Life Lessons From My Aunt Joan Didion (Guest Column)

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When we lost Joan Didion last week, I found myself in new territory as I joined the mourning masses for someone who was beloved on an epic public scale. I am part of Joan’s big, messy family of Irish in-laws. She was married to my uncle, John Gregory Dunne. I think most of us liked her more than John, at one point or another. She was certainly less cantankerous. We loved Joan for all the same reasons her readers did. She was very much herself, on and off the page.

Her apartment in New York was like a church, where we went to feel like the best versions of ourselves. Joan was steadfast in her domestic traditions. Chinese takeout on Easter; ironed cloth paisley napkins; a fragrant frangipani Hawaiian lei on the front table each Christmas, sent from Honolulu by her dear friend Susanna Moore. Big, cavernous hallways covered in photos of John, Joan, daughter Quintana and their many past lives: on assignment in El Salvador, on set for True Confessions, laughing on the deck in Malibu at something Earl McGrath had just said. I always respected how Joan lived among so many visual reminders of the people she’d loved and lost. Like a quiet daily test of personal will and a reminder that no one escapes tragedy.

“The history of California is a history of will grafted onto the landscape.” Nathan Heller wrote that about Cesar Chavez, but it always felt to me like something Joan would have said about her native state. Though I was too young to have been around for her Los Angeles life, it certainly loomed large in my imagination. In 2012, my cousin, Griffin Dunne, and I convinced Joan (and her fiercely loyal circle of close friends) to let us make a documentary about her life. This was a grant she may have come to question, since it took us over five years to make Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, but she never wobbled in her quiet patience and generosity. When we finally finished it, I thought — foolishly — that I’d probably read everything she’d ever written about California.

What I hadn’t realized was that some of her lines must be experienced to take full meaning.  This is probably why her work means something entirely different to people who have spent time in the places she did. If, as they say, scent is the strongest memory evoker, then Joan’s words are the equivalent for Malibu, for Franklin Avenue, for California. In the summer of 2020, I rented a tiny house on a wild, sprawling property in Trancas, just a stone’s throw from where John and Joan had lived. I walked down to Nicholas Canyon beach every morning, sidestepping coyote scat. I drove through the canyons — with names like Solstice and Encinal — in their gradient light. I saw how Western Malibu is still, in many ways, a red state, with biker gangs at Neptune’s Net clogging up Pacific Coast Highway on Sundays when a fight would break out. It was still Joan’s Malibu, where hawks circle, and there is no rain for 30, 60, then 90 days. Where a highway running through the California coastline is still no win for man in the primal order of things.

I delighted in relaying these discoveries to Joan, who was back in New York and would smile and nod knowingly.

Joan was bigger than anything I can put into words. She and her world were a set of organizing principles. Everything I needed to learn about life, work and love was in there. She taught me countless things. The lesson I will hold close is to always keep a part of yourself that is just for you.

Annabelle Dunne is Joan Didion’s niece and produced the 2017 Netflix documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.

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