Rediscovering Joan Didion

Once a decade, or so, it seems, women find their voices, according to mainstream media.

Maybe it’s because more women than ever are elected into the legislature, or in the instance of 2017, women literally speak up, as shown by #metoo. We know we always have our voices and that it’s a continual struggle to be heard in a constructive way. Joan Didion, author, Californian, icon – and the subject of a 2017 Netflix documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” reminds us how powerful our voices are – always and in many ways.

53a55b31d37f991c009d95fe1a2f9e2ebc0d9d57.jpgPerhaps a good way to make sense of the events of the last year and prime ourselves for her nephew’s Netflix documentary is to reexamine Didion’s 1979 collection of essays “The White Album.” In these works, she strives to make sense of the changing, often chaotic existence of women, especially California women, in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the issues she explores remain today, in somewhat different formats. Instead of the Black Panther movement, we see Black Lives Matter. Charles Manson has passed but we have horrifying shootings on an all-too-common basis. Water is still precious, and Jerry Brown is governor again, living in the historic governor’s mansion, an “extremely individual house,” as Didion writes– and not in the mansion the Reagans had built.

And of course, we still have a women’s movement. The myriad sexual harassment allegations of 2017 have underscored the importance of women’s rights. And for many of us, it also has reiterated what we are loath to ask: Is this movement making any progress, really? Didion writes of ‘real’ women, “In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what the culture has done to them than the theorists ever did, and they also tell us, I suspect, that the movement is no longer a cause but a symptom.” We can understand this to mean that we cannot abandon any of our efforts toward equality. However, we must work to understand not only the process but the different ways this process manifests itself for different people.

Didion has established herself as one of our most talented teller of stories, and some say, they are too much ‘her’ stories. But she has a knack for making the personal universal and reminding us that we all question and we all seek to make sense of things. She writes, “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Maybe we will not end sexual harassment in the next six months, but hearing and telling our stories is a huge step in the right direction. And Didion is an ideal proponent of the vital importance of our narratives.


Suzanne Sanders is a volunteer at the Women’s Museum of California and teaches writing at the University of California, San Diego and copyediting at UCSD Extension. While an English professor at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, she developed the college’s women’s and gender studies program and curriculum.

cover photo: JOAN DIDION, CA. 1977. COURTESY OF THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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