And finally, our holiday movie recommendation is “The Center Will Not Hold,” about Joan Didion. One moment in the documentary revealed the cold part of every real writer’s heart. When Didion was researching her 1967 essay on Haight-Ashbury, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” New Yorker reviewer Rebecca Mead renders the moment well.
Didion is asked about “an indelible scene toward the end of her Haight-Ashbury essay—which, as any student who has ever taken a course in literary nonfiction knows, culminates with the writer’s encounter with a five-year-old girl, Susan, whose mother has given her LSD.”
Didion finds Susan sitting on a living-room floor, reading a comic book and dressed in a peacoat. “She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick,” Didion writes. Dunne asks Didion what it was like, as a journalist, to be faced with a small child who was tripping. Didion, who is sitting on the couch in her living room, dressed in a gray cashmere sweater with a fine gold chain around her neck and fine gold hair framing her face, begins. “Well, it was . . .” She pauses, casts her eyes down, thinking, blinking … After seven long seconds, Didion raises her chin and meets Dunne’s eye. “Let me tell you, it was gold,” she says. The ghost of a smile creeps across her face, and her eyes gleam. “You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”
Good and bad. —DM