Where she was from

Renowned author Joan Didion talks about Sacramento, the recall and what it means to be from California

“California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there,” writes Sacramento native Joan Didion, who in her new book, Where I Was From, goes on to re-examine the myths of this place.

In an extremely successful career that’s spanned four decades, she’s written about Miami, El Salvador and presidential politics, starting with the campaign of Bush the elder in 1988. She’s published five novels, and is a successful screenwriter and noted essayist and political commentator. Play It As It Lays, her second novel, was nominated for a National Book Award. Her essays have appeared regularly for the last several years in The New York Review of Books, and, on topics as diverse as morality and the Getty Museum, in college anthologies. She has been mentioned alongside Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson as originators of the New Journalism and has used this method of personalized reporting to chronicle post-modern American life. She is renowned as a keen observer of the mundane, the intriguing and the downright absurd.

But always she returns to writing about California, in essays on topics that range from a San Bernardino double murder to the kidnapping and subsequent conversion to revolutionary politics of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. Her hometown, where she was born in December 1934, frequently appears in her work, even when she’s writing about someplace else, as, for instance, her use of an example from Sacramento in her recent essay collection, Fixed Ideas: America Since 9/11.

Sacramento was the setting for her first novel, written shortly after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, and in a fit of homesickness while working for Vogue in New York. Run River is the story of two land-owning families, descended from pioneers, who are trying to make the adjustment to the “New California” of the post-World War II boom years. It is a time when the large ranches were being sold to developers eager to build houses for Aerojet’s workers and Sacramento was overflowing with what Didion calls “new people,” specifically, people without ancestral ties to the early settlers.

She’s also written about Sacramento in several of her essays, perhaps most notably in “Notes From a Native Daughter,” from the collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In this piece, she describes with longing the Sacramento of her childhood, a rich farm town where green hop vines grew along H Street and she swam, along with her brother and cousins, in the Sacramento River, “so rich with silt that we could barely see our hands a few inches beneath the surface.” But she also wrote in that essay, “All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.”

Didion’s writing about California, up to this point, has been suffused with longing for the idyllic days before the post-war boom, when the values and sense of community established by the settlers were still widely accepted. According to University of California, Davis, Senior Lecturer in English Jack Hicks, co-editor of the two-volume Literature of California, she’s often been writing in a California tradition of examining “the Golden Dream.” California, he says, “has always been this larger-than-life place, an El Dorado, a Gold Mountain, a kind of paradise on Earth for a lot of people.”

Of course, life in California isn’t quite that simple or golden for many. Didion’s work, Hicks says, “deals powerfully with both the illusion of the dream and the power that it has over people.” Hicks places her squarely in the camp of two other native Sacramento writers, Richard Rodriguez and Ernesto Galarza, as writers who’ve been “acutely critical” of Sacramento, while making it clear how much the place means to them.

Didion recently agreed to a telephone interview from her home in New York City, where she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, have lived for the last 15 years. She talked about Sacramento, the new book and what it means to be from California. A very soft-spoken woman, Didion seemed extremely shy, with a propensity to laugh in a very delicate way when amused.

SN&R: What do you think of when you think of California?

DIDION: Basically, when I think of California, the strongest thing in my mind, and the thing that I’m still homesick for always, is the landscape. I don’t mean the dramatic landscape. I’m particularly always missing the flatness of the valley horizon. I realized quite late in my adult life that I had surrounded myself with flat horizons, picking out pictures that had straight lines across them. There’s something very soothing about that.

I’ve never been a particular fan of seasons. People in New York are always talking about their seasons. And yet there were certain seasons in Sacramento—summer, obviously, was very vivid. There was a certain way that possibilities would seem to open up when the sun went down on really hot days, and suddenly, you would feel as if you could get in the car and go someplace. Once in awhile, if you were lucky, you would hit a low spot in the road where there would be cool air.

I used to spend a lot of time there. When my mother and father were still living there, I would always go there to finish books. I would just hole up in their house, in my old bedroom, and I could concentrate totally and finish something in two or three weeks that I’d been having trouble with.

I remember the last time I did this, it was that rainy, foggy period just after Christmas. I was walking—we used to call it the J Street Road, but it was Fair Oaks Boulevard—and there were little gray hyacinths growing along the side of the road. Everything was wet—damp—very, very vivid weather, which is what I miss.

SN&R: Conversely, are there things about Sacramento that you’re glad you left behind?

DIDION: I never really came back to Sacramento, except to visit, after I went to Berkeley. I had a great sense that life had opened up for me after I got to Berkeley. And after Berkeley, I came to New York and worked here for eight years. Then, after I got married, we moved to Los Angeles. Los Angeles was totally another California to me. I didn’t know it at all, so that was a whole discovery.

I think I felt I needed a more anonymous world to live in, a place where I would be more anonymous. At the time that I was growing up in Sacramento, it was still a small, insular community. I just wanted to go someplace where no one knew me. That was why I loved going to Berkeley. I was a totally different, unknown person.

SN&R: And there weren’t any grade schools [like Didion Elementary in Sacramento] named after your relatives.

DIDION: That’s right. I still have a sweatshirt that says Didion School.

SN&R: In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, you wrote about Sacramento as having “particular virtues, particular character, and particular sadness.” What is it that makes Sacramento so different from other places, say Los Angeles, even within California? Sometimes it feels like there are two different states.

DIDION: Yeah, it does. The difference between the coasts—you know, San Francisco and Los Angeles are totally different from each other, but they still feel like the same state. But once you get into the valley, over into eastern California, you’re in a different place. I don’t know what the source of that difference is—there are the obvious things, different kinds of industry, different kinds of history—but I don’t know exactly what it is that makes them so radically different.

Excerpted from page 64, Where I Was From:

Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another. The separation, of north from south—and even more acutely of west from east, of the urban coast from the agricultural valleys and of both the coast and the valleys from the mountain and desert regions to their east—was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible and even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture.

SN&R: Consistently, when we do our Best of Sacramento readers’ polls, the readers tell us that one of the best things about Sacramento is that it’s close to everything else. How would you respond to that?

DIDION: [Laughing.] That was never what I thought was best about it.

SN&R: If you could write a little “best of” blurb for our paper, what would it say?

DIDION: It would say the flat horizon, hot summers, the fog in the winter. The rain. I love when it rains so hard that the highway out to the airport starts floating, you know?

SN&R: I think they’ve raised it.

DIDION: Oh, they have. That’s good. Because the water table was always floating it before.

SN&R: But it still gets so foggy you can hardly see to drive in from the airport.

DIDION: It was what we used to call the Natomas, and it was a terribly foggy area, beautiful, because it was so low.

SN&R: It’s still low, but a lot of it’s built up.

DIDION: So there are no more farms?

SN&R: There are a handful, but there’s a lot of housing, a shopping center. Arco Arena’s out there.

DIDION: When I was coming to Sacramento, when I would be heading toward the airport in my rental car, it was a great sense—before 1988, there was very little out there—and it was still possible to get a sense of the way it used to look.

SN&R: You can still get a sense of it if you drive along the Garden Highway.

DIDION: Oh, yes, that’s the way to go.

SN&R: So what would be your ideal Sacramento story? The story that sums it up?

DIDION: I always think—I don’t know if I ever wrote this down, but it happened around the time of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. There was an aunt of mine, a great-aunt, and my mother and I were talking to her one day. We were talking about some people that we knew, the Johnston family. And she said, “That Johnston boy never did amount to anything.” And my mother said, “He won a Pulitzer Prize.” It was Alva Johnston, who won a Pulitzer Prize when he was working for a newspaper in New York. And my great-aunt did not even look up. She was playing solitaire, and without even looking up from her game, she said, “He never amounted to anything in Sacramento.”

[Laughing.] Tough audience.

Arden School at Arden Way and Watt Avenue, circa 1948. Joan Didion delivered her eighth-grade graduation speech there. “At the time I went there,” she says, “it was a real country school.”

Courtesy Of Sacramento City Archive

Didion’s newest piece of nonfiction, Where I Was From, may find a tough audience, too. It isn’t so much a memoir as a meditation on California, and several reviewers have noted that Didion is not only revising her own view of California and her family’s place in it, she’s calling into question the very existence of the “wagon train morality”—according to UC Davis’ Hicks, a belief in individual character and a commitment to the common good—that she first wrote about almost 40 years ago.

In much of Didion’s writing, says Hicks, she’s seen “a society in breakdown that either never had or has completely lost that sense of the common good, where you circle the wagons because you are going to be attacked.” In Where I Was From, Didion questions whether or not that community morality ever existed. In fact, she makes a good case for the idea that California was never a haven for the personal character and community consciousness that the myth of the pioneer crossing implies, and that what California has always had is a truly remarkable knack for self-deception.

Where I Was From opens with Didion’s descriptions of her pioneer forebears and how they came west, the primal American crossing story of the settlement of the frontier, but her real focus is on interrogating the way she’d always interpreted that cultural tale. The descendant of settlers, including an ancestor who arrived in Oregon with a party that had traveled for a while with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party, Didion had spent her early life developing a rather uncritical belief in “the California dream,” even giving a speech on the subject at her eighth-grade graduation from the Arden School.

Didion rereads many of the books that deal with California’s history and character, providing a detailed—some might say tedious, but it’s material that’s little-read these days—examination of the way the state’s been represented, and providing her commentary on how well these representations square up with the facts of life. Didion doesn’t exempt herself from these revisionist readings; she returns to her own first novel, Run River, to examine her own attitudes toward those traditional ideas of California. She observes that, although for the most part she accepted at the time “the crossing story as origin myth,” there are some passages in that early book which suggest that, even though she wasn’t aware of it, she was “beginning to entertain some doubt” about the veracity of the crossing story.

Her somewhat surprising conclusion is that California’s belief in itself as independent, self-sufficient and united for the common good has always been a myth—we’ve relied on the government from the beginning, for everything from water to railroads to freeways to federally subsidized defense industries that created a middle-class paradise. And what’s more, we’ve deceived ourselves into thinking we’re taking care of each other, when in fact we’ve got a long history of abandoning problem people—first to mental institutions, and now to prisons.

SN&R: You wrote at the very beginning of Where I Was From that it was about trying to look at your own confusion about the place and the way you grew up, and that it was as much about America as it was about Sacramento. One of the critics says that you use Sacramento as a metaphor for California, and California as a metaphor for the post-modern world. Would you say that’s an accurate assessment?

DIDION: I didn’t set out to do that, but probably, you know, generally you tend to take things from point A to point Z pretty fast. The whole point of looking at past misunderstandings and confusions about who we were and why we did anything we did is that—I came to think that those confusions were getting in the way of having any clear idea of where we are now and where we are going. As people, as human beings, as a state, as a country.

SN&R: Is this in some ways related to your essay collection Fixed Ideas, where you suggest taking a look at the things we assume are true because often those ideas are wrong?

DIDION: Yes. I think we have confused ideas about who we are, nationally as well as personally.

SN&R: One of the things that came up many times throughout the book is the old idea of “new people” in California and that those newcomers were what changed the character of it.

DIDION: In the old way of thinking. In my old way of thinking. And then I came around to seeing that everybody had been “new people.” That change is a given, a part of the place since the founding, since it was first settled.

SN&R: And yet at the same time we have this constant longing for things the way they were.

DIDION: Always.

SN&R: Do you think there’s just a universal longing for that kind of thing?

DIDION: I think there is, and a universal misunderstanding of what the past was. I think particularly any time things get particularly stressed in the society—which they certainly are now in every possible way, economically, number one—people tend to idealize the past.

Excerpt from page 183, Where I Was From:

That I should have continued, deep into adult life, to think of California as I was told as a child that it had been in 1868 suggests a confusion of some magnitude, but there it was. … Only in the 1980s did certain facts—two of them, not unrelated—manage to penetrate what was clearly a fairly tenacious wish not to examine whatever it was I needed to believe. The first fact, which entered my attention as an almost personal affront, was that California no longer felt rich enough to adequately fund its own educational system. The second, or corollary, fact was that there seemed to be many towns in California—including towns I knew, towns I thought of as my own interior landscape, towns I had thought I understood, towns in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys—so impoverished in spirit as well as in fact that the only way their citizens could think to reverse their fortunes was by getting themselves a state prison.

SN&R: You write, in the section about the Spur Posse in Lakewood, Calif., and the demise of the defense industry, about an “artificial ownership class,” and then you talk about your mother’s response, when you asked her about class, that it’s not a way we think in California. Is class California’s great non-subject?

DIDION: It is in America, I think. America has a real hard time with the idea of class because it is something that we, as Americans and particularly as Californians, were supposed to have passed beyond. Anybody could be, anybody can be anything they want, given a certain set of circumstances. You’re not frozen in the situation into which you were born. But some people, if you think of class in economic terms, increasingly fewer and fewer people have more and more of the money, and more and more of the people have less of the money, which creates a huge unhappiness. And the kind of resentment that leads to recalls, etc.

SN&R: That’s the big topic right now, though this interview will be published after the recall’s been decided. Do you think it’s a uniquely California thing?

DIDION: The mechanism for it is probably—the whole idea of propositions, initiatives, etc., that came out of California progressivism, and the recall has kind of tagged along on that. But the impetus for the recall came out of the proposition process. If you think of Proposition 13, it did two things. It showed how easy it was to exert the popular will on the process. That’s the one thing it did. And the other thing it did was pauperize the state. A lot of the troubles that everyone is going through, that made them want the recall, have their genesis in Proposition 13.

SN&R: So what do you think about the recall?

DIDION: Well, if I were voting in California, I’d vote against the recall. But I’m not.

SN&R: You quoted a 19th-century California philosopher, Josiah Royce, about how “a general sense of social irresponsibility is the easiest failing of California.” How accurate is that assessment today?

DIDION: It was kind of stunning to me to come across it. At the time he wrote that book—I think it was 1886—but at the time he wrote it, he was convinced to some extent that this was a key part of California’s early history, but that California had passed it and overcome it. I think it’s very much still with us. I think all the recall spells to me is a general sense of social irresponsibility, refusing to recognize the actual problem, which is that the state has no money. It’s not that Gray Davis spent it, it’s that it has no money.

SN&R: This book has been described as a counter to traditional novels and traditional writing about the “California dream.” Is that what you intended?

DIDION: I didn’t intend it. I just wanted to look at my own misunderstandings and see where they came from. So I started reading and rereading this stuff. More and more, I can see that, as I think I say in the book, that I’m not the only one who has been confused.

SN&R: I got the feeling that you don’t think California has changed all that much.

DIDION: The way it thought of itself. That’s what’s changed. I don’t think California’s changed all that much; I think we’ve had a false view of its past. In a lot of reviews of this book, people have treated it as if it’s a goodbye to California. Well, it’s not. It’s a reassessment of California, but by no means is it saying goodbye. I don’t say goodbye, I just leave. [Laughter.]

Excerpt from page 167, Where I Was From:

… in point of fact the whole notion of planting camellias for the pioneers—there was in the park across from the state capitol building in Sacramento a “Camellia Grove” set aside for this purpose—had originated with my father’s stepmother, Genevieve Didion, who was for many years the president of the Sacramento City Board of Education and was said by the rest of the family, not entirely approvingly, to be “political.” All association of camellias with pioneers, in other words, derived from the same spirit of civic boosterism that would later turn Front Street, along the river, into the entirely ersatz “redevelopment” known as “Old Sacramento,” twenty-eight riverfront acres of shops selling trinkets and souvenirs and popcorn. “The pioneers,” in other words, had become a promotional tool, Sacramento’s own unique selling proposition, a way of attracting tourists, conventions, a new kind of cash that did not depend on crops …

SN&R: What would be the thing that you would most want people to know about this book?

DIDION: People who are approaching it as a memoir will find it unsatisfying as a memoir because it doesn’t really tell you much about me. I think the way I would like for people to read it, the way I intended for people to read it, is as a kind of attempt to understand a piece of history. A revisionist history.

SN&R: And what’s the benefit there?

DIDION: The benefit of questioning the past is that then you can look ahead. You can look ahead clearly, when you’re not blinded by ideas that aren’t true. I think everybody has to sort of straighten out—I think everybody has an obligation to straighten out—their thinking about the past, about their personal past as well as the public past, so that you can remember it straight and look ahead. Then you can figure out how to move forward. I don’t think you can move forward if you’re locked in a construction of the past that isn’t usable.

SN&R: So things like California’s dependence on federal money …

DIDION: I think you have to understand that, yeah.

SN&R: And the parts of the book about institutionalizing people, whether the mentally ill or the expansion of the prison system …

DIDION: It seems to me that those things come in a straight line out of the willingness to abandon that is part of the crossing story, you know. The readiness to abandon, I guess, not willingness.

SN&R: If someone were to ask you today where are you from, what would you say?

DIDION: I’m from California. Always from California.

She’s not lived in California since 1988, which is also the last time she was in Sacramento. Didion’s parents, as well as her brother and his family, moved to Carmel, and when she’d come to visit, she’d go to the coast.

The last part of Where I Was From takes its most personal turn, into a more traditional memoir, as Didion writes about the events immediately preceding the death of her mother in 2001. Flying into Monterey, she sees herself retracing the path of her pioneer ancestors. In her grief, she wonders “what we think when our parents die, even at my age, who will look out for me now, who will remember me as I was, who will know what happens to me now, where will I be from.

It’s as if she needed to look again at all she thought she knew about the past—her own, California’s—to see her mother clearly, without the trappings of the pioneer mythology. In a series of scenes that place her mother’s life in context with the myths and reality of California, Didion invites us to see her mother: inconsistent in her beliefs and the practice of them, determined, smart, frustrating, funny and exceedingly lovable. Very much like California, which is without a doubt where Joan Didion is from.