Why I Took My Students to a Murder Site

The most recent field trip in my Honors California Literature course was to a nearby

My students at the scene of the crime--Banyan Street in Alta Loma California.

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.

10 thoughts on “Why I Took My Students to a Murder Site

  1. Dr. Bentz,

    That was a fantastic exercise to do with your students. It is interesting how the author stretches the truth to give the feeling that she wants to convey. Authors are not bound by reality, rather they have the amazing opportunity to create their own reality in their writing. This is what makes writing unique; two writers could describe one thing and the two of them would produce different results. Even readers can interpret the writing differently. For this, writing is an art form and is subject to each individual’s interpretation.

  2. What a great exercise. It seems we learn best when we have sensory experiences related to the literature. For example, in Sept. my husband and I are going to England for a Hymn Sing Tour (with Mount Hermon’s Dave and Carla Talbott) visiting the homes and churches and other sites where some of the great Christian hymns were composed. I’m sure the words and music will mean a lot more to me after having this experience.

  3. This was so interesting to read! I have not often thought of going to visit the sites that are used in novels, but I think I might be pursuing that in the future! One time when I was in Marseille comes to mind; we were able to see the Chateau D’If off the coast! I was not sure as to whether or not it was even possible to go and visit that site from the famous (and one of my favorites) Count of Monte Cristo.

    Thanks for writing Dr. Bentz!

  4. My thoughts exactly. Did Didion cast an unsavory light on the surroundings to exploit Miller? To sell more essays? To appear more dramatic? Or was she a snob, looking down on California to assuage her own insecurities? Was she depressed, unable to find a kind eye? Or did she simply believe SoCal to be unpalatable? Either way, your field trip underscores the notion that we shouldn’t just drink the Kool-aid — no matter how talented the prose

    • I agree with you. Even though I like and admire Didion’s work, I do think there was some snobbery involved in this essay. She was not writing about the “cool” or rich California of Pacific Palisades or Beverly Hills. So she chose details that put it in the worst light and that contributed to the atmosphere she was creating in which the murder that takes place would not be a big surprise.

      • I suspect you are right about the snobbery, despite the fact this is not the poor section of a now suburban city that is considered upscale overall. (I live nearby and know the area well.) It just isn’t as nearly upscale, trendy, or famous as many of the places Didion lived in as an adult, even when she was not better off financially than the people here now, and likely then.

        What may have really happened is that Didion did not place much priority on getting her facts straight. To the south of Banyon the flat valley is miles away. Nearby the land slopes several feet per housing lot, hence the retaing wall. To the north, the mountains are the San Gabriels, although that part of the range is within the San Bernardino National Forest, and one’s view of mountains 9 Kft or higher is blocked by somewhat lower mountains. That is unless one looks east (not across) to the San Bernardinos which were often not visible those years due to smog. Another wrong detail was turning from Foothill to Carnelian. It is actually Vineyard and one veers west a bit when going north at which poinr it becomes Carnelian. Because these details are totally irrelevant to setting a mood or making a point, I find this evidence of sloppiness.

        These days, the Didion essay and the events they describe are far better known in the US literary community than they are in the local area.

        I enjoyed this webpage, and my viewpoint is not much different than yours.

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