Joan Didion’s 1970s notes on a journey south

Cover00Sarah Nicole Prickett at Bookforum:

The West in South and West is an old destination for anyone who's read any Didion. She never wrote the piece on the South, or any piece on the South, yet though she did not write the piece she was assigned on the trial of Patty Hearst, she did eventually write an essay about her, collected in After Henry, and a somewhat personal history of California, calledWhere I Was From. We know she pays attention to snakes and likes gold silk organza. We have been told so often that she no longer has fixed ideas that it's anticlimactic to see how long-ago and odd these fixed ideas are, for instance an idea held by her middle school classmates: "We find Joan Didion as a White House resident / Now being the first woman president." Remembering only the "failures and slights and refusals"of her teenage years, she allows that, in fact, she was always an editor or a president, a member of all the right clubs, a recipient of more prizes and scholarships than her "generally undistinguished academic record" would seem to permit. (She adds proudly and a bit contradictorily, "merit scholarships only: I did not qualify for need.") She believed that she "would always go to teas," because she had not yet seen the termites in the teacups.

There are, as I learned at age twenty from Women in Love, "three cures for ennui: sleep, drink, and travel." By her own account and by the accounts of some who knew her in Los Angeles, Didion drank enough and took enough pills that I would believe she went to rehab when she said, in The White Album, that she had gone to a psych ward. (Dunne said the speed and the benzos as well as the barbiturates were prescribed for migraines, never mind the contraindication, and who knows, but I do think temporary insanity would have seemed less embarrassing to Didion, more appropriate to the period, than dipsomania.

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