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Joan Didion: Girl of the Golden West

On December 23, 2021, influential author and prose stylist, Joan Didion, passed away. Didion left an unforgettable mark on American literature, her captivating writings changing the foundation of American essays and thought. Most of her work, such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), capture what life was like in California during the 20th century.

Didion was born and raised in Sacramento, California, in the 1930s, where her family goes back five generations; her ancestors initially traveled alongside the Donner Party, until the Donner family took an infamous detour. Didion attended UC Berkeley, where she got her degree in English. This is where Didion discovered her style of writing and shaped her interpretations of the world. 

Inspired by the cultural landscape, Didion moved to San Francisco during the ‘60s. While most people moved to the Haight to experiment with drugs and live a “hippie” lifestyle, Didion had hopes of discovering new sparks of motivation for her writing. In the documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Didion explains how she had not worked in months because she “had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act.” During her stay in San Francisco, she often wrote about rock bands, such as Jim Morrison and the Doors, and observed how they lived. When asked about what drew her attention towards the Doors, Didion responded, “Bad boys.”

Didion’s transformative essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” illustrates the dark and romanticized side of the counterculture in Haight-Ashbury during the late ‘60s. Didion begins the essay by highlighting adversities the nation was facing in 1967. She notes that it was a “country of bankruptcy notices,” with children, parents, and families as a whole disappearing. Didion emphasizes times when she had witnessed young children getting high. Young people on hard drugs were common at the time in Haight-Ashbury. For instance, she describes her experience in a psychedelic shop, where she was approached by a teenage boy with visible needle tracks. Additionally, in the documentary Didion talks about when she once walked into an apartment and saw a four-year-old girl sitting on the floor wearing white lipstick. She concluded that the child was tripping on acid, and although this was a horrific encounter, she knew she had struck gold as a journalist. 

During her senior year at UC Berkeley, Didion won a writing competition hosted by Vogue, the Prix de Paris. The winning prize was a job in Paris or New York, which led to Didion working at Vogue in New York as a writer from 1956 to 1964. During her time in New York, she met her future husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. The newly-wed couple decided to move to Los Angeles shortly after their marriage, where they would sell screenplays. Although their time in Los Angeles was supposed to be temporary, the couple stayed there for nearly twenty years before moving back to New York.

Didion was living in Los Angeles during the Manson Family murders in 1969. She claims how “many people [she] knew in Los Angeles believed that the ‘60s …ended at the exact moment when the word of the murders of Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community.” During the Manson Family case, Didion spent time interviewing Linda Kasabian, a former member of the Manson family who partook in the murders. Didion made dinner for Kasabian and her child, acknowledging how odd the normality of the occurrence felt. The late 1960s to early 1970s in Los Angeles is the focal point of her book, The White Album, named after the Beatles’ ninth studio album. In The White Album, Didion captures the dark and eerie quality of this period.

Didion’s writing was some of the 20th century’s best examples of the New Journalism style. She will be remembered as an insightful, truth-telling spectator whose writing captured the essence of California counterculture and illustrated the dark hedonistic underbelly of the ‘60s and ‘70s.