Joan Didion’s ‘Where I Was From’

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

There are two kinds of Californians: those lucky enough to be born here, and those smart enough to move here.

I expect I like saying this, in part, because I am of the latter group. Joan Didion, “child of the crossing story,” is of the former, a rooted Californian who has, over time, moved her vantage point from her family’s Sacramento ranchland to Malibu to Manhattan.

There have been a few other stopping points for Didion, but none with the magnetic force of California, drawing her back as it does, in body, in spirit, in prose. Magnets can attract or repulse; her new book, “Where I Was From,” is a densely interleaved, compelling portrait of the California that bred her and the California that sent her elsewhere.


“Where I Was From” reveals more than most titles tend to, suggesting that the place has changed as much as the author has. The book, a memoir of sorts, is a patchwork, like the quilt she once hung in her house at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, the sea that her forebears crossed desert voids and mountain gorges to reach. The quilt was made by her great-great-grandmother on the trek to California, a journey that became America’s 19th century creation myth.

Some of the chapters will be familiar to her readers, like the Spur Posse in Lakewood, the ultimate planned suburb whose teenage boys scored their sexual conquests on a point system ... the recounting of the aerospace story, where, in arming the Cold War and the space race, Southern California forged both prosperity and mythology ... the prison industry phenomenon in gutted rural towns “so impoverished in spirit as well as in fact that the only way their citizens could think to reverse their fortunes was by getting themselves a state prison.”

All these are crocheted together with Didion’s microtomed observations of family and place as the genuine California, always the one that has just vanished beyond recall. Again and again, growing up, she heard, “The trouble with these new people is they think it’s supposed to be easy” -- said by people who think the new people are spoiling it. That California, by her account, the “birthright squandered, a paradise lost,” may never have existed and if it did, and was in fact spoiled, the notion that “we were the people who had spoiled it, remained unexplored” by the complainers.

The constant turnover of people has foreshortened our perspective; “historic architecture” in the 1990s was a 1950s coffee shop. When Didion and her brother wanted some land rezoned from agricultural to residential, the most passionate opponent was a man who had moved to California only six months before -- and likely lived on a street that had also been a ranch in the near past.

California has constantly been repopulated with new people who think it’s going to be easy, when in fact the place is a mirage, a bait-and-switch scheme, a broad trompe l'oeil landscape so vast it has to be subdued to keep it from engulfing the people on it. Didion’s grandfather preached to her that the code of the West demanded that you kill every rattlesnake you see. One day she sees one slither off in the family graveyard that no longer belonged to her family. By not killing it, she was aware she’d let down some Californianess in her character.

Californians live complacently with contradiction, so long as no one reproaches them for it; it is so fresh and raw and affrontingly present -- a liberal state that imprisons cities’ worth of people for life, an environmental state that eats up its singular and irreplaceable beauties. Didion delivers a description of a stupefying, short-lived theme park in Gilroy. The town’s once wholly agricultural life as the garlic capital of the world was cluelessly celebrated in stage shows with singing tomatoes, rides in a giant garlic bulb, all “to show how the county was in the 1950s and 1960s,” according to its creator.

She finds contradictions too in her own home, where her mother “despised” the federal government and its “giveaways” but breezily used her father’s military reserve status to “make free use of Air Force doctors and pharmacies” and shops. It’s in the fields where massive federal water projects made gardens out of deserts and neighborhoods out of flood plains so that Californians could proclaim themselves fiercely independently.

The service this book performs is to deliver not answers but questions, the ones that now underlie the asphalt and the concrete, that underlay the soil and fertilizer 50 years and 100 years ago. What is California supposed to be? And, being of it, what am I supposed to be?

This is not a beginner’s guide to California. It can be as layered as anything Didion has written, but worth the time to unearth stratum by stratum. In an age when the facile cliches of “the California Dream” have become the units of measurement to appraise Californians, Didion throws away this yardstick and demands that readers do too.

This is not a gut-spilling Manhattan memoir, not a book for the literature of auto-voyeurism. Its sternness does not deliver what one would expect in a state that founded a Self Esteem Commission.

Didion gives us the alpha and omega of the California soul from two very young women: the dearly bought wisdom of a child of the Donner Party -- “never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can” -- and the kidnapped and trapped child of the media age, Patty Hearst -- “Don’t examine your feelings. Never examine your feelings, they’re no help at all.”