RIP Joan Didion
I remember reading this piece ("Trouble in Lakewood") when it was first published, maybe five years after I started reading everything by Joan Didion that I could get my hands on, and the growing sense of revelation, as I read, of why the place where I grew up was the way that it was.
I hadn't perceived it at the time because my own family was supported not by defense but by the toy industry - my father was a product manager at Mattel, and it's slightly inaccurate but not unfair to call him the man who invented Hot Wheels. We lived on the west side of Los Angeles, and many of the families there were supported by the entertainment industry or real estate. But the other half or so of the families I knew were in defense. The fathers (it was always fathers, then) were engineers working for Hughes or Rockwell. My mom's best friend's husband was a nuclear-weapons policy analyst for the Rand Corporation.
When defense collapsed in California, my mom and her new husband had just bought themselves a beautiful new apartment just off La Cienega, near LACMA. It was close enough to the La Brea tar pits that tar oozed into their parking garage. He was an avionics engineer at Rockwell, she was a West Side real-estate agent, and the pair went two years without income before they decided that the only way they could remain in Los Angeles was to give up their home and change careers. This is how, in their fifties, they became group parents to a home for juvenile offenders, paid by the County of Los Angeles, a job that they were almost but not quite completely unsuited for.
This piece is from 1993, and it's very much the "before" picture. The transition that Didion's writing about is underway, but it is not actually in full swing yet. The Lakewood plant is still under threat. But everything you need to see what is coming is there in front of your eyes, and indeed, has been there the whole time. This was not the first thing I read that told me that the world was held together by fictions, but it was the one that showed me that specific fictions that I had believed in for my entire life were about to stop holding together a world that I had thought held together all by itself. It did not.
There's a piece that Didion wrote, a couple of years later, about the collapse of West Side real estate. It's much shorter, because the story's a lot less complicated, but it's still about a decisive shift that took a group of comfortable, privileged, established people and made the economic basis of their lives wink out of existence, leaving them to discover that their lives had no other basis. That piece is particularly interesting to me because she interviews many people in my mother's social circle, or who had been in her social circle before she moved southeast into a house full of African-American teenagers. And those people are all facing the same thing my mother did, though again, at this stage in the story they have not taken whatever their next step is yet.
Somewhat to my shame, age and tragedy took Joan Didion out of my life years ago. I've never had the heart to read The Year of Magical Thinking or Blue Nights. Obviously she had to write about the devastating events in her own life. What was happening to the rest of us as the curtain was coming down on American democracy was no longer a beat she could cover. I needed her so much, and it was simply beyond what she could bear.
As with so many things in the Joan Didion extended universe, this is something that seems like a metaphor for something else, but which is in fact simply exactly what it is.