Joan Didion vs. Jessica Mitford: A Deal-Me-In Short Story Non-Fiction Special Edition

slouching towards bethlehamI’m really breaking Jay’s rules now.

The Deal Me In Short Story Challenge asks readers to assign one story to each card in a deck of 52.  Draw one card each week; read and review the story that goes with it.  Since I joined, I’ve been drawing two cards at a time and looking for ways I can connect the randomly selected stories.   For this deck/round, I’ve bent the rules further by  including a bunch of essays. This week I drew two, “Where the Kissing Never Stops”  by Joan Didion and “Don’t Call it Syphillis.” by Jesica Mitford, both from 1965.  I didn’t plan that, honest.

Both deal with controversial art/artists.

Mitford’s article is about the attempt to bring the topic of syphillis to television.  In 1964, noting a surge in syphillis cases, the Surgeon General and the National Education Associaton worked with MGM studios to produce a special cross-over episode of Dr. Kildare and Mr. Novak, two popular television shows about a doctor and a teacher, to develop an extended episode about syphillis.  Their hope was to bring the topic out into the open as a way of making people aware of it, how to avoid getting it and how to treat it.  At the time, syphillis was already 100% treatable if detected early enough, but far too many people were avoiding treatment out of shame, ignorance or both.

However, just before the program went into production, NBC cancelled the episode citing their desire not to offend sensitive audience members, especially Neilson families, remember them.  Neilson families were people who participated in the Neilson ratings, rankings of just how many people were watching particular television shows each night.  Back in the day, they ruled the air waves.  NBC did not want to offend them, so the topic of syphillis remained taboo, even with the expressed approval of the Surgeon General and the biggest teacher’s union in the country.

Didion’s piece deals with similar issues.  In 1965 Joan Baez purchased a large piece of property in Monterey County, California where she intended to live and to open a school for the study of nonviolence.  Her neighbors did not approve.  They took the issue to the county commisioners in an attempt to shut down Ms. Baez’s school where they feared all sorts of untoward things were happening.  At the hearings one woman asked, “What kind of people would go to a school like this? Why aren’t they out working and making money?

The two essays make an interseting set of companion pieces, a look at the contradictions in 1965 America in general, California in particular.  Mitford’s story presents the general public struggling to overcome a conservative business while Didion presents a small group of radicals struggling to overcome a conservative general public.   Both feature artists with a message considered too extreme and people with enough power to prevent the expression messages they disagree with.

I enjoyed them both.

Some 50 years after they were published, they now can be read as historical documents, a windo onto life and cultural mores during a time of great flux in America.  That they still have something to say seems clear.  Look at the stories you hear about local communities objecting to the construction of mosques in their towns and do characters on American television ever get  sexually transmitted diseases?  I don’t really watch much televsion, so I wouldn’t know.

I just read about it.

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6 Comments

  1. This is so interesting. I remember Dr Kildare so well. Everyone wore his white top with the buttons on the side in high school We loved Richard Chamberlain. Late 60’s. I learned a lot watching that show. Never heard about the Joan Baez debacle with the neighbours. That really is quite amazing. People can be so weird. Who would care if she was teaching non violence. (speaking of her we have tickets to see her in Hobart in Sept. at our old Theatre Royal. Can’t believe she is singing in Tasmania). I enjoyed hearing about both of these short stories. Very interesting. All the best for 2015, looking forward to following you another year !

    1. I’ve never seen Dr. Kildare, nor had I even heard of Mr. Novack, but I remember the Neilson Families almost being an obsession in America in the 1970’s and 1980’s. I have not heard about them much at all since cable television took off. I saw Joan Baez many years ago and enjoyed her show. Hope you do, too.

  2. Jay says:

    I’d never heard of Joan Baez’s school plans. Reading the comment about what kind of people it might attract somehow made me think of the school (The Freedom School?) in the movie “Billy Jack” – I wonder if this is what Joan’s opponents had in mind, or if it came after, if the incident of the opposition to her school inspired that part of the film in any way.
    “One tin soldier rides away…” 🙂

  3. As a property owner, I would probably object to anyone trying to open a school of any kind nextdoor, that’s why we have zoning laws. But this particular case really was odd. It’s been a very long time since I saw Billy Jack, but it bet his school was in the same vein. Joan Baez’s group sounds much more clean-cut than the folks in Billy Jack but it’s the same idea. I think this sort of ‘school’ was fairly common in the mid-1960’s.

  4. John-Paul says:

    Have you read that Didion collection before? Some incredible writing in there. In particular I remember being very affected by a piece about John Wayne. To be fair to those neighbours of Joans I reckon quite a few of her students would have been pretty “far out”… man.

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