Why you should watch Netflix’s Joan Didion documentary

Joan Didion in 2008. Photo (cc) 2013 by David Shankbone.

There is a moment in the Joan Didion documentary “The Center Will Not Hold” that says a lot about Didion, about writing and about journalism. The filmmaker, her nephew Griffin Dunne, asks her about a scene in her 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (included in a collection of the same name) in which she describes a 5-year-old girl who’s tripping on LSD.

Didion thinks about it for a moment, her arms in motion from Parkinson’s disease, and then replies: “It was gold.” And so it was. Horrifying though the scene may have been, any journalist wants to be able to witness such things and tell the world about them. Didion’s account of 1967 Haight-Ashbury remains definitive, and it’s because of her eye for detail. Here’s the scene in question:

When I finally find Otto he says “I got something at m place that’ll blow your mind,” and when we get there I see a child on the living-room floor, wearing a reefer coat, reading a comic book. She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick.

“Five years old,” Otto says. “On acid.”

The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me that she is in High Kindergarten. She lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach. She remembers going to the beach once a long time ago, and wishes she had taken a bucket. For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote. Susan describes it as getting stoned.

I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.

“She means do the other kids in your class turn on, get stoned,” says the friend of her mother’s who brought her to Otto’s.

“Only Sally and Anne,” Susan says.

“What about Lia?” her mother’s friend prompts.

“Lia,” Susan says, “is not in High Kindergarten.”

This is writing of the highest order. The documentary is on Netflix; I first watched it a couple of years ago and then again recently because I had assigned it to my opinion journalism class — along with her brilliant 1961 essay “On Self-Respect.” The documentary is flawed but riveting, mainly because Didion herself is riveting. She has been an icon for much of her career, and she still is. It is astonishing how many photos of her have been taken over the years.

In Googling around, I see that Rebecca Mead latched onto exactly the same scene when she reviewed the film for The New Yorker. How could she not? Since Mead was taking notes, here is Didion’s full quote: “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Of course, there has been a lot more to Didion’s career than her description of Susan. She has a new collection out. She has written compellingly about the deaths of her husband and her daughter. She reported from El Salvador, which she says in the film was a terrifying experience, and on the Bush-Cheney White House. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Now 86 and frail, she is nevertheless still very much with us.

If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix, you can do a whole lot worse than “The Center Will Not Hold.” Highly recommended.

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