Joan Didion’s genius perfectly balances feelings and emotions

Parenting is messy. It was fun, but full of sadness. Moments of ambiguity are often preceded by immense confusion, and while some days are exciting, others sound monotonous. But any parent will tell you that parenting is a game changer, one that not only changes the way we see ourselves but also changes the way we see the world.

Joan Didion, the 87-year-old journalist and author who died at her home in New York City from complications from Parkinson’s disease, knows it too. A literary force, a keen social observer (and critic) and, arguably one of the greatest essayists of all time, she was also a mother. Her life is very rare. Her parenting — chronicled in her writing, marked by the insecurities and joys of raising a child — was all too familiar.

In a 2011 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Clean AirDidion talks about how she wants to have a baby someday when she’s in her twenties, and can’t be ignored. After trying to conceive for several years to no avail with her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, the couple adopted a baby girl in 1966. They named her Quintana Roo. In a photo of Didion and her newborn baby taken around that time, her expression seems to say: “I can’t believe this baby exists. What do we do with her now? ” (As a mother of two boys, I can be contacted.)

Quintana died in 2005, at the age of 39, after a string of unorthodox medical problems that began with the flu. In Blue night, Didion’s 2012 meditation on grief and death Written after her daughter’s death, she writes about the uncertainty and ignorance of new parenthood. How, when Quintana arrived, Didion received 60 white dresses from flamingo friends and family, only later did she realize the impracticality of the dresses and they treated her child like a child. little doll.

Or the couple is getting ready to embark on a business trip to Saigon the year Quintana arrives. Never thinking of going out of business, Didion shows how she decided on the things she would need for the trip (“Donald Brooks’ pastel linen dress for me; a Porthault parasol with flowers to baby sunshade”) with a simplicity that all parents know the reality of traveling anywhere (even across town) with a newborn.

Due to the deadline Dunne faced, and not a breakthrough on how to handle a child, the trip never happened.

Didion is a working mom with a pedigree and a star career path. She worked at Vogue in the early days of his career. She is adventurous and intelligent, and has written extensively around her contemporaries (many men). She wears a headscarf and large sunglasses. Her photographs from the ’60s and ’70s are uncharacteristically captivating: standing amid mid-century modern furniture while holding a cold cigarette, leaning against a sleek Stingray sports car, sitting with Quintana, left finger on the blonde’s hair.

There are parties and celebrities and a life of ramshackle luxury in Malibu, and Quintana has a lot of that, a child in her parents’ profession. But motherhood can be a difficult place, and Didion seems to sense it. Despite becoming a mother in the early days of the women’s movement, Didion did not consider herself a frontrunner. “I never thought I would have to figure it out,” she told Gross. “I always thought I would work, and I always thought I would have children, if I was lucky enough.”

Reconciling the two proved to be difficult. She writes about having to go to work during her daughter’s formative years and the associated complexes, cynicism, feelings of failure as a mother. Or did it take her years to realize Quintana’s struggles with alcoholism, depression, and borderline personality disorder. She often says that she’s not sure she’s done a very good job. Quintana half-heartedly: “I think you’re a good parent, but maybe a little aloof,” she said, in a mentioned quote.


Didion attends Dominick Dunne’s funeral, August 26, 2009.

Rick Gershon / Getty

I’ve been through Blue night for two days, after Didion’s late arrival to work. Reading her memorable quotes about missing her daughter — recalling everything from the way she held a pen in her childhood to the flash of red-soled shoes on her wedding day — is a must. challenge. My babies, 4 and 11 months old at the time, seemed so new and limitless that my husband and I couldn’t seem to envision them as fully formed human beings. , with separate life and internal compass (mostly) calibrated by my husband and I.

Dunne died two years before Quintana; Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s book about that experience, released in 2005. The rapid succession of losses, along with her observations and reflections on the grieving process, as well as her own death, established Didion as a voice of grief, someone trained in the grandeur of the task of encapsulating how it feels (how it really feels) when a loved one dies.

But her work, long before her loss, often focuses on motherhood, such as in the 1977 novel, in which a mother watches her daughter get into all sorts of trouble. . In interviews, Didion often says that writing those types of characters helps prepare her for Quintana, as an adult, to come out into the world.

The children leave. Life happens. Parents worry — not just about the children who have spoken, but also about their ability to shepherd them.

“I don’t know many parents who think they have succeeded as parents,” she wrote in Blue night. “Real people tend to cite signs of (their own) world status: a Stanford degree, a Harvard MBA, a summer with a white shoe law firm. Which of us is less inclined to praise ourselves for our parenting skills, in other words, most of us recite the rosary about our failures, our neglects, our failures. our carelessness and transgression. “


Musician Wynton Marsalis applauds as author Joan Didion stands up to receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree at Harvard University on June 4, 2009.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

In the 2017 documentary Joan Didion: The center will not hold, Didion sat as her nephew, Griffin Dunne, interviewed her. In an early scene, when talking about her days in the hippie Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, he asks her about a time when, while retelling a story, she witnessed a child 5-year-old child was splashed with acid. What did she think when she saw that? She paused for a beat before answering.

“Well, that’s… Let me tell you, it’s gold,” she said. “I mean, long and short are like that. You’ve lived for moments like that if you’re working on a piece. Good or bad.”

That’s not the answer I was expecting. But there’s something thrilling about her honesty. That was the reaction of a previous journalist. It is the response of a persistent truth-seeker fueled by a search for details and a factual story, often independent of emotion. It’s the response of a woman who values ​​her career, her creative process, her professional autonomy — and still manages to raise a child. That experience may not be perfect. But it is true. Joan Didion’s genius perfectly balances feelings and emotions


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