Critical Essay: On Innocence

Casey Dexter
4 min readDec 20, 2023

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A response to Joan Didion’s ‘On-Self Respect’ first published in Vogue, 1961

‘Innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.’

[1] — Joan Didion

Pegu Club, The Lovelace, Elvis Guest House had all closed. Scott, the only man I had entertained as dateable in the city roped a girlfriend. Bowery unsavory past nine, Houston unfavorable even in daylight. The subway re-grimed, re-slimed, and I now felt unease with every ride. Delivery replaced dining, internet replaced experience. The wave of discontent I felt for my city signaled the end of my innocence.

I’d be wrong to blame everything on my perception of New York around me, but once the curtain was pulled back, the Oz-like glow dimmed, I was stripped of the delusion of infatuation.

I’ve found that whenever I have these life-altering realizations, either triggered through a bout of darkness or sometimes defined events– like graduations, break ups, quarantine– one of the most soothing antidotes I crave is the reassurance that I’m not alone. I’ve often sought comfort in tv shows, books, essays, podcasts, desperate to find a story that parallels my own, or can at least be imagined with a bit of pushing and prodding into relatability (yes, that does mean I found reassurance in Austin Powers after a particularly bad date). Only then, after I’ve been appropriately swaddled and told that everything will be okay through narrative arcs, do I actually believe it. That, to me, is the umami of storytelling, the blending of personal experience with logic and love.

Reading Joan Didion’s On Self-Respect, I felt like Joan was the big sister I never had. Well, I do have a big sister, but she’s not like how I picture Joan. Or rather, Joan’s writing. Her definitive yet conversational, pointed yet not overbearing declarations and musings on self-respect would cost $250 per therapy session. And I still don’t believe any therapist could construct such words that felt like a hug, a squeeze of the hand, and a firm pulling back of the shoulders and straightening of a tie all at once. Didion’s ability to relate to the reader whilst gently instilling trusted wisdom is supreme– it’s exactly why I selfishly feel like I can call her my sister, when really she is everyone’s.

It’s the self-awareness mixed with candid reflections, like admitting she didn’t make Phi Beta Kappa because she ‘simply did not have the grades.’[2] It’s the honesty when she confesses ‘I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me.’[3] With so many creatives on platforms today, advice always seems to be given from a pedestal. Not for Didion. Her words come from a place of joint struggle. They’re filled with empathy. They’re not preaching, instead they are kneeling in the pew next to you, as if she’s praying for the exact same thing.

Didion makes her assertion on the loss of innocence through personal experience, and even traces it through novels (The Great Gatsby and Appointment in Samarra), history (quoting the 1846 diary of a young girl in California), and art (referencing Paolo and Francesca da Rimini). She traverses the worlds of fiction and nonfiction when defining her upset and anxieties, defining her beliefs in just a short two-page essay– written to an exact character count per the magazine. The blending of her thoughts and feelings with the plights of others churns an incredibly calming sense of relief. There’s strength in numbers. Commiseration across genres.

At first, I wasn’t sure why Didion’s essay triggered the memory of falling out of love with New York City for me. I had other life upsets that much better equated to her example of not making Phi Beta Kappa. I had been rejected from universities despite the grades, passed on by employers despite the resumé, dumped by men despite my ability to perfectly slow roast short ribs. So why did I feel like my innocence ended when I stopped loving my home of the past seven years?

I think Didion describes it best when she says, ‘the day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it.’[4]

The end of something.

I blamed the city for changing, but I had changed too. I no longer desired the same things from when I had first moved. My ideas of life, love, friendships, career had all changed. The notions I had previously clung to were gone. The illusion of what I thought my life was supposed to look like had ended.

As Didion puts it, ‘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.’[5]

So I left. I said goodbye to my employer, my friends, my bodega man on the corner. I let go of the apartment I struggled to afford and made peace with the reality that I’d never meet someone while staring at the same painting at the Met.

I do not know the London equivalent to Pegu Club. I do not know if a Greggs’ sausage roll holds a candle to a hot dog from 7-Eleven. But I know that until I discover these things, until I have explored and roamed and learned, I will hold onto my new innocence. And will look to storytellers — sisters, like Joan, to ease the pain when it’s lost.

Bibliography

Didion, Joan, ‘On Self-Respect’, in Vogue Magazine (New York: Condé Nast, 1961), 215–218

[1] Joan Didion, ‘On Self-Respect’, in Vogue Magazine (New York: Condé Nast, 1961), pp.215–218 (p.215).

[2] ‘On Self-Respect’, p.215.

[3] Ibid, p.215.

[4] ‘On Self-Respect’, p.215.

[5] ‘On Self-Respect’, p.215.

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Casey Dexter

Casey lives in London and works in publishing and entertainment. caseydexter.org