"The Paranoia Was Fulfilled" - An Analysis of Joan Didion's Essay The White Album

  • Rachele Colombo
Keywords: Joan Didion, The White Album, paranoia, Sixties


This article looks at Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album” from the collection of essays The White Album (1979), as a relevant text to reflect upon America’s turmoil in the sixties, and investigate in particular the subject of paranoia. “The White Album” represents numerous historical events from the 1960s, but the central role is played by the Manson Murders case, which the author considers it to be the sixties’ watershed. This event–along with many others–shaped Didion’s perception of that period, fueling a paranoid tendency that reflected in her writing. Didion appears to be in search of a connection between her growing anxiety and these violent events throughout the whole essay, in an attempt to understand the origin of her paranoia. Indeed, “The White Album” deals with a period in Didion’s life characterized by deep nervousness, caused mainly by her increasing inability to make sense of the events surrounding her, the Manson Murders being the most inexplicable one. Consequently, Didion seems to ask whether her anxiety and paranoia are justified by the numerous violent events taking place in the US during the sixties, or if she is giving a paranoid interpretation of completely neutral and common events. Because of her inability to find actual connections between the events surrounding her, in particular political assassinations, Didion realizes she feels she is no longer able to fulfill her main duty as a writer: to tell a story. Surrendering to the impossibility of building a narrative, she can only juxtapose images that results in what she defines as a cutting-room experience. Paranoia appears to be a fil rouge that tightens everything together, influencing Didion’s perception of the world and, ultimately, her writing.