“In Bed” by Joan Didion (1979)

December 5, 2012 | Posted in Essays in America |

Joan Didion in her home.
( Estrin, Mary Lloyd. Photograph of Joan Didion. Joan Didion Revised Edition. By Mark Royden Winchell. Ed. Warren French. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. N. pag. Print.)

Joan Didion is widely recognized as one of the most perceptive and innovative literary figures of our era. She is renowned for her novels, critiques of American culture, her devotion to craft in narrative journalism, and the simple elegance of her prose.

A tenth generation Californian, Joan Didion was born in 1934 and began her writing career in 1956, when she began working as an assistant at Vogue magazine after winning its Prix de Paris. She worked at the magazine for eight years in New York, until her marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne, with whom she collaborated extensively for forty years. Their work includes celebrated screenplays such as A Star Is Born, True Confessions, and Up Close and Personal, as well as a weekly column, “Points West” for The Saturday Evening Post from 1967-69.

On her own, Didion has contributed extensively, as both a journalist and essayist, to a number of periodicals, including Life, Esquire, and The National Review. Among her novels are the contemporary classics Play It As It Lays and A Book of Common Prayer; her nonfiction work includes The White Album, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and The Year of Magical Thinking, which won the National Book Award in 2005, and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Critic John Leonard wrote of Joan Didion, “I’ve been trying for four decades to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours.” Michiko Kakutani states simply, “California belongs to Joan Didion.”

Essay’s Form

Didion’s “In Bed” is a deeply personal essay depicting the experience of a debilitating migraine in clear and graceful prose while maintaining striking technical accuracy. It explores Didion’s struggle with migraine headaches and her journey to accepting their presence in her life. She clearly explains the history and science behind migraines, and her personal revelations and honesty offer credence to her insights. As Robert Towers said in his review of her collection, The White Album, “All of the essays—even the slightest—manifest not only her intelligence, but an instinct for details that continue to emit pulsations in the reader’s memory and a style that is spare, subtly musical in its phrasing and exact” (Towers 30).

Didion concisely details what a migraine headache is, what the symptoms are, and how it is treated. Her matter-of-fact language successfully depicts the pain and frustration of migraines without seeming as if she is trying to invoke sympathy.

Immediate Context

“In Bed” was composed in the late 1960s. The essay grew out of the time Didion spent admitted to the outpatient psychiatric clinic of the hospital in Santa Monica, California for symptoms of vertigo and nausea. “In Bed” expresses the pain she experienced during that time.

Diagram of how a migraine works. Didion similarly illustrates the mechanics of a migraine through her rich prose. (http://migrainerelief.info/migraine-causes-%E2%80%93-things-you-should-know.html)

The essay was first collected in 1979 in her second book, The White Album, a collection of essays and stories. Many of the chapters focus on American culture in the sixties, while others explore Didion’s experiences during those times.

“In Bed” is a glimpse into what being afflicted with migraines must have been like fifty years ago. The essay makes clear that migraines were not understood as being a debilitating illness during that time.  Didion discusses how “migraine headaches were, as everyone who did not have them knew, imaginary” (Lopate 689). She considers how “the unafflicted” handle migraines and relays advice she received on how to make them stop.

Subsequent Appearances

The White Album was well received by book reviewers, such as Robert Towers of The New York Times. “In Bed” was recently republished, along with all of the other stories from The White Album, in the new collection We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (2006), a compilation of some of Didion’s most-loved writings.

Joan Didion’s second book The White Album, where “In Bed” was first collected. (http://www.book-owski.com/products-page/biography/the-white-album/)

After the essay’s publication, Didion became branded as an expert on migraines. “In Bed” is often quoted in discussions about migraines by publications like Scientific American and groups including the “Migraine Aura Foundation.” The scientific community’s respect for Didion’s perspective lends further credence to her insights.

Bibliographical Materials

Estrin, Mary Lloyd. Photograph of Joan Didion. Joan Didion Revised Edition. By Mark Royden Winchell.  Ed. Warren French. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. N. pag. Print.

Henderson, Katherine U. Joan Didion. New York: Ungar, 1981. Print.

Lopate, Phillip, ed. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. Print.

Towers, Robert. “The Decline and Fall of the 60’s: Didion.” Rev. of The White Album, by Joan Didion. New York Times 17 June 1979. NYTimes. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com>.

Winchell, Mark R. Joan Didion. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. Print.

Text and images: Julie Dow and Caroline Sams.