate.”) Her voice cracked at the podium when she recounted the death of her late editor Henry Robbins, who had dropped dead unexpectedly from a heart attack the way my friend’s dad had—only his death occurred not in a suburban New Jersey bedroom but in the Fourteenth Street subway station.
A friend once commented on how, reading a book, you encounter the author’s person as if he or she were present to you, that another’s personality is right there in the pages. I quote Pico Iyer’s observation to my creative writing students all the time that writing should be “an intimate letter written to a stranger.” If I had to say what it is about Didion that has anchored her person within me, why I want that personality next to me through every experience I live, I would say it is because throughout her career she risked that intimacy with us strangers, and she did it with—to quote Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners—“a single-minded regard for the truth.” And here’s the rub: we are in an age now when regard for the truth is pounded into the ground by ideology. Rereading all of Didion, you come to appreciate the value of her sensibility in puncturing holes in the romanticized tabloid culture of the sixties and seventies and beyond—not so much because she called out the malignancy of the time, but because she still calls out the malignancies in front of us without even mentioning them by name.
We are in an age now when regard for the truth is pounded into the ground by ideology.
In my twenties and thirties, when I was young in New York and establishing my life, it was Didion and her husband I wished I’d run into some afternoon on Madison Avenue, out for a cigarette, hoping to introduce myself and ask them to make sense out of a few things for me. Hers was the perennial sensibility of a very smart and assured older sister. The one you admitted your mistakes to because she would not take the high ground of a parent, would maybe identify with you without judging you, and would gently prod you to straighten out your act. Her takedown of Bishop James Pike in The White Album is based not so much on any dogmatic religious certainty as on the absurd banality of Pike’s creed, an American natural religion so subjective yet inchoately and exaggeratedly Emersonian that it would put the theological Disneyland of transcendentalism to shame, along with the behaviour it led to that brought Pike to his macabre end. Didion makes no bones about the inanity of his trip with his lover into the desert with only Coca-Cola to “live the way Jesus lived.” Without going so far as saying it, she demonstrates the failure of any religion based on individual perception and instinct rather than a tradition of belonging or the concreteness of sacramental reality.
But Didion hits hardest when she is at the crossroads of our current culture, both documenting and pitying, say, the morass of Golden Gate Park in the summer of 1967, or the intellectual holes in the women’s movement in 1972.
The friend whose father had died that morning in 1977 had grown close to me at the end of grammar school when we started a band together. I played keyboards, sang backup, and later learned electric bass. We spent many weeknights in his family room, where I played the Story and Clark piano and he sang lead on hits by Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles. I pined for San Francisco in 1968 and wished I had been in Los Angeles at the exciting time of the Manson murders—two aspects of sixties Americana I was able to romanticize to the point of idiocy in boring, distant New Jersey. I wore small, round glasses with sun lenses on an overcast day when we took the Patco train to Philly without telling our parents so we could see John Lennon in person at WFIL radio. It was later, when I had given all that up to change my ambition to writing for Saturday Night Live, that I shed the disaffected, counterculture persona. (You cannot have Italian blood and try to affect being disaffected.) Rereading “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” her piece on the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene, I am touched not by Didion’s incisive criticism but by her warmth. She saw through the disaffectedness and disillusion of the middle-class kids, that they had gone to San Francisco for underlying reasons none of them comprehended: the loss of family bonds and the loss of meaning. Didion writes,
We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. . . . I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language. . . . They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.
Her line “the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language” is something I have pinned to the inner wall of my brain as a teacher and writer. What is writing but the attempt to understand yourself and the world around you through words?
Her insights into the culture of her own time have gained magnitude as the years have passed, the way any prophet’s words come true in time. She had her finger on the pulse of the most pressing aspects of the American psyche, a characteristic of her writing that carried and continues to carry a trenchancy that astounds. While the ideals of feminism, for example, were more inchoate in 1970, Didion saw both its roots and its implications with clarity. A woman like any other woman of the time, she did not need to jump on any ideological bandwagon to claim her own identity and independence, something she did without sacrificing things disparaged at the time, such as her love for her husband, or cooking, or her desire for motherhood, something unrealized in her life until she adopted her daughter. In her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement” (collected in The White Album), she writes, “In fact there was an idea, and the idea was Marxist, and it was precisely to the extent that there was this Marxist idea that the curious anomaly known as the women’s movement would have seemed to have any interest at all. Marxism in this country has ever been an eccentric and quixotic passion.” She ties this little intellectual genealogy into the transcendentalist experiment of American culture, showing that the self-sufficiency of the transcendentalists, their disparagement of history and belonging, dovetails neatly with the Marxist infatuations of the Left: “The notion that, in the absence of a cooperative proletariat, a revolutionary class might simply be invented, made up, ‘named’ and so brought into existence, seemed at once so pragmatic and so visionary, so precisely Emersonian, that it . . . exactly confirmed one’s idea of where nineteenth-century transcendental instincts, crossed with a late reading of Engels and Marx, might lead.”
Didion is perhaps at her most chilling when she addresses the roots of what has come to be the disparagement of traditional marriage, reproduction, and sex. “If the family was the last fortress of capitalism,” she writes, paraphrasing the early feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone, “then let us abolish the family. If the necessity for conventional reproduction of the species seemed unfair to women, then let us transcend, via technology, ‘the very organization of nature,’ the oppression . . . ‘that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.’ I accept the universe, Margaret Fuller had finally allowed: Shulamith Firestone did not.”
But where Didion chips away hardest at the assumptions of the time comes through when she takes down the dogged identity of victimization she saw in how early feminists characterized female sexuality, speaking as if they found the very nature of womanhood’s relation to maleness objectionable:
One is constantly struck, in the accounts of lesbian relationships which appear from time to time in [feminist] movement literature, by the emphasis on the superior “tenderness” of the relationship, the “gentleness” of the sexual connection, as if the participants were wounded birds. . . . The derogation of assertiveness as “machismo” has achieved such currency that one imagines several million women too delicate to deal at any level with an overtly heterosexual man. . . . No woman need have bad dreams after an abortion: she has only been told she should.
Didion would not tolerate the generalization that masculinity is inherently violent or oppressive. One thinks of the current term “toxic masculinity,” which when bandied about seems to imply that the male population must denature itself to accommodate the victimization of women: “This ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own. She was persecuted even by her gynecologist, who made her beg in vain for contraceptives. She particularly needed contraceptives because she was raped on every date, raped by her husband, and raped finally on the abortionist’s table. . . . The half-truths, repeated, authenticated themselves.”
There have been abuses of women throughout time, but that is not what Didion is addressing here. She is addressing, rather, a certain mode of thought. Those words—“half-truths, repeated, authenticated themselves”—recall the equivocations of the witches in Macbeth: utterances that obfuscate and confuse rather than clarify and enlighten. Didion is, in the end, concerned with the supposed overcoming of sexual difference and is unapologetic about building “gender identity” on the fact of its reality: “All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it— . . . that dark involvement with blood and birth and death—could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all.”
The ideas Didion expresses here are reserved for the realm of “conservatives” now. It is difficult to imagine someone of her cultural stature writing these words today. I am nostalgic for the days when a person could write as openly as she did, even if disagreed with, and retain her authority. Even so, despite her skewering of these ideas in 1972, they have so permeated our culture and education system that whole generations of people are unable—so unlike the disaffected counterculture youth of the sixties—to question any longer whether they hold up.
This is why Didion cannot be cancelled: she is simply too loving toward the human beings she writes about to be dismissed as a bigot.
Her ultimate stance, though, is not reactionary but one of pity toward those fallen victim to a particular mentality: “The astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real generative possibilities of adult sexual life, somehow touches beyond words.” This is why Didion cannot be cancelled: she is simply too loving toward the human beings she writes about to be dismissed as a bigot. She disparages not people but types of thinking: patterns that are only one—and sometimes a very passing—part of people. In this way she is in line with Chesterton’s observation that “error is a truth gone mad.”
In 1989 Didion participated in an ad campaign for the Gap, which featured a now famous portrait shot by Annie Leibovitz of her embracing her daughter, Quintana. If I look in my closet, every pair of slacks I own for work, almost every polo—long- and short-sleeved, in addition to the corduroys that are a staple of my fall and winter wardrobe—are from the Gap, including a long-sleeved polo with large, alternating green and dark-blue horizontal stripes, gifted from a friend for a birthday sometime in the nineties. That polo is so much me that I preserve it only for occasional wear, a wardrobe icon with which I will not part.
In the photo Didion and Quintana are wearing similar unassuming Gap staples, looking like any mother-daughter combo: an older woman committed to thought and ideas who wanted style, not glamour, when she paced around her typewriter to iron out a piece, and the younger woman she chose to adopt and love in her need to express her nature as a mother. In another essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she recounts driving home from the hospital in Santa Monica with Quintana in her arms. I think of how in California, or in the United States at large in those days, you could carry an infant home in your arms in the front seat of a car and not be apprehended by police, because any policeman who took notice would assume the man and woman driving the car had the infant’s best interests at heart.
As I write this, I’m thinking of the love and grief I carry for the woman in that Gap ad and the thinking she did for us. About how I can identify with Didion and she would not take me down for my inherent maleness, though I do suspect she would not hesitate to point an astute finger of criticism at my flaws if she saw the need. My sense of loss at her absence is as intense as it has been for anybody in my life. Such is the value of words and the truth they point to if we are open to it.