In the hype surrounding the release of season 2 of Stranger Things this past Friday you might have missed Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, a documentary on the acclaimed American author which became available on Netflix, too. Whether you have read her books or not, this reflection on Didion's life is a lesson in resilience that we can all learn from.
To watch Didion—withered from a combination of age and multiple sclerosis—is a bit difficult, really. Remembering the life she has lived culturally—murders, political upheaval, social “disorder,” as it’s called in the film—and personally—inability to naturally conceive, marital darkness, profound loss—is an experience I would describe as reflection in its most personal form. You will not complete a viewing without seeing some part of yourself or hearing a feeling you’ve once felt described with unnerving accuracy.
Didion’s story felt, to me, like an education in feeling. There is no pretense or prescription of how to deal with our emotions. Quite the opposite, Didion is a testament to the fact that we’re each entitled to our own ways of processing what life brings us. And for her, life brought quite a lot.
Didion is remembered by her peers in the film as a person who created a written history of a time that was very nonsensical. The sixties and seventies were fraught with social change that many couldn’t understand. Rather than trying to rationalize—as many would fruitlessly do—Didion wrote essays and books that were poignant thanks to their lack of trying too hard. Her works include, among others, The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It as It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, and The Year of Magical Thinking. Now in her eighties, Didion says quite simply that she wrote what she had. Her work, literally and figuratively, was her life. Her life: totally unimaginable yet utterly human.
One of Didion’s trademark thoughts is that desperately seeking meaning is not likely to bear fruit. Appreciating your own experience, however, is a worthy pursuit. It is in this act that The Center Will Not Hold comes into the lives of its viewers.
A Californian in birth and spirit, Didion’s first job was at Vogue in New York. She would meet her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, in New York but leave with him not long after. As the film portrays, Didion felt there was nothing else there for her at that time. She had stayed too long at the fair, as she wrote. Back in California, she and Dunne adopted a daughter because they could not have a child. Quintana was not so much planned for, as Didion recalls in the film, as she was offered to them for adoption in a serendipitous moment. For decades thereafter Didion and Dunne, Quintana in tow, wrote essays and books of fiction and “truth,” as Tom Brokaw labeled her work in the film. They wrote movie scripts to pay bills. And they were mildly nomadic—traveling for stories; renting homes, not buying them.
Eventually Dunne returned them to New York for the same reasons they had once left—restlessness. There, in the early 2000s, Didion would survive a period of life that is hard to imagine. Her daughter fell gravely ill. As Quintana remained in critical condition, Didion’s husband suffered a heart attack and died at age 71. Only a few months later their daughter, finally well enough to travel, flew from New York City to Los Angeles. She fell in the airport and hit her head. The resulting brain injury was fatal.
Didion’s experiences are hard to accept because they seem so tragic, yet they ring true to anyone’s life. Moments where you find yourself in a group of people and suddenly wonder, why am I here? Periods of time—maybe a couple weeks or a couple months—when you’re sad and not totally sure why as you cry quietly in a public place. Seeing things you’re not totally sure you want to see, yet knowing the vision will never leave you. Loss so profound you’re sure the sky is no longer blue. These are all things we—along with Didion—have known or will inevitably know. And ironically, I think through her, some meaning can be found. At least that’s how I’ve felt on occasions of reading her work, and it’s how I felt after I watched this film. Her work is so real that a person can’t help but relate to it in some way.
In the film, it is said that Didion writes in order to process her own feelings. We won’t all write books. Many of us won’t even keep a journal. But we’re all bound to experience joy—like a phone call to say a beautiful baby is ready to be adopted—and gutting pain—such as what happens when you’re sure you don’t need to get rid of your dead husband’s closet of clothes because, surely, he must be coming back. This is what Joan Didion and Griffin Dunne share with us in this documentary. The Center Will Not Hold is a truly lovely reminder that to feel is OK, that grief can be survived, and that meaning can be found—especially when we're not looking too hard for it.