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Kayla Eady

Ways of Knowing
November 9, 2015
Didion Essay
In the 60s Joan Didion wrote Slouching Towards Bethlehem about indifference towards
heavy issues that occurred during that era from an outside perspective. Ddion wrote Slouching
Towards Bethlehem to explore a dark area of San Francisco in the 60s called Haight Street,
where teens who ran away seek refuge and people are concerned with enjoying their own trip.
There is also indifference amongst the characters of the essay that Didion comes into contact
with. The future, though spoken about a lot, is a distant ever changing idea rather than a goal and
the vehicle driving them towards it is drugs. During a time of American turmoil drugs are used
by the Haight Street Hippies to avoid the future, create a counter culture that is not so different
from the original and foster future societal implications.
The essay is riddled with drug use and using drugs to avoid issues. The people of Haight
Street idolize drugs and the use of drugs as if without drugs the people they interact with
wouldnt be interesting or real. When Didion is traveling around the Haight Street area of San
Francisco she encounters a young man who she does not name or bring up after this section of
the essay, He tells me hes been shooting crystal, which I already pretty much know because he
does not bother to keep his sleeves rolled down over the needle tracks. He came up from Los
Angelesnow hell take off for New York if he can find a ride (Didion, 96). The character
represents the people of Haight Streets attitude about drugs. He uses drugs so openly that he is
not afraid of hiding it. Later in this passage he tells Didion at another meeting that he has chosen
not to go to New York because he has heard its a bummer (Didion, 96). Opinions in this culture

change quickly with the mood of the others residing in it. The people of Haight Street claim to
have broken free of some culture that was all the same and uniform yet they have recreated this
phenomenon of cohesive actions and thoughts amongst their own counter culture. Their values
are different but they behave similarly.
The morals and standards that hold together Haight Street are loose, men and women
together only when in each others physical presence. There is an idea that those doing acid and
being pseudo leaders amongst the Hippies of Haight Street have somehow over come something
that the rest of society is still struggling with, described as middle class hang ups. These hang
ups seem to include not only exploring drugs like acid but also commitment. During Didions
time she listens to various accounts from people, like that on page 97 where Max talks about his
relationship, Ive had this old lady for a couple of monthsmaybe she makes something special
for my dinner and I come in three days late and tell her Ive been balling some other chickshe
shouts a little but then I say, Thats me, baby, and she laughs. Just like with the previous
character not being able to commit to the future, this couple cannot commit to each other or their
potential future. There is an underlying patriarchy, where men and women claim to be free but
also follow the guidelines of what mens and womens roles should be. The woman, referred to
as old lady, stays home, cooks and cleans while the men goes about doing what he wants. This
tension is exemplified by the woman getting angry and showing emotions like betrayal and
deceit but then has to change her opinions and feelings based on the males cavalier reaction. He
acts as if her anger is wrong and dismisses her feelings. Later in the text Didion is speaking to a
woman named Barbara and writes about her thoughts on the female trip, I think a lot about
nothin-says-lovin-like-something-from-the-oven and the Feminine Mystique and how it is
possible for people to be the unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on

a conscious level (Didion, 119). Didion expresses her observation about the women on Haight
Streets actions versus the beliefs they share with people about how they live and the contrast
between them.
Everyone on Haight Street is concerned about their life and what will fulfill their life,
whether that is sexual relations with who they please, dropping acid or smoking hash. Alongside
this part of Haight Street lives those who feed off of the mayhem while perpetuating the issues.
Deadeye, an essential part of Haight Street, talks to Didion about his plans and how he will
achieve them on page 116, Any kid thats on speedIll try to get him off it. The only
advantage to it from the kids point of view is that you dont have to worry about sleeping or
eating. Prior to this he talked about his plans for doing this, I want toset up a house where a
person of any age can come, spend a few days, talks over his problems...Ive found a way to
make moneysee in my pocket I had a hundred tabs of acid (Didoin, 114). Deadeye wants to
sell drugs to make money in order to fund a place that will help people with their problems. He
aids a huge problem on Haight Street while believing he is above them and being a part of them
himself. While he is talking to Didion he is so engulfed in what he thinks and feels that he cannot
focus on what his significant other, Gerry, is saying, Get your books [to Gerry] [Gerry] comes
back with several theme books full of verse. I leaf through them but Deadeye is still talking
about helping people (Didion, 116). A man who sells and uses drugs to the extent that it affects
his life also believes he will be able to open up a shelter for people. The text inserts this in a
slight way before jumping to another topic but it is read as a shared delusion amongst the
characters. Most of the characters want to change the world or live a lifestyle that is better, like
the couple on page 105 who want to move to Africa and live off of the land while also not
committing time to achieving this. There is a parallel in this counter culture of awareness of the

future and drug use. Things that would hinder the characters from achieving this righteous future.
They hold righteous ideas while doing what is somewhat immoral through the lens of the culture
they arose from. It leaves an odd feeling with the reader, like something isnt quite right while
the ideas and wishes being expressed cannot be wrong. No reader would disagree that going to
Africa and living off of the land or providing a safe place for people is wrong but the people
expressing these ideas are acting in ways that are hard for the average person to agree with.
What can be agreed upon is that the people on Haight Street are unreliable, this is
mirrored throughout the text in the structure. The story is written in a choppy manner, as if it
cannot commit, it jumps from one situation to another unable to focus. It displays a drug users
decline into addiction becoming more erratic, hard to follow and frightening. Towards the
beginning of the text the abrupt jumps from one story to another are more spread out and the text
flows from one point to the next regardless of how the point is made. At the end of the text, the
sections about each subject or scenario are shorter and more fragmented, like a drug user
feigning after a crash. This give the effect of being lost, it puts the reader in the craziness felt on
Haight Street. There is a turning point in where the text becomes much choppier, when some
harsh realities are expressed by someone with an inside opinion, Rape is as common as bullshit
on Haight Street. Kids are starving on the street. Mind and bodies are being maimed as we
watch, a scale model of Vietnam (Didion, 108). Though this is happening is also mentioned
that these are willing participants (After the issues of Haight Street are brought to light without
hiding it or inferring it, Didion makes the text choppier and more fragmented to show that
something has changed as well as the stories becoming darker.
From one day to the next Didion is confronted with oddities, that somehow feel
wrong to the reader, like Didion, or even a spiraling out of control dug addict cant explain.

Haight Street is dangerously becoming an addict just like its residents and the people who
perpetuate it. Love and peace are replaced by darkness. Though the segments are choppy and
appear to be unrelated they all tie into the central theme, which is the Hippies of Haight Streets
lifestyle. This lifestyle was seen as a counter culture to the normality of the times before, which
had been about nuclear families and tight morals. Characters continually point out that they have
broken free of this, as if the morals of the main culture are a cage. The atmosphere around the
Haight Street Hippies is breaking out of something, like an explosion. A character that first
introduces this is Max on page 97 who describes his life as, a triumph over donts. He believes
that to do things that you are told not to do is a triumph over something. The choppiness of the
text mirrors the breaking out of normal structure shown through the characters opinions about
what their counter culture is doing. This is an inside look on what might have been seen as taboo
of those times, an expose for the middle class main culture of structure and order to have a look
at this idea created in spite of them.
The only time Didion shows emotion towards the scenarios on Haight Street and sheds
her indifference is in the last section when the kindergarten girl is high on acid. Didon is brought
to see the girl because one of her friends, Otto, is fascinated by this occurrence, I see a child on
the living-room floor, wearing a refer coat, reading a comic book five years oldon acid
(Didon, 131). The little girl is described as wearing lipstick and though she is high she
communicates at a better level than her adult counterparts when they are high. She goes on to say
that there are other kids in High Kindergarten that drop acid, as if it is normal (Didion, 131 and
132). This is a tipping point in how Haight Street is viewed. Before this Haight Street was filled
with willing participants and love, but once this event occurs the whole culture shifts. Now,
young people are put into the situation against their will, the children of the willing participants

are being affected now. This is meant to be read as the culture now becoming a larger problem
than was originally thought. The characters that Didion has met up until this point promote the
culture of willing participants but when a young child promotes the culture, Didion cannot help
but incorporate her feelings of uneasiness into the essay. Hints are dropped that something is
awry without it being explicitly said, making the reader feel the eerie feeling that the author must
have experienced. Prior to this event Didion wasnt expressing opinions about what she was
witnessing but rather just describing what she saw, this section however involves language that
depicts her uneasy feelings about witnessing a child high on hardcore drugs. The reader may
have sympathized with the people of this counter culture prior to this event but after the
implications of this area are brought to attention the reader might begin to question all of the
other events in the text. The drugs have already aged the girls behavior, how she acts, talks and
sees the world, there is a sense that she is unaware of right and wrong.
Already during the essay, the future implications of this culture become apparent. With
rampant drug use and constant decline in the state of the area and people the Hippies cannot
commit to the future or make a real difference. This counter culture does not evolve into
something more but stays stagnant in time only degrading with age.

Works Cited
Joan, Didion. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Washington Square, 1968. Print.

Outside Look In
For whatever reason
The truth runs cold
Story unknown
Following the season
It is you I scold
To be shown
The historical stain a lesion
Forever it remains untold
We havent grown