Monday, March 19, 2018

Evelyn Deshane on Joan Didion

Google Searching For Joan

When I Google "Joan Didion," the first image that emerges is the one of her smoking. It's one of my absolute favourites, though I also love the one where she's leaning out of a car window, the one with Quintana in her lap, and the one where she's walking on the beach with her husband. Her sunglasses take up half her face in most of the other photos Google highlights for me. Without her shades, Didion's gaze is set in a stone stare, almost implacable, as if she is a Greek statue.

The first time I Google-searched her image was shortly after reading The Year of Magical Thinking. I'd discovered her much later than I should have, well into my twenties. In her most recent images at the time of my Googling, she was far older than I thought possible. Gray hair and wrinkles mar her skin, yet she was still staring with the same impeccable precision I found in her writing. When I searched for her age on Wikipedia, it didn't startle me as much as the fact that she was still living. I had grown used to any kind of literary hero already being dead by the time I found them. But she was alive. She's still alive now. As I went back to stare at her images in Google, I held onto two thoughts simultaneously: She's still alive, and she's still so, so small.

Joan Didion is a tiny woman. Some people have called her frail, too thin, and utterly anemic. But I latched onto those images--and the words that came with them--because I'd been called those before. And after I'd been called them, I was told I was going to die.

When I was fifteen, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I never thought this definition fit, especially since I was still eating. I never wanted to be "thin" like magazine girls, but I had dropped a sudden amount of weight in my early high school days. My doctor took one look at me, told me I was going to die, and shuffled me off to an eating disorder facility. I gained weight. I got "better." But what effectively happened afterwards was I lost my voice.

There was a ban on magazines in the eating disorder treatment centre. The ban was in place in order to keep away "thinspiration" images of skeletal Kate Moss and diet tips from Cosmo. When I tried to bring in my books--Whitefang, White Oleander, and The World According To Garp—they couldn't really say no. When I brought my notebook, and proved I wasn't writing calorie counts in it, they couldn't say no, either. I merely wanted to read and write while I waited to gain the twenty pounds I apparently needed to gain. I thought this was going to be easy--but the counsellors, therapists, and everyone in the facility did as much as possible so I couldn't read and write. They threatened to take away my books. It was outside material, and I was there for healing, not reading, after all. At one point, they replaced my books with nail polish during free time and insisted that all nine of the other patients watch Dr. Phil as we waited for our dinner cart to arrive.

After four months of this, I walked away from the facility with a "proper" weight—but with absolutely no way of contextualizing what had happened to me. It wasn't until I was in university and found Marya Hornbacher's eating disorder memoir Wasted that I found some kind of narrative of an eating disorder that fit with my own experience. Halfway through her book, she talks about walking around her city in the middle of the night while reading German philosophy and drinking nothing but black coffee. She wanted to replace food with knowledge; she strove for philosophical thought and artistic endeavours, not stick-thin feminine beauty. That was something I could relate to. I read Wasted cover to cover and held it up as the only form of eating disorder narrative I could condone. Everything else was wrong.

But I still couldn't talk about me, about my experience, or what had happened to me at age fifteen.

When I found Joan Didion's picture in a late night Google search, something changed. She was thin. Startlingly so. A distant part of my brain wondered if I looked at her for "thinspiration" like all the counsellors had told me I did with other thin images of women. After a day and a half of doubt, I eventually shut that part away. I read more of Didion's work. When I found "On Keeping a Notebook," the essay struck me in a way nothing ever had before. It reminded me of my life in the eating disorder facility without the pain of pathology. Didion reminded me of the importance of writing down my thoughts, whenever they came in, so that when I woke in the morning and thought I had nothing to do, I was actually still filled with ideas.

One morning, I found my old notebooks and I reread those words. I wrote about them. I carved out the experience in a different notebook, then in a different manuscript altogether. Eventually, when I looked at Didion's image in a search again, I didn't feel a pang of guilt. Instead I remembered an exchange between my best friend and my boyfriend when I was fifteen, maybe a month or two before I was sent to the facility. We were standing on a hill, waiting for a bus, and the wind was sharp and cutting.

"You'll blow away, you know," my best friend said. "You're so damn thin."

"I've got you." My boyfriend put a hand on me, but I slipped away from his grasp. I ran away from both of them, part teasing and part serious. I wanted to show that even if I was thin, I was still strong. When he chased after me, he caught me and lifted me up like I was nothing but air. I screamed and wriggled and tried to get away. Then I burst out in laughter so hard it hurt.

The memory rose to the surface a decade and a half later because it was the last time that I remembered having a voice. A loud one, a sharp one, and one that knew there was nothing wrong with me.

Just like Joan Didion. She's small, but she's a lion. She's still called frail to this day, but she has a new book coming out each year. She still writes, she's still doing her work, even on those bankrupt mornings. Because of those notebooks, it feels like I can do the same.

Evelyn Deshane's creative and nonfiction work has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington's, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. Evelyn's most recent project #Trans is an edited collection about transgender and nonbinary identity online. Visit for more info.

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