The most recent field trip in my Honors California Literature course was to a nearby
murder site made famous in an essay called “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” by Joan Didion. On October 7, 1964, Lucille and Gordon Miller were driving home from the Mayfair market after midnight on a sparsely traveled road called Banyan Street in Alta Loma. Gordon Miller was asleep and heavily medicated when the Volkswagen stopped and caught on fire. He burned to death, and his wife was charged and later convicted of first-degree murder.
Didion, an acclaimed essayist and novelist, is the author of such bestselling books as The Year of Magical Thinking and Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Her essay about the murder in Alta Loma is written in a detailed, seemingly journalistic style. Didion establishes credibility by throwing in sometimes obscure details that show she has done her research—the name of the TV show Miller was watching before he was killed, the temperature on the day of the murder, the exact amount of mortgage debt the Millers owed, etc.
It’s easy to get drawn into the essay and think that Didion is simply reporting the facts, but a careful analysis of her essay—and a visit to the scene of the crime—show that she is doing much more than reporting. Like a novelist, Didion is creating an atmosphere in which to set the dastardly crime. The place happens to be only a 20-minute drive from our campus, so my students and I went there to take a look for ourselves and to see how Didion’s description compares to our own impressions.
Here is how Didion describes Banyan Street:
“Like so much of this country, Banyan suggests something curious and unnatural. The lemon groves are sunken, down a three- or four-foot retaining wall, so that one looks directly into their dense foliage, too lush, unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare; the fallen eucalyptus bark is too dusty, a place for snakes to breed. The stones look not like natural stones but like the rubble of some unmentioned upheaval. There are smudge pots, and a closed cistern. To one side of Banyan there is the flat valley, and to the other the San Bernardino Mountains, a dark mass looming too high, too fast, nine, ten, eleven thousand feet, right there above the lemon groves.”
Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? In the context of the essay, fits well with the rest of the atmosphere Didion is creating, but when my students look at this scene, they see something very different. Some of the difference can be accounted for by the passage of time. The street is now part of an upper-middle class neighborhood with attractive houses and carefully landscaped lawns. But there are still some lemon trees, and their leaves don’t strike students as “unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare.” They’re beautiful trees, and so are the eucalyptus trees, whose fallen bark does not seem “too dusty” to us. The mountains in the distance are majestic, and their beauty is probably one of the reasons people built their homes here. They don’t appear to us as a “dark mass looming too high, too fast.”
Didion is such a good writer that students often overlook her biased perspective the first time they read the essay. Once they are alerted to how she skews the details of the physical scene, they also reconsider some of the stereotypes she puts forth about the entire region. She writes, “This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-a-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.”
“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is a brilliantly written essay in many ways. Didion brings to life the lives of Lucille Miller and others involved in the case as she probes their backgrounds and motivations. For my class, visiting the scene helps bring the story to life in a different way, as we consider how a writer does not simply report reality, but constructs it in ways that build the story she wants to tell.