Stories to Live and Living Stories: Joan Didion’s “The White Album”
In part, Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album” is about the human ability to connect disparate events in a way that gives them signification, meaning. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she writes, then proceeds to challenge whether or not the meaning those stories produce is worth believing in — in a way, questioning if life is then worthy of living. In the wake of the Manson Murders in 1969, Didion questions storytelling because of the senselessness of some of these events while also giving us the answer: the very act of telling these stories is what imbues the events with their meaning in the first place.
Didion gives us a notable example of this generation of narrative: she recalls the dress she bought for her wedding, ruined at a dinner party by Roman Polanski in attendance with Sharon Tate, the latter of whom would be killed by a group including Linda Kasabian, a prominent subject of hers in the wake of the killings of Cielo Drive on August 9, 1969. She eventually buys a dress for Kasabian.
These events may very well be simply disparate, chance encounters that are centered vaguely around a consistent cast of characters with whom Didion was acquainted with over a period of time. Yet, to say they have no significance is to deny the story of human connection that they tell: Joan Didion herself was an institution of time and place, a storyteller with an attentive finger on the pulse of California such that no story of importance could avoid her. As much as Joan Didion’s storytelling features 1960s Los Angeles, so too does 1960s Los Angeles feature Joan Didion.
The seemingly nonsensical violence of the Manson murders cannot be underestimated. From my own childhood, I first learned of them by being scared myself. I had been singing the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” (as heard on my brand new, lime green iPod Nano) when my father interrupted me to scold me. He promptly informed me that because of that track, people were “strung up” by someone named Charles Manson when he was a kid and scared me away from the song for good. Now, I assume that by “strung up,” my father was referring to the attempted and interrupted hanging of Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate by Tex Watson.
This leads me to consider my own version of these disparate threads in my own life: the Tate-LaBianca murders horrified a seven year old boy living in Chicago in 1969, who forty years later, upon hearing his son sing a Beatles song from The White Album remembered his fear and in turn terrified his son who stopped listening to the song altogether. I later even tried to steer playground friends away from the track but my lack of historical expertise on the matter led me to be ineffective.
Even the song underwent at least a threefold change in signficiation in a bizarre chain of events. The term “Helter Skelter” began as an English fair ride, turned into a song title, became part of a cult leader’s fanatical theory regarding an impending apocalyptic race war, and later terrified a young boy in San Jose, California. Such a causal chain might seem to be a fallacious slippery slope at first glance, but turns out in the end to be coherently linked.
Somewhere in all this random living, a story emerges. Both Didion and my father were profoundly affected by the same event, across many miles of the United States. Later on, and to a lesser degree, I was affected too, this time across a gulf of time. By recounting the random events of her life in an orderly way, by organizing them as a story, Didion shapes single events into a chain of events. They lose singular, momentary significance, and take on meaning that crosses gulfs of time and space.
Perhaps then, it is not that we must tell ourselves stories in order to live, for certainly life may occur in moments scattered and unconnected. Instead, it is that we tell ourselves stories to live with meaning.