The Didion-Dunnes as Generation-Specific Awful Parents

Brace yourself. Caitlin Flanagan has an exceedingly perceptive and well-done essay in the Atlantic! Sure, there is a psychologically deep-seated and somewhat deranged whiff of/riff on gender essentialism (boys like Hunter Thompson and girls like Joan Didion!), but hey, that’s at least a little true. For one thing, she draws well the obvious connections that Didion and John Gregory Dunne were the most extreme caricatures of their generation of parents (in short: rather terrible), the parents who made their childrens’ generation into helicoptering nightmares.

Didion reports that the central demon of Quintana’s life was a fear of abandonment. “How,” she writes plaintively, “could she have ever imagined that we could abandon her?” A cursory reading of the Didion-Dunne canon provides a partial answer…. Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters — two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who “saw death” in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty — and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home…. Dunne was a brilliant writer and a bully, a prince and an angry guy, a besotted father and a bad drunk who could throw Quintana’s essays out the car window on the way to school if he found out she hadn’t had one of her parents “proof” them. He was the kind of man who kicked down doors during marital quarrels and could have a bad fight with his wife and then blame it on his very young daughter; at one point he left the two of them and moved into a bachelor pad in Vegas for a year and a half. (“How could she have ever imagined that we could abandon her?”)