Didion Dearest

by A. Jay Adler on January 12, 2012
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Sometimes posts pretty much write themselves.

In 1975 Caitlin Flanagan’s mother and father, who was then chair of the Berkeley English department, hosted a dinner party for Joan Didion, a Berkeley alum back as a one-month Regents Lecturer. Flanagan, then only 14, was of course expected to attend. She is unforgiving.

From “The Autumn of Joan Didion,” subtitled “The writer’s work is a triumph—and a disaster.”

I don’t like writers. I like Carly Simon and Elton John and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I like getting out of Berkeley altogether, driving through the Caldecott Tunnel and going to the Sunvalley Mall, where they have a food court, a movie theater, birds in cages, a Macy’s, a J. C. Penney, and a Sears. I am trying to make a life very different from the one I’m growing up in, which is filled with intellectuals and writers and passionate ideas about long-dead people. I’m growing up with people who take a dim view of America (many who come to dinner parties at our house hate America), but I love America, a place whose principal values and delights are on display at the Sunvalley Mall.

Flanagan was nonetheless won over, for a time. She had her reasons.

Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…. Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves. “I’ve been reading you since I was an adolescent,” a distinctly non-adolescent female voice said on a call-in show a decade ago, and Didion nodded, comprehending. All of us who love her the most have, in ways literal and otherwise, been reading her since adolescence.

Elsewhere:

Didion is the writer who expressed most eloquently the eternal-girl impulse, the one that follows us into adulthood: the desire to retreat to our room, to close the door, to spend some time alone with our thoughts and our feelings….When we learned that each time she finished a novel she had done so back in her old bedroom at her parents’ house—the one she had painted carnation pink during her first year at college, and that had green vines growing up over all the windows, so that the light was filtered—we all imagined writing novels and finishing them in just that way. That’s who we all wanted to be—someone’s star student and someone else’s star daughter, the ingenue who didn’t have to carry the picture but without whom it would be flat and lusterless. We were the ones who wanted to provide—or be—“colour, verve, improvised treasures in happy but anomalous coexistence.”

Shall we fear being the living material of other people’s fantasies? Perhaps.

Ultimately Joan Didion’s crime—artistic and personal—is the one of which all of us will eventually be convicted: she got old. Her writing got old, her perspective got old, her bag of tricks didn’t work anymore.

That’s the aesthetic complaint. There is the person, too, and the adopted daughter, Quintana, long troubled, now dead, subject of Didion’s latest book, Blue Nights.

Quintana’s parents wrote her into existence in myriad places, and always managed to present themselves as the parents of the century, but off the page she was a deeply troubled person, whose demons ranged from a chronic overuse of alcohol to a variety of mental illnesses, including manic depression. In other words, she should have fit right in, but she didn’t fit right in, because the Didion-Dunnes had one of those insular, deeply interdependent, and mutually reinforcing marriages that children have an impossible time breaking into.

Didion reports that the central demon of Quintana’s life was a fear of abandonment. “How,” she writes plaintively, “could she have ever imagined that we could abandon her?” A cursory reading of the Didion-Dunne canon provides a partial answer. In The White Album, Didion saw fit to quote liberally from her own psychiatric evaluation (as an outpatient she was treated over a lengthy period). The diagnosis included that she had emotionally “alienated herself almost entirely from the world of other human beings.” In thrall to “an underlying psychotic process,” her contact with reality was “obviously and seriously impaired.” This period lasted from 1966 to 1971, a fact that takes on a different complexion when you realize that Quintana was born and adopted in 1966.

Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters—two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who “saw death” in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty—and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was “precisely what I want to be doing,” Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.

That’s the indictment: Didion and Dunne were selfish, self-involved writers, bad parents. It goes on like that until – what’s that? – the regretful, nostalgic close.

It is not the close, not today, anyway.

In 2004, Ms. Magazine published “Back to the Kitchen, Circa 1950, with Caitlin Flanagan,” by Hillary Frey, in which Frey traces Flanagan’s career and how she

quickly made her name in The Atlantic as a contrarian critic of modern domestic life.

There was one essay in particular: “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement: Dispatches from the nanny wars.”

In that essay, two years in the works, Flanagan argued that “liberated,” upper-middle-class women have built their careers on the backs of the poor immigrant women who provide so much in-home child care in this country.

In her estimation, estimation, while moms in designer suits run off to office jobs that fuel their feminist-inspired narcissism, tiny loved ones are being raised by women from far-flung places, who have come to America only to pull down less than minimum wage from their stingy female employers, toil without job security or pensions and suffer various forms of emotional and physical abuse at their hands as well.

Not long after this polemic appeared, Flanagan openly declared her pet peeves to The New York Observer: “feminism and homophobia.”

Many critics of Flanagan’s article saw the concern for immigrant nannies as a pretext for an attack on feminism.

There was no way to see an article containing the statement “when a mother works, something is lost” as anything but an attack on working mothers. Scores of moms took notice.

As The Observer reported, The Atlantic received “an extraordinary number of letters” in response to the piece. To be sure, Flanagan’s piece contained a chilling, vindictive and scornful message: Women of a certain class who choose to work are selfish, overextended whiners who care more about their fragile egos than their children, whose formative years are witnessed not by their mothers, but by their paid-for surrogates.

Flanagan is a self-described anti-feminist, one who “was virtuously willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her children,” so it’s not surprising to read her beating up on professional working moms. In her first piece for The New Yorker, she described feeling deserted by her own Feminist Mystique-reading mother at age 12 when her mom took it upon herself to find gainful employment outside the home.

“I was miserable,” writes Flanagan. “To my thinking, my mother’s change of heart constituted child abandonment, plain and simple.”

Despite the fact that “almost as soon as my mother began working, she cheered up,” Flanagan could only see that she’d been “dumped by Mom.”

But wait … Isn’t Flanagan a working mom? Apparently, she doesn’t think so.

In an interview posted on The Atlantic’s website about her “nanny wars” piece, Flanagan mentioned a conversation about evening business meetings she’d had with a working mother — “one with a real job, not a writer!” she said.

The Atlantic website tells us of Flanagan, further, that she

is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls.

I don’t know. You put it all together.

AJA

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