Joan Didion, Griffin Dunne’s Documentary The Center Will Not Hold and her Unceasing Relevance


Joan Didion is synonymous with provocative, ahead-of- her-time writing: she was one of
the first to write in length about the Manson murders and her relationship with Linda Kasabian
(for whom she bought a dress while testifying on trial). With non-fiction collections like The
White Album (1979) and Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), we are pulled into her world:
why she keeps a notebook, what she packs when on a trip, and what she means when she says:
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Before Griffin Dunne’s documentary, The Center
Will Not Hold, she had been most recently associated with her incredible non-fiction novels, The
Year of Magical Thinking (which was a phenomenon about dealing with grief after the passing of
her husband, John Gregory Dunne in 2003) and Blue Nights (which was published in 2011 and
deals with the mourning of her daughter, Quintana, after her death in 2005).

This non-fiction style of writing must have been Didion’s way of dealing with her
insurmountable grief: as a writer and reporter, this is what one does, how one copes. In Blue
Nights, Didion talks about preserving one’s memory by keeping mementos (especially clothes)
and “totems”: “There is no closet I can open with room left for the clothes I might actually want
to wear. In one closet that might otherwise be put to such use I see, instead, three old Burberry
raincoats of John’s, a suede jacket given to Quintana by the mother of her first boyfriend, and an
angora cape, long since moth-eaten, given to my mother by my father not long after World War
Two.” I have recommended Didion’s works to friends who were dealing with grief and I know,
as much as they could, they helped in some abstract way. Just to know that you’re not alone is a
very powerful thing and that’s what The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights have done for
so many.

One of the things I love most about Joan Didion is her precision and attention to detail:
her lists of material objects take on new meaning as they must mean something if they’re what
someone has consumed over the course of a lifetime. A packing list (as is seen in The White
Album) is something very personal and particular to the individual yet Didion shares it with us
without faltering and without us thinking for one second that it’s somehow irrelevant or an
unimportant reminder of the quotidian. Joan Didion’s latest comprehensive work is 2017’s South
and West (the paperback version was just released at the beginning of 2018): it is a collection of
1970’s non-fiction essays that were written while on road trips and while watching the trial of
Patty Hearst. This is a treat for any Didion fan as we can finally read excerpts from her personal,
previously unpublished notebooks.

Besides this new book and the documentary, I’ve been thinking about Joan Didion and
her work as of late because it seems to creep into my everyday life. I’ve been dreaming of snakes
(something that seems to also preoccupy Didion’s thoughts). In The Center Will Not Hold, she
asks Dunne (in one of the interview segments that there are too few of, in my opinion) whether
he has snakes where he lives in the country. She says “How do you know up in the country?” and
that “Killing a snake is the same as having a snake.” Snakes appear in Didion’s work as
metaphors as well as actual things to avoid. In the documentary, she goes on to say that “If you
kept the snake in your byline, the snake won’t bite you. That’s how I always felt about pain. I
wanted to know where it was.”

Didion, although small in stature, is a pillar of strength and has always remained a very
fashionable figure (she once worked as an editor at Vogue) in oversize sunglasses with her hair
trimmed into a tidy bob. Never one to shy away from difficult subject matter, one of Didion’s
finest works of fiction is the 1970 novel, Play It as It Lays that enters the life of a troubled woman called Maria. Even though the novel is filled with heavier themes, there’s a beautiful
moment where she talks about the character’s choice to wear only “white crepe pajamas” to a
party and to sleep between “immaculate” white sheets (in hopes of getting her period). Didion
has a special way of writing about women and the most personal processes, among other things.
She is never condescending and it never occurs to her readers (at least not to me) that she is, in
fact, a woman who has described herself as completely “unimposing.” She attributes this fact to
what makes her such an effective reporter.

In Dunne’s recent documentary, we are reminded of events that occurred in New York
City in 1989 in what was known as “the Central Park jogger case” where a young investment
banker called Trisha Meili was brutally assaulted: this was one of the most widely publicized
crimes of the 1980s. Everyone wanted to (and did) pin the crime on a group of five young black
men (known as the Central Park Five) who were supposedly “wilding” (a term that was coined to
describe unprovoked assault by gang members on a stranger). These five suspects spent years in
prison although DNA evidence excluded them as the attackers and the only person who reported
on this case in a logical, compassionate way was Joan Didion. With her piece, Sentimental
Journeys (first published in The New York Review of Books in 1991 and then in 1992’s After
Henry) Didion examined racial tensions in New York. This essay is considered to be the
definitive work dealing with that particular case as Didion didn’t shy away from thoroughly
reporting not only the crime and subsequent trial but how class contradictions work.

One of the most delightful aspects of the recent documentary by Dunne is the interview
footage with Didion. There isn’t a whole lot out there of Didion speaking candidly and this is
what makes the documentary interesting: we learn that she loved The Doors because they were
“bad boys” but we also get her visceral reactions to the end of the 1960s and just how unbelievable what she was writing about really was to her: case in point being a five-year- old
girl high on LSD and the excess of free love that turned to violence and the end of a decade that
redefined so much of American culture (all of this is described in her 1979 collection of essays,
The White Album).

Joan Didion has always had a predilection for the extreme: this is one of the consistencies
in her writing that makes her exceptional and hard to overlook. She mentions this in The Center
Will Not Hold along with her mother’s advice to her as a young girl to “stop whining” and learn
to amuse herself by “writing down her thoughts.” It seems that Didion’s writing has always been
revelatory in a way as she has paid homage to those who have come before her. Her definitive
1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem is named for W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second
Coming.” This sort of allusion to Yeats and his idea that the world was on the verge of an
apocalypse after World War I is one of warning. Simply by observing closely and reporting,
Didion has informed generations of readers what is to come and what was happening in the midst
of chaos.

By writing, Didion has said that she felt in control and that was the only thing in which
she really had control. I think that we all better realize soon that there’s not much we have
control of but that we can create art that reflects our experiences. This is something we, as
readers, can learn from Didion. Whether we turn to her writings when we’re grief-stricken, when
we’re outraged by injustices in society and we want to look at them objectively, or when we
simply want to study her use of language and minimalism, Didion’s work is incredibly relevant
today and I am so grateful.