The realization of irrational fear in Joan Didion's The White Album

Tamsen Conner, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Throughout The White Album, Didion weaves together events in her personal life with major events in the sixties in California such as the Manson murders, a recording session of The Doors, and press conferences for the Black Panthers. One particular moving section is Didion's discussion of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis where the doctor's lack of answers seems to reflect much of the time period for Didion as well as of a realization of sense of fear that some unnamed impending tragedy that seems to have been building in Didion's mind during the sixties.

I might or might not experience symptoms of neural damage all my life. These symptoms, which might or might not appear, might or might not involve my eyes. They might or might not involve my arms or legs, they might or might not be disabling. Their effects might be lessened by cortisone injections, or they might not. It could not be predicted. The condition had a name, the kind of name usually associated with telethons, but the name meant nothing and the neurologist did not like to use it. The name was multiple sclerosis, but the name had no meaning. This was, the neurologist said, an exclusionary diagnosis, and meant nothing.

I had, at the time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was like to be old but of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife. In a few lines of dialogue in a neurologist's office in Beverly Hills, the improbable had become the probable, the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning, could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone. The startling fact was this: my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind. "Lead a simple life," the neurologist advised. "Not that it makes any difference we know about." In other words it was another story without a narrative. [pp. 45-46]


1. How does this passage fit into the broader context of the essay? What was the purpose of including this section?

2. Can the ambiguousness surrounding her diagnosis be reflected in the rest of the essay?

3. How do you read the last line about "another story without a narrative?"

4. Didion seems to be exploring many of the tensions present during the sixties. These tensions differ greatly from the fear of the man with the knife to waiting for Jim Morrison to appear at the recording session. How do these tensions work together in the essay? Does the essay create a certain vision or view of the late sixties or does it leave the reader trying to "the see what it means?"

Cited Works

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

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

Last modified 1 February 2005