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

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.

 

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Poynter.org. Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at mjtenore@gmail.com.

40 thoughts on “An Essay Worth Sharing: Joan Didion’s ‘On Self Respect’

  1. Wow, what a great essay! And what you had to say about typing the the essay out was so interesting–that’s actually one of the things my MFA professor recommends doing on a daily basis, to help learn the rhythms of good writers’ pieces, to help them “author” them and in turn learn how to “author” ourselves… So, any time anyone has writers’ block, he tells us to start typing our favorite author’s pieces…

  2. Thank you for writing about this essay, which Thomas Larson in The Memoir and the Memoirist says is the greatest American essay. Great as Didion is, my vote in that category goes to James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.”

  3. Thanks a lot for typing this out 🙂
    I chose this for an AP English project, but I’m struggling to find information on it online. Do you happen to know when it was written ?

  4. I first read The White Album, and since then I have come across various essays online (this one, And “Why I Write”. Didion has such a poignant perspective on so many things. I am so grateful for her! Thanks for putting this up, I think it is about time I purchase or borrow Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

  5. Hello,

    I came across this looking for Didion’s “Why I write” Does anyone know where I can find a copy online?

    The last paragraph echoes a profound truth. We humans play an awful game or trick of forgetfulness on ourselves. Intuitively self-respect is something we all know, but simply choose to ignore it. In order not to be responsible for ones self!

    Rachel~

    1. Here is a simple path; it has worked for me
      over the decades…: take a stand, just whatever you want, it doesn’t matter except that, once taken, you just don’t ever budge from it.
      For instance, mine is: I’m just an ordinary person, God comes first always, and I will do the best that I can in every instance. (And also, I will not go to extremes, or force myself. I will not follow impulses or react.- etc.)

      Then, say what you mean, and mean what you say. In other words, if you say “I’ll do the best I can, then you must always “do the best you can.” If you falter, then you can remind yourself, “I said I would, so that’s what I’m going to do, – and then go ahead and do it.

      The great thing about deciding to “do the best that you can” in all cases, and actually doing it, is that even if you make a mistake (well, when you make a mistake) you will have done it while really doing the best that you could at the time.
      Even with really terrible mistakes that cause great agony, you still have the buffer, something, because you were, actually, doing the best that you could at the time, and you know it.
      Almost all of the time it works out well, and you gradually develop self-respect from doing it, – it’s usually easy to sleep well at night. Once you get into the habit of doing the best that you can on a moment to moment basis, it becomes second nature…

      After all, if you don’t do the best that you can, how can you really have self-respect?*

      *There are (a very few) things that are more important than self-respect of course, but then, that’s another topic. Cheers, L

  6. Surely I cannot be interpreting the essay correctly.

    A person with self-respect, she seems to be saying, feels no guilt whatsoever (if you choose to betray your spouse, do so unapologetically!) and permits no doubt to intrude on absolute certainty of his or her actions. Is self-respect, then, nothing more than pure arrogance and self-centeredness, a refusal to let any tinge of conscience guide one’s actions away from paths one would find repulsive and unworthy of respect in others?

    It seems to me an overcompensation: lying awake at night cataloguing one’s failings leads to no self-respect; therefore, to have self-respect, one must never regret one’s actions, no matter how despicable. Remembering how we have hurt or failed others only cripples us, so give no thought to anyone but ourselves. But that cannot be right, for it means that only a sociopath – someone without a shred of conscience or empathy for how the consequences of his actions affect others – can truly have self-respect.

    So, as I said, I must have misinterpreted it. For if that is the true measure of self-respect, then to possess it is to become a monster.

    1. I think shes trying to say: If you betray your spouse and lie about it to others…it doesnt matter if they believe you or not, its about how you feel yourself. Can you really cheat on your wife and not feel guilty? shes assuming that her audience actually has a conscience or some sort of moral code they follow. If you can truly…TRULY justify your actions, then go ahead and do it.

    2. Well, I think it’s quite interesting, isn’t it? Because she is suggesting quite a different code of ethics based more closely about the way people actually behave. People do betray their spouses. People do hurt each other. Does mulling over these things prevent it happening again? Not necessarily, although that might be nice. What is one to do about that? Well, be honest about the hurt one’s actions can cause as well as the benefit they bring to you. Take life on the chin rather than trying to avoid pain. That’s what I take from it, although, yes, it’s complicated and I’m not sure I get it either.

    3. This is super late, but I think she’s actually saying that one should be committed to one’s actions – take complete responsibility for what you do. So if you decide to cheat on your spouse, be committed to that decision and what it entails. Don’t just somehow fall into bed with someone who is not your spouse and then act like you didn’t know what you were doing. It’s very similar to Sartre. Didion is cautioning us to avoid bad faith.

  7. Yeah our grandparents were so great. Oh, for the glory days before 1960, when everyone was an existential hero, when the individual was the focus of religion, when conformity for conformity’s sake was spat upon, and when trying to weasel out from under your own actions was practically unheard of, and most certainly frowned on, particularly among politicians. Why, I can still remember Wilson’s great speech during his election campaign, where he admitted to leaving his wife for a year to boff a flapper in Cuba and dared the nation to hold it against him.

    I’m all for extolling people taking responsibility for their actions, but do you really need to resort to the ahistorical, false appeal to the past to do it? Our grandparents’ generation beat hobos to death for fun, for pity’s sake, and respected “character” so much that they crucified and burned alive black men brave enough to defend their families from the clan. People have always been terrible; virtue doesn’t need lies to be championed.

    1. Do you have any further info about “Wilson’s great speech during his election campaign”. I have Googled this phrase but nothing showed up.

    2. Yes, but they still have self respect. They thought what they were doing was right, which is why they can respect themselves.

  8. thank you sooo much for typing this out. I too lended my copy of bethlehem to a friend and felt my self kind of lost unable to reference back to this essay. eventually I’ll get the copy back or buy a new one, but you have no idea how much I appreciate this. thanks.

  9. The purpose of this essay is not to discourage us from feeling guilt or regret. It means to encourage responsibility for our own actions. If you don’t like what happened when your wife found out you where cheating, yes, you can feel guilt, but not self-pitty. You knew the risks when you did the deed. If you have any respect for yourself you will realize this. You will realize that you are in no way a victim. However, if you have any self-respect, you shouldn’t feel guilty about saying no. If somebody wants something from you (and it is not worth it to you to give), don’t feel guilty for saying no. To summarize, don’t play the victim and don’t complain about the outcomes of your own decisions. Know the risks that come with your choices and live with them. You made your bed, now sleep in it.

  10. I’m just discovering Joan Didion and her writings are great. I’m looking forward to read more of her, and this essay speaks true to me. Thanks for posting.

  11. I too was compelled by this essay yet I confess confusion on her analogy about “innocence.” What she speaks of is clearly ignorance. If you researched the defintions of both, innocence has a connation of ‘childlike’ accidents while with ignorance it’s ‘stupidity’ straight out. Morals develop over time. People choose to ignore them or not. The arrogance that they are impenetrable to the bullet of consequence is astouding. For that the are not innocence but oh so very ignorant.

  12. I’ve kept this essay near me for the past 22 years. I think it’s great that you typed it out for us all to read. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind correcting the errors in it so that it matches the true text (some grammatical, some substantive). I ask this because it is the first version to come up in a google search of “Joan Didion On Self Respect”

  13. This indeed is an excellent and colorful essay that denotes our deep struggles of worth and what it takes to overcome them. I came upon this as I googled self-respect for a post I recently wrote. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  14. I do like the way you have framed this particular situation and it really does supply me personally some fodder for thought. However, coming from everything that I have experienced, I just simply hope as other responses pack on that people today stay on issue and don’t get started upon a soap box associated with some other news of the day. All the same, thank you for this superb point and even though I do not necessarily agree with this in totality, I value your point of view.

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