• Jackson Basham

Joan Didion: A Reporter for America

Updated: Apr 12

What “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” tell us about the iconic journalist

By: Jackson Basham

It was December 23, 2021. I was sitting on my couch, mindlessly tapping through Instagram stories. When I saw it, it felt like a truck had hit me. On my screen, someone had posted a story — a simple portrait of Joan Didion, no text. Ostensibly meaningless, but these stories only pop up when the portraited has died. I was crushed by that truck. It ran over me sans a tap of the break. Flattened, even though I had never read Didion’s work at that point. The next day I rectified this grievous oversight. I bought her seminal essay collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” And let me tell you, there is nothing new to say about Joan Didion. One could, and I will, repeat the meaningless platitude: Didion is a genius. It is especially meaningless to those that haven’t fallen into her writing — who haven’t wrapped themselves in her prose. If you have, it’s meaningless because it is an obvious truth.

Her Advantage

Didion had a unique ability to observe. Her subjects opened to her like she was a friend, a confidante. They gave her an insight precious few reporters got. It was her stature and demeanor that forced a forgetfulness of the threat she posed. As Didion put it:

Picture of Joan Didion
Picture of Joan Didion

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”

“Slouching Toward Bethlehem” is Didion’s first essay collection. An aggregation of reporting she did for Vogue, The Saturday Evening Post, New York Times Magazine, Holiday, and The American Scholar. It gave the definitive picture of the California hippie scene in the ‘60s.

Her Portraits

The cover of "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"
The cover of "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"

In the essay, Didion takes Haight-Ashbury, the derided Olympus of free love and drugs, earnestly. She was looking at it not as a modern fad but as a significant facet of a society advancing toward collapse. And the impact of the subtle, active fall on the individuals who made up that hippie scene. "In her portraits of people, Miss Didion is not out to expose but to understand, and she shows us… in a way that makes them neither villainous nor glamorous, but alive and botched and often mournfully beautiful in the midst of their lives’ debris,” wrote Dan Wakefield, writer and critic, for The New York Times Review of Books. Didion was not interested in judging the subject of her words. She strove to understand them and paint an honest portrait of who they were. They were human and because of this complicated, kind and mean, smart and stupid, caring and apathetic. Didion took them in totality. Not how she wanted them to be but how they were.

Her Ability

“To be a reporter requires a perpetual straddle between empathy and detachment, and Didion’s refinement of that capacity is part of what has long made her a role model,” wrote Rebecca Mead, contributor for The New Yorker. This straddle can appear apathic or inhuman, but it is the reason Didion was able to write such frank recitations of her subject’s story. To exemplify this M.O., in “The Center Will Not Hold,” a documentary which tells the story of Didion’s life and works, she discusses her essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” Specifically, one scene from the book:

“I see a child on the living-room floor… she keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick.

“‘Five years old,’ Otto says. ‘On acid.’”

The documentarian, Griffin Dunne, asks, “What was it like to be a journalist in the room when you saw a little kid on acid?” Didion responds immediately, “Well, it was…” she pauses, a subtle dimming in her eye. She looks away. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven seconds pass. Her gaze fixes back on Dunne, fire renewed. “Let me tell you, it was gold.”

There is little more you need to know about Didion and her writing than what she wrote in the preface to Slouching:

“I am neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel.”

I think this is the perfect explanation of Didion’s work. She writes the truth, from her perspective. Not the unblemished truth but the human, imperfect one.

About the Author

Jackson Basham is a public relations and political science student at the University of North Texas. He is expected to graduate May 2022.