All posts by Gary C. Woodward

The Observer

One of the most useful of Didion’s methods is to examine the same event though competing narratives: sometimes political, sometimes personal.

 

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Netflix’s release of a new documentary looking at the life and work of writer Joan Didion (The Center Will Not Hold, 2017) is a reminder that we owe a great deal to gifted observers who can help us understand what is in plain sight. Didion is 82 and the author of several novels. But her defining works are her non-fiction essays that cast a laser-focused eye on social landscapes that range from the social to the personal.

To be sure, not every landscape. The Sacramento native clearly has a bi-coastal bias.  Her best work catches the turbulent 60s in California (Slouching Toward Bethlehem, 1968) and the preoccupations of an earlier and more tumultuous New York.  Her style is the journalism of deep narrative, sometimes catching in language what a camera might miss. Over a long career she has been a writer for all seasons, once producing articles for magazines as diverse as Vogue and The New York Review of Books. She also wrote screenplays with her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

One of the most useful of Didion’s methods is to examine the same event though competing narratives: sometimes political, sometimes personal.  The method is evident in her preference for the word “sentimental.”  With the term she means more than a simple nostalgia. Didion uses it to describe the American preferences for safer and less self-indicting accounts of our collective behavior. She then will then overlay a second and often more troubling narrative that stings by virtue of its greater veracity.

Of the works I know, an essay deceptively named “Sentimental Journeys” is a favorite. Its subject is the story and arrest of the Central Park Five, the African American youths arrested after an alleged “wilding” incident in which a  jogger was raped and left for dead in the Park’s northeast corner.  It became significant in understanding how the press initially covered the event that the victim was white and affluent. The tabloids, Mayor Koch and publicity hounds like Donald Trump had convicted the five youths tried within hours of their arrests and ostensible confession.  But Didion’s account doesn’t settle for self-satisfied judgments aligned against the boys, who were eventually acquitted after serving years in person.  In her contemporaneous reporting the event was a morality tale about two New Yorks and their very different sets of resentments.

In this city rapidly vanishing into the chasm between its actual life and its preferred narratives, what people said when they talked about the case of the Central Park jogger came to seem a kind of poetry, a way of expressing, without directly stating, different but equally volatile and similarly occult visions of the same disaster. One vision shared by those who had seized upon the attack on the jogger as an exact representation of what was wrong with the city, was of a city systematically ruined, violated, raped by its underclass. The opposing vision, shared by those who had seized upon the arrest of the defendants as an exact representation of their own victimization, was of a city in which the powerless had been systematically ruined, violated, raped by the powerful.1

Years later the analysis still reads as exactly right.

Details are the stock and trade of journalism.  But they come from her as revealing packets of insight threaded into a narrative.  In The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) they are offered to flesh out short scenes that foretell the approaching death of her husband and–within two years–her daughter, Quintana.  Both died from medical causes that she characterizes as “unlucky.”  A weak heart took her husband, and septic shock ended the life of her daughter.

Where others might find their minds emptied by the disappearance of their family, Didion recovers small moments that she now wants to notice. There’s a flood of impressions and fantasies that surface as she tries to fill out long days in her New York apartment.  Was there more to know in the suddenly still space?  Why do we expect the deceased to appear in a doorway? Did John leave a message to be discovered?

Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed.  They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered on the hood of the car.  They live by symbols. The read meaning into the barrage of spam on the unused computer, the delete key that stops working, the imagined abandonment of a decision to replace it. . . . One day when I was talking on the telephone in the office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk.  When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, and what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message?  Or had the message been lost before I touched the dictionary? Had I refused to hear the message?2

In nearly every description Didion suppresses the rhetorical impulse to reach for a grand conclusion or a panoramic summary.  Her writing is like a good novel, revealing truths through action rather than as a “tell.”   Her gift has been to help a reader discover patterns revealed in the smallest moments. This kind of writing is inherently meaningful to us because it replicates levels of consciousness we struggle to notice.

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1“Sentimental Journeys,” in After Henry, 1992), p. 300.

2 The Year of Magical Thinking, (Knopf, 2005), p. 152-153.

Our Fragile Selves

It’s been a burden to go through life having an uncanny resemblance to Cary Grant. The great Hollywood star remains an iconic example of the perfect leading man. You can undoubtedly see the resemblance and imagine the confusion.  

I’m on the left.

                    Me
                Cary Grant

Believe me, it was not easy to be mistaken for the famous movie star.

In his day a lot of guys wanted to be Cary Grant.  Even the former Archie Leach said that even he wanted to be the suave persona he portrayed in movies with Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and others.

Personal Identity is one of the most fragile of our perceptions. Media researchers remind us that the young–especially girls and young women–are  endlessly needled by messages that undermine shaky egos.  “I’m not attractive enough” is the generic effect of viewing advertising and other elements of popular culture. It is delivered incessantly, sabotaging a person’s birthright for an intact and resilient self image.  Even so the Grant example is a reminder that we easily imagine a form of our idealized selves.

Advertising is an interesting case because we usually don’t usually think of it as a vessel for delivering messages of inadequacy.  Ads come in the form of ‘good news’ and upbeat reminders. But those dealing with what the industry calls “personal care products” are filled with remedies to trumped up problems created specifically to sell a product.  Ads destabilize a young consumer.  They beg an individual to worry about problems they might not have known they had: blemishes, hair that is the wrong color, or a body type that deviates from an idealized norm.  In fact, film, advertising and the gatekeepers of media content (especially in fashion, dance and television casting )generally prefer “ectomorph” women who straddle the borderlands of the anorexic.

“Body dysmorphia” begins for some males and females during adolescence.  This  consuming obsession over appearance affects almost 3 in 100.  But much larger percentages have issues accepting their physical appearance.  This is all made worse by the ironic fact that our general appearance is a relatively fixed part of ourselves, often getting more attention than the thoughts we utter: aspects of ourselves that are within our control.

When we are young, we often assume that what we offer as our physical selves should be enough to secure our place and our status with our peers.  It’s one of the vulnerabilities of youth that we regard our lithe bodies as our best calling card. What else do muscled men or pretty young woman need to offer?  A racetrack of a mind or verbal facility might only complicate things.

Soon enough our identities must deepen. Who we “are” must be much more than how we look. For many that takes a degree of self-induced emancipation, as in this personal declaration from comedian Margaret Cho:

I fly my flag of self esteem for all those who have been told they were ugly and fat and hurt and shamed and violated and abused for the way they look and told time and time again that they were ‘different’ and therefore unlovable. Come to me and I will tell you and show you how beautiful and loved you are and you will see it and feel it and know it and then look in the mirror and truly believe it.