second read

What Happened Here?

Joan Didion’s forty-year-old cautionary tale still fits America
February 25, 2010

It was my mother, of all people, who introduced me to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. This was in the early summer of 1980, when I was not quite nineteen and living, first with two friends and later by myself, in a studio apartment on Haight Street in San Francisco. My next-door neighbor was a jovial ex-biker turned dope dealer who shared his studio with a (very) young wife and a fifteen-year-old runaway. Downstairs lived a guitar player who had once jammed with the Grateful Dead. I was taking a year off between high school and college, and Haight Street was my own little slice of hippie paradise, rundown and edgy in ways that seemed glamorous to me.

Then as now, the streets of the District were populated by a motley crew of burnouts: street kids with rucksacks and rasta caps, and squatters living in the abandoned buildings on Masonic who came down to panhandle in front of Uganda Liquors. I was an outsider—a kind of cultural tourist, living in San Francisco for six months before returning to the regulated world I’d always known—and there was something about their hand-to-mouth existence that I allowed myself to believe was authentic, even free.

For my mother, I see now, this was a dangerous narrative. That the Haight was already dead, in the early summer of 1980, was beside the point; it was not the present that interested me. I was more concerned with the idea of recapturing something. It wasn’t that I was ignorant. I understood what I thought to be the larger story, the way a romantic movement—the Haight of the early-to-mid-1960s—had been co-opted by the mainstream, a corruption so profound it had inspired the Diggers to stage a “Death of Hippie” funeral procession on Haight Street in October 1967.

I had read Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. I knew the revolution had failed. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published in 1971, Thompson offered his own elegy for the era: “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

And yet I observed the scene around me with no sense of context, no idea of what it meant. It was during my time in San Francisco that Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination for president, and I can still recall watching his acceptance speech on television in a friend’s apartment near the Marina, reacting as if it had not been the obvious outcome all along. When I think back on the moment, it is always with a pinprick of self-loathing for not having recognized Reagan as the inevitable reaction, the symbolic counterweight, to the hippie myth. That, of course, is another story. What’s important is that I didn’t know enough.

As it happens, this is precisely the point of Slouching Towards Bethlehem—both the collection and the long title piece, which recounts the author’s experience in Haight-Ashbury in the weeks and months leading up to the Summer of Love. Published in 1968, this collection of magazine pieces is, on the most basic level, a reaction to its moment. Yet that is no longer where its power resides. Now we are drawn to its peculiar sense of cultural dissolution, which Didion weaves relentlessly through every piece.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Even at eighteen, I knew the Yeats poem from which she takes her title, and which she quotes in its entirety as an epigraph. “Things fall apart,” Yeats writes, “the centre cannot hold.” And, a few lines down: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” This is what caused my mother to press Slouching Towards Bethlehem on me. “Read the Haight-Ashbury essay,” she repeated, her voice a little urgent over the long-distance wires, as if conveying a cautionary tale. And why not? For her, that’s exactly what it was: a portrait not just of the dangerous territory in which, she feared, her son was treading, but also of the breakdown of a certain set of shared assumptions, a certain narrative.

Didion’s collection opens with a searing essay called “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” It has become one of the author’s iconic pieces, a model of the form. Still, for all that’s been said about the essay, it’s worth looking at again, both for how it sets up the rest of the book and how it establishes the key elements of Didion’s authorial stance. It is a story about a murder in which the crime and its protagonists are not even described until four pages have passed. At its heart is a tawdry domestic drama—the marriage of Gordon and Lucille Miller, a San Bernardino couple awash in debt and acrimony, which ends with Gordon being burned up in the back of the family Volkswagen, in a fire Lucille may or may not have set. For Didion, this is nothing short of a master metaphor, one rooted not only in the actual events but in the Southern California noir tradition, “in which violence and threats and blackmail are made to seem commonplaces of middle-class life.”

Didion is always attuned to the role landscape plays in human agency, to the exigencies and influences of place. And for her, place has everything to do with weather—or more broadly, what we might call the elements. Growing up in Sacramento, a delta city sustained by farming and protected from the adjacent river by a complex, New Orleans-style network of levees, she knows the risks of nature in her bones. That’s clear from the opening lines of “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” with their invocation of the Santa Ana winds:

This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.

What we’re seeing is the creation of a narrative. It’s a narrative of conditionality, of breakdown, in which the physical environment and the human environment can’t help but reflect each other. Lucille and Gordon Miller are the perfect protagonists for such a tale: rootless, grasping, unable to believe in much of anything, not even (or especially) themselves. They have come to California looking for something. But as these opening lines make explicit, it is the wrong California, “the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else.”

Here Didion exposes the underside of the great Golden State myth: that it is a land of reinvention, in which we escape the past to find ourselves. For the Millers (and by implication, countless others), it is a land of disconnection, in which we are not reborn but lost. Such a theme colors the whole of Slouching. It is there in “Where the Kissing Never Stops,” a biting portrait of Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in the Carmel Valley (“a place where the sun shines and the ambiguities can be set aside a little while longer, a place where everyone can be warm and loving and share confidences”). And it is there in the bleak, fulminating title essay, with its vision of Haight-Ashbury as the epicenter of a children’s revolution:

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.

There is here a strong whiff of class consciousness, or an innate conservatism—or more accurately, a bit of both. It makes sense, given Didion’s status as a former Goldwater Republican (she started out writing for the National Review) turned social observer in a culture collapsing inward on itself. This is the source of her cool, ironic distance: what she called, in a 2006 interview, her air of “triangulation.”

She addresses the same topic in her preface to Slouching. “My only advantage as a reporter,” she declares, “is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” This is, you could argue, the basic rule of journalism; like any reporter, Didion has to negotiate access, which she then uses to her own ends. But she is also talking about the larger picture, the round-robin of chaos and self-deception which permeates the book down to its smallest details.

Sometimes the chaos is explicitly political. In “Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)”—the very title of which makes trenchant sport of the tortured fragmentation of the 1960s radical left—she profiles the twenty-six-year-old “General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party U.S.A. (Marxist-Leninist), a splinter group of Stalinist-Maoists who divide their energies between Watts and Harlem.” Despite this tongue-twister of a title, Michael Laski strikes Didion as a boy terrified of chaos, living in “an immutably ordered world.” Comrade Laski, she observes, “had with him a small red book of Mao’s poems, and as he talked he squared it on the table, aligned it with the table edge first vertically and then horizontally. To understand who Laski is you must have a feeling for that kind of compulsion. One does not think of him eating, or in bed.”

There’s no mistaking the judgment in that description, just as there is no mistaking the sense that Lucille Miller’s greatest sin isn’t that she may have murdered her husband (Didion remains remarkably nuanced on that issue), but that she comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Yet the author recognizes something of herself—something of her inner weather—in the young apparatchik:

As it happens I am comfortable with the Michael Laskis of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments: I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.

I know something about dread myself. The phrase reverberates throughout her entire body of work. “You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the ameliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor,” Didion writes in her 1979 essay collection The White Album. She continues: “I have trouble making certain connections. I have trouble maintaining the basic notion that keeping promises matters in a world where everything I was taught seems beside the point. The point itself seems increasingly obscure.”

I remember reading those sentences in that early summer of 1980, just days after devouring Slouching (I read the two books back to back, which may be why I think of them as companion volumes), and telling myself, Yes, that’s it precisely, that’s the story of our time. The center does not hold, bad things happen to good people, and the consolations of narrative are shaky at best. This would seem to contradict Didion’s signature line from The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But even that lovely sentiment doesn’t tell the entire story, as Didion clarifies in the next, less quotable paragraph: “Or at least we do for a while.”

Indeed, this tension between the need for narrative and the narrative-resistant “atomization” of our culture is the engine that drives Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Again and again we sense Didion’s subjects clinging to a shred of story, to some idea of the way things ought to be done.

When, late in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Lucille Miller is convicted of killing her husband, her confidante Sandy Slagle starts to scream in the courtroom. “Sandy, for God’s sake please don’t,” Lucille pleads, as if there were a decorum for her situation—as if the worst thing imaginable would be to make a scene. “Marrying Absurd” highlights a different sort of disassociation, between the tinseled banality of the Las Vegas marriage mill and the desire, still prevalent in the America of the mid-1960s, to get married in “a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train.” At first glance, this essay seems to be no more than an anthropological fluff piece. For Didion, though, it’s another chance to explore the yawning gap between who we are and who we think we are, between those stories we tell ourselves and the ways we actually live.

Is there a way to resolve this? Slouching doesn’t offer much in the way of hope. One can always surrender to nostalgia for a kinder, gentler, less fragmented era. Didion herself is not immune to this impulse, even as she recognizes the fleeting nature of its charms. “John Wayne: A Love Song,” ostensibly a report from the set of The Sons of Katie Elder, becomes an unlikely evocation of her own feelings of loss and longing. “As it happened,” she writes, “I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.”

The tone in the Wayne piece is reminiscent of “Goodbye to All That,” the collection’s closing effort, and its most personal: a scabrous account of how the author fell out of love with New York. “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends,” she insists, then catalogues all the ways her dream (that favorite Didion word) of the city as a kind of cosmopolitan fantasy fell apart. “That was the year, my twenty-eighth,” she writes later in the piece, “when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

It’s impossible, reading that, not to think about the Haight-Ashbury essay my mother so wanted me to absorb. It is an account from ground zero of the splintering of everything, of the atomization that Didion finds both fascinating and dreadful. Constructed as a series of fragments that don’t so much build as circle around each other, like planets around a dead sun, the piece makes narrative out of the absence of narrative. “He came up from Los Angeles some number of weeks ago, he doesn’t remember what number,” she writes about “a kid, sixteen, seventeen,” who has been shooting speed for three days, “and now he’ll take off for New York, if he can find a ride. I show him a sign offering a ride to Chicago. He wonders where Chicago is.” Even four decades later, the moment leaves us with a feeling of discomfort, an almost physical sense of just how badly things have gone wrong.

This is the story Didion tells throughout the essay, even as she appears to tell no story at all. There are a handful of principals to whom she periodically returns: Max, who “drops a 250- or 350-microgram tab [of acid] every six or seven days,” and his teenage girlfriend, Sharon; Arthur Lisch, one of the leaders of the Diggers, who worries that the influx of runaways to the District will lead to a full-blown humanitarian crisis; Chet Helms, of the Family Dog, who in one of the essay’s most revealing asides informs Didion that “fifty percent of the population is or will be under twenty-five” and “they got twenty billion irresponsible dollars to spend.” (Long live the revolution, indeed.) The structure is loose, even rambling. Yet the chance encounters prompt some of Didion’s most incisive commentary. At one point, she meets a pair of teenage runways, Jeff and Debbie, and eventually notes:

We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. At some point between 1945 and 1967, we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling.

This is the warning my mother meant to give me, although it was unnecessary in the end. As much as I wanted to think of myself as a stepchild of the revolution, I was not wired for a nihilism so profound. In the penultimate scene of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion meets a five-year-old named Susan who “lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, ice cream, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach.” Susan is also tripping on LSD.

“For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote,” Didion writes, in her usual tone of sun-bleached neutrality. “Susan describes it as getting stoned.” Then, for the only time in the essay—in the collection—her mask of cool detachment drops. “I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.” It’s a simple moment. All these years later, however, it evokes the depth of the breakdown, the cost of the fragmentation, the loss of the narrative.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is undoubtedly a document of its time, but it also has a lot to say about the present, by telling us how we got to where we are. Barack Obama is one descendant of the cultural shift Didion traces in these pages, with his patchwork story, self-constructed and stitched together by sheer intention. Sarah Palin, with her blatant disregard for history, her cynical faith in her constituency’s willingness to forget, is another. The birthers and the 9/11 conspiracy theorists exemplify our lack of common narrative, as well as the notion that belief alone is now enough, in certain quarters, to make something true. “How much of it actually happened?” Didion asks at one point. “Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores.” If Slouching Towards Bethlehem has anything to tell us, it’s that these questions remain as elusive as when Didion first posed them, in an era much like this one, when, as Yeats would have it, we no longer know “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

David L. Ulin is a contributor to CJR.