Georgia’s “heartbeat” bill evokes Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1970)
After living in Atlanta for 14 years, I remain convinced that as states go, Georgia and California are about as far apart, physically and culturally, as you can get. The sweltering humidity of Atlanta in July is completely unknown in California, where heat is dry, plunges at night, and reappears in the morning only after the fog lifts. The ocean is a long four-and a half hour drive away from Atlanta compared with minutes away in my native Bay Area, though I’ve recently discovered the sand beaches hidden along our copious creeks. California has “Cal” (University of California at Berkeley), the ghost of hippies past, while Georgia has “UGA” (University of Georgia, Athens) where students even today actually wear what appear to be Chanel dresses to football games. California speak may be vague, dude, but Georgia speak is intentionally indirect and veiled, bless your hearts. California has Hollywood, but Georgia has … Hollywood of the South. Finally! One point of state-to-state connection.
An exhibit on display now at The Carter Center called Georgia on my Screen traces the history of film in Georgia, beginning with the adaptation of Atlantan James Dickey’s novel Deliverance to film in 1972, continuing with then-Governor Jimmy Carter’s creation of the first state film commission in 1973, and culminating with its present position as a center of Marvel Studio productions (Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Ant Man and the Wasp, and Black Panther) due to favorable tax incentives.
But “the Industry” in California is coming into some collision with Georgia now that Governor Brian Kemp has signed the “Fetal Heartbeat” law prohibiting abortion after a fetus’s heartbeat can be detected (approximately 6 week, versus the federal legal standard of 20 weeks). Some Hollywood studios and actors are considering pulling their projects from Georgia in protest.
These recent ideological tensions called to mind Play It as it Lays, an existentialist novel by one of my favorite writers, Joan Didion. It was published in 1970, just three years before Roe v. Wade established today’s federal abortion standard. In it a backroom abortion in Encino, California, figures in the main character Maria’s mental breakdown. The abortion dramatizes the protagonist’s crisis of alienation, aimlessness, exile from the past and future in the social milieu in and around Hollywood. Maria (May-eye-ah) is a B-grade actress who is passed around by producers and struggles to find anything from her upbringing or past that applies to the world where she finds herself. She has one child, Kate, who is intellectually disabled, and who has been placed in an institution by her husband Carter. Kate is her emotional anchor as she moves through Hollywood sets, California freeways, parties, and mental institutions. She is pregnant with a fetus that is not her husband’s. In this sound clip dramatizing the book’s metaphor of life as a card game, Maria tries to play her hand for access to Kate with Carter, who is insisting that she have an abortion:
The illicit abortion occurs after transfer of money and amid rudimentary hygiene: “The floor of the bedroom where it happened was covered with newspapers. She remembered reading somewhere that newspapers were antiseptic, it had to do with chemicals in the ink…” The abortion haunts her.
To those who say that Maria is a “self-centered pseudo-actress with a crack in her head…endowed by the author with the spunk of a jellyfish and the brain of a flea” (an actual 1970 review by Phoebe-Lou Adams), I would say that she is a not a vapid woman but a woman navigating a vapid landscape in which it is incredibly hard to find purpose, as suggested by this sound clip:
Maria tries to stay in the game and focus on the present, trying not to think of that back room in Encino, and holding out hope of being reunited with Kate. In one exhilarating passage in the book, Maria drives the freeway daily just to drive, a meditative act. I think of the immaculate and continuously tarred California freeways and also how people in Georgia don’t use the term “freeway,” I’ve been told. It’s a uniquely Californian term; freedom in California and Atlanta have profoundly different connotations.
Didion comes from an old California family, was a student at Cal, and like Sylvia Plath, was selected as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine fresh out of university in the 50s, and later made her way to Southern California where she and her husband John Dunne did some script work. She was considered a New Journalist along with Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson (see, for example, “In Hollywood” and her essay “On the morning after the sixties” from The White Album). Recently she has written several memoirs – including one, Blue Nights, that looks unflinchingly at aging – but I prefer her fiction. She is a brilliant rhetorician. Consider these words describing Maria’s attempt to live in the present following her mental breakdown:
I try not to think of dead things and plumbing. I try not to hear the air conditioner in that bedroom in Encino. I try not to live in Silver Wells or in New York or with Carter. I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird. I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?
It is some comfort to me as a reader that Maria loves the child she has and that she and others are able to not bring another child into the world unwanted. For another California abortion classic see Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion (1971), and I highly recommend Walter Kirn’s She Needed Me (1992).