"We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live"

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Title: "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live" Joan Didion, Feminisms, and The Women's Liberation Movement
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Ignacio, Gracelena Sylvana
Publisher: New College of Florida
Place of Publication: Sarasota, Fla.
Creation Date: 2012
Publication Date: 2012


Subjects / Keywords: Joan Didion
Women's Liberation Movement
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
born-digital   ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation


Abstract: This thesis explores the relationship between several works by novelist, essayist, journalist, screenwriter, and memoirist Joan Didion and some prominent feminist literature. I argue that even though Didion would most likely not consider herself a feminist, and at times condemns aspects of the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s, her works of fiction and nonfiction resonate with feminist discourse of her time. Didion most notably highlights problems of gender roles and power in her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977), and engages issues foregrounded in the work of Adrienne Rich. I examine how several of Didion's woman-centered essays, including "Sentimental Journeys" (1990), "The Women's Movement" (1972), "Doris Lessing" (1971), and "Georgia O'Keeffe" (1976), relate to one another and to influential feminist texts and ideas. In addition, this thesis explores the roles that women, specifically Didion, have played in New Journalism and analyzes how personal voice and colloquial language are prominent in both Didion's work and literary critic Jane Tompkins's essay "Me and My Shadow" (1987), which investigates the role of personal and traditionally academic language within scholarly writing.
Statement of Responsibility: by Gracelena Sylvana Ignacio
Thesis: Thesis (B.A.) -- New College of Florida, 2012
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The New College of Florida, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Local: Faculty Sponsor: Dimino, Andrea

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Source Institution: New College of Florida
Holding Location: New College of Florida
Rights Management: Applicable rights reserved.
Classification: local - S.T. 2012 I2
System ID: NCFE004602:00001

Permanent Link:

Material Information

Title: "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live" Joan Didion, Feminisms, and The Women's Liberation Movement
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Ignacio, Gracelena Sylvana
Publisher: New College of Florida
Place of Publication: Sarasota, Fla.
Creation Date: 2012
Publication Date: 2012


Subjects / Keywords: Joan Didion
Women's Liberation Movement
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
born-digital   ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation


Abstract: This thesis explores the relationship between several works by novelist, essayist, journalist, screenwriter, and memoirist Joan Didion and some prominent feminist literature. I argue that even though Didion would most likely not consider herself a feminist, and at times condemns aspects of the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s, her works of fiction and nonfiction resonate with feminist discourse of her time. Didion most notably highlights problems of gender roles and power in her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977), and engages issues foregrounded in the work of Adrienne Rich. I examine how several of Didion's woman-centered essays, including "Sentimental Journeys" (1990), "The Women's Movement" (1972), "Doris Lessing" (1971), and "Georgia O'Keeffe" (1976), relate to one another and to influential feminist texts and ideas. In addition, this thesis explores the roles that women, specifically Didion, have played in New Journalism and analyzes how personal voice and colloquial language are prominent in both Didion's work and literary critic Jane Tompkins's essay "Me and My Shadow" (1987), which investigates the role of personal and traditionally academic language within scholarly writing.
Statement of Responsibility: by Gracelena Sylvana Ignacio
Thesis: Thesis (B.A.) -- New College of Florida, 2012
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The New College of Florida, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Local: Faculty Sponsor: Dimino, Andrea

Record Information

Source Institution: New College of Florida
Holding Location: New College of Florida
Rights Management: Applicable rights reserved.
Classification: local - S.T. 2012 I2
System ID: NCFE004602:00001

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"WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN ORDER TO LIVE": JOAN DIDION, FEMINISMS, AND THE WOMEN'S LIBERATION MOVEMENT BY GRACELENA SYLVANA IGNACIO A Thesis Submitted to the Division of Humanities New College of Florida In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Bachelor of Arts Under the Sponsorship of Professor Andrea Dimino Sarasota, Florida May, 2012


This thesis is dedicated to my mother, who provided the opportunity. ii


Acknowledgements I would like to thank Juanita Ignacio for sacrificing time, sleep, and money to help me reach this point, the rest of my family for putting up with me, my friends for keeping me motivated, entertained, and supported especially Isobel Aitken for listening to me, Ilene Gillispie for taking care of me, and Chris Mangels for being there six years and counting. I would also like to thank Matt Anderson for hanging out with me in spite of/because of all of the weird things I do. Finally, I would like to thank the professors who guided me through this challenge, Andrea Dimino, Maria Vesperi, and Miriam Wallace. iii


Table of Contents Abstract ....... v Introduction : Why Joan Didion?............................................. 6 Chapter I : "We all have the same dreams": A Book of Common Prayer and works by Adrienne Rich................................................................................... 22 Chapter II : "Some women fight and others do not": Didion's nonfiction essays and their relation to feminist discourse.................................................................................... 44 Chapter III : Golden silk curtains in afternoon thunderstorms: Didion's New Journalism and personal language in Jane Tompkins's "Me and My Shadow".................................. 60 Conclusion : Looking back and moving forward ............................................................. 79 Works Cited.............................. 86 Bibliography...................................................................................................................... 91 iv


"WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN ORDER TO LIVE": JOAN DIDION, FEMINISMS, AND THE WOMEN'S LIBERATION MOVEMENT Gracelena Ignacio New College of Florida, 2012 ABSTRACT This thesis explores the relationship between several works by novelist, essayist, journalist, screenwriter, and memoirist Joan Didion and some prominent feminist literature. I argue that even though Didion would most likely not consider herself a feminist, and at times condemns aspects of the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s, her works of fiction and nonfiction resonate with feminist discourse of her time. Didion most notably highlights problems of gender roles and power in her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977) and engages issues foregrounded in the work of Adrienne Rich. I examine how several of Didion's woman-centered essays, including "Sentimental Journeys" (1990), "The Women's Movement" (1972), "Doris Lessing" (1971), and "Georgia O'Keeffe" (1976), relate to one another and to influential feminist texts and ideas. In addition, this thesis explores the roles that women, specifically Didion, have played in New Journalism and analyzes how personal voice and colloquial language are prominent in both Didion's work and literary critic Jane Tompkins's essay "Me and My Shadow" (1987), which investigates the role of personal and traditionally academic language within scholarly writing. Andrea Dimino Division of Humanities v


Introduction: Why Joan Didion? Because our work is never done and underpaid or unpaid or boring or repetitious and we're the first to get the sack and what we look like is more important than what we do and if we get raped it's our fault and if we get bashed we must have provoked it and if we raise our voices we're nagging bitches and if we enjoy sex we're nymphos and if we don't we're frigid and if we love women it's because we can't get a "real" man and if we ask our doctors many questions we're neurotic and/or pushy and if we expect community care for children we're selfish and if we stand up for our rights we're aggressive and "unfeminine" and if we don't we're typical weak females and if we want to get married we're out to trap a man and if we don't we're unnatural and BECAUSE we still can't get an adequate, safe contraceptive but men can walk on the moon and if we can't cope or don't want a pregnancy we're made to feel guilty about abortion and for lots and lots of other reasons we are here and have marched thousands strong. (Stevens, 46, 51) Written for the front page of the second International Women's Day broadsheet in 1975 If feminisms focus on the economic, physical, political, psychological, and social effects of patriarchal oppression as voiced in the above quote, how do readers reconcile writing of the time with these concerns? In a 1978 interview with Linda Kuehl for The Paris Review Joan Didion describes what she finds as the disadvantages of being a woman writer: When I was starting to writein the late fifties, early sixtiesthere was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and he could play that role and do whatever he wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels had no particular role. Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids. Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles. Flannery O'Connor, of course. Novels by women tended to be described, even by their publishers, as 6


sensitive. I'm not sure this is so true anymore, but it certainly was at the time, and I didn't much like it. However, in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (2007), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe how, during the 1950s and 1960s, writers such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton "insisted in different ways, on defying the values of maturity, adjustment, and normalcy" (559). In addition, "Southern Gothic" writers including Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Conner "constructed grotesque fantasies to reveal the immaturity, maladjustment, and perversity endemic to apparently ordinary small-town communities" (559). Gilbert and Gubar do not include information that labels these women writers as "sensitive," but they do explain how they wrote in a rapidly changing world. The environment in which Didion began writing, where men had the majority of access to roles as writers, is one area that saw change and influenced the women writers of the following decades to create works that portrayed their oppression. In her 2001 introduction to Elizabeth Hardwick's Seduction and Betrayal (1970), Didion voices her strong admiration for Hardwick's work: 1 Elizabeth Hardwick is the only writer I have ever read whose perceptions of what it means to be a woman and a writer seems in every way authentic, revelatory, entirely original and yet acutely recognizable. She seems to have seen early on that the genteel provincial tradition of "lady" novelists and essayists served mainly to flatter men, that there would be certain wrenching contradictions between growing up female and making 7 1 Hardwick examines the works and lives of the Bront‘ sisters, Henrik Isben, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Dorthy Wordsworth, and Jane Carlyle.


any kind of sustained commitment to write. She understood at the bone the willful transgression implicit in the literary enterpriseknew that to express oneself was to expose oneself. (xi) Didion uses words and phrases such as "moral courage," "intuition," "one's own experience in the world," "strength," "thrilling," "domestic," "subversively matter-offact," "stunning," "bold," "aggressive," "luminous," and redemptive to describe Hardwick's writing and Hardwick as an author (xi-xii, xiv). But Hardwick's most impressive feat, described by Didion, may be her understanding of distinctions: The New York Times complained that if [ Seduction and Betrayal ] had a fault, it was that its author failed to make sufficient distinctions between the real and the literary.' That there are no such distinctions to be made, that the women we invent have changed the course of our lives as surely as the women we are, is in many ways the point of this passionate book" (xiv). The qualities that Didion praises in Hardwick's critical work are also ones that she seems to strive for in her own writing and searches for in other authors and artists. To be bold and aggressive and to have moral courage are not only characteristics Didion admires, but also qualities that are often important to feminist writers and activist. Didion not only writes scenes that bring patriarchy into question, but also produces works that extend across boundaries of genre. Her fiction and nonfiction flow from novel to screenplay, from essay to journalism and memoir. Writing techniques in her fiction merge with her nonfiction to create a distinctive voice. Didion's work at Vogue from 1956 to 1963 and her articles in many publications including The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, allowed her to create a style 8


that is individual to the point of clichŽ. 2 In her novels, specifically her first, Run River (1963), and her second, Play It As It Lays (1970), readers can see a clear evolution of style. Didion's method harnesses both written word and the lack of it. In Didion's Run River, she formats her pages in a traditional way, with full lines and no gaps The novel portrays the California pioneer mentality and a family destroyed by the promise they believed the land held. However, Play It As It Lays not only harnesses the negative space technique with half-filled pages surrounded by looming white margins, but also mirrors it within the characters with unspoken dialogue and the characters' word choices. Words and phrases such as "nothing applies," "no histories," "blank," "nothing matters," and "she felt nothing," are frequently used by and about Maria, the novel's protagonist. Some of the phrases, including "nothing applies," become a hollow refrain throughout the novel. In Style as Argument, Chris Anderson describes Didion's sentences in Play It As It Lays as "unadorned and straightforward, connected by blank space rather than conjunctions": Didion uses more obvious sections of blank space to separate deliberately fragmentary and unrelated scenes, portraits, dialogues, and stories, creating a verbal collage. As she explains in "Why I Write," white space is also the structuring principle of her second novel, Play It As It Lays She wanted to write a book, she says, "in which anything that 9 2 In "Autumn of Joan Didion," Caitlin Flanagan recounts a 2006 panel discussion on Didion's Year of Magical Thinking. One of the critics, Katie Roiphe, defended Didion's canon "with the weirdest praise ever (admitting of her heroine that her words are clichŽsher sentences and her rhythms and her tics are clichŽs because we know them so well')" (95).


happened would happen off the page, a white' book to which the reader would bring his or her own bad dreams." (7, 137) The idea of blank space as an area for bad dreams is also a part of Isak Dinesen's "The Blank Page" (1975), which tells the story of a Portuguese tradition in which noble families hung their daughters' wedding night sheets out the window to prove to the world that they were virgins. Later, squares of the sheets were cut out, framed, and presented in the main wing of a convent. Every frame, except for one, displays a name and a stain. The blank white sheet has no name engraved into its frame and it is the one to which princesses, queens, wives, mothers, playmates, bridesmaids, maids-of-honor, old and young nuns, and the Mother Abbess pay most attention. In Play It As It Lays, the scenes dominated by blank space and words are the ones which draw me in the most. This style is similarly echoed in Didion's following fictional work, but not usually to the extent of Play It As It Lays In her later work, she finds a medium between the packed pages of Run River and the white pages of Play It As It Lays where the pages are not quite as blank, but unspoken dialogue and hollow refrains are still present. In Strategies of Reticence, Janis P. Stout problematically characterizes silence in Didion's work as distinctly female: Didion's silences and curtailments speak out of a specifically female quality of experience and with particular reference to femaleness. Discussions of her work that stress their nongendered philosophical or journalistic import deny the focused strength of her concern with women's being-in-the-world, just as emphasis on her expressed misgivings about 10


active feminism blur the extent to which her fiction exposes the depersonalization that feminists have attempted to redress. (149-50) In this quote, Stout seems to exclude writers who do not identify as female, but who also use silence in their work. However, it is important to recognize Didion's focus on "women's being-in-the-world." While Didion's political positions are usually considered fairly conservative, the relationship between her personal stances and her writing is difficult to unravel. 3 She is often not considered a feminist and would most likely not label herself as such, but does that mean that her writing cannot be considered in conversation with feminist discourse of her time? Much of this thesis strives to examine connections between the two. The complexities woven throughout Didion's work are not ones that can easily be restricted to dichotomies such as feminist/antifeminist or liberal/ conservative. In Beginning Theory, Peter Barry describes how feminist literary criticism is the "direct product of the women's movement'": This movement was, in important ways, literary from the start, in the sense that it realised the significance of the images of women promulgated by literature, and saw it as vital to combat them and question their authority and their coherence. In this sense the women's movement has always been 11 3 In an article in The Harvard Crimson, which includes an interview with Didion, Crimson staff writer J. Hale Russell describes the evolution of Didion's personal political affiliations: Raised as a "conservative California Republican," Didion describes in the foreword [of Political Fictions (2001)] how she voted in 1964 for Barry Goldwater, who represented the "keep out of our lives" view of limited government. Eventually, she grew disillusioned with the Republicans, becoming the first registered Democrat in her family. This had less to do with substantive disagreements than with her growing sense of alienation with the Republican party, and Didion began to question the existence of deep differences between America's two parties.


crucially concerned with books and literature, so that feminist criticism should not be seen as an off-shoot or a spin-off from feminism which is remote from the ultimate aims of the movement, but as one of its most practical ways of influencing everyday conduct and attitudes. (116-17) Many feminist theories and groups oppose one another. Because of this, there is no single all-encompassing "feminism," but rather many feminisms that are in constant dialogue with one another. Though Didion does not describe herself as a feminist and has criticized aspects of the women's movement of the 1970s, several of her female characters, including protagonists Grace and Charlotte in Didion's A Book of Common Prayer (1977), personify issues that align with many definitions of feminism from the past century. In 1913 author and critic Rebecca West describes feminists as those who express sentiments that differentiate them from doormats and prostitutes (219). In The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan describes "the problem that has no name," or the widespread unhappiness of women, predominantly housewives, during the 1950s and 1960s. Poet Adrienne Rich's collection, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose (1976) includes her essay "Conditions for Work," which states: "feminism means finally that we renounce our obedience to the fathers and recognize that the world they have described is not the whole world. Feminism implies that we recognize fully the inadequacy for us, the distortion, of male-created ideologies, and that we proceed to think, and act, out of that recognition" (207). In No Turning Back (2002) U.S. historian Estelle Freedman defines feminism as "a belief that although women and men are 12


inherently of equal worth, most societies privilege men as a group. As a result, social movements are necessary to achieve political equality between women and men, with the understanding that gender always intersects with other social hierarchies" (7). This thesis cannot say whether or not Didion personally agrees with each of these definitions, but aspects of each of them are reflected in her work through her characters and the systems of oppression that affect them. This thesis includes sections from several feminist works, a large majority of which draw from what is often called "second-wave feminism," which was influential from the 1970s in the United States. According to the Encyclopdia Britannica secondwave feminism "touched on every area of women's experienceincluding family, sexuality, and work." Didion's female protagonists are for the most part white, upperclass, educated, and heterosexual. In her nonfiction, she does not include many women of color. The following chapters thus do not primarily focus on women of color, women of the third world, women of lower economic classes, or lesbians. Another limitation in Didion's work is that, while there are some short scenes that offer glimpses into the lives of homosexual characters in Didion's fiction, she does not offer images of individuals who operate outside of the sexual dichotomy. The terms used to describe Didion's work in relation to the Women's Liberation Movement of the time also face some contention. To this day, academics and activists discuss what exactly it means to be a feminist. In addition, the term "patriarchy" has evolved into its now-common, power-related use. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term has had several definitions since the late sixteenth century, 13


including: "the residence of a patriarch; the official staff of a patriarch," with examples from 1622 and 1954, "the position or office of patriarch; the jurisdiction of a patriarch," with examples from 1641 and 1657, and "a form of social organization in which the father or oldest male is the head of the family, and descent and relationship are reckoned through the male line; government or rule by a man or men," with examples ranging from 1626 through 1992. Only after the 1970s are there examples of patriarchy with an alternative meaning: "the predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society, with cultural values and norms being seen as favouring men. Freq. with pejorative connotation." The first example given by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1970, but they continue through 2002: "Miss Kate Millett, the leading American liberationist theoretician, [who] identifies the underlying cause of feminine subjection as the principle of patriarchythe most pervasive ideology of our culture .'" This latter definition of patriarchy is often used throughout second-wave and contemporary feminist writing to examine how men and male-dominated institutions oppress women in the political, social, economic, and cultural spheres. While the passing of family title and property down the male line is one aspect of the feminist conception of patriarchy, it is not as all-encompassing as the later definition. There is a large divide within feminist discourse over which approaches to gender-related issues are best or most effective. There are many theories, but it is often more challenging to come across a work that outlines a plan of action. Often essays are dedicated to disproving previous ideas, not working to see how they can fit together with new ones. It does not seem possible for one work to have all of the answers, to explain 14


every point of view, to resolve the divide between academic and activist work, and to outline solutions that would solve every gender-related problem. Feminist theory is a constant dialogue that evolves with every new addition. While there is often heated contention between different waves and approaches, they are each needed in combination with one another in order for readers to reach a better understanding of oppression. This thesis includes a range of approaches to better analyze the varying genres of Didion's work. I use formalism to provide a close reading of her texts and gender-oriented literary criticism to support the overarching parallels between Didion's work and feminist writing of her time. In addition, I look to new historicism to present connections between the actions in Didion's fiction and historical events from the second half of the twentieth century. Finally I use some aspects of reader-response theory when discussing audiences' reactions to her thoughts on the Women's Liberation Movement and to details in her nonfiction. Because Didion's work is multi-genre, it goes beyond literature to provide a multidisciplinary glimpse into the time-period. While some contemporary literary theory tends to avoid the author's intention, the following chapters often mention Didion as author, especially when discussing her personal, nonfiction essays such as "On Keeping A Notebook" (1966). Although some literary criticism dismisses authorial intent, other approaches find value in the author's goals. For example, psychoanalytic criticism finds meaning in authorial biography and intent. In these essays, as well as in her memoirs, Didion incorporates herself as a kind of character. In her nonfiction, she often references her previous work and explains why she decided to write in a certain manner. Didion as author merges with "Didion" the 15


character, who she creates in her image and who is the one connected with the personal stories and feelings revealed in her writing. This thesis includes comments on the author's intent and views of her own writing because of the number of personal aspects, from marriage to migraines, discussed within her work. In my own experience reading Didion, there are some contexts where including her autobiographical statements are helpful. At times, she looks back at her own writing and clarifies what she believes to be her characters' motivations and feelings. Though this may not always align with what I get from the text as a reader, I find it valuable to learn the author's retrospective opinion of her own work and how it has changed over the years. In addition to the nonfiction discussed above, many of her fictional works can be placed among "consciousness-raising" literature. During the 1970s and later, women throughout the United States would meet in small groups to voice personal experiences and to discuss broader, systematic injustices directed toward women. This personal focus is also present in later feminist work about the experiences of women of color and women around the globe. For Lisa Maria Hogeland, consciousness-raising is reflected in such novels as Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City (1969) and Didion's Play It As It Lays, because of their social, political, and specifically gender-related analyses. In her work Feminism and Its Fictions, she describes the role of works such as Didion's in the Women's Liberation Movement: Over the course of the decade, the argument for fiction by and about women as potentially serving the cause of feminism became transformed in some circles into an argument that fiction by and about women was 16


feminist by definition. Joan Didion, for example, was widely regarded in the popular press as a feminist novelist, despite her attack on Women's Liberation in the New York Times Book Review in 1972, and despite Catherine R. Stimpson's analysis of the anti-feminism of her work in Ms. in 1973; by 1977, Didion was reclaimed as a feminist writer in Ms. That reclamation was based on a vision of feminism that the magazine (and much of the Movement) developed over the course of the decade: the belief that all women are feminists, and a corollary belief that all women-authored or women-centered fiction has a necessary relationship to feminism. (xvi) While this thesis does not attempt to argue that all women are feminists, it does support the claim that woman-authored and woman-centered fictions have important relationships with feminisms. "It is obvious that not all literary criticism written by women is feminist; that not all books about women writers are feminist; that feminist writing need not be by women, and that feminist criticism is not directed exclusively at a female readership" (Barry 134). For a woman to be a feminist implies that she is in some way aware of male-dominated oppression and examines it critically. However, womanauthored and woman-centered fiction can be supportive by portraying the social, political, and economic roles in which women have been placed. Though I do not have space to examine a large number of feminist writers of the 1970s, I do aim to show how Didion's work resonates with writing of that decade and later through similar elements such as voice and theme. As woman-authored and 17


sometimes woman-centered work, her writing actively participates in a dialogue with other woman-centered publications of the era. Prominent authors such as Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldœa, and Alice Walker wrote novels, poems, and essays that are gender-oriented and intersect with other issues of oppression, including sexuality, race, and ethnicity. In addition, Didion's ability to cross genres from fiction, to essay, to journalism broadens the range of her readership and creates a more inclusive consciousness-raising environment for readers, regardless of gender. There is a continuum in her writing and the works I have chosen, including "Georgia O'Keeffe" (1976) and A Book of Common Prayer (1977), fall to the more gender-oriented side of the spectrum. Other works, such as Miami (1987) and Salvador (1983), focus more heavily on the government politics of each area. The following selections of Didion's work were chosen to give readers a broad understanding of her writing, which spans almost fifty years. In the first chapter, I look at Didion's fiction, specifically her novel A Book of Common Prayer ; I discuss its relation to gender roles and power dynamics, and how they affect her characters Charlotte Douglas and Grace Strasser-Mendana In addition, I examine A Book of Common Prayer in relation to works by Adrienne Rich, including her essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980), which develops her idea of the "lesbian continuum": If we consider the possibility that all women exist on a lesbian continuum, we can see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as 18


lesbian or not. It allows us to connect aspects of woman-identification as diverse as the impudent, intimate girl-friendships of eight-or nineyear olds and the banding together of those women of the twelfth and fifteenth centuries known as Beguines (29) In addition to Rich's lesbian continuum, I examine her nonfiction book Of Woman Born (1976) which analyzes motherhood as experience and institution and her essay, "Toward A Woman-Centered University" (1979), which gives an example of her view of a woman-centered life. We find examples of each of these topics throughout Didion's fiction, but most significantly in A Book of Common Prayer. In the second chapter, I look to Didion's nonfiction and its relation to the Women's Liberation Movement, mostly during the 1970s. Specifically, I examine Didion's essays "Sentimental Journeys" (1990), "The Women's Movement" (1972), "Doris Lessing" (1971), and "Georgia O'Keeffe" (1976). Each of these essays points toward a prominent and/or creative female figure or toward an event that activists in the Women's Liberation Movement would discuss using a feminist perspective. "Sentimental Journeys" combines both of these topics through examining the figure of the murdered Central Park jogger and probing the societal forces surrounding the attack. Furthermore, Didion's essays bring forth questions of how woman-centered writing by a female author intertwines with feminist works and ideas. However, Didion is not only a womancentered writer, and her work evolves over the course of her career to focus more on governmental politics in the United States and abroad, as well as on the personal tragedies of her husband's and daughter's deaths. 19


Finally, in my third chapter I briefly examine the trend toward New Journalism, a style popular in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, and women's involvement in what is often considered to be exemplary work in the field. In Women in American Journalism: A New History, Jan Whitt describes Didion as a well-known figure who, although not omitted from "standard historical accounts," is sometimes disregarded because she does not fit the traditional definition of a "hard" news reporter. Didion deals with the essence of hard newsbreaking coverage of significant world eventsin her political and war coverage, but she employs literary techniques such as description, narration, and dialogue, and experiments with voice, chronology, and vantage point. (2-3) Didion is not disregarded in the field of New Journalism. She is one of the few women who make the cut into most books on this topic and her New Journalism is distinctive in many ways. For example, in "The Autumn of Joan Didion," Caitlin Flanagan describes the writer as demonstrating a different kind of attention to detail compared to the most famous male New Journalists such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson: "There can't be a novelist who writes with more authority about clothes. If you are going to pay serious attention to womento their sense of themselves, their position (social, political, economic), their assumptions about the face they are presenting to their world, it helps a good deal if you know exactly what they are wearing" (101). Later in the third chapter, I compare Didion's personal and "I"-driven work, found in her nonfiction from the 1960s 20


through 2000s, with Jane Tompkins's important essay "Me and My Shadow" (1987), which examines the struggle between personal and traditionally academic language within scholarly writing. While I originally began reading Didion for her investigative journalism, I continued to pursue her writing because of her personal essays. Reading them feels true to life and true to the details and contradictions that come with it. Her writing is both detailed and sparse, emotional and distant, direct and vague. At times, like a journalist, she gives her readers all of the information she has collected and lets them draw their own conclusions. But at other times, she takes her readers on a journey through every poignant detail of her past and anxiety over her future. While Didion provides an extensive collection of writing to choose from, I picked pieces that stood out in my mind as examples that are both relevant to a contemporary reader and important when discussing the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s. 21


Chapter I: "We all have the same dreams": A Book of Common Prayer and works by Adrienne Rich In "Narrating Place: Geography and Anxiety in Joan Didion's The White Album, Mattias BolkŽus Blom gives a sweeping description of Didion's fiction and protagonists: Didion, the novelist, has been called a one-plot pony, a reputation that is arguably belied by her later production. Her protagonists are often women in a state of emotional and psychological disintegration, alienated from society and displaced in time. It can be argued that Didion uses fragmented visions of culture to investigate the illusions of economic and emotional stability in American society, something which is reinforced by the thematic scope of her essays. (164) All of Didion's fiction features a female character who often has difficulty sustaining relationships with other characters, though each of the plots differs in location, circumstance, and the primary character's motivation. In Strategies of Reticence, Janis P. Stout describes Didion's women as "oppressed by their sexuality": "Raised on a myth of woman as romantic flame, a myth stressing allure and danger, but also on a set of conflicting myths emphasizing chastity and an idealization of marriage and mother, they find themselves without any satisfying role that can unify these conflicting presumptions and provide an outlet for their sense of autonomy" (150). While describing Didion as a "one-plot pony" is inexact, her fiction often presents similar themes of conflicting roles internal to women and power struggles in an often openly patriarchal society. In Didion's Play It As It Lays (1970) protagonist Maria Wyeth describes, from a 22


neuropsychiatric institute, her emotional deterioration, which culminates in her allowing her friend BZ to consume a lethal dose of sedative barbiturates while she lies by his side. The first chapter, titled "Maria," is written from her perspective in the facility: To look for "reasons" is besides the point. But because the pursuit of reasons is their business here, they ask me questions. Maria, yes or no: I see a cock in this inkblot. Maria, yes or no: A large number of people are guilty of bad sexual conduct, I believe my sins are unpardonable, I have been disappointed in love. How could I answer? How could it apply? NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. (3-4) In Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted (1996), Elena McMahon does not emotionally and psychologically decline as overtly as Maria, but is alienated from society because of the role she takes on as an arms dealer for the U.S. government in Central America. After Elena learns of her father's death, she realizes that her life is intertwined in a conspiracy and that she is the scapegoat. Also in Didion's Democracy (1984), Inez Victorthe wife of a senator and aspiring presidential candidatestruggles with her disdain for her current life and her love for CIA agent and war profiteer Jack Lovett, who dies finding Inez's daughter Jesse after she runs away to Saigon near the end of the Vietnam War. While each of these novels raises interesting questions of gender, power, war and colonialism, Didion's A Book of Common Prayer (1977) features two female characters who raise intriguing questions not only throughout the telling of their stories, but also 23


through their interactions with one another. 4 Didion's female characters are often both wards dependent on their husbands and sexual beings who leave relationships behind in pursuit of an ambiguous redemption from their past. We find a fitting example of this conflict in Didion's A Book of Common Prayer which portrays one of the protagonists, Charlotte Douglas, as both "reflexively seductive" and childlike (40). She acts as a wife to her husbands, cancer-ridden Warren and morally questionable Leonard; as a mother to Marin and to the premature baby she names after herself; as a biological daughter to her deceased parents who have lived in the American West; and sometimes as a surrogate "daughter" to the novel's narrator, Grace Strasser-Mendana, the wealthy American widow of a former leader of Didion's fictional equatorial island, Boca Grande. In addition, Charlotte serves as a lover or sexual object to both her husbands, to Grace's brother-inlaw Victor, and to Grace's son Gerardo. These conflicting roles pull her in several directions at once, leaving her vulnerable and arguably unstable. 5 The setting of the novel, Boca Grande, is unstable in itself. The politics of the country are based around the men of the Strasser-Mendana family surreptitiously fighting for the country's influential Minister of Defense position and using the continuous cycle 24 4 Much of the literary criticism on A Book of Common Prayer focuses on sexuality, place, and history. Ellen Friedman's Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations features multiples essays that discuss Didion's A Book of Common Prayer. One such essay, Jennifer Bray's "Points West, Then and Now: The Fiction of Joan Didion," describes Didion's connection to the historical West: "The belief that the course of American historyand arguably of universal historyis revealed in the frontier experience informs all of Didion's work, but only in A Book of Common Prayer is it given such prominence and such an eloquent voice" (54). Brady also describes the novel as one that "extends and further clarifies the implications of her concern with America's failing dream of redemptive beginnings" (54). 5 In addition to Brady's essay, Friedman's collections includes Thomas Mallon's essay "The Limits of History in the Novels of Joan Didion," which highlights Charlotte's presence in the novel: "Politics, however, is not what is memorable about this novel; Charlotte Douglas is. Indeed, she is better and larger than the novel she inhabits, and the finest creation in Joan Didion's fiction so far" (146). Mallon fails to mention how important Grace is to the story. She both creates the narrative and the character of Charlotte. Similar to feminist theory, it does not seem necessary to say which or who is more important, but rather to remember that they are working together.


of leftists rebellions to cover their tracks. Grace marries into this life and Charlotte travels to it and then stays in Boca Grande. Much of Didion's work focuses on place, including her hometown of Sacramento, California, the West, and her current home in New York City. Her intertextual theme of place pops up in several areas throughout A Book of Common Prayer, from the bizarre fictional setting of Boca Grande to Charlotte's daughter's name Marin, possibly referring to the California county. The setting of Boca Grande is also very similar to the El Salvador described in Didion's later nonfiction work Salvador (1983). In Through the Window, Out the Door Janis P. Stout describes several parallel points between the two works: there are strong connections between Didion's fiction and her nonfiction. Obvious similarities in details of setting, atmosphere, and event between A Book of Common Prayer and Salvador published six years later, underscore the documentary sense of the novel, despite its air of strangeness and surrealism. The parallels between the imaginary dictatorship propped up by U.S. dollars and the real one include an absence of tourists, the existence of a useless superhighway paid for by the United States, overbuilding of facilities such as hotels because of baseless optimism about possibilities of "development," the fact that the "leading natural cause of death is gastrointestinal infection," and colored lights weirdly strung about the city. (205) In addition, "Charlotte Douglas's death at the hands of the police recalls with great poignance, though actually with less vividness than in Didion's nonfiction account of 25


what she saw there, the numerous political deaths in El Salvadordeaths so numerous, indeed, that they would seem wildly improbable if she did not cite factual documentation" (205). Didion blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction by describing both Salvador and A Book of Common Prayer so similarly. In A Book of Common Prayer, the entire novel is written in the first person from Grace's point of view. Her perspective and her access to information color the reader's image of Charlotte's life and death. The evolution of Grace's thoughts and feelings toward Charlotte is complicated and never quite resolved. At the beginning of her narration, Grace describes Charlotte as less a tourist who comes to Boca Grande to shed her baggage and more a sojourner who does not make enough "distinctions." To Grace, Charlotte has dreamed her life, died hopeful, and lived a story of delusion, rather than what Charlotte may have described as passion (11). However, by the end of the novel Grace questions whether or not she has narrated Charlotte's story of delusion or if the delusion has been her own (272). Charlotte can be read as an embodiment of anxieties concerning female roles in the heterosexual, patriarchal society of the United States during the second half of the twentieth century. Characters similar to Charlotte are often written and studied by feminist literary critics. In addition, many of Didion's feminist contemporaries examine and fight against socially mandated roles and imbalances of power. These include Adrienne Rich, who discusses the role of mothers in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), and Elaine Showalter who coined the term "gynocritics" or the study of books by women in Toward A Feminist Poetics (1979) In order to understand the relation of Didion's 26


novels to groundbreaking feminist works, it is important to analyze the intertextual connections between her writing and that of a distinguished feminist such as Rich. Though the authors come from dissimilar backgrounds and harness different genres, they both recognize core issues facing those who are oppressed by patriarchy. In A Book of Common Prayer, as in the rest of Didion's fiction, complex power dynamics range from tangible M-16 machine gun attacks on unopened crates of cholera vaccine to subtle, implied slights in romantic, family, and platonic relationships, as when Charlotte's eighteen-year-old daughter Marin tells Grace that she thinks Charlotte played tennis all day in Boca Grande. Didion gives female characters, including Charlotte and Grace, some degree of societal power by constructing them as white, upper-class, heterosexual, and also complicit in the perpetuation of negative aspects of colonialism. However, this power is often undermined when they are viewed as outsiders, as when Charlotte relocates to Boca Grande or when they are subjected to patriarchal constraints such as surveillance and phone tapping by powerful male figures like Victor, the current Minister of Defense of Boca Grande and Grace's brother-in-law. Charlotte's passport describes three roles assigned to her: "Nationality NORTEAMERICANA. Type of Visa TURISTA. Occupation MADRE" (22). Each of these roles, in addition to her identities as a wife and lover, offers contradictions about who has the power in Charlotte's life. Grace sardonically describes Charlotte as having privilege as an upper-class Westerner: As a child of comfortable family in the temperate zone she has been as a matter of course provided with clean sheets, orthodontia, lamb chops, 27


living grandparents, attentive godparents, one brother named Dickie, ballet lessons, and causal timely information about menstruation and the care of flat silver, as well as with a small wooden angel, carved in Australia, to sit on her bed table and listen to her prayers. In these prayers the child Charlotte routinely asked that "it" turn out all right, "it" being unspecified and all-inclusive, and she had been an adult for some years before the possibility occurred to her that "it" might not. She had put this doubt from her mind. As a child of the western United States she had been provided as well with faith in the value of certain frontiers on which her family had lived, in the virtues of cleared and irrigated land, of high-yield crops, of thrift, industry, and the judicial system, of progress and education, and in the generally upward spiral of history. She was a norteamaericana (59-60) Charlotte's comfortable lifestyle provides her with mobility and freedom of choice. She travels to several islands before settling on Boca Grande and is as intent on developing Boca Grande as families had been with the western frontier. Neither husband seriously attempts to stop Charlotte from traveling and neither Grace nor Leonard, her second husband, can make her leave Boca Grande before the revolution starts. Charlotte's decision to move seems her own, yet her reasons for moving are tainted with patriarchal pressures. Charlotte's reasons for staying in Boca Grande are complex and murky. Grace thinks that "in the beginning [Charlotte] stayed on in Boca Grande precisely because it seemed not to demand attentiveness," but later, while Leonard is leaving Boca Grande 28


after his failed attempt to persuade Charlotte to leave with him, she tells him, I walked away from places all my life and I'm not going to walk away from here (256). One such societal pressure or institution affecting Charlotte is that of motherhood. Charlotte's role as a mother deteriorates when Marin is "observed with her four best friends detonating a crude pipe bomb in the lobby of the Transamerica Building at 6:30 A.M., hijacking a P.S.A. L-1011 at San Francisco Airport and landing it at Wendover, Utah, where they burned it in time for the story to interrupt the network news and [then they] disappeared" (58). Similar to Jesse in Democracy, Marin is not found by her mother after she runs away. Charlotte attempts to remember Marin only as a child. She cannot reconcile the thought of the daughter she raised with that of the daughter who makes no attempt to contact her and who rejects Charlotte as her mother. However, the information readers receive about Marin's childhood do not quite match the happy stories that Charlotte tells Grace. Instead they focus on Charlotte's depression: Of course there had been the usual days and weeks and even months when Charlotte had been separated from everyone she knew by a grayness. During such periods Charlotte would rehearse cheerful dialogues she might need to have with Marin. For days at a time her answers to Marin's questions would therefore strike the child as weird and unsettling, cheerful but not quite responsive. "Do you think I'll get braces in fourth grade," Marin would ask. "You're going to love fourth grade," Charlotte would answer. During such periods Charlotte suffered the usual dread when forced to visit Marin's school and hear the doomed children celebrate all 29


things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. (111-12) Most of the information that readers have about Marin comes from the unreliable stories that Charlotte tells Grace, or from one failed "grandmotherly" meeting that Grace has with Marin after Charlotte's death. To Grace, Charlotte's stories seemed to come "out of some deep vacuum of nervous exhaustion" (36). Charlotte and Marin are also presented as having stark differences in their attraction to the past; Grace describes Marin as having no interest in her life with Charlotte. On the other hand, before Marin's disappearance Charlotte arranges her days to "avoid the backward glance," but afterward she seems obsessed with it (96). However, Charlotte reclaims her power as a mother when she refuses her second husband Leonard's direction and stays with her premature baby while it dies, instead of leaving the newborn at the hospital. She uses her maternal power to protect her vulnerable, doomed infant after she loses Marin. Throughout the novel, Charlotte changes husbands, lovers, and locations. Torn between men with whom she has had sex, Charlotte becomes a commodity whom Grace describes as not having control over her own body when in the presence of sexual partners. 6 Since Grace is not an objective narrator, her account of Charlotte's sexuality is 30 6 Victor Strandberg's essay from Friedman's collection, "Passion and Delusion in A Book of Common Prayer, points more toward sexuality in the novel: Sexual adventurism is the deeper issue taking us into Didion's extended treatment of female identity that comprises the book's most original, profound, and brilliant achievement. In the end, what she has achieved is a female counterpart of The Great Gatsby a book she favors in her essaysredeploying in her own gender Fitzgerald's basic gambit of assigning a detective-narrative to search out the inner truth about a mysterious newcomer (148) In Through the Window, Out the Door Janis P. Stout describes Didion's work from the 1970s and 1980s as both "intensely engaged with political morality and its symbiosis with what she sees as a spread of meretricious personal values" and envisioning "the possibility that women may be able to move beyond the obsession with sexual surrender and infant death' and the political vagueness into which their socialization has maneuvered them, in order to become the artisans of that mending" (219, 225). Stout's Strategies of Reticence also looks to how Didion's female characters are treated in a patriarchal culture: "In A Book of Common Prayer the narrater, Grace Strasser-Mendana, shares the experience of motherhood as grief that she sees in Charlotte Douglas, the character to whom she witnesses.' Every woman seen in the book is debased by her relationship with men" (151).


colored by her own dying body and by Charlotte's sexual relationship with her son, Gerardo: Some women lie easily in whatever beds they make. They marry or do not marry with equanimity. They divorce or do not. They can leave a bed and forget it. They sleep dreamlessly, get up and scramble eggs. Not Charlotte. Never Charlotte. I think I have never known anyone who regarded the sexual connection as quite so unassuming a contract. So dark and febrile and outside the range of the normal did all aspects of this contract seem to Charlotte that she was for example incapable of walking normally across a room in the presence of two men with whom she had slept. Her legs seemed to lock unnaturally into her pelvic bones. Her body went stiff, as if convulsed by the question of who has access to it and who did not. Whenever I saw her with both Victor and Gerardo it struck me that her every movement was freighted with this question. Who had prior claim. Whose call on her was most insistent. To whom did she owe what. (84-85) Throughout A Book of Common Prayer, Grace portrays sex in a negative light. It is often used as a tool, as when Charlotte tries to have sex with Leonard to become pregnant and make up for the loss of Marin. Grace describes some of Charlotte's writing during her first weeks in Boca Grande, when Charlotte "tried only to rid herself of her dreams, and these dreams seemed to deal only with sexual surrender and infant death, commonplaces 31


of the female obsessional life" (57). Grace claims, "we all have the same dreams" (57). In this quote, Grace does not separate herself from Charlotte as she usually tries to do. Here, she could be seen as a "sister" to Charlotte, as some feminists would say they are to one another. Additionally, Leonard and Warren make decisions for Charlotte in her presence without consulting her or each other. During a group lunch Warren "canceled the oysters Leonard had ordered for Charlotte because Pacific oysters would not compare with Gulf oysters" and "fed Charlotte with his own fork because she was too thin not to eat" (104). In the course of the narrative, Grace juxtaposes the Charlotte who is voiceless with the Charlotte who easily and cleanly kills a chicken at a public event: "The next time I saw Charlotte Douglas she grabbed a chicken on the run and snapped the vertebrae in its neck. the men were killing chickens with machetes but Charlotte's kill was clean" (49). This scene and the following conversation between Grace and Victor demonstrate how both women become "taboo" to the powerful male figures when they step outside their traditional roles as feminine, unassuming, and docile. Later in the novel Victor, Charlotte's former lover, talks to Grace about Charlotte's relationship with Gerardo. He also addresses Grace's persona as a scientist with cancer. Like Charlotte's first husband Warren, Grace is dying of cancer. Because Victor does not fully understand the disease, he avoids Grace. Similarly, Grace's interest in biochemistry creates tension between her and Victor. Their conversation takes place in her laboratory, where she tells Victor that he is near a vial of the cancer virus even though he is not. "Disgusting,' he said finally. Filthy. Crude. The thought of it makes me retch.' Are you talking about the cancer virus or the guerrilleros ?' I am talking,' he whispered, his voice strangled, about 32


the kind of woman who would kill a chicken with her bare hands'" (212). Just as Charlotte is anxious about her conflicting roles, Victor cannot reconcile the woman he witnesses strangling a chicken with the woman with whom he has sex. Though other characters, including Victor, gain glimpses into Charlotte's anxiety through their own interpersonal experiences, most of the male characters do not seem to be as emotionally afflicted by the struggles over power and role. The men of Boca Grande are distressed when a revolution occurs because they are pushed out of office, but they also know that another revolution will arise soon enough, and they will have their next chance to be in power. Grace and Charlotte never consider that option. Grace and Charlotte share many roles; both of them are mothers, wives, daughters, and norteamericanas. However, they do not have the same fate. Grace, though weakened by disease, leaves during the revolution and lives to tell the story of Charlotte and Boca Grande. At the beginning of the novel Grace seems to know certainties about Charlotte's story and tries to distance her own personality from Charlotte's. Unlike Charlotte, Grace says that she does not dream her lifethough she later shares that she has similar dreams and makes enough "distinctions" (21). Grace's descriptions of Charlotte are overwhelmingly negative throughout most of the novel. To Grace, she was "immaculate of history, innocent of politics," and "there were startling vacuums in her store of common knowledge" (60). Grace does not believe that Charlotte is unstablerather that she lived an "unexamined life," had not learned to keep death in her line of sight, was "oblivious to the disturbance she could cause in the neutron field of a room," and heard, but seemed not to listen or see (112,121, 207, 240). Charlotte's positive actions, such as 33


showing active concern for two children playing unsupervised in her hotel pool, volunteering to help with cholera vaccinations, and pulling bomb victims out of the birth control clinic she works at in Boca Grande, contradict Grace's negative view of Charlotte. Though the question of Charlotte is never settled for Grace, she does come to realize that their personalities are not as polar as she originally believed. Grace describes her own moment of "delusion worthy of Charlotte Douglas" when she "attempted to grow roses at the equator" (206). Later in the novel Grace also understands that both she and Charlotte "remember what [they] need to remember" and that she is more like Charlotte than she originally thought she was (259, 268). The evolution of Grace's thoughts about Charlotte helps the reader see that Grace is not superior to Charlotte or immune to the same anxieties that Charlotte faces because of her conflicting roles. Rather, Charlotte gains more sympathy as her story continues. As the novel's narrator, Grace possesses a dubious power. She filters scenes through her perspective and readers only have access to information that she has gathered and chooses to share. However, there are many parts of her narrative that she is unsure about because she obtained the information secondhand. For instance, the final moments of Charlotte's life are still unclear: The moment and circumstances of her arrest are matters of record but the moment and circumstances of her death remain obscure. I do not even know which side killed her, who held the Estadio Nacional at the moment of death. I know that fire from either an AR-15 or an AR-16 entered her body just below the left shoulder-blade but I also know that all sides had 34


both weapons. Other than that I know only what Gerardo told me. (268). "The night Charlotte was interrogated in the Estadio Nacional she cried not for God but for Marin. Gerardo told me that. I prefer not to know who told Gerardo" (69). Grace justifies the inclusion of her own background information even though she frames the narration as Charlotte's story and says she does not believe that she herself is a focus of the narrative: I tell you these things about myself only to legitimize my voice. We are uneasy about a story unless we know who is telling it. In no other sense does it matter who "I" am: "the narrator" plays no motive role in this narrative, nor would I want to. Unlike Charlotte I do not dream my life. I try to make enough distinctions. I will die (and rather soon, of pancreatic cancer) neither hopeful nor its opposite. I am interested in Charlotte Douglas only insofar as she passed though Boca Grande, only insofar as the meaning of that sojourn continues to elude me. (21) At the beginning of the novel, Grace establishes herself as another kind of narrator, an ethnographer. Before moving to Boca Grande, Grace studied as an anthropologist: I have lived in equatorial America since 1935 and only twice had fever. I am an anthropologist who lost faith in her own method, who stopped believing that observable activity defined anthropos. I studied under 35


Kroeber at California and worked with LŽvi-Strauss at S‹o Paulo, classified several societies, catalogued their rites and attitudes on occasion of birth, copulation, initiation and death; did extensive and well-regarded studies on the rearing of female children in the Mato Grosso and along certain tributaries of the Rio Xingu, and still I did not know why any of these female children did or did not do anything at all. Let me go further. I did not know why I did or did not do anything at all. As a result I "retired" from the field, married a planter of San Blas Green coconut palms here in Boca Grande and took up the amateur study of biochemistry, a discipline in which demonstrable answers are commonplace and "personality" absent. (12) Grace has lost faith in anthropology and cannot find definitive, scientific answers that help her understand why Charlotte makes life-altering decisions such as staying on the island during the revolution. She does however explain that some of what she knows about Marin's disappearance and the rest of Charlotte's story comes from her role as an outsider or de afuera : "but most of what I know, the most reliable part of what I know, derives from my training in human behavior. I do not mean my training under Kroeber at California, nor with LŽvi-Strauss at S‹o Paulo. I mean my training in being de afuera (56). Much like Grace's relationship with anthropology, she distances herself from Charlotte. Grace's group avoidance leaves her without anyone she cares about while she is dying. While Grace's narration is problematic, the story and her search for some 36


kind of truth within the story are obviously important to her since she is dying and still chooses to write it as one of her last acts. This act seems to be a small step in the direction of a group feminism or consciousness-raising by trying to close the abyss between her and those around her. To some extent Grace's positions as both narrator and scientist give her a sense of power. As a biochemist, Grace has the power of scientific research behind her. This gives her some control when she interacts with the Mendana family, such as in the scene between Victor and her over the cancer vials. She often enforces her role as a scientist when faced with her vulnerable position as a cancer patient. Her family would prefer her to be powerless or nonexistent, but Grace does not use the sources of potential power she has at her disposal: She says sardonically, "You will have gathered that I married into one of the three or four solvent families in Boca Grande. In fact Edgar's death left me in putative control of fifty-nine-point-eight percent of the arable land and about the same percentage of the decision-making process in La Repœblica (recently La Repœblica Libre) de Boca Grande" (18-19). It is potential power because she never enforces her control over the land or decisions. If anything, she uses it as a way to protect herself from the power hungry men in her family and from the revolutionary crossfire. Even though Grace is an outsider and a North American, the Mendana family must tolerate her enough to access her resources, the same resources they often need to start the many revolutions that occur in Boca Grande. One would think that Grace's son, Gerardo might be one family member whose interactions with her are not tense and trivial. However, this is not the case. Gerardo 37


relies on some of her resources and, most likely, uses them to play a part in the revolution. While to some degree Grace has the power of a narrator and a scientist behind her, she is similar to Charlotte in that she has a troubled relationship with her child: One thing at least I share with Charlotte: I lost my child. Gerardo is lost to me. I hear from him regularly, see him all too often, talk to him about politics and new films and the bud rot we are experiencing in the interior groves, but I talk to him as an acquaintance. I like him but not too much any more. Gerardo embodies many of the failings of this part of the world, the rather wishful machismo, the defeating touchiness, the conviction that his heritage must be aristocratic; a general attitude I do not admire. On the delusion front I would have to say that Gerardo and Charlotte were well met. (20) Unlike Charlotte's, Grace's child does not desert her. However, she has not been able to influence his growth and does not care for the man he has become. This detachment parallels some of Grace's other disappointing personal relationships. She was unable to have a lasting relationship with her parents, who both die before she reached ten years old, and her husband Edgar turns out not to be the reputable man she thought he was. He dies before the novel begins. Grace's potential power lies not in her relationships with others, but with tangible facts, resources, and products. Grace can try to protect herself with scientific vials filled with the "cancer virus" or deeds to the land she controls in Boca Grande. Throughout A Book of Common Prayer Grace tries to retreat into fixed roles. Charlotte causes anxiety 38


in Grace because she makes Grace doubt her own identity and the values of the roles she assumes. Even though both characters are subjected to comparable patriarchal demands, their relationships with and proximity to power differ enough to cause contrasting outcomes for each of them. For instance, Grace successfully writes about Charlotte and Boca Grande, whereas Charlotte fails several times at selling her "impenetrably euphemistic Letters from Central America'" to the The New Yorker (13). Additionally by the end of the novel, a kind of mother-daughter connection is apparent. Grace, who is about 60 years old, and Charlotte, who is about 40, perform acts that show both concern and respect for the other. It is not till the end of her narration that Grace tells the reader that she and Charlotte have more in common than she originally thought. Not every female character in Didion's novel faces the same fate as Charlotte Douglas. However, they are all confronted with the central question of what it means to be a woman and what roles, if any, are key parts of the gender. The wives and widow of Grace's brothers-in-law are not as prominent in the novel as Grace and Charlotte. But when Grace discusses them, she shows them as emotionally abused by their spouses and looking for a way to passively escape it. Victor's wife Bianca does not make accusations about Grace's control of family money because she "was taught at Sacre Coeur in New Orleans that discussions of money are not genteel" (19-20). Neither does Antonio's wife Isabel "because she is so rarely here, and has been told by her doctor in Arizona that discussions of money disturb the flow of transcendental energy" (20). After Luis's assassination, his widow Elena fled Boca Grande and brought a seven hundred dollar parrot with her when she returned (19). 39


None of the women of Didion's fiction escape the emotional and psychological tole that patriarchy takes on them. The problems and situations Didion's characters go through align with aspects of feminist thought, such as ideas describes by poet and feminist Adrienne Rich. Rich, like Didion, wrote during the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s. Much of her work, as mentioned before, deals with the roles that patriarchy imposes on women. For Rich, women of all sexualities can alter the oppressive roles and expectations placed on them if they begin to understand and rely on other women for support. In "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Rich defines her term "lesbian continuum": I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a rangethrough each woman's life and throughout historyof women-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. If we expand it to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support we can begin to grasp breadths of female history and psychology which have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited, mostly clinical, definitions of lesbianism. (27) The "primary intensity" of giving and receiving practical and political support between Grace and Charlotte becomes more apparent as their relationship grows. Grace provides practical support when she gives Charlotte medication that she cannot get from the pharmacy and she tries to provide support stemming from her political knowledge by 40


attempting to persuade Charlotte to leave the island before she is killed. Near the end of the novel, Grace describes Charlotte's reaction to the destruction of cholera vaccine that Charlotte had been using in her volunteer work. Antonio gives the crates to Carmen de Arrellano, one of Gerardo's romantic partners, to destroy with a M-16. Charlotte's description of the events is one of the most lucid Grace gives the reader and one of the moments Grace seems proudest of Charlotte: "I think I loved Charlotte in that moment as a parent loves the child who has just fallen from a bicycle, met a pervert, lost a prize, come up in any way against the hardness of the world. I think I was also angry at her, again like a parent, furious that she hadn't known better, furious that she had been wrong" (239). More often Charlotte offers Grace practical rather than political or emotional support. Grace is often the maternal figure in their relationship in the sense that her age and knowledge of Boca Grande give her the ability to offer practical support. Both of Grace's parents die by the time she is 10 years old, but Charlotte refers back the manners she was taught as a child when Grace is leaving on one of the last flights out of Boca Grande before the revolution begins: "On Day Minus One in Boca Grande Charlotte remembered to bring me a gardenia for my trip. Her mother taught her that" (272). Rich describes the continuum as a way in which women can gain a "source of energy": "The denial of reality and invisibility to women's passion for women, women's choice of women as allies, life compassions, and community, the forcing of such relationships into dissimulation and their disintegration under intense pressure have meant an incalculable loss to the power of all women to change the social relations of the 41


sexes, to liberate ourselves and each other (34). Grace and Charlotte are each faced with the central problems of their main role, that of a woman. Through a strong connection to each other on the lesbian continuum, Charlotte may have been able to gain a source of energy and to overcome the basis of her anxiety. Neither Charlotte nor Grace finds the support that a strong connection to each other could have offered them. Soon after meeting Charlotte, Grace is drawn to her and acts as a surrogate mother by trying to keep her safe. In Of Woman Born Rich describes the role of a nonbiological mother as able to strengthen and energize the surrogate daughter: "Many of the great mothers have not been biological. For centuries, daughters have been strengthened and energized by nonbiological mothers, who have combined a care for the practical values of survival with an incitement toward further horizons, a compassion for vulnerability with an insistence on our buried strengths" (252). Grace certainly displays a desire to understand Charlotte's vulnerability when she attempts to be a witness, though a flawed witness, for Charlotte after she can no longer tell her own story and no one else cares to try. In conjunction with the lesbian continuum and the role of the nonbiological mother, Rich posits a woman-centered life. One example of this is in her essay "Toward A Woman-Centered University" in On Secrets, Lies, and Silence : A woman-centered university would be a place in which the muchdistorted mother-daughter relationship could find a new model: where women of maturer attainments in every field would provide intellectual guidance along with concern for the wholeness of their young women 42


students, and older woman's sympathy and unique knowledge of the processes younger women were going through, along with the power to give concrete assistance and support. (139-40) This model of a woman-centered life can be applied to many institutions or to society as a whole. Viewing groups or specific works of literature as either woman-centered or mancentered can, however, create a reductive binary. By viewing A Book of Common Prayer as a glimpse into a potentially woman-centered life that is still heavily under the oppression of many patriarchal establishments and mindsets, a reader can gain a better understanding of how the often conflicting roles forced upon both Charlotte and Grace affect their interpersonal relationships. A Book of Common Prayer is woman-centered in a difficult, problematic way that is rarely positive. 43


Chapter II: "Some women fight and others do not": Didion's nonfiction essays and their relation to feminist discourse Lynn Marie Houston and William V. Lombardi's Reading Joan Didion describes Didion's writing about women as having a "conflicted relationship with the feminist movement" (7): While her work fits most definitions of "women's writing" because it examines problems that women experience in their daily lives, she is critical of the feminist movement in some of her essays. Didion's work may present strong women characters as role models, or even present the ways in which women are discriminated against in a patriarchal system, but she is not wholly reconciled to applying the term feminist to her own political viewpoints. Didion crafts many of her women characters in such a way as to question society's notions of sanity, mental illness, and emotional stability, especially as these are used to subjugate women. She explores women characters who have a fully evolved sense of self but who are nonetheless fragile, sometimes because they are lost in revolutionary times during which their moral ground has been pulled from underneath them and other times because they cling to the values of a previous era in a society that has dismissed this past. 7 (7-8) Houston and Lombardi's definition of what constitutes strong women characters with a 44 7 In Didion's first novel, Run River (1963), Lily and Martha McClellan struggle with the social and political changes in Sacramento, California between 1938 and 1959 that have altered their family's societal standing from well-established pioneers to an expendable component of the community.


fully evolved sense of self is unclear. Several of Didion's fictional characters survive difficult situations, but their choices do not necessarily make them role models or shows them as self-actualized. In A Book of Common Prayer both Grace and Charlotte face moral dilemmas over their familial relationships before and during a revolution in Boca Grande. For example, Marin participates in the detonation of a bomb, but Grace's narration leaves room for readers to question Marin's true understanding of her cause. Her characters appear as examples of how Didion views societal pressures affecting heterosexual, white, and middle to upper-class women. As discussed in the following chapter with Didion's "The Women's Movement"in which Didion questions actions of and motivations behind the feminist movement of the timeher work may not strongly support the feminist politics of the 1970s, but it can relate to the more personal sections of the general campaign. Didion's views may be reconciled with it through the popular feminist saying "The personal is political." Though Houston and Lombardi concentrate on Didion's fiction, many aspects of their analysis also apply to her nonfiction. In some of her nonfiction, as in her novels, Didion focuses on tensions of gender and power by describing women's issues, including abortion, and by revealing broader gender systems behind such abuses as rape. While her fiction offers portrayals of detached female figures who attempt to navigate the complex systems of patriarchy that rule their lives and the lives of those around them, 8 Didion's nonfiction such as her political journalism, including Salvador (1983) and Miami 45 8 These characters include Grace and Charlotte in A Book of Common Prayer Lily and Martha in Run River (1963), Maria in Play It As It Lays (1970), Inez in Democracy (1984), and Elena in The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). While these are the main female protagonists, most of the novels also have several more female characters who are portrayed in the same manner, but are not featured as often.


(1987), 9 and her memoirs, such as The Year of Magical Thinking (2006) encompass a broader range of subjects and motivations. Many of Didion's essays deal with issues of power that are as complex as those in her fiction, but most of her nonfiction does not focus on how power relates to gender. This chapter's main example of a Didion essay that merges gender and power is "Sentimental Journeys" (1990), which appears in After Henry (1992). The essays following "Sentimental Journeys" are three works included in the "Women" section of The White Album (1979), "The Women's Movement," (1972) "Doris Lessing," (1971) and "Georgia O'Keeffe" (1976). In these essays, Didion presents significant arguments about gender issues, but does not connect them to institutional power or societal construction as often as she does in "Sentimental Journeys." 10 Together, these essays reveal Didion as an author who chooses her subject matter and develops her arguments in ways that resonate significantly with feminist discourse. By juxtaposing Didion's fiction and nonfiction, especially her works from the 1970s, some readers might believe that her extreme and critical attitude toward advocates of the women's movement sheds a harsh light on her fiction. A reader could assume that this attitude is reflected in her fiction and dismiss the fiction as fundamentally antifeminist. This chapter seeks to argue that although Didion does not describe herself as a feminist, her work participates in woman-centered dialogueor dialogue that focuses on women and, specifically on oppression. Though this chapter's argument would be simpler to defend without her scathing essay "The Women's Movement" and possibly the 46 9 Both Salvador and Miami are book-length essays that capture the United State's complex involvement with El Salvador or exiled Cuban immigrants in Miami. The politics in Salvador and A Book of Common Prayer are incredibly similar as discussed in the previous chapter and reveal the type of crossover Didion has in her fiction and nonfiction. 10 "Sentimental Journeys" is the only essay under Didion's "New York" section in After Henry


somewhat disapproving essay "Doris Lessing," reading these essays in relation to the fiction is necessary to gain a more honest and complete view of the roles that gender and power dynamics play in Didion's work. As in A Book of Common Prayer Didion's "Sentimental Journeys" includes subject matter that highlight tensions caused by power and gender roles. Originally published in The New York Review of Books, it is a journalistic essay describing the April 20, 1989 beating and rape of a Central Park jogger. Didion describes her as "a twenty-nine-yearold unmarried white woman who worked as an investment banker in the corporate finance department at Salomon Brothers in downtown Manhattan ." (79) and as "a leader, part of what the Times would describe as the wave of young professionals who took over New York in the 1980s,' one of those who were handsome and pretty and educated and white,' who, according to the Times not only believed they owned the world' but had reason to''' (83). 11 For Didion, the nighttime jogger had been "wrenched, even as she hung between death and life and later between insentience and sentience, into New York's ideal sister, daughter, Bacharach bride: a young woman of conventional middle-class privilege and promise ." (84). According to Didion, by the time that the jogger awoke from her coma on May 2 of that year, six black and Hispanic teenagers had been accused of her attack, and "she had become, unwilling and unwitting, a sacrificial player in the sentimental narrative that is New York public life" (81). In her description, Didion emphasizes the jogger's class privilege more than her status as a woman. In an interview with Hilton Als, Didion describes the essay "Sentimental Journeys" 47 11 The jogger was identified as Trisha Meili, but Didion and most media sources refrained from identifying her. In 2003, Meili confirmed her identity and wrote a memoir, I Am the Central Park Jogger


as a way of trying to understand New York City. 12 She explains why she decided to write "Sentimental Journeys" after she moved back to New York from California in 1988: "We had been in New York a year or two, and I realized that I was living here without engaging the city at all. I might as well have been living in another city, because I didn't understand it, I didn't get it. So I realized that I needed to do some reporting on it" (81). Similar to how Grace uses writing to understand Charlotte, Didion uses this essay to understand New York. Not only does "Sentimental Journeys" document the jogger's story and the significance of her social class, but it also describes race and gender struggles that to this day permeate Western culture. Didion's fiction rarely includes women of color and her female protagonists are always portrayed as white. However, in "Sentimental Journeys," Didion does document how white female victims of rape and women of color who are victims of rape receive an imbalance of attention in the media: Later it would be recalled that 3,254 other rapes were reported that year, including one that following week involving the near decapitation of a black woman in Fort Tryon Park and one two weeks later involving a black woman in Brooklyn who was robbed, raped, sodomized, and thrown down an air shaft of a four-story building, but the point was rhetorical, since crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept. Susan Brownmiller, during a year spent monitoring newspaper coverage 48 12 Quoted from "Joan Didion, The Art of Nonfiction No.1" for the Spring 2006 issue of the Paris Review.


of rape as part of her research for Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape found, not surprisingly, that "although New York City police statistics showed black women were more frequent victims of rape than white women, the favored victim in the tabloid headline was young, white, middle class and attractive.'" (81-82) Because the systems of patriarchy are varied, not all women endure the same oppression simply because they are women. The Central Park jogger became such a well-known figure because of her drastic change in role from a flourishing executive to a victimized patient who was taken to the Metropolitan Hospital on East 97th Street, where doctors found dirt and twigs in her vagina. Didion describes her as having lost 75 percent of her blood, and having had her skull crushed, her left eyeball pushed back through its socket, and the surface wrinkles of her brain flattened (80). Didion's description of the jogger's body is much more graphic than any account of death in A Book of Common Prayer. This highlights one difference between Didion's fiction and nonfiction and points to Janis Stout's quotation discussed in the first chapter, which explains that while Charlotte's death is recounted with "great poignance," it is not as vivid as the numerous political deaths Didion reports in Salvador In Gerri Reaves's conclusion of "Joan Didion's Places of Mind,'" she describes "Sentimental Journeys" as "not so much a story of the high-profile wilding' incident, in which a female stockbroker was gang-raped by roaming male adolescents, as it is a portrait of New York City's inner landscape, the mindset necessary to survive in the most urban of American cities" (122-23). Didion's use of the jogger's story brings forth questions of how the Western population, 49


specifically women, survives in urban settings, who holds power over their decisions, and who dictates their representations in the media. "Sentimental Journeys" includes less of Didion's personal opinion than the following essays. Though the bulk of Didion's essays include a personal element, in a few of her more overtly political workssuch as Miami Didion refrains from heavily incorporating her own life. The three essays that make up the "Women" section of The White Album "The Women's Movement," "Doris Lessing," and "Georgia O'Keeffe," progress from disdain toward women activists, to expressing some admiration for Lessing, to singling out O'Keeffe as a prime example of the "hardness" and power of agency that Didion sees as crucial. In "The Women's Movement," Didion describes the surge of political and theoretical activity in the 1970s aimed at advancing women's rights as made up of "highstrung idealists" (260): They had invented a class; now they had only to make that class conscious. It would have been merely sententious to call some of their thinking Stalinist: of course it was. It would have been pointless even to speak of whether one considered these women "right" or "wrong," meaningless to dwell upon the obvious, upon the coarsening of moral imagination to which such social idealism so often leads. (259) Here readers can see that Didion did not agree with the political and socialist aspects of some divisions of the women's movement by calling them "Salinist," which often implies an ideological Marxism of an oppressive variety. While discussing the jogger in "Sentimental Journeys" Didion highlights aspects of class and gender-related difference; 50


here Didion criticizes women viewing themselves as a separate class. She clearly separates herselfand "us"from some of the women of the movement, such as the Redstockings, who state in the Redstocking Manifesto" that "women are an oppressed class": "To those of us who remain committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities, the feminist analysis may have seemed a particularly narrow and cracked determinism" (259-60). For Didion, the movement builds on naive arguments and does not fully explore the complex choices women make in their lives. As in her Introduction to Hardwick's book and through Grace's narration, Didion continues to bring up the idea of moral distinctions. The essay concludes on a cynical note: These are converts who want not a revolution but "romance," who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life. 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. (263-64) Here it seems that Didion's essay would be less critical of Women's Liberation Movement activists had they been aiming at changing the entire construction of society, more like radical feminists of the time who emphasized that all women are oppressed as women, yet she does not agree that women are oppressed as a class. When Didion criticizes those who "believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life," she implies a direct attack on liberal feminism of her 51


time, which was focused on gaining equalityfor example, removing the salary glass ceiling for womenrather than difference. She seems to believe that the same issues of oppression will perpetuate themselves if feminists only fight to switch positions in a possibly flawed social system. In Boom! Tom Brokaw includes a retrospective remark from Didion in which she reconsiders her view: "I wasn't particularly wrapped up in the expression of the women's movement, which seems totally caught up in the dumb little arguments over who did the dishes. I thought it was a genuine political movement that got messed up in a lot of trivial offshoots, and it got stuck there" (225). Didion's fiction, such as A Book of Common Prayer and nonfiction, such as Miami and Salvador depicts questionable political movements and their aftermath. Her work tends to focus on what is not a "genuine political movement," rather than what could be considered one. Her essay "Notes Toward A Dreampolitik" (1970), includes short sections on: the pastor of the "Friendly Bible Apostolic Church" who "gets messages only from the Lord, forcible impressions' instructing him;" biker movies that "very few adults have ever seen;" a young woman named Dallas Beardsley, a resident of the "unnoticed" and "invisible" town of Palms, California, who wants to become a movie star; and a group "confessing" at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting (248, 250, 252). Didion is not explicit in her meaning, but she seems to find something genuine in those who live in the outskirts of society. Didion's views in "Doris Lessing" fall somewhere in between the disdain of "The Women's Movement" and the admiration of her later essay "Georgia O'Keeffe." She describes Lessing as having a "considerable native power" and wanting to write only to 52


"create a new way to look at life," while questioning her ability to do this in the society of which she is a part (265): What we are witnessing here is a writer undergoing a profound and continuing cultural trauma, a woman of determinedly utopian and distinctly teleological bent assaulted at every turn by fresh evidence that the world is not exactly improving as promised. And, because such is the particular quality of her mind, she is compelled in the face of this evidence to look even more frenetically for the final cause, the unambiguous answer. (268) Didion describes Lessing's search for the "unambiguous answer" in more forgiving terms than she does the women's movement by admiring her tenacity as a person, as she does at the end of the essay. Didion's admiration of tenacity can be seen in her own writing that focuses on place, specifically the West, when she discusses both her ancestors and all of the other pioneers who were determined to travel there. In addition, Lessing's search for this answer aligns with similar goals and questions in Didion's own fiction and nonfiction. Didion does not explicitly describe the question as the woman question or the "problem that has no name," as discussed by Betty Friedan in the Feminine Mystique but one could make the leap since she includes "Doris Lessing" in the "Women" section, rather than in a part of her work devoted to authors. As in other portions of Didion's work which delves into the history of California and her own ancestry, especially her collection of essays Where I Was From (2003), Didion is interested in hardened female figures and frontier life: "[Lessing] grew up 53


knowing not only what hard frontiers do to women but what women then do to the men who keep them there. She could hear in all her memories that voice of the suffering female' passed on from mother to daughters in a chain broken only at great cost" (268). 13 This passed-on voice rings of a negative lesbian continuum, where the connection between women perpetuates their oppression. However, Didion also compares Lessing to those involved in the women's movement: The voice she felt most deeply, that of women trying to define their relationships to one another and to men, first went shrill and then, appropriated by and reduced to a "movement," slipped below the range of her attention. She had been betrayed by all those answers and more, and yet, increasingly possessed, her only response had been to look for another. That she is scarcely alone in this possession is what lends her quest its great interest: the impulse to final solutions has been not only Mrs. Lessing's dilemma but the guiding delusion of her time. It is not an impulse I hold high, but there is something finally very moving about her tenacity. (269-70) The "impulse to find solutions" exists as a goal throughout most feminist theory and literature. For example, Adrienne Rich posits the lesbian continuum and woman-centered institutions as part of the larger project of ending gender-related oppression. The lesbian continuum would be a way for women to gain strength and knowledge through their associations with one another. "Doris Lessing" helps to expand Didion's issues with the 54 13 Lessing was born in Iran in 1919 and grew up in the then-British colony of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.


Women's Liberation Movement by focusing on one female author whose life and work both influence and are influenced by the movement. The essay allows for a better glimpse into the role of a female writer in the twentieth century who is concerned with the "woman question" and society's oppression of women, a role Didion and Lessing share. Unlike "The Women's Movement" and "Doris Lessing," in "Georgia O'Keeffe" Didion opens with a positive story about her daughter's attraction to the style and character of O'Keeffe's Sky Above Clouds canvases at the Chicago Art Institute during the summer of 1973 (Figure 1). Figure 1. Georgia O'Keeffe's oil on canvas Sky Above Clouds IV 1965, from a collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Didion discusses how her daughter, Quintana, assumes that the "glory she saw in the work reflected a glory in its maker," and that "every brush stroke laid or not laid down betrayed one's character" (271). After she sees O'Keeffe's paintings, Quintana says she needs to talk to O'Keeffe and Didion describes how she is pleased that her daughter responded to O'Keeffe's style. Didion finds O'Keeffe to be a "hard women who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago" (271). For Didion, O'Keeffe exemplified hardness and unwavering resistance to male authority: "Hardness had not 55


been in our century a quality much admired in women, nor in the past twenty years had it even been in official favor for men. On the evidence of her work and what she has said about it, Georgia O'Keeffe is neither crusty' nor eccentric. She is simply hard, a straight shooter, a woman clean of received wisdom and open to what she sees" (271-72). This hardness echos the same quality pioneer women needed and brings up connections between the meaning of the West for Didion and O'Keeffe's choice to live in the Western United States. As in "Doris Lessing," in "Georgia O'Keeffe" Didion questions the role of "received wisdom" and a voice passed on from mother to daughter. Though no person who is born into a society can completely escape from its influences, Didion seems to hold O'Keeffe as a prime example of what a woman can accomplish when she is less hindered by patriarchal expectations. In "Georgia O'Keeffe," Didion's nonfiction comes closest to her novels' attention to gender roles and power: The city men. The men. They. The words crop up again and again as this astonishingly aggressive woman tells us what was on her mind when she was making her astonishingly aggressive paintings. "The men" believed it impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O'Keeffe painted New York. "The men" didn't think much of her bright color, so she made it brighter. The men yearned toward Europe so she went to Texas, and then New Mexico. (272-73) While it is difficult to know Didion's exact understanding of "hard" and "aggressive," it seems that she admires the qualities when they work together. Usually in A Book of 56


Common Prayer, Charlotte and Grace passively subvert patriarchal power, while in "Georgia O'Keeffe," Didion views O'Keeffe as actively fighting patriarchal demands that strongly influence traditional artistic ideals. The women's movement takes political action that Didion does not agree with, and Lessing's attempts to find an answer through her writing is both her "dilemma" and the "guiding delusion of her time." For Didion, O'Keeffe does the best job of subverting patriarchal demands: "Some women fight and others do not. Like so many successful guerrillas in the war between the sexes, Georgia O'Keeffe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it" (273). Didion does not, however, mention O'Keeffe's influential relationship with and later marriage to prominent photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz when discussing what O'Keeffe would need to prove her sense of self. O'Keeffe's "immutable sense of who she was" effectively contrasts with many of the personal stories that Friedan includes in The Feminine Mystique : "A mother of four who left college at nineteen to get married told me: I begin to feel I have no personality. I'm a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bedmaker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?" (56). Among the many middle-class white women she surveys, Friedan does not find any who have a tenacious understanding of identity like O'Keeffe. In another feminist work filled with personal stories, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich tells readers intimate stories and feelings about her life, including her marriage, children, and coming out as a lesbian, that show an evolution of self, from having concerns similar to those interviewed by Friedan, to 57


achieving an "immutable sense of who she was." Didion's admiration of O'Keeffe's agency is similar to the argument found in Simone de Beauvoir's work The Second Sex (1949) which emphasizes the individual's will and responsibility for his or her actions. Beauvoir also thought of her work as one of existential philosophy, not necessarily one of feminist theory. In the collection New French Feminisms, Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron explain that "because at the time she wrote the two volumes Simone de Beauvoir did not consider herself a feminist, she changed the terms of the discourse. Her text does not defend, does not answer previous attacks" (7). Later, in the 1970s Beauvoir did identify as feminist activist and signed the Manifesto of the 343, which declared that she and other well-known females had obtained illegal abortions. Out of the three works in Didion's "Women" section, only the essay on O'Keeffe describes someone whom Didion views as challenging the expectations of her role as an artistic woman. It is not surprising that there are contradictions scattered throughout Didion's work, since it often deals with complicated subject matter and covers over forty years. Didion both criticizes the socialist and equality-driven aspects of the women's movement, and later concedes that the movement did in fact help many women obtain equal opportunities in the workplace and better access to childcare. In addition, Didion positively discusses Lessing and O'Keeffe's relation to hardness, either through the frontier they occupied or their public personality. However, in Didion's fiction for example, Marin is negatively depicted as hard and unwavering in her ideology. In "Doris Lessing," Didion writes that the impulse to final solutions has been not only Mrs. Lessing's dilemma but the guiding delusion of her time" and that while it is not an 58


impulse she "holds high," "there is something finally very moving about [Lessing's] tenacity" (269-70). Didion often admires tenacity it in her writing, but she does not use it to offer "final solutions" in her fiction or nonfiction. For Didion, offering such solutions would be "delusional," a term that she sometimes links with her characters Charlotte and Grace. However, Didion's esteem for O'Keeffe's artistic defiance could also be read as a possible goal that women should strive to achieve. 59


Chapter III: Golden silk curtains in afternoon thunderstorms: Didion's New Journalism and personal language in Jane Tompkins's "Me and My Shadow" In The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight (2006), Marc Weingarten explains that the first rule of New Journalism is that the old rules do not apply: The leaders of the movement had all been reared in the traditional methods of fact gathering, but they all realized that journalism could do more than merely provide an objective correlation of events. More important, they realized that they could do more. Convinced that American journalism's potential hadn't yet been explored to its fullest, they began to think like novelists. (7) Most famously coined in Tom Wolfe's 1973 collection of articles New Journalism the term is often defined by its attention to everyday detail, literary techniques, extensive reporting, participation, and subjectivity, instead of the "pure objectivity" on which traditional journalism prides itself. While Tom Wolfe meant the term New Journalism "to be a declaration of independence from any journalism that preceded it," he faced criticism that "contended that there was nothing new about New Journalism" (Weingarten 9). For Weingarten, both Wolfe and his critics are correct: "New Journalism had been flitting around the edges of American and British journalism since the earliest newspaper days. It was also true that writers such as Wolfe, Thompson, and Mailer didn't emerge fully formed from the 60


empyrean. But had anyone ever really written like Wolfe, Thompson, or Mailer? No literary movement emerges from a vacuum ." (9). The growing popularity of New Journalism in the 1960s and 1970s caused more traditional journalists to criticize the unconventional methods of the genre. New Journalists often forwent the commonly used inverted pyramid structure, where the most important information in the story is given to the readers at the beginning so that stories could be cut from the bottom up. Instead, they favored longer and more detailed compositions, such as Truman Capote's 135,000-word story, which later became an almost 400-page book, In Cold Blood (1966), "originally run in four parts in four consecutive issues of the The New Yorker (Weingarten 34). Other New Journalists, such as Gail Sheehy, who created a composite figure in her description of the prostitute "Redpants," were criticized when they abandoned fact for truth. This truth is often how the story seen through the author's eyes, instead of the traditional focus on pure objectivity. However, even traditional journalists act subjectively because they choose who to interview, what questions to ask, and what quotes to include. Didion is often grouped with Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe as one of the best examples of New Journalism during that period. At the end of his work, Weingarten lists "New Journalism's greatest practitioners" and the pursuits they have moved on to. In addition to Didion, Weingarten names Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Michael Herr, Gay Talese, John Sack, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson (Weingarten 293-94). James N. Stull's Literary Selves focuses on John McPhee, Joe McGinniss, Tom Wolfe, Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and Norman Mailer. Didion is the 61


only female author to make either of these lists. In the anthology Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: the Art of Truth Bill Roorbach includes a few women in the "Literary Journalism" section. The articles I here list were published from 1983 through 2003: Joyce Johnson's "What Lisa Knew," Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel-and-Dimed," Anne Hodgeman's "No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch," and a section of Didion's "Salvador." Hodgeman's work comes right before Didion's, and while it is thoroughly entertaining to read a writer's account and review of dog food, it does not carry the same authority and gravity as Didion's reporting on the El Salvador death squads or Ehrenreich's undercover story exploring the world of poor women in 1998. While Roorbach incorporates more female New Journalists than Weingarten or Stull, this is not usually the case. Similar to traditional journalists, the majority of those considered to be "New Journalism's greatest practitioners" are male. But what compels readers and critics to include Didion on their lists? In Literary Selves Stull describes the "symbolic community influenced by and based on displays of gender" created by male New Journalists: Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and other literary journalists, for example, often participate in and/or write about ritual male activities, playing professional sports (George Plimpton), traveling with the Hell's Angels (Thompson), or covering the Vietnam War (Michael Herr). In each instance, the author affirms a generic male identity by testingat risk of injuryhis courage and physical prowess in confrontational moments. (Stull 5) 62


Didion, like Mailer or Thompson, often includes many details and events that would traditionally affirm her female identity. However, she also writes about actions that could be viewed as not traditionally female, such as her mobility in foreign countries in a state of turmoil or, as in the opening essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" (1966), the case of murderer Lucille Miller: "Here is where the wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style. The case of Lucille Maria Maxwell Miller is a tabloid monument to that new life style" ( The New Journalism 305). In this essay, as in most of her others, Didion connects one event or environment to a greater societal meaning. In The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe describes Didion's connections between the city of San Bernadino, the murder case, and Didion's fiction: "She portrays a combination of tedium, anxiety, and restlessness in the midst of Sunset luxuryall of which is somehow symbolized by the hot breath of the Santa Ana winds the same atmosphere that later was to give her novel Play It As It Lays an impact far beyond anything that happens in the story itself" (304). Didion's ability to write stories specific to certain people, such as Lucile Miller, and also connect them to a wider audience may have helped Didion gain a substantial following, and at times a largely female one. Caitlin Flanagan describes this phenomenon, which helped to put Didion on so many critics' lists, in "The Autumn of Joan Didion." 63


Flanagan is the daughter of the then-chairman of the Berkeley English Department, and met Didion while the author had served on a month-long teaching appointment as Regents' Lecturer at the university: "There's something weird going on with Joan Didion and women," my father remarked one night over dinner. Apparently, vast numbers of womenstudents, staff members, faculty, Berkeley peoplewere thronging to her office hours, hanging around the door of her classroom, arranging their schedules so that they could bump into her, or at least catch a glimpse of her, as she walked from the Faculty Club to Wheeler Hall. It was becoming clear that she didn't have just readers; she had fansnot the way writers have fans, but the way musicians and actors have fans and that almost all of them were female. (100) While this is only one example of the audiences who were, and still are, attracted to Didion's work, Flanagan describes it as a prominent one. For Flanagan, Didion's surge of college-age female fans stems from the way she describes what life is like for a "girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has" (96). Flanagan describes how these women value how Didion writes about the "exquisitely tender and often deeply melancholy feelings that are such a large part of the inner lives of women and especially of very young womenand girls who are leaving behind the uncomplicated, romance-drenched state of youth and coming to terms with what comes next" (102). 64


Didion's attention to detail in her writing is distinctly New Journalistic, but in addition, her words offer an overtly female knowledge lacking in many other prominent New Journalists of her time: 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 He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold," Thompson wrote. "All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better," Didion wrote. (Flanagan 96) Flanagan finds one difference between Didion and her male counterparts in their specific use of detail: This attentionserious, thoughtful, and audaciously self-assuredto clothes and houses and flatware accounts in large measure for the rapt interest women have always paid her work. Slouching Towards Bethlehem may be the book that taught us all that "writers are always selling somebody out," but it is also a very short book with four different sets of curtains in it: the frayed silk ones of the old Newport cottages, the pale appliquŽd muslin ones of the Hotel Playa de CortŽs in Guaymas, the paper 65


flowered ones in the fortune-tellers' booths on Hotel Street in Honolulu, and the yellow-silk ones she hung in her New York apartment, forgetting to weight them properly, so "all that summer the long panels of transparent golden silk would blow out the windows and get tangled and drenched in the afternoon thunderstorms." (101-102) While women might not have been so interested in curtains that they flocked to see her, they may have been excited to see aspects of their lives represented in print. In Journalism: the Democratic Craft, G. Stuart Adam and Roy Peter Clark explain that Didion's vivid language enables her readers to envision the scene she recounts (349). Flanagan's example of Didion's unweighted curtains unites the details of fabric and the realistic, though distinctly upper-class, associations that readers can make. Her details are relatable to audiences who have access to golden silk and Newport cottages, however, most readers do not. Possibly then, Didion's details are speaking to a specifically upperclass audience that may have been present at Berkeley during her time there. In addition New Journalism's attention to detail, the genre is also defined by the inclusion of personal, participatory, and often subjective writing. While each of these appear in Didion's reporting, the personal is more intense in her essays. Her essays, while not strictly New Journalism, resonate with several aspects of the genre, sometimes conveying personal intimacy through first-person narrative. In The Poetics of Joan Didion's Journalism Mark Z. Muggli discusses how Didion's "I" "goes beyond the intentionally neutral voice of the daily newsreporter" and is "a created, shifting character who speaks memorably and who sometimes anatomizes her own responses" (402). This 66


shifting "I" of her "New Journalism" becomes stronger and more prominent in her essays, where her own life experiences become the base of her writing. Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer also use first-person narratives in their works of New Journalism. Tom Wolfe describes Tompson's "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" (1970) as a routine magazine article that ended up as "quite something else." In this article, Thompson describes more than just the race: "I went back to bed for another hour or so, and laterafter the daily grapefruit juice run to the Nite Owl Food Martwe drove once again to the Ptomaine Village for a fine lunch of dough and butcher's offal, fried heavy in grease" ( The New Journalism 172, 187). In this piece, Thompson adds personal information about what is happening to him, but does not include his emotions. Thompson's earlier work Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga (1966) does, however, offer more of an emotional glimpse into the narrator: "a Hell's Angels rape in Los Angeles, and just in time for the July 3 paper. Given all of these fiery ingredients, I didn't feel a trace of alarmist guilt when I finally got a Bass LakeWashington connection and began outlining what was about to happen" (343). Similar to Thompson, Mailer breaks ground in New Journalism with his nonfiction novel Armies of the Night (1968). Wolfe describes Mailer's autobiographical work as "genuine": "Mailer did not cover the march on the Pentagon in 1967 as a reporter. He was one of the major participants in the demonstration. Since he was, in fact, a leading character in the event, his autobiographical view is a view from the inside, and his emotions and reactions help suggest the emotional reality of the event itself" (188). 14 Of these three works, 67 14 Mailer uses the third-person autobiographical form that was first popularized by Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams (1907). The main character in Mailer's work is not "I," but "Mailer" (189).


Mailer's includes the most emotional language. This may be a result of its third-person narration: "It was as if the air had changed, or light had altered; he felt immediately much more aliveyes, bathed in airand yet disembodied from himself, as if indeed he were watching himself in a film where this action was taking place" (189). This style seems like an effective way of reconciling authors' needs to be present in their writing, while still distancing themselves so they are not as vulnerable as they could be through firstperson narration. While both of these authors present themselves in their writing, they do not touch on the gender issues as Didion and women authors of the time do. As discussed in the previous chapter, though Didion strongly criticizes aspects of the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s, characteristics of feminist writing arise in more areas of Didion's work than just her subject matter and her portrayal of women. These characteristics can also be found in the style of her writing. The combination of personal stories and feelings with subjective writing can be found in both Didion's writing and feminist works of her time. Her use of the first person and her inclusion of personal experiences in her essays and memoirs resonate with feminist discourse, including works such as Jane Tompkins's "Me and My Shadow" (1987), which explores the differences between personal and professional, academic writing. In the rest of this chapter, I juxtapose the problems discussed in Tompkins's essay "Me and My Shadow" with Didion's personal essays, specifically "On Keeping A Notebook" (1966). In "Me and My Shadow," Tompkins struggles with her roles as a woman and as a scholar, which cause tension in her writing by forcing her to decide between colloquial 68


language and traditional academic and patriarchal language. In The Rhetorics of Feminism, Lynne Pearce describes Tompkins's essay as "personalist" criticism: What immediately makes one classify this as an essay that does' personalist criticism as well as write its manifesto, is the fact that it features a very memorable embodied Jane Tompkins.' This is the woman whoas everyone rememberswas wanting to go to the toilet even as she wrote her essay. This insistence on writing the body' very literally into textual/cultural analysis is, as has already been observed, one of the most pervasive features of the second-wave' feminism of all denominations. (60) Like Tompkins, Didion literally writes herself into her work. In her essay "In Bed" (1998), she discusses her own intense pain from and interest in migraines. Throughout the essay, Tompkins wrestles with the idea of the "two voices" with which she wants to respond to texts and theory, but which are not equally valued in the academic community. Because Tompkins writes much of this essay with her personal, emotional, "I" driven voice and includes descriptions of everyday activities, she strives to subvert the authority of patriarchal language as much as she can: The problem is that you can't talk about your private life in the course of doing your professional work. You have to pretend that epistemology, or whatever you're writing about, has nothing to do with your life, that it's more exalted, more important, because it (supposedly) transcends the merely personal. Well, I am tired of the conventions that keep discourses 69


of epistemology, or James Joyce, segregated from meditation on what is happening outside my window or inside my heart. The public-private dichotomy, which is to say the public-private hierarchy is a founding condition of female oppression. I say to hell with it. The reason I feel embarrassed at my own attempts to speak personally in a professional context is that I have been conditioned to feel that way. That's all there is to it. (169) The most colloquial part of the above quote is when Tompkins writes "I say to hell with it." Though the diction in "Me and My Shadow" is not always informal, there are several sections of more colloquial language: "(I have wanted to do this for a long time but have felt too embarrassed)" (169); "I think people are scared to talk about themselves, that they haven't got the guts to do it" (170); "just myself as a person sitting here in stocking feet, a little bit chilly because the windows are open, and thinking about going to the bathroom. But not going yet" (172-73); "Just me and my shadow, walkin' down the avenue" (174); "Why am I so angry?" (177). Her essay is not completely removed from academic language, but she incorporates enough colloquial discourse for her essay to read like a literary genre that is separate, or trying to separate itself, from traditional academic discourse. This separation is similar to the split between traditional and New Journalism. Even with these colloquial sections, the majority of Tompkins's personal voice comes from the inclusion of her own experiences and feelings. Throughout her essay, Tompkins strays from the academic jargon that is often inaccessible to those outside the scholarly community. For instance, she uses 70


"epistemology" as an example of academic writing, but does not analyze the theory of knowledge as part of her essay's thesis. In her feminist academic writing, such as her essay "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History," Tompkins relies on theory and literary examples rather than her own feelings and experience. In addition, her writing in "Me and My Shadow" reads as a way for her to explore her understanding over academic language and to show the personal self that rarely appears in her public writing. It is not a way for her to boost her intellectual ego, but rather a way to harness her anger. Much like Tompkins, Didion writes essays that feature first-person narratives. The second section of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), "Personals," includes the essay "On Keeping A Notebook," which highlights aspects of intimate writing that Tompkins supports: The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. My first notebook was a Big Five tablet, given to me by my mother with the sensible suggestion that I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts. She returned the tablet to me a few years ago; the first entry is an account of a woman who believed herself to be 71


freezing to death in the Arctic night, only to find, when day broke, that she had stumbled onto the Sahara Desert, where she would die of the heat before lunch. I have no idea what turn of a five-year-old's mind could have prompted so insistently "ironic" and exotic a story, but it does reveal a certain predilection for the extreme which has dogged me into adult life. (101-02) Not only do both Tompkins and Didion illustrate their points by including personal details, but they also use examples that leave them vulnerable. Tompkins includes passages that describe her everyday life and confusion: "I saw that I had been socialized from birth to feel and act in ways that automatically excluded me from participating in the culture's most valued activities. No wonder I felt so uncomfortable in the postures academic prose forced me to assume; it was like wearing men's jeans" (170). Additionally, both Tompkins and Didion make themselves vulnerable by evaluating their mental status. Tompkins includes information from her therapist to help support her argument with emotional and thus more traditionally feminine language: A therapist once suggested to me that I blamed on sexism a lot of stuff that really had to do with my own childhood. Her view was basically the one articulated in Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child in which the good child had been made to develop a false self by parents who cathect the child narcissistically. My therapist meant that if I worked out some of my problemsas she understood them, on a psychological levelmy feminist rage would subside. (178) 72


Male discourse can also be very personal and emotional, such as Mailer's anger against the government. But traditionally, women's writing has often been described as more emotional and sensitive. Similar to Tompkins, Didion copies a psychiatric report into the title essay of The White Album (1979) and ironically juxtaposes it with news that she won a prestigious award around the same time as learning her diagnosis. She adds: The patient to whom this psychiatric report refers is me. The tests mentionedthe Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception Test, the Sentence Completion Test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Indexwere administered privately, in the outpatient psychiatric clinic at the St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, in the summer of 1968, shortly after I suffered the "attack of vertigo and nausea" mentioned in the first sentence and shortly before I was named a Los Angeles Times "Woman of the Year." 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. (188) A feminist view of Didion's report may frame the mind-body connection in relation to the patriarchal status of the Los Angeles Times and conclude that Didion's attack of vertigo and nausea was a subconscious reaction to being judged by the male-dominated institution. For Didion, including the report is a way to show her reactions toward what she sees as the changing culture and moral values of the 1960s. In an essay on narrating place in The White Album, Mattias BolkŽus Blom describes how Didion "charts her own psychological problems, but as always in her writing she makes her personal become if not universal, at least generally relevant in a public sense. To all intents and purposes, 73


the psychiatric report is national rather than personal" (166). However, I see no reason to choose between national and personal; her report i s both. The feminist "slogan" of the 1960s and 1970s, "The personal is political," could help to provide a link between these two views, as well as between Tompkins and Didion and colloquial and patriarchal language. 15 While language can often be patriarchal, to consider all of it patriarchal would severely hinder discourse on the subject. In "Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression," bell hooks discusses the popular phrase: All too often the slogan "the person is political" (which was first used to stress that woman's everyday reality is informed and shaped by politics and is necessarily political) became a means of encouraging women to think that the experience of discrimination, exploitation, or oppression automatically corresponded with an understanding of the ideological and institutional apparatus shaping one's social status. As a consequence, many women who had not fully examined their situation never developed a sophisticated understanding of their political reality and its relationship to that of woman as a collective group. They were encouraged to focus on giving voice to personal experience. Broader perspectives can only emerge as we examine both the political that is personal, the politics of society as a whole, and global revolutionary politics. (53) 74 15 The slogan is sometimes thought to originate from second-wave feminist Carol Hanisch's essay "The Personal Is Political," which was originally published in 1970 for the feminist anthology Notes from the Second Year: Women's Liberation However, Hanisch refutes this claim in her 2006 introduction to the republished essay: "I'd like to clarify for the record that I did not give the paper its title, The Personal Is Political.' As far as I know, that was done by Notes from the Second Year editors Shulie Firestone and Anne Koedt after Kathie Sarachild brought it to their attention as a possible paper to be printed in that early collection" (1). The phrase was most likely widely used in the women's movement before the publication.


If this is the case, then the personal experience found in Tompkins's and Didion's work are one necessary part of a larger whole. The phrase brings to light the societal factors interwoven with problems that women were told originated within their individual selves, but were actually issues faced by many women. Both Tompkins and Didion use first-person narration, which reduces the distance between author and reader. In "Me and My Shadow," Tompkins addresses her role as a reader: "I love writers who write about their own experiences. I feel I'm being nourished by them, that I'm being allowed to enter into a personal relationship with them, that I can match my own experiences with theirs, feel cousin to them, and say, yes, that's how it is" (170). Her use of the family term "cousin" closely relates to the word "sister" that some feminists often used. In "On Keeping A Notebook," Didion uses the pronouns "I," "us," and "we," which makes her a more accessible narrator and helps to build closer relationships with her readers through what she assumes is a shared experience: Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point. It is a difficult point to admit. We are brought u p in the ethic t hat others, any other, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. ("You're the least important person in the room and don't forget it," Jessica Mitford's governess would hiss in her ear on the advent of any social occasion; I copied that into my notebook because it is only recently that I have been able to enter a room without hearing some such phrase in my inner ear.) Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams 75


at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people's favorite dresses, other people's trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable "I." (104) Though every reader does not have similar enough experiences to relate to every author, the inclusion of personal aspects in a narrative allows for the possibility of a closer understanding. An especially striking example is Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), which provides a first-person account of her daughter's illness, the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the grief that followed: Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity (3). These words are the first lines of the memoir, and Didion echoes them throughout the rest of the work. Because of her use of the first person and the universal subject matter of grief, Didion, like Tompkins, vulnerably reaches out to the reader to support her point. Even if readers have not had the shared experience, many would be able to imagine it, either on their own or with details provided by the author. In "The Implacable I': Didion" from Chapters of Experience: Studies in 20th Century American Autobiography Gordon O. Taylor describes the drive behind Didion's use of the first person in The White Album : "no longer needing to explain at length that a notebook of one's observations is really about oneself as observer, she refers to herself 76


once in passing as I, the implacable I,' but exerts throughout the book her power to personalize the world, less relentlessly intent on remaking it in her image than on making her way into it by seeing it in her mind" (147). While it's unclear how Taylor can know Didion's intent, he confirms that Didion's personalization of essays, such as "On Keeping A Notebook," runs deeper than her grammatical person and can extend to a reader who has had or can imagine a similar experience. Both Tompkins and Didion use personal experiences and colloquial language, which produce related works. Tompkins harnesses it to circumvent patriarchal language found in traditional academic discourse, but she also brings up a greater problem of language. Though Tompkins discusses traditional academic language as patriarchal, she does not explain how there is no firewall between that kind of language and the types of language used throughout feminist discourse such as consciousness-raising sessions popular in the 1970s. Through the first person, Didion attempts to personalize subjects and moral issues in her essays, while still making them accessible for the reader. Both writers use similar strategies to produce works that question representations of gender roles in writing. Because Didion writes with personal language to convey a greater message, she often generalizes her own experiences as common or universal truths. In the third volume of Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism Dawn Keetley recounts the evolution of second-wave feminism: Rather than working from an explanatory frameworka pre-existent ideal of women's liberationconsciousness raising started with "bitch session" cell groups in which individual women took turns speaking emotionally, 77


trying to locate the deep-rooted sources of their discontent and oppression. "Active listening" and a broader group discussion ensued in which onceisolated personal feelings and experiences evolved into collective problems and causes for action; then came the identification of the historical forces responsible for women's subordination, and finally, specific strategies to oppose those forces. This bottom-up approach to consciousness raising not only proved to be personally liberating but also created a new unity among women around their subjection to sexism and the shared meaning of feminism. (159) It would be compelling to see Didion's work as one set of personal feelings and experiences in conversation with other women of her time. While not a traditional, embodied consciousness-raising session where participants are physically and emotionally available for one another, her stories could be seen as one portion of a literary "bitch session" that has yet to reach its completion. Doing so may help readers understand how and where Didion's nonfiction relates to the women's movement of the 1970s and feminist discourse that handles issues of gender, power, and voice. Additionally, Didion's works of New Journalism, especially her writing that focuses on oppressionwhich is often woman-related such as sexual violencemay be viewed as a way for Didion to bring more voices into these sessions. Though Didion's journalism is filtered through and includes her own perspective, she tells stories of others who might otherwise not have the means or opportunity to recount them without her. 78


Conclusion: Looking Back and Moving Forward In A Book of Common Prayer, while Grace begins to identify with Charlotte, readers can draw connections between Charlotte and other literary figures who have similarly ambiguous endings. Though this thesis focuses mainly on Didion as an author of the 1970s era, her writing often resonates with works by earlier women authors. Many turn-of-the-century works by women address a similar disillusionment over traditional female roles such as motherhood. Charlotte Douglas's end resonates with Kate Chopin's character Edna Pontellier in The Awakening (1899) and Edith Wharton's character Lily Bart in The House of Mirth (1905). According to Peter Barry in Beginning Theory (2009): The representation of woman in literature, then, was felt to be one of the most important forms of "socialization," since it provided the role models which indicated to women, and men, what constituted acceptable versions of the "feminine" and legitimate feminine goals and aspirations. Feminists point out, for example, that in nineteenth-century fiction very few women work for a living, unless they are driven to it by dire necessity. Instead, the focus of interest is on the heroine's choice of marriage partner, which will decide her ultimate social position and exclusively determine her happiness and fulfillment in life, or her lack of these. Thus, in feminist criticism in the 1970s the major effort went into exposing what might be called the mechanisms of patriarchy, that is, the cultural "mind-set" in men and women which perpetuated sexual 79


inequality. (117) These mechanisms of patriarchy are evident in A Book of Common Prayer and the rest of Didion's fiction as well as in Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Edna, a member of a prosperous family in New Orleans, struggles with her socially dictated roles as wife and mother, craving a freedom that these roles do not provide: In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-woman seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it as a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels. (29) In the end, Edna walks into and is overtaken by the Gulf of Mexico, the same water in which she learns to swim earlier in the novel. Like Edna, Lily is a member of the ruling elite, but she does not have her own money, and is torn between her social and personal aspirations. After she loses her social standing, suitors, and inheritance, Lily overdoses on a sleeping medication that she has been regularly taking: "She did not quite remember what it was that she had been afraid to meet, but the uncertainty no longer troubled her. She had been unhappy, and now she was happyshe had felt herself alone, and now the sense of loneliness had vanished. (323). Each of these characters die after struggling with anxiety over competing roles and after feeling a strong sense of being alone in the world. 80


Both Grace and Charlotte face a similar loneliness because of their positions as outsiders in Boca Grande. If these characters are read as suicidaland critics have debated thisthen their final acts reflect their choices to rid themselves of anxiety through death. Similar to Charlotte, I read Edna and Lily as suicidal. As Didion moved forward from her work in the 1970s and 1980s, she gradually shifted from writing novels and essays to focusing more attention on memoir. As discussed throughout the previous chapters, Didion incorporates personal elements in her essays. However, all the different genres Didion participates in lead up to her two memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2011) Memoir can be a tricky form of writing. Often, as with journalism and essays, there are questions about what information is accurate and if one person's memory can really be trusted and unbiased when conveying their own past. The now-classic example of James Frey's semifictional memoir A Million Little Pieces (2003) comes to mind. Though originally marketed as entirely a memoir, aspects of his narrative were later proven false. Memoir is one of the most popular genres and has been for some time. At times it can seem like the reality television version of literature, but it can also be an informative and innovative genre. In Didion's memoirs, she combines literary and journalistic techniques found in her previous works. In A Year of Magical Thinking, Didion takes her readers through the details of her husband's death, her daughter's hospitalization, and her process of healingor not hearlingduring the months following his heart attack. The memoir features detailed narrative scenes, figurative language, precise quotes and descriptions of medical incidents, along with Didion's grief and stories about her late 81


husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo Dunne. One particularly vidid scene takes place in the hospital immediately after John's death: The doctor looked at the social worker. "It's okay," the social worker said. "She's a pretty cool customer." They took me into the curtained cubicle where John lay, alone now. They asked if I wanted a priest. I said yes. A priest appeared and said the words. I thanked him. The social worker asked if he could do anything more for me. I said he could put me in a taxi. He did, I thanked him. "Do you have money for the fare," he asked. I said I did, the cool customer. I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream? (15-16) In Didion's latest memoir, Blue Nights she not only grieves over the untimely death of her daughter, but also examines motherhood and aging. At the beginning of Blue Nights, Didion flashes back to her daughter's wedding: When she said she wanted cucumber and watercress sandwiches at her wedding I remembered her laying out plates of cucumber and watercress sandwiches on the tables we had set up around the pool for her sixteenthbirthday lunch. When she said she wanted leis in place of bouquets at her wedding I remembered her at three or four or five getting off of a plane at Bradley Field in Hartford wearing the leis she had been given when she left Honolulu the night before. The temperature in Connecticut that morning was six degrees below zero and she had no coat (she had been wearing no coat when we left Los Angeles for Honolulu, we had not 82


expected to go on to Hartford) but she had seen no problem. Children with leis don't wear coats, she advised me. (6) To continue this thesis would be to look at Didion's memoir in relation to more current forms of gender-related criticism such as queer theory, possibly through comparing Didion's fluidity of genre with the fluidity of gender. In A Book of Common Prayer, it may be difficult to deconstruct the binaryhomosexuality and heterosexuality through a queer theory reading. For one thing, her characters are always aligned with one side of the binary or the other. However, it may be helpful to use a queer theory lens to look at some of her characters' shifting gender roles, such as when Charlotte kills the chicken with her bare hands. In addition, most of A Book of Common Prayer 's male characters are the ones who have access to weapons, or as Charlotte calls them, "hardware" (238). But, similar to Elena in The Last Thing He Wanted, Carmen de Arrellano is given access to weapons when she destroys the desperately needed vaccine with a M-16. Through ever-changing gender roles, these characters could be read as not simply man or woman. They can vary from either, to both, or to a combination of other genders to create a unique identity that is not weighed down by a strict dichotomy. In addition, readers could gain valuable insight through further examination of alternative authors who write across genre boundaries, their relation to Didion, and their connection to gender-related issues. While there was not enough room in this thesis to examine the screenplays Didion wrote with her husband, including A Panic in Needle Park (1971) and a remake of A Star is Born (1976), it would be useful to see how questions of gender in the films compare to similar issues in her other works. 83


Didion's opinions on the Women's Liberation Movement have evolved as she has grown as an author. In Boom! Tom Brokaw explains that Didion later acknowledged that the Women's Liberation Movement was "the catalyst for the vast improvements in the workplace": "She described a niece who works for a large pharmaceutical company in California where child care and equal opportunity are now a fixed part of the company offices" (225). Many aspects of society in the United States have changed since the 1970s, due to many events and factors, including the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Liberation Movement, and the outrage felt by many over the Vietnam War. Though advances have been made for women in the workplace, there are still old and new issues being fought every day. The difficult situations portrayed in Didion's works reflect ongoing problems of gender and power that gained attention and momentum during the social revolutions of the 1970s, but have yet to be resolved. However, as Didion comments, feminist advances in the workplace and politics have come a long way since the 1970s largely due to the Women's Liberation Movement. While I cannot speak for the college women of my generation, I can say that access to academic courses on gender and sexuality, including Queer Theory and masculinity studies, seems more widespread and that constantly streaming media and internet discourses allow for the inclusion of more opinions. I have not read Didion's work as a young Berkeley student or as an upper-class woman in the 1970s, but as a person immersed in the media and culture of the twenty-first century. I do not always catch or immediately understand the popular culture references and meanings that Didion includes in her writing, but that is the beauty of her work. It is not only about the 84


assignment she was given or the who/what/where/when facts of the initial story; it is also about why we are reading and telling ourselves these stories. 85


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