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Lit How Joan Didion's stories about old hippies helped me accept myself

Apr. 9, 2019
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Cover image by Richelle Chen.

There are two reasons why I cried so much during the first week of April in my freshman year of college. The first is that I was in the absolute thick of a multi-month bout of depression, and felt my insecurities about college, relationships, and self-image magnified times a million. And the second is that I watched the Joan Didion documentary The Center Will Not Hold at least three times that week and was awed by the sheer beauty of Didion and her writing career. 

The college I went to for my freshman year never felt like the right fit, and I knew its programs didn’t offer what I wanted to do academically. The constant rain clouds of the Pacific Northwest got to me, and I never genuinely felt like myself there. So I channeled my anxiety into transfer applications. Placing my anxiety in something I could control like academics shifted my attention away from my insecurities about boys and relationships, which seemed out of my hands. 

Joan Didion’s writing came into my life when I was eighteen, at a point when I believed my entire life trajectory was dependent on whether I could transfer into the right college in the fall, or if the right boy would kiss me. 

I first became acquainted with Didion the weekend before finals when I went to visit my friend in New York. Out of Didion’s plethora of books, I chose to read The Year of Magical Thinking first. The description on its dust jacket about Didion’s experience with grieving her husband’s death had caught my attention. 

I began reading The Year of Magical Thinking treating it as therapy, as if it could help me understand my own grief. My own father had died from cancer right before my junior year of high school. It was a time when everyone in my world was absorbed in SAT prep, AP classes, and college visits. I felt like an outlier, spiraling in my grief, and so I chose to ignore it to focus on the geopolitics of college prep. 

What spoke to me about Didion’s novel most was the idea that grief has no time restraints, linear path, or predictable emotions. Drowning in a pool of my own teenage melodrama, familial grief, and college stress, I’d completely forgotten that these unfamiliar feelings were valid. 

With a newfound admiration for Didion, I embarked on a journey, weaving in and out of used bookstores to read more of her novels. By that summer, I had successfully managed the transfer application process and transferred into a smaller, more untraditional liberal arts college in New York City. 

I had exactly two months of summer in California before my move across the country for sophomore year, and so I worked backwards in Didion’s books, first buying Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From.

Reading Didion also introduced me to the world of creative non-fiction. As a self-professed chronic oversharer, a lot of my writing inspiration comes from personal experience. Prior to my discovery of creative non-fiction, I was often at a crossroads when it came to personal writing. Was there a way to integrate my personal experiences into a piece of writing without feeling like it was a confessional tell-all journal entry? 

I started with Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s first collection of essays, which explores her stories and experiences in California in the 1960s. The essays are centered on Didion’s time in San Francisco, namely the Haight-Ashbury district in the crux of hippie counterculture in the Bay Area. 

I was born and raised in Berkeley, California, just across the bay from San Francisco. I spent most weekends my junior and senior years of high school taking BART and Muni into the Haight-Ashbury, and venturing around parts of San Francisco I hadn’t gotten around to before. I always knew I wanted to go to college outside of California to experience something new, so I tried to spend as much time in San Francisco as I could before I left. 

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion writes about an instance when one of her friends, Norris, offered her some acid. Didion was tentative and unsure, and Norris asked her how old she was. She answered thirty-two, and Norris replied, “Don’t worry. There’s old hippies too.” 

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know why that particular exchange stuck with me out of all of Didion’s stories about San Francisco. 

I spent high school completely conditioned to believe that freshman year of college was going to be the best year of my life: movies, books, and other people’s stories gave me the idea that it would be one big revolving door of fun. In reality, a lot of the gratitude I felt from meeting new friends and professors my freshman year was completely eclipsed by my often debilitating depression and anxiety that year. 

I felt like I was one step behind all of my peers for not enjoying college. Didion’s remark that “there are old hippies too” relieved my anxieties about feeling like I had missed my window for enjoying college. I was still 18—I hadn’t even turned 19 yet! My life wasn’t completely over, no matter how much my irrational anxieties told me it was. 

I still have yet to read all of Didion’s books, but I know that relating to her pieces has reinforced my love for storytelling and journalism. She’s taught me that sharing personal stories can be productive. 

I spent my freshman year of college lost in my own head, spiraling due to my long-delayed grief as well as my insecurities, anxiety and depression, and uncertainty about my academic future. Reading Didion during this period helped me step out of my own mind and accept that my emotions and experiences are universal.