On December 23, 2021, as the country was wearying of a seemingly endless pandemic and a tense political climate, it lost one of its most important cultural critics. Joan Didion was a celebrated writer and journalist and a keen observer of human nature. Born in Sacramento in 1934, Didion spent most of her life in California. When she was 22, she won a Vogue essay contest and moved to New York City to work for the magazine, where she remained for seven years. Her early writing was personal; it was different from the typical articles Vogue published. In New York, she met writer John Gregory Dunne, whom she married. They moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and two years later adopted a baby daughter, Quintana Roo.
Throughout her prolific career, Didion published 22 books, five screenplays with Dunne (she contributed to several others), numerous essays, and countless magazine articles. She wrote about the dark underbelly of the hippie era. What was on the surface a movement about peace and love was not all that it seemed to be. Under the flowers and beads and communal living, child neglect, drug abuse, and chaos festered, culminating in the Manson murders. With searing honesty, she wrote about the Central Park Five in 1991, the nature of racism in the United States and the rush to judgment. She challenged the assumptions that led to five young Black men being convicted of raping a white female jogger—the verdict was later overturned. She wrote about political division and the 2000 presidential election.
This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Perhaps Didion’s most profound writing was about the death of her husband in 2003. Her heartbreaking memoir The Year of Magical Thinking is filled with desire, sorrow, and loss. She writes, “Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” Prior to that book’s publication in 2005, she lost her beloved but troubled daughter, Quintana, who died of complications from pneumonia at just 39 years of age. Didion’s next book, Blue Nights, recalls their relationship in intimate detail and with unflinching truthfulness.
Among Didion’s many achievements and accolades was the National Humanities Medal, presented to her by President Barack Obama. She died of complications from Parkinson’s disease. She was 87. In her book The White Album, Didion offered a testament to the importance of stories in making sense of the world: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s a fitting epitaph.•