Editor’s Note: The Power to Discomfit

Joan Didion held a mirror up to California life—and changed the way we write about it, managing editor Blaise Zerega writes.

joan didion
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This issue of Alta Journal is a celebration of Joan Didion, the premier chronicler of California and beyond. She passed away in December, and we’ve spent the past few months mourning her death and assessing her legacy. We asked ourselves, How might we make sense of her career? How might we hold up a mirror to her life and work? For that is what she often did in her own writing. She held a mirror to life even when doing so risked making us, her readers, uncomfortable.

This skill of hers reminded me of an incident a few years ago when my son’s sixth-grade English teacher assigned Didion’s “The White Album.” The teacher, Bryan Newell, introduced the essay in class and assigned a portion of it for homework reading.

“The White Album” begins with the famous line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” and continues with a list of provocations, among them this one: “The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which.”

Didion’s clear-eyed essay about California in the 1960s and ’70s includes accounts of her own psychiatric treatment, the Manson murders, and rock ’n’ roll. In one section, she describes attending a recording session on Sunset Boulevard: “The Doors interested me. The Doors seemed unconvinced that love was brotherhood and the Kama Sutra. The Doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation.”

Some of the students struggled with the homework reading and complained to their parents. It’s a challenging text for sixth graders, and some parents, rightly, objected to Newell’s assignment on those grounds—but others took offense for different reasons.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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I believe the sparks were lit when one mom messaged another about the inappropriateness of the naked lady on the ledge. Soon thereafter, a text thread was formed, phone calls were made, and emails were sent. Exhibitionism, suicide, Jim Morrison’s vinyl pants, drug use, and much worse!

My son’s middle school was located in San Francisco’s Mission district. The parent body could be fairly described as predominantly white liberals seeking a more urban educational experience for their children than they’d receive at a private school in one of the city’s tonier neighborhoods. My wife and I would grimace when our son described seeing a dead person, watching a bloody altercation in the park while his class ate lunch, hearing gunshots, or disliking the smell of cannabis smoke from outside the dispensary up the block. We would worry about how experiencing these things was affecting his understanding of the world. We would ask ourselves if we were making the right choice by sending him there. And now we were wondering what it was about Didion that had touched such a nerve with other parents.

The difficulty of “The White Album” notwithstanding, Newell was stunned. “I’d just moved to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘All right. San Francisco, a totally progressive place. If there’s anywhere that I could get away with teaching this, this would be the place.’ Right?”

He was wrong. That night, the conflagration over the reading material engulfed him, the head of school, and a small group of parents. The Didion assignment was canceled.

I was struck then, and am more so today, that some parents were upset because the life Didion was holding a mirror to was thematically too close to the one being lived by their children. It was too uncomfortable for these adults to look at. Perhaps, too, Didion’s essay had caused them to look deeper at the roots of the ongoing gentrification and inequity taking place in the Mission. I know that it did for us.

Looking back, Newell concedes that not all his students were mature enough for “The White Album.” He recalls one parent in particular denouncing the Kama Sutra reference: “I remember a mother was like, ‘I was astounded to find out that my kid actually knew what that was.’ I’m like, ‘All right, well, glad I could help you parent a little.’ ”

In place of “The White Album,” Newell assigned I Am Malala. At the end of the year, he moved on from San Francisco, and today he teaches English at a high school in Arizona. “One of my favorite things about literature is this social critique that it offers,” he says. “It’s all about the counterculture versus the establishment. That’s why you teach Joan Didion.”

The power of Didion’s writing to discomfit is why we list her on our board of inspiration. Her willingness to hold a mirror to life is something that we emulate at Alta. We aim to do this for life in California and the West and to offer stories that are distinctive and always honest. Drop me a line at blaise.zerega@altaonline.com and let us know how this issue measures up.•

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