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  • Rebecca Lerner

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Ruminations on The White Album by Joan Didion


Didion starts the collection of essay The White Album with a dramatic flair: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." When I first read that, I read it romantically, that it meant that we need to tell stories, that our very beings are wrapped up in the desires of story-telling.

I was wrong.


Didion is saying that in order to survive and maintain any sanity, we need to imbue narrative structure onto our lives. Otherwise, the whole thing falls apart.


During the end of the sixties, Didion was winning awards, writing incredible novels and essays and hanging out with Jim Morrison. But she wasn't in a good place. She looks back at a stay in a psychiatric institution, putting the full report in the book, which details her bizarre responses and defense mechanisms. She responds to the report, saying "By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968."


The thread of The White Album, more than anything, is one of reflection. Of accepting that the time was cuckoo — she interviewed a Manson girl, almost got divorced, became obsessed with the Hoover Dam. She lived through it, got through the days and then ascribed meaning to it. There isn't sense in anything until it's written down.


We like to pretend we know how the stories end, but we don't. We can only stay where we are, try to remain clear-headed. Do something for our nerves. (Side note: I do love Didion's euphemism of "having bad nerves" rather than just being plain old anxious and depressed like everyone else.)

But as much as The White Album is about Didion and how to survive with just a narrative arc in your pocket, it's also about how a landscape can change you. Didion loves to play tourist — in her hometown of Sacramento, in the islands of Hawaii, in Bogota. She is somehow both detached and highly invested in her settings, because there's a sense that she doesn't have to stay there any longer than she wants to.


In her 1979 review of The White Album, Michiko Kakutani posits, "California belongs to Joan Didion." In the same way that Didion proclaimed that Kilimanjero belongs to Ernest Hemingway and Oxford, Mississippi belongs to William Faulkner. Because they've claimed it the hardest and been the most obsessive about it, it is then theirs.


It feels obvious and cliché but I'll say it anyway — just because you love something doesn't make it yours.


But California does belong to Joan Didion, in a sense. She took the essence of her California and infused it into herself and her writing. I think we rarely "own" anyone or anything, but we often have symbiotic relationships of influence with the people we're around and the places we inhabit. These relationships are where we are allowed to constantly iterate upon our identities, taking parts of people and places, imbibing them thoroughly and creating something entirely transformed.

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