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California Nightmare

Joan Didion's Where I Was From

In her new book of essays, Where I Was From, Joan Didion returns to California to dissect her home state's contradictory underpinnings. Part autobiography and part cultural critique, the collection is penned with the same incisiveness of Didion's other works as she chronicles her reverse pioneering. A Sacramento native who moved east to New York, Didion conveys the tension of being attached to something that has left her disillusioned.

Didion's intent with Where I Was From is to pursue "an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely." Didion reinforces the chasm between California's idealized self-image as a land of opportunity and entrepreneurship, and its increasing reliance on federal money, while suggesting that such inconsistency is typical throughout the history of the state.

In one of the book's key pieces, Didion deconstructs a textbook essay entitled "What the Railroad Will Bring Us," which she states was routine reading for generations of public school children. Like filmmaker David Lynch's defrocking of the bucolic and fictional town of Lumberton in Blue Velvet, Didion peels back the so-called glory of Californian self-reliance and illustrates how the state's process of trading land to outside owners (corporations and the federal government) has led to what Didion calls the state's "pauperization" and loss of social responsibility. By the year 1866, California had already sold half the state to the Southern Pacific Railroad and was in the process of mortgaging the rest to the federal government, a process that parallels the boom of the aerospace industry and its subsequent failure over a hundred years later.

Didion slaps her readers with dismal stories that undermine the romantic mythos of the pioneering forerunner. Hers is a California weighed down with thousands of lost jobs, legions of prisons, and growing incidence of mental illness; debilitation and greed lurk everywhere beneath a diorama of freedom and sunshine.

Didion examines and cross-examines various subjects, from the racist origin stories of the white settler in Jack London's novels, to widespread poverty in the San Joaquin Valley and its dearth of blue-collar jobs. She expertly picks apart every topic to reveal spiritual vacancy and the state's tradition of bigotry against the mentally ill, the poor, and foreigners.

For example, Didion relates that of the ten American metropolitan areas most reliant on public assistance in the 1980s, six were in the Central Valley. Popular assumption about California's rising poverty rate was that immigrants, particularly those from Southeast Asia and Latin America, were responsible. This may have been the short-term case, but Didion remarks that the majority of people living below poverty level in the Central Valley were the progeny of white settlers.

Turning to her own roots, Didion acknowledges that this sort of hypocrisy, coupled with the blind insistence on boundless opportunity, is the legacy of the white settler and "so much a part of who I became." Because she takes on California in the wake of her parents' deaths, Where I Was From, for all its hawk-eyed social criticism, borders on memoir. Didion's cynical appraisal of her family (who were themselves soberly imbued with the past and valued anything "old," from their dimly lit houses to their tarnished silver) and the foolhardy westward migration irrevocably give way to her descriptions of today's California.

But instead of enriching the collection, Didion's relationship to her family remains perplexingly vague. In one essay, she writes about her father being committed to a mental hospital for "some weeks or months" then segues abruptly into the history of such institutions in California and the state's legacy of desertion. She doesn't comment on her own feelings about her father's illness, nor does she explain the details surrounding his mysterious depression. Didion's research into specific events in California history is impressive, but deeper introspection about her family would have been even more satisfying. Critical candor is Didion's strongest suit, but a lack of emotional context makes her attempt to divulge personal history more of a narrative detour than anything else.

In many ways, Where I Was From is a variation on Didion's lifelong exploration of the lies people tell themselves. She powerfully lays out much of the corrupt myth of her home state and suggests her family's complicity in that myth. In the process she takes a hesitant swing at a more personal, painful connection with California. The skeletons in her family closet hold up the flesh of her historical criticism, but we're the poorer that one of the great social chroniclers of our time can't quite bring those fragile bones out into the light.

Where I Was From
by Joan Didion
Knopf; ISBN: 0679433325
Hardcover: 240 pages (September 2003)

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