On the Joan Didion: Her Legacy, Her Power

Written by: Leah Cioco | 9 months ago

Last January 8, I found out that Joan Didion had passed away—about two weeks since the day she died. I don’t remember exactly what I did right after reading the news, but about an hour or two later, I sent a message to the only two people I personally knew who adored her. Who loved her. Who, like me, cared. I wrote, word for word:

"Super late update but one of our literary icons passed roughly two weeks ago and I just found out. Thanks for sharing your interest in and love for her with me. Such a shame we’d never meet her in person although I feel like I know her so much through her writing."

At the bottom was a link to The New York Times article I'd just read “Joan Didion, ‘New Journalist’ Who Explored Culture and Chaos, Dies at 87.” I won’t ever know if my two friends spent some time reflecting on it—I didn’t push them when they responded with “I remembered you when the news broke” and “Oh yeah I heard about this last time, what a legacy she has”—but I sure did.

I reread her work—from her Vogue pieces, her personal essays, to her novels. And just like that, I slipped into a vortex of time and space, traveled back to July 2018, which was when I first encountered her through In Bed at Widener Library’s reading rooms.

I had to reread it at least thrice to fully absorb her words. Joan was complicated, very deep, and way too intelligent for me then, at 17 years old. For Goodbye to all that, I’d read halfway through just to begin all over again, because I felt like I missed something like I didn't get the point. And so for the two weeks that I did close readings about her work, I was putting up a show. I genuinely did not fully grasp her essence, although I adored how she played with words. They were like music to the ears. They were majestic and noble. Warm.

On the last day at that intensive in-house writing program, my classmates and I watched a Netflix documentary about her called The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, in 2017. It was only then that I truly fell in love with her mind, when I truly understood her work and when I felt somehow understood.

Joan was a unique child; she wrote her first take at fiction when she was five years old: a story about how a woman felt like she was going to die in the freezing cold only to wake up in a desert. She typed down Ernest Hemingway’s writings word for word, analyzed how they worked, and retyped them from memory. When her husband and only daughter died, she wrote about their lives and their deaths as a coping mechanism through the lens of a reliable narrator.

Joan’s power was her ability to be vulnerable and therefore relatable—universal even—without the slightest hint of feeling like a victim. She was not self-righteous and in fact, she was the complete opposite. The hallmark of her writing is its intimacy. She seems to be whispering directly to your ear, confiding everything from dilemmas to wisdom.

Through sharing her thoughts about innocence, her memories of New York, her desires to be an actress and then a writer, and her complaints about migraines, she sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue—a friendship, if you will—based on understanding and identification.

Sure, you may not be getting ear-splitting migraines and finding peace when they end as she did, but at the core of her personal essays is the supposition that there is a certain unity to that unique experience: being an oxymoron, a contradiction, complicated. She bares her naked soul and has become the poster soul for being both fragile and strong. And her legacy is her ability to turn anything close at hand into a grand meditational adventure.

Like any great essayist I’ve come across, she never wrote to win hearts but rather to present the complex portrait of being human. But she stole mine. Just like she did with countless others.