Last fall, having heard that Joan Didion’s health was in decline, The Atlantic’s staff writer Caitlin Flanagan got in her car and started driving across California. “I wanted to feel close to the girl who came from Nowhere, California (have you ever been to Sacramento?), and blasted herself into the center of everything. I wanted to feel close to the young woman who’d gone to Berkeley, and studied with professors I knew, and relied on them—as I had once relied on them—to show her a path. The thing to do was get in the car and drive. I would go and find her in the places where she’d lived.”
Flanagan was looking for an answer to the great question of Didion’s career: “What makes so many people feel possessive not just of the stories, but also of their connection to the writer. What is it about these essays that takes so many people hostage?” She had met Didion and first read Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1975, when she was 14 years old; Didion was a visiting professor at Berkeley but not yet famous: “And something changed inside me,” Flanagan writes, “and it has stayed that way for the rest of my life.”
“Chasing Joan Didion” is Flanagan’s gorgeous cover story for The Atlantic’s June 2022 issue, and leads an expansion of The Atlantic’s Books section that launches today. In a piece traversing Sacramento, Berkeley, Malibu, and Hollywood—the site of Didion’s most recognizable home, on Franklin Avenue—Flanagan finds Didion in the rivers and pastures, in the beach house, in the groves and shadows. She also uncovers the reality of Didion’s famous marriage to John Gregory Dunne: “There weren’t words in those days for how a man’s rage could shape the life of a woman who lived with him, but we have one now: abuse.”
Each stop Flanagan makes––from Didion’s childhood home in Sacramento, to a sorority house in Berkeley where scrapbook clippings foreshadow making it big in New York magazines, to the Los Angeles and Malibu homes she shared with her husband––Flanagan resolves the reality of specific locations against the ways she imagined them. “I realized—perhaps the lesson of the whole excursion—that I didn’t want these places to be real, because they lived so vividly in my mind.”
It is in Didion’s most famous homes, the ones she shared with Dunne and with their daughter, Quintana Roo, that Flanagan calls out the thing few other writers have been willing or able to state. “The Didion-Dunnes’ marriage was one long conversation between two writers completely in sync about their beliefs on writing and always interested in what the other had to say. But Dunne also had a legendary and vicious temper, and he was an incredibly mean drunk. Even his pals reported as much, because it would be impossible to assess the man without admitting to these central facts of his nature. They had read about the kicked-down doors, and many who were close to the couple had witnessed more examples of his rage.”
Ultimately Flanagan discovers what the journey meant and what she was seeking: “I hadn’t gone looking for the actual Joan Didion or your Joan Didion or even ‘the reader’s’ Joan Didion. I went looking for the Joan Didion who was partly a historical figure, and partly a great writer, and partly a fiction of my own design. And she lives right where she always has.”
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten—
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.
The Atlantic’s June 2022 issue is now online. Please be in touch with questions or interview requests. Flanagan and deputy editor Jane Yong Kim will talk about the cover story during a virtual event, The Atlantic Reads, on Thursday, May 19, at 12 p.m. ET. (Register here.)
The Atlantic, a literary destination since its founding 165 years ago as a magazine of “Literature, Art, and Politics,” is today unveiling a dramatically expanded Books section devoted to essays, criticism, reporting, original fiction, poetry, and book recommendations.