Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Joan Didion’s Ordinary Alcoholic Family.

Joan Didion smoking in front of her Corvette Stingray, late 1960s.

So today I have a piece out about Joan Didion’s latest book, Blue Nights, in which she talks about the life and early death, at age 39, of her adopted daughter, Quintana. And in which she DOESN’T talk about how Quintana’s alcoholism most likely ended her life.

I wrote the piece because I read the book and couldn’t get Quintana out of my mind. Her mother insists in the book that she was not “privileged.” Didion talks about 14-year-old Quintana learning from Natasha Richardson how to seduce college boys on “spring break” in St. Tropez. She talks about the Spanish-speaking Mexican maid saving Baby Quintana from a rattlesnake in the back yard while Didion herself tries to hide the maid’s presence from the state adoption social worker. She writes about the 60 batiste and lawn baby dresses hung in Quintana’s closet—dresses Didion counted over and over, to prove to herself, apparently, that she had the right equipment to be a mother.

I’m going to quote at length here. She was “not unaware,” she writes, that a number of readers

(more than some of you might think, fewer than the less charitable among you will think) would interpret this apparently casual information (she dressed her baby in clothes that needed washing and ironing, she had help in the house to do this washing and ironing) as evidence that Quintana did not have an “ordinary” childhood, that she was “privileged.”

I wanted to lay this on the table. …

Nor will I even argue that she had an “ordinary” childhood, although I remain unsure about exactly who does.

“Privilege” is something else.

“Privilege” is a judgment.

“Privilege” is an opinion.

“Privilege” is an accusation.

“Privilege remains an area to which—when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later—I will not easily cop.

(Joan, come on: ALL baby clothes need washing. But not all of them need ironing.)

This is maybe the first time I’ve ever read Didion honestly being pissed off.

Most of the rest of the time, she’s pissed off, all right, but not honestly. It’s all hidden by style.

I think of all the years I’ve been reading Didion, studying her prose—I began reading her at 23, and I’m now 47. There were times, especially in my 20s and early 30s, when I’d lay her stuff down, feeling exhilarated at the sheer style and gorgeous intelligence of her writing—but also overcome by waves of despair and dread that I couldn’t explain. This book explains them.

I can see now that reading Didion was like hearing my mother talk: a brilliant stylist, a fascinating mind, a sparkling storyteller, and deeply angry and fearful underneath all that glitter.

That household was just like mine, after all: a plain old “ordinary” alcoholic family.

If you want to read an insightful review of Blue Nights, check out the piece in the London Review.


  1. I’ve read the article in The Fix — thank you. I think that Didion’s denial is an expression of trying to “protect” her daughter. But at least on person, Susan Traylor, said that alcohol played a role in her death, and as you noticed, people seem to believe that she was drinking on the plane.

    Quintana had only been out of the hospital a few days before she went to California — at Didion’s urging. But the wisdom of sending off someone who’d been so sick, away from her doctors, at the very least, flies in the face of common sense. And Didion said that her daughter drank a lot due to nervousness and Quintana was nervous about the trip.

    I think your piece actually honored Quintana — it spoke the truth.

  2. Thank you for your response… Didion is one of my few literary heroes. I can recite her prose by heart. … Having lost both parents to addiction, and having only realized it after their deaths, I understand denial and have great compassion for people who have lost those they love to the consequences of addiction.

  3. I am so sorry you have lost people, too. You’re doing great work and you’re a wonderful writer.

  4. It helps me to remember that this disease crosses the lines of wealth and privelege. Those things are privelege. But it doesn’t really matter. Does it?

  5. It was a disturbing book, wasn’t it? Alcoholism is a self-diagnosed condition or illness and so I suppose only Quintana had the right to name herself, but Didion seems to want to protect herself from certain truths about what was wrong with her daughter.

    And I was intrigued by your projective identification of Didion with your mother — it reminded me that Didion could be the mistress of obnoxious put-downs. In 1979, her harsh review of Woody Allen’s Manhattan received a sharp, 654-word retort from John Romano, then an English professor at Columbia (he would go on to write for Hill Street Blues and become a successful screenwriter, with The Lincoln Lawyer among his many credits).

    Didion’s reply to his reply? “Oh, wow.”

  6. Great blog! I’ve been putting off reading this book because I smelled a faint whiff of b.s. when I heard her interviewed about it. I’m an adult child as well as a sober alcoholic so I know “the bury the secrets and then put on a happy face routine” and it seems like that’s what Didion is doing.

  7. I just finished the book. She seems like a cold fish to me. So withholding. But no doubt she loved her daughter and her husband. Some people just have a hard time expressing that love in writing. Maybe she is one who has not quite become authentic. There are many of us who strive for that in life.
    It seems so odd that her daughter would suffer so many illnesses and die so young. The trauma of the fall. The pneumonia–so many health problems that it surely seemed to me that she had an alcoholism/addiction issue. But I am surmising this.

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