Sharp Apprehension

Toward the end of Joan Didion's essay "The White Album," the narrator chronicles a period in her life when her "body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what was going on in [her] mind" (47). In receiving her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Didion finds physical evidence that "things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to [her]" (47), and so discovers a concrete representation of her innermost fears. In this passage, the reader, too, encounters an immediate form of the anxiety and detachment that Didion has expressed more abstractly throughout. Through the minute details of her medical tests and her emphasis on the fact that the name of her condition "had no meaning" (47), the reader gains a more direct and personal sense of what the narrator is going through psychologically. The content of this passage forces both Didion and her readers to confront something frightening: an unavoidable manifestation of what was previously an abstract notion.

Once I had a rib broken, and during the few months that it was painful to turn in bed or raise my arms in a swimming pool I had, for the first time, a sharp apprehension of what it would be like to be old. Later I forgot. At some point during the years I am talking about here, after a series of periodic visual disturbances, three electroencephalograms, two complete sets of skull and neck X-rays, one five-hour glucose tolerance test, two electromyelograms, a battery of chemical tests and consultations with two ophthalmologists, one internist and three neurologists, I was told that the disorder was not really in my eyes, but in my central nervous system. 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 this 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.[section 14]


1. A few pages before this passage appears, Didion writes of "revising the circuitry of [her] mind" (44) and states that "In this light all narrative was sentimental. In this light all connections were equally meaningful, and equally senseless" (44). How does Didion's reaction to her diagnosis reflect this contradiction? In what ways does she find her own narrative both meaningful and meaningless?

2. Having been plagued by neuroses previously (see pages 11-14), why does Didion find this incident to be particularly indicative of the fact that "things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to [her]" (47)? Why didn't her problems with her mental health evidence this fact as much as those with her physical health did?

3. How does Didion make the logical leap between her neurologist's instructions to "lead a simple life" (47) and her conclusion that "it was a story without narrative" (47)? Why couldn't his advice lend more structure and focus to her life rather than less?

4. What does the exhaustive description of her medical tests (46) reveal about Didion's state of mind and where she tends to place her attention?

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10 September 2007