By Susan StraightOctober 25, 2011
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
“SHE WAS BORN IN THE FIRST HOUR of the third day of March, 1966, at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica,” Joan Didion writes in Blue Nights.
We were told that we could adopt her late the afternoon of the same day … One of the nurses had tied a pink ribbon in the fierce dark hair. “Not that baby,” John would repeat to her again and again in the years that followed, reenacting the nursery scene, the recommended “choice” narrative, the moment when, of all the babies in the nursery, we picked her. “Not that baby… that baby. The baby with the ribbon.”
“Do that baby,” she would repeat in return …
And, as it happens, on the night of finding the baby in 1966, Didion realizes that she is not ready. That night, Didion’s sister-in-law informs her that they must go to Saks in the morning to buy a layette. Didion is appalled that she hadn’t even thought of a layette, or a bassinet, and she dreams that very same night that she’s left the baby asleep in a drawer and forgotten her. “Dreaming in other words that I had failed,” she writes. “Been given a baby and failed to keep her safe.”
The baby, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, died at age 39. Blue Nights opens with what would have been Quintana’s seventh wedding anniversary.
I first read Joan Didion at age 17, in a class at USC, when the professor gave us “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” That story — of one Lucille Miller, a wife and mother who isn’t satisfied with her life in the San Bernardino Valley, who has an affair, who murders her husband by burning him alive in a 1964 Volkswagen in a lemon grove — was written in 1966, just before the adoption of the baby, I assume. I have read it maybe 50 times:
This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids,” they say without regret, and look to the future.
At first, I was appalled that Didion depicted us this way — the nation could see our dust and fatalism and citrus groves, our selves, in her glittering-sharp sentences. She was observing us as if we were specimens in an alien landscape. But then, as a writer rather than a child of that place, I read the sentences over and over, trying to figure out how she did it. How did she watch people and courtroom scenes and sit outside houses and know everything — how did she know exactly the right syntax with which to place the pin in our abdomens?
I wanted to write like that. She became one of the writers I idolized — the one who used the phrase “talismanic fruit” to describe the oranges everywhere around me, and I came to see that her own phrases were talismanic, repeated again and again like mantras and chants. One of those phrases was “the baby.”
The baby is present in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s first collection of essays, in the piece “On Going Home”: “I am home for my daughter’s first birthday. By ‘home’ I do not mean the house in Los Angeles where my husband and I and the baby live, but the place where my family is, in the Central Valley of California.” Didion writes of the great-aunts, the hand-painted china, the dusty land and the visit to the cemetery which has been vandalized. And at the end of this essay, what seems the most tender moment in all of Didion’s writing about her child, after the party, and the white cake:
In the evening, after she has gone to sleep, I kneel beside the crib and touch her face, where it is pressed against the slats, with mine. She is an open and trusting child, unprepared for and unaccustomed to the ambushes of family life, and perhaps it is just as well that I can offer her little of that life … I would like to promise her that she will grow up with a sense of her cousins and of rivers and of her great-grandmother’s teacups, would like to pledge her a picnic on a river with fried chicken and her hair uncombed, would like to give her home for her birthday, but we live differently now and I can promise her nothing like that. I give her a xylophone and a sundress from Madeira, and promise to tell her a funny story.
And instead of that kind of home, they travel all the time because Didion and her husband are famous writers, and instead of funny stories, there are scary stories not just reported by Didion, but compulsively observed news items about serial killers and suicides, and the reader senses the television on and the headlines read aloud. How much of the baby’s childhood was nature and nurture, genetics and environment? Didion’s gift was always to feel everything so intensely, and in Blue Nights we see that her baby always felt things in just the same intense and examined and narrow-eyed fearful and inchoate way.
Didion wrote about the Manson murders, about Haight-Ashbury and the drugs and violence of the various Movements — Free Love and Black Panther and others — and of wars in Vietnam and at home; she was obsessed with killings, in her own Los Angeles neighborhood, around the country, and everywhere. Her writing is filled with natural disasters — fires, floods, quakes, and even Santa Ana winds which cause people to murder each other — and human disasters: the dress she chose in which to be married in 1963 was stained with red wine some years later by Roman Polanski at a party he attended with his girlfriend, Sharon Tate.
Emotionally, patient has alienated herself almost entirely from the world of other human beings … The content of patient’s responses is highly unconventional and frequently bizarre, filed with sexual and anatomical preoccupations, and basic reality contact is obviously and seriously impaired at times … It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal.
The patient to whom this psychiatric report refers is me … in the outpatient psychiatric clinic at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, in the summer of 1968, shortly after I suffered the attack of vertigo and nausea … 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.
Once when we were living in the beach house we came home to find that she had placed a call to what was known familiarly on our stretch of the coast as “Camarillo.” Camarillo was at that time a state psychiatric facility twenty-some miles north of us in Ventura County.
She had called Camarillo, she advised us, to find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy.
She was five years old.
In The White Album, Didion writes in 1969 from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu,
watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together. My husband is here, and our daughter, age three. She is blonde and barefoot, a child of paradise in a frangipani lei, and she does not understand why she cannot go to the beach.
Her parents are watching television, which has reported an earthquake, and they are waiting for a tidal wave that never comes. “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce,” Didion writes.
But they do not get divorced. They spend a week together, the three of them, and whatever personal disaster was with them then, it passed. Dunne’s brother, after John’s death in 2003, reported that Didion and her husband were intensely close, eating and working together nearly every day, and Quintana travelled with them. Home became wherever they were — hotel rooms, movie sets, concerts. The hotel names are talismanic: The Ritz, The St. Regis, The Dorchester, The Chelsea. And reading accounts of the same events in The White Album, and then in Blue Nights, heightens the feeling of this mother and daughter as umbilically connected — not only in their brilliant analytical skills and ability to tell true, difficult stories, but in their deep pessimism and melancholy.
“My husband and I fly to Tucson with our daughter for a few days of meetings on a script with a producer on location,” writes Didion in The White Album. “We go out to dinner in Tucson: the sitter tells me that she has obtained, for her crippled son, an autographed picture of Paul Newman. I ask how old her son is. ‘Thirty-four,’ she says.”
In Blue Nights she enlarges the picture, and adds a soupçon of guilt:
When she was five or six, for example, we took her with us to Tucson, where “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” was shooting. The Hilton Inn, where the production was based during its Tucson location, sent a babysitter to stay with us while we watched the dailies. The babysitter asked her to get Paul Newman’s autograph. A crippled son was mentioned. Quintana got the autograph, delivered it to the babysitter, then burst into tears. It was never clear to me whether she was crying about the crippled son or about feeling played by the babysitter.
My youngest daughter is 16. But just last week, she told my own parents a story at dinner about her babysitter years. She had to accompany our neighbor, who watched this daughter twice a week for most of the day, while I taught at the university where I still work, to the tanning salon, where she watched the woman undress, climb into a tanning bed, and disappear. My daughter revealed, with much sighing, that she learned to count so well by observing the wallpaper for those 20 minutes, every week, trying not to think that the babysitter was unclothed, trying not to lift the lid of what looked like a coffin. A little guilt for me, with the meatloaf my mother passed into my hands?
More than 30 years after I first read about those Kimberlys, those Dreamers of the Golden Dream, I now read Didion with the same awe, and much sadness, at the circling around of language, the repetition of department stores named like temples I do not know, of dresses and bracelets like totems for a religion I don’t understand. The tone is past stylized, the Dexedrine blunted with gin while she writes, and yet pages later she is playing with the baby in the sprinklers, ironic and iconic, reverent and sometimes querulous and brittle.
In her dollhouse, when she is small, Quintana makes a “projection room,” complete with the idea of installing “Dolby Sound.”
In New York, she becomes a photographer; she marries, and then a short time later, she falls ill. She is hospitalized in 2003; five days later, Didion’s husband dies of a massive heart attack after seeing his daughter in a medically induced coma. Twenty months and many surgeries and hospitalizations later, Quintana dies, too.
Didion did not fail her child. She took her to work, she ordered room service, she brushed her hair. She loved her. She was a working mother, one of the most famous writers in the country, a writer who could put together a scene and a landscape like no one else, who could with a few sentences make a person vivid and indelible, who needed to travel to do so and then to write alone in a room.
“Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush, I’m working,” Quintana writes in the garage — “Mom’s Sayings” — and the words are a mantra of guilt for Didion, as they are for all mothers who work, anywhere we work, because what every child really wants is for the mother to be there every moment, and we cannot.
Didion finds language to describe the worst possible loss, chanting the damning phrases and the materials of what her child wore (the dress from Madeira, the 60 dresses in her baby’s closet, batiste and Liberty lawn and linen) and the flowers of her life (frangipani lei, plumeria tattoo visible at her wedding while stephanotis was woven into her hair) as if the chanting could protect her, or her daughter. The words do not. And yet, here they are. The details, talismanic, and the words.
Susan Straight is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at University of California, Riverside. Her latest novel is Between Heaven and Here.
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