I first read Joan Didion’s “Where I Was From” about five years ago. My immediate reaction was: This should be mandatory reading in California high schools and colleges. Having grown up in Los Angeles, it illuminated and articulated so many of my abstract feelings about the Golden State.
Combining history and reportage, memoir and literary criticism, “Where I Was From” gets at the differences between California’s factual history and its perceived reputation. In Didion’s words, it’s “an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I still to this day confront them only obliquely.”
She revisits her own work (“Run, River,” “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”) as well as that of such California writers as Frank Norris, Jack London, and Henry George. She explains how the core California mythology concerns that hard journey west and the gold and treasure beyond the Rockies, how California was founded on a boom mentality.
Didion’s not always kind to California. “For most of my life,” she writes, “California felt rich to me: that was the point of it, that was the promise.” She goes on to explain how it’s no longer rich, how the population has exploded, how there are many migrant workers subsisting on a pittance. She writes about the aerospace industry, how they laid off workers in 1989, giving rise to the “Spur Posse,” a group of high school boys from Lakewood who were arrested for various sex crimes. She writes about the 33 penitentiaries and 162,000 inmates that make California’s prison system the largest in the western hemisphere. She tells us how California has committed a higher percentage of citizens to mental institutions than any other U.S. state: “Madness, it became convenient to believe quite early on, came with the territory, on the order of earthquakes.”
“Where I Was From” gave me a deeper understanding of California’s DNA. We’ve been reaching for the stars since the Donner Party. What was the Forty-Niners mining for gold in the 19th century would later become starry-eyed actors in Hollywood in the 20th (and today’s startups in Silicon Valley). That collective ambition can be a wonderful thing. It can also leave you feeling lost and alone on a Sunday afternoon. I’m reminded of Didion’s great line from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”