Perfect All-American Girl

by dhaaruni

Joan Didion is for American girls, so the saying goes. I’m American in the sense I’m an American sense but I’m about as un-American as you can possibly imagine. I was born in Mumbai, India, back when it was still Bombay and I have mixed feelings towards my homeland but I’m still inclined to call myself Indian rather than American. Anyway, I recently reread Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didon’s best (in my opinion) book of essays and read for the first time The Year of Magical Thinking and I was deeply content for a short while doing so. There was something comforting about reading the worst things that happened to somebody else that made me feel at peace, at least for a little bit.

Bethlehem is a collection of essays about California so to speak but it’s about more than that. Rather than writing on the whole book, I thought that I’d focus on my favorite essays in the book because I’d rather do them justice than to brush over important aspects of the book in general. My first essay that I loved in the book, even more than the eponymous one was “On Keeping a Notebook,” and it’s on, you guessed it, keeping a notebook. But really, it’s about so much more than that. The thing about keeping a notebook is that there’s a written record of who we were on a given day and the dissemination of a notebook demands that people care about us at our best and our worst. Didion writes,

“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

Growing up, I’d keep notebooks but since I was 15, I’ve maintained a blog, which is different because it’s irrevocably public but at the same time, extremely private. I can say whatever I want on my blog but obviously, I maintain a modicum of privacy because I don’t want the world to know my deepest and darkest secrets. I feel the need to be remembered so to speak as well as to remember. I want to go back to a particular date and figure out who I was and what happened on a particular day because I want proof that what I did and what I said and who I am mattered on a large scale. Didion goes on to write that as Americans, we’re taught that we’re the least important people in the room, as Jessica Mitford’s governess hissed in her ear before she entered a room, and it takes years to stop thinking of ourselves in that manner. But the key word here is Americans, and I am not an American, at least not in the traditional sense.

The most important aspect of the notebook is the terminology of the “I” and that segues into the next and perhaps my favorite essay of them all, “On Self-Respect.” In it, Didion writes,

“Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named co-respondent. In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for reelection. Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.”

I absolutely love that passage. For the record, Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City fame does not have self-respect while Samantha Jones from the same program definitely does. Carrie is sleeping with Big while he’s married to Natasha and she’s in a relationship with Aiden and after their affair is discovered, Carrie attempts to go to Natasha, the wronged party in question, and receive forgiveness of a kind and thankfully, is spurned and promptly rejected. Like, what kind of message would it send if Carrie were forgiven? Not a good one I’ll tell you that. She was a grown ass woman sleeping with a taken grown ass man while she attached and there is no excuse for it. From a fictional standpoint, it’s fascinating how the showrunners attempted to make us as an audience sympathize with Carrie but personally, I think she got what she deserved, abject humiliation to say the least.

As for The Year of Magical Thinking, I read it very quickly and I don’t have much to say about it except this: grief is a funny thing and people process it differently. In Season 2, Episode 13 of Gossip Girl, the Upper East Side responds to the death of Bart Bass and his son Chuck is the most affected. Immediately prior to his father’s funeral, he gets extremely drunk, refusing help from his friends and lashing out at Dan Humphrey, expelling him from the church. Celia Rhodes, the grandmother of Serena Van der Woodsen, says “It’s his father’s funeral, he doesn’t have to make sense” to her granddaughter’s protestations that Chuck is being unfair to Dan. And I guess that is the crux of grief: it doesn’t make sense at all why bad things happen but yet they do, to good and bad people alike, and there is nothing we can do as human beings to prevent them from occurring. All we have at the end of the day is somebody to love us, hold us in their arms while The National plays in the background and I guess, that’s all I can really ask for.