In person, Didion does concede to me the occasional hard criticism. She admits that her writing might lack empathy, even human curiosity. “I’m not very interested in people,” she says. “I recognize it in myself—there is a basic indifference toward people.”
But there is one critique that still gets her hackles up, decades later. In “Only Disconnect,” published in 1980, Barbara Grizzutti Harrison called Didion a “neurasthenic Cher” whose style was “a bag of tricks” and whose “subject is always herself.” That wasn’t the worst of it: “My charity does not naturally extend itself,” Harrison wrote, to “someone who has chosen to burden her daughter with the name Quintana Roo.” Asked 25 years later, in this magazine, whether she felt Magical Thinking was criticproof, Didion replied, “Not if my daughter’s name wasn’t criticproof.”
It’s a telling scar. From the very beginning of her career, family has been the secret heart of Didion’s work, the empathic center of that otherwise icy moral universe. Critics may charge Didion with a lack of feeling for her subjects, but her reverence for blood ties and her esteem for clan loyalty animate everything she wrote about the social disorder wrought by the generation that followed hers. Didion took the title of Slouching Towards Bethlehem from the apocalyptic Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” with its proclamation that “the center cannot hold.” For her, the true center that could not hold was the family—sacrificed, she felt, on the altar of universal love and self-fulfillment. No Didion scene is more evocative than the kicker of the title essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: A neglected 3-year-old hippie child, having just burned his arm in a fire, is caught chewing on an electrical cord.
The real engine of this scene, Didion now acknowledges, was Quintana, whom she worried that she was herself neglecting. “I was leaving her alone while I was in San Francisco,” she says. “I went home to Los Angeles on weekends, and she would turn her face away when I would kiss her because I had been away for a week. So I was feeling very strongly the sense of failing at parenting there.” In her libertarian cri de coeur, “On Morality,” Didion criticizes the tendency of social movements to “assuage our private guilts in public causes.” It wasn’t just the American family she was worrying about, but her own.
Blue Nights dwells on the warning signs of Quintana’s incipient instability, which one doctor diagnosed as borderline personality disorder. It started, Didion now believes, at a very young age, perhaps not long after she was adopted at birth. (Didion and Dunne had tried and failed to conceive for two years.) As a toddler, Quintana would go on about a “Broken Man” who haunted her nightmares. At age 5, she called Camarillo, the mental institution rumored to have inspired “Hotel California,” to ask what she should do if she went crazy—a story Didion insists is not just family lore. When Quintana got chicken pox, she told her parents coldly, “I just noticed I have cancer.”
At 14, she informed them that she’d written a novel “just to show you”: It involved a girl named Quintana who got pregnant. Her parents “said that they would provide the abortion but after that they did not even care about her any more … Her father had a bad temper, but it showed that they cared very much about their only child. Now, they didn’t even care any more.”
Didion had always wanted to be a novelist. Like Tom Wolfe and Susan Sontag, she grew up thinking she was put on Earth to write fiction, and it’s in her novels that she is typically most revealing and reflective. They usually feature a distant woman, intelligent but inscrutable and generally fatalistic. Almost invariably, she has a troubled daughter.
In Play It As It Lays, she writes about a 4-year-old who’s in treatment for “an aberrant chemical in her brain.” In A Book of Common Prayer, a broken woman finds herself in a fictional banana republic, dreaming of being reunited with her daughter, a fugitive radical. (“It was about having your children grow up,” Didion realizes now. “Quintana was reaching that age.”) Inez Victor, the mother in Democracy, published when Quintana was 18, has the all-too-familiar “capacity for passive detachment,” but in the course of the novel she is forced into action when her daughter, Jessie, runs off to Vietnam just before the 1975 evacuation of Americans. One night, Inez discovers Jessie prostrate in her bedroom with a heroin needle in her Snoopy wastebasket. “Let me die and get it over with,” Jessie says. “Let me be in the ground and go to sleep.”