Author Joan Didion in Los Angeles on August 2, 1970. Source image comes from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection at the UCLA Library.

The Cutting Room: How Joan Didion is Helping Me Process This War

When war broke out in Israel and Gaza, I thought of Joan Didion. Why? Because she taught me how to think through a crisis. I first read Slouching Towards Bethlehem in college. I was a teenager and my mother had just died. Didion became a guiding voice, not a motherly one, but one that reminded me that life’s actual chaos, just like an imagined story, can have a beginning, middle, and end, even if it felt like my life had ended before it really began. 

She taught me how to organize my thoughts. She made me fall in love with the essay. She was the master, even when she claimed in “The White Album” that she had lost the thread, that her memories of the late 1960’s would always be helter skelter, like scraps of film on a cutting room floor. 

She wrote, “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images…I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting room experience.” 

I felt that she was bluffing, that she never failed to find the narrative thread, and her feigned ignorance was just a well-crafted device. Except now I was experiencing something similar, the maddening inability to find a narrative in the carnage of war. Suddenly I sort-of believed her. The late 1960’s were her white whale, and the Israel-Hamas War was mine. But even if she couldn’t find a thread back then, maybe she could help me find one now.

On October 7, 2023, the day of Hamas’ invasion, she had been gone for almost two years. As the months wore on, I was sucked deeper into an information quagmire. I’m a childless 35 year old Reform Jewish woman from Los Angeles, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Didion was a mother and a journalist and an expert in homelands.  She wasn’t Palestinian or Muslim or Israeli or Jewish. She was a preteen in California when the U.N. partitioned the British Mandate into Israel and Palestine. She may have been too little to understand the Holocaust as it happened, but as a young woman in 1950’s New York City she was surrounded by it, and I imagined that in her skinny-legged treks around town she went to buy her beloved Coca Cola and handed the bottle to my bubbe, the gray-toothed checkout lady, not much older than Joan but exhausted, fluent in seven languages. My bubbe would have thought that Joan was a “pie in the sky.” She writes of California as if it were Poland. 

In the early days of the war, I turned to Didion’s book Fixed Ideas: America Since 9/11.

It’s one of the few instances in which she explicitly wrote about Israel, America’s steadfast ally.  She couldn’t write about America’s involvement in the Middle East without including Israel. She wrote, “The very question of the U.S. relationship with Israel, in other words, has come to be seen—at Harvard as well as in New York and Washington—as unraisable, potentially lethal, and the conversationalist equivalent of an unclaimed bag on a bus. We take cover …Many opinions are expressed. Few are allowed to develop. Even fewer change.”

Didion wasn’t quick to malign Israel. But she was critical of America’s unwavering relationship with the country, a bond she felt, like all other allyships, should be subject to question. She recognized that America’s connection with Israel was unusual and profound, forged in democracy and faith (or theology, or mythology, or superstition—something irrational, though not necessarily absurd). She wrote, “The fact that Israel has become the fulcrum of our foreign policy is politics. When it comes to any one of these phenomena that we dismiss as ‘politics,’ we tend to forgive, or at least overlook, the absence of logic or sense.” Or, that politics is the dogma of coexistence, and that dogma, of all kinds, compounds itself in the Holy Land. 

Was Israel’s aggression towards Palestine pre-October 7th a product of that dogma, or was it necessary to national security? She didn’t question Israel’s right to defend itself, but she did question whether all of Israel’s—and vis-à-vis America’s—military operations were actually defensive. “Whether the actions taken by that government [of Israel] constitute self-defense or a particularly inclusive form of self-immolation remains an open question,” she wrote.

I thought if Didion had been alive during this war, she would have openly questioned America’s response every step of the way. I didn’t know what conclusions she would have come to; the unprecedented mass violence shook even the most hardline spectators. I couldn’t put words in her mouth. However, I believed that her search for context would have begun by looking at her own country’s response as an entry point into understanding the foreign war. She would have started at home. I was reminded of her famous quote from “In the Islands,” an essay in The White Album:  “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” 

Didion’s sense of home was the wellspring of her art. When it came to Israel and Palestine, who did she believe claimed, remembered, wrenched, shaped, and loved the land the most? 


In the 1980’s, Didion spent two weeks in El Salvador during its civil war. It’s there that she learned the meaning of terror, to be “demoralized, undone, humiliated by fear.” 

I worked as a fundraiser in a Los Angeles synagogue this past October, for three months. I’d sit at my desk and try to keep my eyes focused on my spreadsheets as the days shortened into night. It was in this quiet, departmental sanctitude that I heard the children scream. First it was one, then two, then an ensemble of shrieks, as if someone had opened an ancient, phantasmal crypt. Cover the windows, lock the door, turn off the lights, pill bug under your desk until help arrives. Every time I heard the children, I momentarily forgot that the screams were from the synagogue’s day school children at recess. 

This war, to me, was Hitchcockian; I felt it was coming but didn’t know when. Anyone who thought otherwise, I thought, was lying (or had never read the Bible). There were some who believed that peace was achievable through diplomacy alone and that war was nothing but a violent, intrusive thought on the path to like-mindedness. When the early reports of the music festival massacre pulsed through my devices, I knew this wasn’t so. I reacted as one does to the death of a friend who has descended into madness, the thing whispered at their funeral: Shocked, but not surprised.

Didion described this feeling in “The White Album.” She remembered the morning after the Manson Family murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others. Didion had developed an almost snobbish distaste for hippies and burnouts, but she also recognized and railed against the broken systems that produced them.

At the time of the murders, Joan Didion and Sharon Tate both lived in the hilly enclave of Los Feliz. The “dangerous social pathology” of the hippie movement was no longer something she was just observing. The chaos had found its way into her private life. She wrote, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”

On October 7, 2023, the tension broke, for both Israelis and Palestinians. The paranoia was fulfilled. Shocked, but not surprised.


In “The White Album,”  Didion also wrote “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  As the war rolls on, I realize how badly our narratives are failing us. We are simultaneously mired in old narratives that just don’t work anymore or, more often than not, have always been untrue. These are the narratives that we’ve told ourselves in order to live, and we default on them out of comfort. Sometimes they’re true. Sometimes, they’re a simple platitude, a generational rule of thumb. The most dangerous are the ones that lead to false equivalencies. 

A single story can’t undo a time-worn narrative. Enough stories, however, can chip away at one or bend the constellation a new way. This war requires a new narrative, a new throughline, that thing that evaded Didion (she was only one woman, and we are billions). 

I heard a rumor that the Hamas militants were high on drugs when they attacked the Israeli music festival goers, who were also high on acid. I thought of the Manson girls, strung out on hallucinogens. I thought of Susan, the 5-year-old whose hippie mother had given her acid in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” When Didion’s husband, writer John Dunne, asked her about Susan, she replied, “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”  


I don’t know what conclusion she would have come to, if Israel’s campaign in Gaza is more like D-Day or Dresden or Guernica or something else entirely. 

The Israel-Hamas War is particularly painful because it’s forcing us to fight the narratives that keep us alive and allow us to be happy. Didion was never afraid to do the work, or to change. In her 1975 commencement address to the graduating students of UC Riverside, she said, 

“I’ve had to work very hard, make myself unhappy, give up ideas that made me comfortable, 

trying to apprehend social reality. I’ve spent my entire adult life, it seems to me, in a state of profound culture shock.…It takes an act of will to live in the world, which is what I’m talking about today. By living in the world, I mean really trying to see it…. You have to keep stripping yourself down, examining everything you see, getting rid of whatever is blinding you.”

Maybe this was easier to say in 1975. Here’s the rub: For the first time in history, the world is truly watching. Public opinion will be the most powerful force in determining the fate of Israel and Palestine. There are hundreds of millions of disparate images in a shifting phantasmagoria. This isn’t Didion’s haystack. In this information supernova, how can we even begin to make the connections needed to collectively create a new, working narrative? 

Didion would say that we, as individuals, need to start by going to war with ourselves. Question the narratives that have kept us upright. Let cognitive dissonance fuel our fire, not tradition, or loyalty, or comfort. Dialogue means nothing if its participants come in unprepared, if they are unwilling to wound themselves first, before wounding their adversary. 

Michal “Maggie” Milstein is a writer from Los Angeles ( )