"I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Three Female Autobiographical Texts -- Joan Didion

Rachel Aviv '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003


Joan Didion, Sara Suleri, and Annie Dillard problematize the notion of personal writing. In her text, each author deconstructs the idea of an autonomous, decontextualized self. These three female writers depict their selves as fluid, interdependent and not clearly distinguishable from their surrounding communities. This distinctly feminine formulation of selfhood enables them to make the metaphorical leap between the personal and universal, but it also, necessarily, complicates any attempt at categorizing their writing as personal. In their perpetual conflation of the internal with the external, the individual with the surrounding community, Didion, Suleri and Dillard consistently sidestep the personal and the private: autobiography is used in service of some larger point. Their "I" becomes a narrative technique -- a medium through which to explore their broader surroundings. Didion and Suleri portray themselves as symbols of culture, evidence of the times. Dillard, on the other hand, whose subject is not culture but nature, portrays herself not as a sign of her narrative subject, but as a component of it. Whereas Didion and Suleri fuse personal discourse with civic discourse, their physical body with that of their state, Dillard strives towards an erasure of discourse and self-consciousness, a physical immersion into a language-free place.

"I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Joan Didion's Writings

Jerzy Kozinski once described Didion as "our quintessential essayist . . . always at the center" (Carton, 308) -- an odd claim about a woman whose writings perpetually articulate the absence of any center, the moral and social dilemmas of living in a world where "the center cannot hold" (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, xi). In Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, Didion's essays explore the disintegration and fragmentation surrounding her and yet, within these essays, Didion recomposes her own self. By the "imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images (White Album, 11), Didion writes herself to the center: Didion, the "common denominator of "all [she] sees" (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 136), becomes the medium by which she reads the external world. She embodies the "disparate images" that lie outside her -- she "affects absorption in other people's favorite dresses, other people's trout" (STB, 136).

Didion explodes the notion of an autonomous self sustained outside the range of social experience. She conflates the internal with the external, the personal with the universal; she treats autobiographical facts as cultural evidence. She is constantly "perceiving the larger point . . . making that inductive leap from the personal to the political" (WA, 114). She quotes her psychological test results in their entirety, for example, but instead of proceeding to comment on the nature and origin of her vertigo and nausea, she remarks only that "an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968" (WA, 15). Later on, when writing about a later, more accurate medical diagnosis, she comments that her "body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in [her] mind" (WA, 47). Taken together, we see how deftly Didion sidesteps the personal and the physical, how quickly she links somatic issues with cultural ones. Didion's body is a representation of her mind which is a representation of society. Didion uses her body as a piece of textual evidence -- evidence of the mood of the times.

Just as Didion projects herself onto the era, she projects herself onto the people -- particularly cultural icons -- that define the era. For her, identity is collective. Theorizing the construction of the self in women's autobiography, Georges Gusdorf writes, "The individual does not feel herself to exist outside of interdependent existence that asserts its rhythms everywhere in the community . . . [where] lives are so thoroughly entangled that each of them has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere. The important unit is thus never the isolated being" (Lovesey, 40). Didion's personal writing portrays this logic of "entangledness"; Didion can appear to be, "always at the center," her "circumference nowhere," because she is perpetually projecting part of herself onto whomever and whatever she observes. For example, in her essays on John Wayne and Howard Hughes, Didion moves from celebrating Hughes' and Wayne's embodiment of the American dream of individualism to comparing the men to her husband. Didion first writes that Wayne and Hughes personify a space "where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it" (STB, 31). Later she remarks that Wayne's face is "in certain ways more familiar than my husband's" and Hughes' appeal suggests the "bottomless gulf . . . between, in the largest sense, the people we marry and the people we love" (STB, 31,72).

Whereas in her essays on Wayne and Hughes Didion moves from the personal to the universal, in "Notes from a Native Daughter" Didion takes us through the reverse process -- she describes herself and then immediately universalizes the description. At one point she claims that her family "has always been in the Sacramento Valley" but then immediately expands the simple statement by turning it into a generalizing assertion about the California mentality: "It is characteristic of Californians to speak grandly of the past as if it had simultaneously begun, tabula rasa, and reached a happy ending on the day the wagons started west" (STB, 172). Here, life details give way to cultural analysis. Didion's home -- perhaps the most personal of topics -- becomes an historical event; how she describes her home becomes a commentary on the way Californians speak. This exercise in collective identity is compounded later in the essay when Didion reflects that "much of anyone's memory is no true memory at all but only the traces of someone else's memory" (STB, 177). She concludes by pondering whether the essay has actually been about the loss of Sacramento, or the loss of her identity -- whether she has been grieving less over Goldengrove than her own disillusionment.

Didion relentlessly translates the events of her life into koans of the times, parables of the period. Things never get too personal because she is constantly making herself public, turning her activities into cultural metaphors. Didion offers us a personal anecdote and then immediately, without missing a beat, zooms out, tells us what that anecdote means, what she is actually doing, who she actually represents. In The White Album, a check-out procedure becomes a "koan of the period" (46); a hanging "house blessing" at her mother-in-law's house "suggests the mood of those years" (18); Didion's own "mystical flirtation with the idea of "sin" (41) is an indicator of the climate in Los Angeles in 1968 to 1969. Even her failure to pack a watch -- the fact that she packed legal pads, pens, files and a house key but "didn't know what time it was" -- is interpreted as a sign of the times, "a parable . . . of the period itself" (36). The self, for Didion, resides in its function as metaphor. Didion is embraced as one of America's finest personal essayists and yet, when it comes down to it, her autobiography is less about her self, than the precarious construction of that self within community. In the New York Observer, Susan Faludi claimed that Didion taught a generation of writers how to make journalism "a personal expression." Martin Amis characterized her style as "self-revealing" in an essay in which he went on to call her "a human being who managed to gauge another book out of herself rather than a writer who gets her living done on the side" (Roiphe). And yet, upon close examination, Didion's seemingly personal confessions reveal more about her narrative style than her narrative subject. Didion's life is rarely the focus of her writing. Her "I" is always vaporous, less about her self than the culture in which it resides.

Other sections of "I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Three Female Autobiographical Texts

Cited Works

Belenky, Mary. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice and Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Carton, Evan. "Joan Didion's Dreampolitics of the Self." Western Humanities Review. 40.4 (Winter 1986): 307-328.

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Didion, Joan. "Why I Write." The New York Times Magazine 5 December 1976: 50.

Mair, Nancy. Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Roiphe, Katie. "Joan Didion: The Journalist who Invented Impersonal Personality." Slate. September 2003. December 1, 2003. .

Woolf, Virginia. "Professions for Women." The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. London: Hogarth Press, 1942.

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Last modified 15 December 2003