Caitlin Flanagan and Joan Didion: Writers and Mothers

Every now and then a piece of writing appears in a magazine that is so compelling, so readable and so out there that you steal the magazine from the waiting room or salon, or stay on the exercise bike long after your usual time, or email the link to everyone you know even though you never do that and hate it when other people do it to you.

Caitlin Flanagan's "The Autumn of Joan Didion"in this month's Atlantic is such a piece of work. And it's such a piece of work.

The article is based on Didion's latest book Blue Nights, which continues the themes of loss and aging put forth in her earlier book The Year of Magical Thinking and centers on the death of her adopted 39-year-old daughter Quintana Roo. The piece is part memoir (Flanagan met Didion when she was a teenager), part rhapsodic tribute, part revelatory lit crit and also part mommy wars.

Yes, Flanagan goes there -- the third rail of women talking about other women -- the kind of stuff we lower our voices to share -- she goes after Joan Didion's portrayal of herself as a mother. With all due respect.

"To really love Joan Didion... you have to be female," she writes,


"Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them... she was our Hunter Thompson."


"All of us who love her the most have, in ways literal and otherwise, been reading her since adolescence."

But then,

"Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents' house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother."


"Ultimately Joan Didion's crime -- artistic and personal -- of the one of which all of us will eventually be convicted: she got old. Her writing got old, her perspective got old, her bag of tricks didn't work anymore."

Flanagan's recounting of meeting the young Didion as a visiting professor at Berkeley is a study of artful prose itself, as is her analysis of Didion's groundbreaking style -- developed from early days as a caption writer for women's magazines. Didion made it safe for intelligent women to write compellingly, artfully about the about clothes and décor and ambiance because, as we know, it's always about the details. Of course we remember what we wore. And the smell of jasmine.

Flanagan has written extensively about motherhood, working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, celebrity mothers and now Joan Didion, mother. Citing numerous cases of abandonment and the questioning the ability of two self-involved writers to parent well at all, she takes Didion's admitted fractured sense of herself as a mother a few steps further.

Basically she's calling an old woman who has lost her husband and her child on her flaws as only someone who adores her can.

Flanagan, the grown-up, challenging the eternal girl on her failures as a mother.

There is definitely something filial going on here because the love is there -- to Didion's question "who will remember me as I was?" is Flanagan's answer, "all of us, always."

I interviewed Flanagan about this piece, Joan Didion and writing:

Nancy Doyle Palmer: What other writers come to mind who compare to Joan Didion -- do you put anyone else up there with her?

Caitlin Flanagan:I was really influenced by Joan Didion and Pauline Kael; they were both at the height of their influence when I was coming into my own as a reader. They were both from California, I was from California, they both had gone to Berkeley and I was growing up in Berkeley and although they each had great disagreements about each other they were each creating this enduring style. The other writer at the time, who is now known in such a different way was Nora Ephron -- her early essays in Scribble, Scribble and Crazy Salad and the essays about journalism that she wrote in the '70s.

There were these women who were writing this imperishable stuff. Strong essays but very feminine -- each in their very different kind of femininity -- I think together, those three writers certainly had an influence on me and together really created something powerful in the '70s -- the kind of territory these women staked out -- be it journalism, be it movies or be it this weird intersect of this very private life and this very public, glamorous life.

NDP: You have a line in your piece about Joan Didion and what we would now clearly recognize as her distinct social anxiety disorder. Elaborate on that.

CF: There is a famous line in the preface of Slouching Towards Bethlehem about Didion as a reporter - because she was so inarticulate and so small people ignored her a lot - people would tend to forget that her presence ran counter to their best interests, because she just seemed like this very tiny, inarticulate being - she said that every time she sat down to write she felt as if she had suffered a mild stroke and she couldn't find the words and she was certainly that way in person as well. I think they helped her greatly as a reporter because she could really melt into the scene. Now in later years as she became so famous that that became impossible for her and she became much more self-confident and able to speak. But she has said it had a lot to do with her being a good reporter.

NDP: Did you get much kickback in your article's discussion of her as a mother?

CF: I learned a long time ago to do my work and get it out there and not get caught up to online reaction to it but I know we were all shocked at the wide readership this piece had at The Atlantic -- at one point it was the number one piece on The Atlantic, which was just a shocker since it was an essay about a literary writer.

And about her being a mother? That's what her new book is about -- explicitly. It's about her motherhood so to meet the book on its own terms was to meet the book on the subject of her being a mother and raising this child -- it wasn't as though a writer had written a book on some other subject and I wheeled around and decided to talk about what kind of mom she was. That would not have been fair game but the book was about her being a mother and she asked us to think about it and to learn a lot of intimate details about it so I met it on at that level.

NDP: She herself is hard on herself about her lack of mothering skills yet you felt it still needed to be discussed. You really do call her on some things, is that fair to say?

CF: I have had a lot of friends contact me who are adoptive parents and they were kind of shocked by the way Joan Didion described the sense that because Quintana was adopted she was that she felt she was always on the verge of being abandoned and they feel strongly that this decision to find a child to adopt is not necessarily a sign of abandonment and that's the life of that child.

And it seemed that there were a lot of times that her parents weren't around and were leaving her behind in places and it seems to me that's a more abandoning act than a young woman who is pregnant and makes a good adoption plan for her child and goes to a top obstetrician in Santa Monica and makes a good adoption plan for her child so I comment on that. I used a lot of reserve, actually, on one hand nothing is more personal than being a mother, on the other hand she wrote about it and I thought I could my perspective on it as well.

NDP: You did seem to show some reserve, pull you punches in a way because also write about how much she meant to you and how much you love her writing...

CF: My father was a writer, I've known a lot of children of writers -- daughters and sons of writers and it can be a hard way to grow up. Writers are really self-involved people and when you have two writers as parents it's not an easy time...

NDP: There is a real element of disillusionment in this piece for you -- the persona she presented as a wife and mother was a lot less accurate to you than when she was the lonely single writer you loved as a young woman, but the mother/wife persona didn't quite ring true as you came to that role in your own life.

CF: When I was young I loved everything she described about her daughter -- taking her home to her parents' house for her first birthday and there was the pink champagne, they gave her a xylophone and promised to tell her a funny story -- and she pressed her cheek against Quintana's cheek -- it was a very inspirational presentation of being a mother -- but it sounds as though that unpleasant 'on-the groundess' of it, the day to day -- was very different.

I've written a lot of long pieces about women -- Barbara Walters, Joan Didion, Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric, Stephenie Meyer who wrote the Twilight series and Karen Owens who was in the center of that controversy at Duke and I'm always interested in women who have become famous -- either intentionally or unintentionally -- and I'm always interested in the way that the reality punctures through the artifice. There is always a sense of disillusionment when you have a hero -- but there is always a sense that there is no writer like Joan Didion and that early work is still imperishable.

NDP: Is it fair to say you felt betrayed by her later writing?

CF: I can't accept the word betrayal because an artist has the absolute right and responsibility to follow their path -- to follow what interests them -- I felt certainly disappointed I was always looking for a book to touch me the way those early books did... but I never did.

NDP: You mentioned Nora Ephron and Pauline Kael who both developed very direct, personal, almost conversational style of writing. You close out your piece with this line: "Enough of that! It was a Hollywood childhood of the '60s/70's variety and it was the usual mess.... I never wanted to tell you about all of that. I just wanted to tell you about the young woman who came to my house so long ago."

CF: I was always very influenced by the idea that Tom Wolfe expressed when writing in the great days of magazine journalism when he said that the job when you're writing pieces is that it's supposed to reach out from the page and grab that person by the collar and pull them in so that they CAN'T stop reading. Even though there's a huge amount of writing there is never enough and the minute it's getting boring you're changing it, you're turning it, finding a new angle to come in at it.

It's gratifying for me even when I'm being criticized that they're read every word -- and aren't just responding to the lead -- they'll come up with something 2000 words in the piece that they have something to say about so it must be pretty readable.

NDP: There is a certain fearlessness in what you write about -- you've put yourself out there with the issues on working moms and as evidenced by some of the reviews of your latest book Girl Land -- do you usually go in knowing there is going to be some backlash?

CF: I go in knowing there will be backlash on a lot of things because I know that what interests me is when a lot of people think one thing and this is the way we're supposed to think about that thing -- whether it's raising daughters, whether it's being home or going to work -- with a lot of people saying you have to believe this thing -- I'm ALWAYS interested, that's a party I'm always going to show up to.

If you're a writer you just keep following the path -- keep going deeper and deeper into the things that interest you. I love writing, I love dwelling and living so closely within the subject for a while -- reading is such a big part of it -- I love those things so much that as much as I dislike having my work bashed in public, it's not pleasant, but I love writing so much more than I dislike that -- I couldn't be stopped by that.

I mean if it were something else that was getting that kind of reaction that I had to endure -- if it was a certain park I was going to I'd say to hell with that park but it's writing, I will never stop.