Issue 4: Subjectivity vs. Objectivity
A Publication of the USF MFA in Writing Program

Joan Didion and the Subjectivity of Facts

Lana Dalberg


In "Girl of the Golden West", Joan Didion reviews Patricia Hearst's memoir, Every Secret Thing, with an emphasis on the particulars of what, when, who, where, and how. These facts give the piece an objective feel. But it is Didion's delivery of the facts - elongating some, scaling back others - that shape and color the reader's understanding of them.

Facts are commonly viewed as objective, pertaining to the object under discussion. Their selection and order, however, is subjective, defined as belonging to the subject - the one selecting, arranging and crafting them, in this case, Didion.

In the opening two paragraphs Didion establishes the dates of Patricia Hearst's kidnapping and her subsequent arrest. In the first paragraph she provides several alluring details about the kidnapped heiress; in the second she describes the captive-turned-bank robber's role in various armed assaults. The paragraph below integrates the two images of Patricia Hearst - the kidnapped heiress and the bank robber.

On trial in San Francisco for the Hibernia Bank operation, she [Patricia Campbell Hearst] appeared in court wearing frosted-white nail polish, and demonstrated for the jury the bolt action necessary to chamber an M-1. On a psychiatric test administered while she was in custody she completed the sentence "Most men…" with the words "…are assholes." Seven years later she was living with the body-guard she had married, their infant daughter, and two German shepherds "behind locked doors in a Spanish-style house equipped with the best electronic security system available," describing herself as "older and wiser," and dedicating her account of these events, Every Secret Thing, to "Mom and Dad." (Golden, 4).

On the surface, this collection of factual details appears objective, isolate, real. The first set of details gives the location and reason for Heart's trial and describes her nail polish and familiarity with the mechanisms of an M-1 carbine. The next set quotes Hearst's response on a psychiatric test, chases her words with the details of the particular man she marries, the family she forms, the house she inhabits, and ends the passage with quotes from Hearst's memoir. All information given is factual, taken from stated record or directly observed by Didion.

However, other details from the same trial and the same memoir, or even the same observations arranged in a different way, would lead the reader to ponder Patricia Campbell Hearst differently. But Didion selects those details best suited to her intent and juxtaposes them in startling ways to awaken the reader to a particular interpretation.

In the next paragraph, Didion parades a series of photo images which alternate between distillations of a wealthy lifestyle and snapshots of a rebellion espoused in the name of the poorer classes.

We had Patricia Campbell Hearst in her first-communion dress, smiling, and we had Patricia Campbell Hearst in the Hibernia Bank stills, not smiling. We again had her smiling in the engagement picture, an unremarkably pretty girl in a simple dress on a sunny lawn, and we again had her not smiling in the "Tania" snapshot, the famous Polaroid with the M-1. We had her with her father and her sister Anne in a photograph taken at the Burlingame Country Club some months before the kidnapping: all three Hearsts smiling there, not only smiling but wearing leis, the father in maile and orchid leis, the daughters in pikake, the rarest and most expensive kind of lei, strand after strand of tiny Arabian jasmine buds strung like ivory beads. (4, 5).

Didion orders this caption-like set of images to contrast the well-off communicant (smiling) with the bank robber (not smiling) and the pretty fiancée in the simple dress (smiling) with the rebel (not smiling). Like a slideshow, the arrangement of details shows the rich Hearst and then the rebel Hearst, followed by the rich and again the rebel, and ending with an extensive and detailed view of the rich Hearst. The snapshots create a back-and-forth pattern (smiling/not smiling; rich/rebel) that introduces tension and raises additional questions in the reader's mind. Again, the facts appear objective, but their arrangement is not. Didion has juxtaposed images to create a particular effect.

Didion also elongates and embellishes the closing image with a series of phrases, each one resounding with increasingly specific details. "We had her with her father and her sister Anne in a photograph taken at the Burlingame Country Club some months before the kidnapping: all three Hearsts smiling there, not only smiling but wearing leis, the father in maile and orchid leis, the daughters in pikake, the rarest and most expensive kind of lei, strand after strand of tiny Arabian jasmine buds strung like ivory beads." (5). The extraordinary level of detail in this final lingering image gives it greater weight. Didion crafts the phrases to build on each other, from the inclusion of father and sister (all smiling) and the family's country club setting to an accumulation of details pointing out the rare, labor-intensive, and perishable beauty of the pikake leis and likening them to ivory, another luxury item but one obtained at the near extinction of its original owners.

Didion states, "All of these pictures told a story, taught a dramatic lesson, carrying as they did the frisson of one another, the invitation to compare and contrast." (5). She then deepens the images of the previous paragraph, a disturbing assortment of opulence and riotous discontent.

The image of Patricia Campbell Hearst on the FBI "wanted" fliers was for example cropped from the image of the unremarkably pretty girl in the simple dress on the sunny lawn, schematic evidence that even a golden girl could be pinned in the beam of history. There was no actual connection between turkey legs thrown through windows in West Oakland and William Knowland lying facedown in the Russian River, but the paradigm was manifest, one California busy being born and another busy dying. Those cymbidiums on the Hearst's doorstep in Hillsborough dissolved before our eyes into the image of a flaming palm tree in south-central Los Angeles (the model again was two Californias), the palm tree above the stucco bungalow in which Patricia Campbell Hearst was believed for a time to be burning to death on live television. (Actually, Patricia Campbell Hearst was in yet a third California, a motel room at Disneyland, watching the palm tree burn as we all were, on television, and it was Donald DeFreeze, Nancy Ling Perry, Angela Atwood, Patricia Soltysik, Camilla Hall, and William Wolfe, one black escaped convict and five children of the white middle class, who were dying in the stucco bungalow.) (6).

With Didion's ingenuous crafting, the images begin to merge. Before our very eyes, the rich girl morphs into the rebel. "Even a golden girl could be pinned in the beam of history." (6). The metaphor is so disarming, one might feel empathy for this girl, an emblem of the prosperous California, and yet, Didion juxtaposes this statement with "There was no actual connection between the turkey legs thrown through windows in West Oakland and William Knowland…" (who we know from the previous paragraph is a member of the ruling elite) "…lying facedown in the Russian River…" (6). By stating that there is no connection between these two, Didion underscores the elusive connection that we as readers long to make. She heightens our need to make sense of the contradictions before continuing "…but the paradigm was manifest, one California busy being born and another busy dying." (6.)

By ordering the images - the turkey legs tossed by the rioting poor followed by the suicide of a ruling class member - Didion links birth with one class and death with the other. Then she delivers a third set of fact-based images, beginning with the orchids of the Hearsts' Hillsborough home that "dissolved" into the flaming palms of south-central L.A. The juxtaposition speaks directly to the rich of Hillsborough and the poor of south-central Los Angeles, which Didion emphasizes parenthetically as "two Californias." The numerically smaller class, the ruling elites, is captured in the image of the ornately minute cymbidiums (a cool climate member of the orchid family flower); the voluminous poor are rendered through the much larger, ubiquitous Southern California palm, which in this case, is burning. The images confuse. Who is dying? Who is being born?

Before the reader can sort this out, another, longer parenthetical remark presents a "third California," a circle of spectators informed by "television" that includes Patricia Hearst, once again in hiding, as well as Didion, and numerous others "watching the palm tree burn as we all were, on television." (6). Didion's repetition of "television" emphasizes the media's role in creating a spectatorship, a nebulous "we" that might well include the reader, watching the burning bungalow. This "we" is contrasted with the identification of those who were burning to death: "one black escaped convict and five children of the white middleclass." (6.)

By concluding the paragraph with the race, class and social status of the people who were actually burning, Didion prompts the reader to question why these individuals burn while the elitist rebel, Hearst, is safe in the Disneyland motel and "we all" are watching on television.

Didion's details, their juxtapositions and power to shock, oblige us to make meaning without an overt narrator guiding our thoughts. This is Didion's genius. She renders objective facts in details so excruciating, with such grating metaphors and arresting juxtapositions that her subjectivity slips in largely unnoticed. Didion culls and combines the precise facts she wants us to know in the precise order she wants us to know them, and in this way, they bear the intent of their subject.



Works Cited

Didion, Joan. "Girl of the Golden West," Vintage Didion. New York: Vintage Books, 2004
Originally printed in the New York Review of Books
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