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The Autumn of Joan Didion

In the January/February issue, Caitlin Flanagan reviewed the writer’s latest memoir, convicting her of a universal crime: getting old. Flanagan also argued, “To really love Joan Didion … you have to be female.” Didion, she said, was young women’s “Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

“Writers are always selling somebody out” is a Joan Didion quote that applies perfectly to Caitlin Flanagan’s review of Didion’s book Blue Nights. A good part of her review is based on the memory of the night when Didion was a guest at the 14-year-old Flanagan’s parents’ Berkeley Hills home. “I can tell you this for certain,” Flanagan says of that evening: “the contemporary diagnosis for the young woman at our dinner table would be profound—crippling—social-anxiety disorder.”

I too live in the Berkeley Hills, and during that period I spent time with Joan Didion while she researched the Saturday Evening Post article that became Slouching Towards Bethlehem (my husband, Ted Streshinsky, was the photographer). I can tell you with certainty that she was engaging, interesting, and perfectly self-assured.

I find it appalling that Flanagan—on the basis of what she admits is “a cursory reading of the Didion-Dunne canon”—should decide that Didion repeatedly neglected her daughter. “Where was Quintana when Didion was … bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother,” Flanagan flings out. I can answer that: Quintana was in L.A. with her father, and Didion called them often. It’s how those of us who chose the writing life managed both marriage and children.

Shirley Streshinsky
Kensington, Calif.

My, what a venomous love letter Caitlin Flanagan has written about Joan Didion. While lauding her as a hero to women, a truly insightful writer who has inspired a generation, Flanagan also manages to zing Didion as a narcissist and a neglectful mother whose knowledge of back issues of Vogue was vital to her career.

I have some of the same mixed emotions about Ms. Flanagan. I seem to find her compulsively readable, despite the fact that she too seems terribly self-involved, and often deeply wrong and facilely sexist. Yet the honesty and directness of her prose is nevertheless fascinating. Ironic, isn’t it?

Jane VanCantfort
Grass Valley, Calif.

Parts of this essay are lovely. But the flat gender baiting is a tired Atlantic trope. Some of us girls got through adolescence with Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas side by side, and they jointly guided us through the melancholy and mania of California. Pitting Didion and Hunter against each other is outrageous.

Ferrous_wheel
TheAtlantic.com comment

It seems to me that Joan Didion’s crime is not that “she got old.” Rather, it is that she has not grown up. We read many elderly authors and benefit from the wisdom they have gained as they mature and develop. Didion has not matured; she has remained an adolescent her entire adult life, and like an adolescent, she’s been focused inwardly, unable to conceive of others’ needs, or even to be empathic enough to consider that her own child had needs.

Barbara Bergier
New York, N.Y.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

My essay stated that “a cursory [emphasis added] reading of the Didion-Dunne canon” would reveal potential explanations for Quintana’s feelings of abandonment. It was a subject I didn’t want to explore at length, but Shirley Streshinsky forces my hand. Quintana was adopted in 1966. Both her parents wrote extensively about their lives during the crucial first decade of her life, including candid descriptions of their regular discussions of divorce, kicked-down-door fights, sullen silences, nervous breakdowns, psychiatric treatment, psychotic episodes, heavy drinking, and amphetamine-taking. So even when both parents were around, this was hardly an ideal environment in which to raise an emotionally stable and secure child.

To cast John Gregory Dunne as some sort of Diaper Genie modern dad who could keep the household smoothly running while his wife was out of town working is to misunderstand the man—a person of protean talent, ambition, and machismo—entirely. Indeed, in the early 1970s, suffering an acute bout of writer’s block and general domestic frustration, he left the family altogether and moved into a residential apartment in Las Vegas for a year and a half.

For more information on Didion’s understandable anxiety about joining her former professors in the Berkeley English Department, Streshinsky should see her essay on the subject, published in After Henry.

MEASURING MEARSHEIMER

In January/February’s “Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (About Some Things),” Robert D. Kaplan posited that the political scientist’s infamous views on Israel—most recently expressed in a blurb of Gilad Atzmon’s controversial book The Wandering Who?—shouldn’t distract from the importance of his “offensive realism” doctrine, and how it can address China’s rising power.

Mearsheimer may have written The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, but he also wrote the blurb, and defended it, and a fully honest essay would have reckoned with this. It would not have reported that the blurb “became a blot on Mearsheimer’s judgment”—it would have actually used the blurb to further blot Mearsheimer’s judgment. Instead, Kaplan’s essay must be regarded as another instance of monocausal and pretty piss-poor social science.

Marc Tracy
Excerpt from a Tablet blog post

Kaplan whitewashes the content of [The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy] and its message; Mearsheimer and [co-author Stephen M.] Walt advance the Mel Gibson theory of foreign affairs, which is to say, the Jews cause all wars. They blame Jews for bringing anti-Semitism on themselves; they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of lobbying; they hold Israel to an absurd double standard, and so on …

I will put aside Kaplan’s inability to reach his own conclusions about Mearsheimer’s intentions and prejudices. (Is Kaplan among the “many others” who think Mearsheimer and Walt provided “potent ammunition for anti-Semites”? Does he himself think Mearsheimer’s endorsement of a neo-Nazi’s anti-Jewish screed is evidence of an “unhealthy obsession with Israel and Jewishness on Mearsheimer’s part”? …)

My issue is with Kaplan’s statement that “the real tragedy of such controversies” is that they divert attention from Mearsheimer’s work. No. No, no, no. The real tragedy is that the University of Chicago provides a national platform for a man who scapegoats and demonizes Jews.

Jeffrey Goldberg
Excerpt from an Atlantic blog post

Mearsheimer proclaims that if Dwight Eisenhower had been president in 1967, he would have forced the Israelis out of the settlements and the captured territories. He bases that “prediction” on how Eisenhower chased the British, French, and Israelis from the Suez Canal in 1956. In actuality, Eisenhower, in his later years, proclaimed that this was the “largest foreign policy mistake” he had made as president.

Sy Dill
Providence, R.I.

[This article] makes a penetrating and robust case for realism in international affairs, an outlook that has been in eclipse in American policy making for the better part of two decades …

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