10/05/2010 § Leave a comment

What would Joan Didion do?

The very sentence probably would make her laugh in a curiously uncomfortable way, but at the same time feel that all too warm feeling when you know you have made an impression on someone. She has impressed many with her elegance in prose, but I wonder if she knows that her words saved me in during some of my darkest days.

Didion grew up in Sacramento, California, but she didn’t turn into the conventional sunshine-y, valley girl. As she notes, home was filled with dust-covered momentos and moments of mental collapse, she developed a darkness within to shut-out the light.

She has evolved a clear and persistent talent of introspection that, on her best days, would be overwhelming, like a curiously, over-analytical machine. I don’t even know how she got her thoughts on paper.

I had recently borrowed Slouching Towards Bethlehem from L, upon her recommendation, based on the fact that I have read 3 Didion books to date, starting in November 2009. This will be my fourth.

Her prose is inspirational, it’s real and raw and touched with a sense of irony, transparently twisted around political undertones. I write this post as an homage, a thanks.

Although I am not religious, nor do I like to make religious references to people or ideas, I would like to reclaim the b-thumping bracelet brand as a catchy, secular (?), thought process in healing. WWJDD? I do it for every initial I can interject in its place: Y – for you, M – for mom, I – for I, and O – for Oprah (whatever she does, I do the opposite. The Oprahsite? No.)

One of her — Didion’s, not Oprah’s — Personals essays is called On Self-Respect, and I don’t think I need to summarize the gist of it. However, there are parts that need to be shared, the parts that pulled me off the couch that I didn’t move from — for two days — and made me feel normal again, like I wasn’t just a spoiled brat who just couldn’t get over it. I still am not, but, because of her, or at least her words, I am getting better.

Even though I had been reading all of her essays in Slouching, it was her opening line in On Self-Respect that grabbed my attention, and, for a moment, I didn’t need glasses:

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes one-self.

Wham. I didn’t know what hit me, I didn’t even know if I knew what I just read, if it even made any sense at all. I reread that phrase over and over, and like a mathematical equation, I wrote the basic structure of her words to decipher its meaning. I discovered, through her hidden code, that I, too, might not like myself, not because I was cruel or mean, but because I was losing my self-respect.

My pity party was coming to a close.

A couple pages later,

We flatter ourselves by thinking  this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.

She was psycho-analyzing my life right before my eyes, right there in black-on-white. Praytell!

To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves — there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

By George, I think she’s got it.



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