Public and Private in Didion’s “In Bed”

Didion’s reflection of the public in relating her private experience — expanding trips to the Operations Control Center for the California State Water Project and interviews with key Hollywood personages — elevates her writing to a representation of the collective experience of the '60s. In so doing, Didion broaches not only her own story but stories like hers. In contrast to the other essays in The White Album, “In Bed” is a log of the supremely private: both in title and subject of nigh shameful physiological weakness. Accordingly, Didion begins the essay “In Bed” with a paragraph exemplifying the public-private binary that runs throughout this volume:

Three, four, sometimes five times a month, I spend the day in bed with a migraine headache, insensible to the world around me. Almost every day of every month, between these attacks, I feel the sudden irrational irritation and the flush of blood into the cerebral arteries which tell me that migraine is on its way, and I take certain drugs to aver its arrival. If I did not take the drugs, I would be able to function perhaps one day in four. The physiological error called migraine is, in brief, central to the given of my life. When I was 15, 16, even 25, I used to think that I could rid myself of this error by simply denying it, character over chemistry. “Do you have headaches sometimes? frequently? never?” the application forms would demand. “Check one.” Wary of the trap, wanting whatever it was that the successful circumnavigation of that particular form could bring (A job, a scholarship, the respect of mankind and the grace of God), I would check one. “Sometimes,” I would lie. That in fact I spent one or two days a week almost unconscious with pain seemed a shameful secret, evidence not merely of some chemical inferiority but of all my bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers, wrongthink. [p.168]

This cataloguing of hard facts and Didion’s impassive tone, juxtaposed with the essay’s intimate title, subject matter and admissions of mild bureaucratic perjury, combines into a masterful contrast of the public, the private and the in-between. Didion’s reality, then, is disunited; the underlying flashes of hereditarily prescribed pain rupture her search for the publicly normal: “a job, a scholarship, the respect of mankind and the grace of God.”


1. What effect does Didion achieve by bringing the reader this far into her private world?

2. Consider Didion’s use of the term “wrongthink.” How does her repeated discussion of her own physical weaknesses relate to this theme of exclusion?

3. What techniques of distancing the reader does Didion employ in this passage? How do they counterbalance the personal nature of the subject?

4. Later in the essay, Didion goes back to negate the emphasis on “bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers and wrongthink” as the causal factors associated with migraine, and instead focuses on the inherited predisposition to migraine. How does she manipulate this attribution of blame with regards to framing her private life in a larger, public context?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

1 February 2011