The Stranger at the Door

By Monica Busch


In criminal investigations, as in television programs and novels, no matter how fantastical the landscape, how outlandish the crime or impossible the characters, we are trained to detect plot. Interrelated sequences. Cause and effect. So ingrained is this in our conception of our lives that we forget we are looking for it at all, most of the time.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously quipped in the beginning of “The White Album,” the piece that begins her eponymous book of autobiographical essays about the 1960s and early 1970s. Although the line might be one of the writer’s most frequently referenced and reprinted sentences, the rest of the 37-page essay in fact proceeds to argue that while narratives may be our life raft in times of heightened drama, the critic was flummoxed to find any discernible, logical links among the events that transpired between 1966 and 1971 — the year, she argued, that the sixties truly ended.

It’s certainly easy to apply her observations to what everyone can’t help but call “our current moment” — so easy, in fact, that it almost feels foolish to even say it. When looking for a throughline between our three current major American dramas — that Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee despite a stuttering campaign against peers with cult followings, that the COVID-19 virus may well kill hundreds of thousands of people all the while ruining the world’s economy along the way, and that the federal government’s response to the virus has inspired so little confidence that President Donald Trump’s camp is reportedly concerned about how it will affect his re-election — it’s hard to find any coherent narrative structure, let alone a reliable narrator to turn to.

“I had, at this time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was like to be old but of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife… the improbable had become the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me,” Didion wrote in “The White Album,” speaking specifically of a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, but also of what she described as “a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind.”

As our three current American dramas continue to both dominate and dictate our news cycle, conversations with others, and anxiety dreams, an arresting sense of curated chaos is hard to escape. Each day, more bad news; each day another reminder that our present and our foreseeable future have been reduced to whatever happens next within the confines of the same three subjects. Current president, future president (?), sickness. We speak at length about “the new normal,” the stranger with a knife at our door, throwing every variable into the air to calculate whether we might possibly shut the door before ostensibly being stabbed. 

But, as was the case when Didion compiled her memories and reporting between the decade of 1968 and 1978, we are, observationally, numb to the cyclone.

From Didion’s vantage point, chaos and death had become the new normal by August of 1969, when she recalls sitting in the shallow end of her sister-in-law’s pool, news first coming in about the Manson murders. “I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly,” she wrote, “and I also remember this, and I wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”

As the coronavirus death count rises on an hourly basis, as public officials lead daily — sometimes twice-daily — press conferences, and as the Democratic establishment apparently favors a candidate whose ability to speak off the cuff falls dubiously more into question each month, the idea of a “perspective” indeed begins to feel like a luxury. As does shock, and possibly even outrage. (Who has the time, the capacity?) If there’s a bigger picture here, if there’s an end to this means, it’s certainly long been obscured, if by nothing else than a pandemoniac stasis — our “new normal.”

In discussing her fixation on a transcript from a murder trial where both of the accused blame each other for the crime, Didion writes that she read the copy “several times, trying to bring the picture into some focus which did not suggest that I lived, as my psychiatric report had put it, ‘in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended and, above all, devious motivations.’”

I can’t speak for the DNC or the Trump camp, but I can say that my friends, family, colleagues and others that I have spoken with “in our current moment” seem to be in search of the same vision, one that remains all but entirely out of focus. The sixties may have eventually ended for Didion, when she “moved to a house on the sea” in January of 1971, but personally I’m 16 months in on a fixer-upper and the pool in our backyard has been empty since we moved in.


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