“On Going Home” by Joan Didion (response)


In On Going Home, Didion tackles themes such as belonging, family and home by telling the story of a time when, without her husband, she took her daughter “home” to celebrate her first birthday to the hometown where Didion grew up in the house where she lived with her mother and premarital family. The essay deals with Didion’s personal issues as she compares and contrasts her current life with her husband and their child versus her life and experiences growing up. The essay speaks to the internal conflict many of us feel as adults once we leave the nest, so to speak, and go out into the world to find new “homes” while always looking back to our pasts. I felt connected to this piece and that connection inspired me to want to dive deeper.

This essay spoke to me on various levels but the main reason why I chose it is because I could see myself in it. Both as a mother of a young child and as a married woman who has chosen to live far from “home,” I felt connected to this piece and to Didion as its writer.

I have traveled with my daughter, now age four, back to visit my family in Philadelphia numerous times since she was born. When we lived in New York, I made the drive three to four times per year and now that I live in Iowa, the frequency has diminished to an annual flight but she and I still find ourselves making the trip without my husband, due to his work schedule.

Our recent two lectures discussed the importance of “place” and its meaning in our writing. Unit One discussed place as a specific location and Unit Two took the discussion to another level by looking at “place” in a broader sense as culture. In “On Going Home” Didion uses place in both ways. She discusses her childhood home, in the Central Valley of California, the specific place where she grew up and where her mother resides, and as she shares her memories and experiences with the location itself, she also gives up insight into her history, culture, what her family is/was like and how that place affected and still affects her emotionally and how it compares to the home she’s made with her husband and daughter in Los Angeles.

This week’s lecture states: “What emerges in essays like these is the way in which paying attention to one’s culture or geographic surroundings can be key to building a compelling essay, one which engages your reader on multiple levels. At its best, writing about place challenges us to rethink the way in which we view our own place—what we take for granted, how we choose to define ourselves, and what we mean to others.”

Didion’s essay had a profound effect on me. It caused me to reflect on my own life and to think about where I came from versus where I am now and where I’m going. I’ve lived in various places and have considered each one my “home” at one time or another. Although Didion was talking about her own life, I felt as though she might as well have been talking about me and mine even though I no longer think of the house I grew up in as my home. While the elements were different, there were so many similarities. It was like meeting someone at a party and realizing you and he or she have so much in common that you can literally talk for hours.

Didion’s tone is sad and frustrated, tinged with bitterness, and her language throughout reflected that. I think this is where we as writers can learn the most from Didion in this essay. Her tone is consistent and by using words like “uneasy, troublesome, difficult, oblique, degradation, condemnation, fragmentation, rejection, dread, graveyard, abandoned, ambushes…” throughout she keeps us firmly rooted beneath her tone the entire time. Even when discussing happier elements, for example the idea that this homecoming is for a birthday celebration for her child, Didion continues to use words that keep reminding us that this is not a happy story. Through her language and descriptions, it is like she’s telling us she is unhappy in both places.

I think while “place” itself is important in writing and in many ways is highlighted in this essay, as Didion compares and contrasts the two places she calls “home,” in a way Didion is showing us that it’s not about the place itself but more so the people who make a home. Both the people from our past and our present mold us into who we are. Didion longs to unite her two families and she expresses the desire for each to love the other, as they love her. She seems to want everyone to cohabitate happily and, yet, she has resigned herself to the fact that that will never happen. I sometimes compare my biological family with my marital family. Don’t we all? I can’t help it; they are so different and, yet, I love them both. Both sides of my family get along well, thankfully, despite their many differences. That’s not to say there aren’t moments when one irritates, misunderstands or maybe even wants to strangle the other. That’s life. And life, as well as relationships, takes work, communication and compromise. Didion doesn’t speak of these things. She focuses most of her essay on the differences, the issues and the problems without taking action or attempting to find resolution. She seems satisfied in separating her two “homes.”

Didion shares vivid details to make her points about the differences between her current life/family and her background and in doing so she reveals some positive but mostly negative qualities about both. It is as though she’s saying she’s unhappy in both places. I loved the story about the dust. By telling us that it was so dusty that her husband could literally write the word “dust” in it, it shows how unkempt the house is while also showing the condescending and pretentious qualities of her husband. The dust speaks negatively about both sides of Didion’s life.

I loved this essay so much, I think, because I could relate to it. The story connects so well to the feeling many, including myself, get when they grow up, marry or enter a commitment with someone from a wildly different background. It’s so easy to see the differences, both positive and negative, between the families we are given and the families we choose. For example, I grew up in the inner city in Philadelphia while my husband grew up on a farm in Iowa (keeping in mind that while I grew up in Philly, I currently live in Iowa with my husband and daughter). It’s impossible to ignore the many glaring differences between the two that I often find myself loving and hating one over the other and shifting back and forth between which one wins or loses the individual battles of comparison. For example, while I love that my husband comes from a large laid back family with so many cousins all living nearby and the fun and festivities which come naturally with that, I hate that everyone knows each other’s business. Of course, there are also things I love and hate about my own premarital family, too, like the faster paced life of the city and the way that we, as a small family, all truly seem to “get each other.” But while I love “going home,” when I do there are moments when I feel like Didion as she revealed in her essay.

My favorite aspect of this essay is how Didion lets us in. She welcomes us into a very personal part of herself and does so in such a casual way that we feel like we belong there, like we’re not snooping around in someone else’s business. And the surroundings are familiar, like when a good friend invites you over and doesn’t bother to clean up. It was like she was saying “my home is your home” and “good, bad, or indifferent, I have nothing to hide from you.”

Didion is obviously conflicted between her childhood family life and her new family life as an adult. It doesn’t help that her husband looks down on her premarital family and how they live and how she acts around them. Personally, I wish Didion would have gone deeper into this aspect of her struggle. While her husband’s discomfort was obvious through his absence and through her recollection of his experiences there and his negative, snarky, condescending attitude toward Didion’s family’s “inarticulate” ways as well as the dust that disgusted him and mementos which confused him and though the essay seems to point to issues in the marriage, Didion never quite fully admits or commits to them. On page 3, she says “I come to dread my husband’s evening call…” and I wonder if there’s more here that isn’t being said or revealed.

The essay, especially the ending where Didion is reflecting on all the things she cannot give her daughter in her current “home,” made me wonder more and more what her current life, and in particular her marriage, is like by comparison. Structurally, I wondered if this was perhaps part of the reason the essay was so short—did Didion not want to get into that part?

Personally, I think if you are happy where you are and with whom you are with, then you consider that place home and its people your family—whether they’re blood or marriage related family or friends. While I look back at my family and the place where I grew up happily and love visiting, for example, I’m perfectly happy where I am now. It’s not that I don’t look back fondly, but I spend more time looking forward. In this instance, it is as though suddenly the concept of “place” isn’t all that important anymore—at least not by comparison to the people.

There were so many things about this story which I found relatable, but I also loved it for the parts I found unrelatable. For example, while I can certainly relate on so many levels to Didion’s story and her struggles, a part of me felt sorry for her because she seemed to be lost in the in between place between her past and her present. Even though she has family who she loves and who love her back, in a strange way, it was like she was homeless. To bring this back to our lecture on place, it was as if Didion was admitting she didn’t know where she belonged. Instead of embracing the differences between the home where she was raised and the home where she lived currently with her husband and daughter, Didion seems consumed by conflict. This made me sad. I couldn’t escape the feeling that Didion had chosen to be unhappy and alone.

My husband, Jason, and I, since we’ve been together, have lived together in New Jersey, Texas, New York (twice) and now Iowa. Add those to places he and I’ve lived on our own prior to meeting and we also have Pennsylvania, Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska, California, Connecticut and even China.

As the saying goes, “Home is where the heart is…” and I love him and our daughter so much that it really doesn’t matter to me where we live. In this case, place doesn’t matter because they are my family and they have my heart so this—wherever this may be—is our home.

Works Cited:

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

5 thoughts on ““On Going Home” by Joan Didion (response)

    • Thank you, Jeffrey! I appreciate the feedback. My favorite teacher of all time was/is my high school AP English teacher. You guys work hard and please trust me when I say you truly make a difference in the lives, minds and futures of your students, in particular the creative types. Those kids will always remember what you taught them. Keep up the good work.

    • Hi S’nitra! Well, I certainly hope you find my post helpful. Feel free to use it as inspiration if it helps in any way with your assignment! This was a classroom assignment for me, as well. Good luck with yours! 🙂

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