An Essay Worth Sharing: Joan Didion’s ‘On Self Respect’

by Mallary Jean Tenore

Not long ago I was at Border’s, looking through the store’s Joan Didion selection. She’s one of my favorite authors, so I naturally gravitate toward her books. As I opened Didion’s “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” I re-read her “On Self Respect” essay. To read a beautifully-written essay about what self respect means is for me a powerful representation of how writing can help make us feel less alone in the struggles we face.

I recently gave my copy of “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” to a friend and typed out “On Self Respect” before doing so. Typing out the essay was an interesting way to interact with the piece. It made me more conscious of the nuances of the language, of the style the essay is written in, and of its tone. I’ve copied and pasted part of the essay below.

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor. I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a mater of misplaced self-respect.

I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships which hampered others. Although even the humorless nineteen-year-old that I was must have recognized that the situation lacked real tragic stature, the day that I did to make Phi Beta kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proved competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through ones’ marked cards the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others – who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without. ….

I’d encourage you to find a copy of “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” so you can read the full version.