Joan: On Our Inscrutable Hero -The Toast

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Laura Ortberg Turner’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

Among my most treasured possessions—the things I would grab if the house was on fire and I had five seconds before it blew up—is a gray and yellow pillow that a friend made for me. The backside is covered in a striped fabric with little yellow “X”’s set in a diagonal pattern. The front is a darker gray, plain, except for the square in the middle. On that cream-colored piece of fabric is a cross-stitched Joan Didion. She is, in a direct homage to a famous picture, holding a cigarette in her right hand and drawing her left arm across her torso in a protective way, looking straight ahead with exactly no expression on her face. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, you’d have a hard time figuring out what Joan Didion’s soul looks like.


You might remember Griffin Dunne as Mr. Bixler, the hunky teacher Anna Chlumsky falls for in My Girl. Dunne, an actor, director, and producer, is the son of writer and Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne, whose younger brother was John Gregory Dunne, who was married to Joan Didion. And what do you do when your aunt is Joan Didion and you are a filmmaker and there is no film about your aunt? You make one.

If it has been written once, it’s been written a thousand times that Didion’s deft hand and cool distance as a reporter have made her an icon of sorts for today’s young women writers. And those things are true, but I think there’s a third pillar of our admiration for her: her body.

“My only advantage as a reporter,” she once wrote, “is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.”

A notoriously private person, Didion as the subject of a documentary is certainly newsworthy—and financially worthy, if you consider the fact that the filmmakers surpassed their $80,000 goal on Kickstarter in 25 hours. The world is hungry for more Didion, and Dunne and his co-director, documentary editor Susanne Rostock, are happy to give her to us. As Griffin says in the campaign video, “We’re making it because, incredibly, no one else has made a documentary about Joan Didion.”

It is incredible, if you’re a certain kind of person. I am that kind of person. I don’t remember when I first read Joan Didion, but up until that point I had thought that Janet Fitch’s White Oleander was the best book I had ever read about California. (I still love White Oleander.) If you were to ask me now what book I would place at the top of that list, I would hand over Slouching Towards Bethlehem and explain that, while it never made me cry like White Oleander did, it is a book that fundamentally understands California for the beautiful sham that it is. Didion saw much of America that way in her political reporting.

Since the Kickstarter for the documentary was announced last week, there have been no shortage of tweets and essays and general praise not about Didion’s remarkable achievements in writing, but about her image. That a small, now-frail woman has made a career of writing with emotional clarity and cool insight has made her, in the eyes of many fans, “badass.” And while I don’t particularly like that word, which is usually applied to women who do things we think men should be doing, there is a way that Didion inhabits her small frame, and the world, subversively.

We like to think of Joan Didion as glamorous, the sunglasses-wearing, VOGUE-working, New York loving-and-leaving writer that we all could have been if only life had turned out a little differently. We imagine her sitting down to edit with a cocktail at the end of the day (her actual practice), writing screenplays with her handsome husband, cooking large meals for famous family and friends. And all of this she did. But what we don’t want to think about as much is the Joan behind the image of Joan. We need to be careful not to confuse the image of Joan with the work of Joan; and still neither of those things are Joan herself.

Badasses may wear large sunglasses and keep their distance, but they certainly don’t write sentences like “To be a Californian was to see oneself, if one believed the lessons the place seemed most immediately to offer, as affected only by ‘nature,’ which in turn was seen to exist simultaneously as a source of inspiration or renewal…and as the ultimate brute reckoning, the force that by guaranteeing destruction gave the place its perilous beauty.” And yes, for those of us keeping track, that was one sentence. Reading Joan Didion is, at times, a slog. It is an activity that requires deep effort and not a little rereading. It is a deep and difficult walk through unmined caverns. We need to remember this in order to guard against temptations to fall headlong into her projected image, although just who is projecting it is another question for another day.

In the Kickstarter trailer, Griffin Dunne reinforces this image: “People don’t know what Joan sounds like when she talks. I think they should see that a woman so tiny and frail…is a lion…and a deeply intimidating figure… [Joan and John] were my aunt and uncle, but they were also probably the hippest people on earth.” And it’s true. But it’s not the whole story. There’s a whole stack of books on the top layer of my bookshelf that will testify to that. Didion is more than the surprising lion. She is a national treasure, a gifted writer, a smart and private woman.

It is her privacy that makes the idea of this documentary so thrilling in the first place. She once said in a New York Times interview: “The ethic I was raised in was specifically a Western frontier ethic.  That means being left alone and leaving others alone.  It is regarded by members of my family as the highest form of human endeavor.” And when Didion does reveal more of herself in her writing—at least in form, if not content—as in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, we end up with books as confusing as they are disappointing. Her mind seems impregnable, maybe even to herself.


I will probably never hug Joan Didion, so the pillow is as close as I get. My dog sits on it sometimes and I take funny pictures, or my husband does an Xzibit, Pimp My Ride-style commentary (“We heard you like Joan Didion! So I put some Joan Didion books on your Joan Didion pillow so you can read Joan Didion while you look at Joan Didion!”). I would like to ask her some questions about writing, and I look at her likeness sometimes, hoping that her pillow self will impart some insight available only to me.

When Vulture ran a feature about the documentary, they initially hadn’t heard from the filmmakers. The next day, they ran an update with some questions answered by Griffin Dunne. He talked about the plan for the movie, about how it would be a sort of “audiobook for the eyes.”

“But, asked if an informed reader and fan will learn anything new about her life, Dunne said, ‘I don’t know.’”

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