I was told to wait outside a dinged-up stage door on Ashland Place, in Brooklyn. When I rang the bell, the door opened, and I was ushered through a series of winding passages and deposited by the front row of the theater. A monologue emerged from what sounded like a tape recorder. The voice was warbling about an unnamed patient experiencing a mental break:
It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal. In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure.
The patient to whom this psychiatric report refers is me.
The lines would be instantly recognizable to any fan of Joan Didion’s now iconic essay “The White Album.” It’s the first moment when the reader begins to understand just how unwell and perhaps unreliable the narrator really is, when the kaleidoscope turns and the essay rearranges itself into something darker than expected. “The White Album,” first published in 1979, is perhaps the single work most closely associated with Didion, and 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of many of the events she describes: the Manson murders, the rise of the Black Panthers and Huey Newton’s arrest, the student takeover of San Francisco State College, and the writer’s own breakdown.