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How Joan and Joni Have Been Therapeutic Print-ready version

A Personal Perspective: A shoutout to my favorite writer and my favorite singer-songwriter.

by Madora Kibbe
Psychology Today
April 11, 2024

Being a woman of a certain age, I owe an unpayable debt of gratitude to two very different/surprisingly similar women. They helped me navigate the slings and arrows of outrageously common adolescent angst. For better or for worse, mostly better I believe, they made me who I am.

Like so many women, and yes men too, the writing, the artistry of these two women seemed so aligned with my inner struggles that I often am still amazed that they had other fans beside me. You mean other people read Joan Didion? Other folks know Joni Mitchell songs literally by heart?

Apparently, yes.

Why are they so well respected and loved? Because as most of us know, true artists are sometimes our 'go to' mental health care providers. Especially the ones like Didion and Mitchell who tell it like it is but not in a give up sort of way. Art isn't therapy, but it is therapeutic. It helps and even heals.

How did I first find them, you might ask. And if you don't I'll tell you anyway. My best friend at the time was a wise eighth grader named Lisa Golden. I was in seventh grade and in need of a good mentor. Lisa graciously filled the bill. She taught me how to play guitar, she gave me a book called Slouching Towards Bethlehem and had me listen to an album called "Songs to a Seagull." Both were released in 1968, so I discovered them in real time, as they were first appearing.

Lisa also introduced me to the short stories of Grace Paley and the music of Taj Mahal; a separate essay of thanks will be written for that.

The year 1968 was not a good one, as years go. It was a very bad year in fact. A year of riots, heartbreaking political assassinations, riots, war, anger and grief.

At school assemblies my seventh grade class sang songs like "The Impossible Dream" and "Born Free." Slightly subversive for the suburbs.

Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell were like life lines thrown into the pit of cultural despair. Didion didn't write happy happy essays and Mitchell didn't sing happy happy songs. What they gave us though, what they gave me was honestly, honesty. An honest appraisal of our life and times and a gritty grace filled assurance, a promise really, that we'd get through this period of history. We'd survive somehow. But we shouldn't, we couldn't give up. Not ever.

In hindsight it seems incredibly cool that I grew up living in the same city they were living in, also known as the greater Los Angeles area, which is about the size of Rhode Island.

But here is the truly amazing part of this story, from a 12 year old's perspective. I actually met both of them.

I met Joni Mitchel because of random good fortune. In 1970 my dad was writer on the singer Tom Jones' television show "This is Tom Jones." My dad asked me who I thought would make a good musical guest. Naturally I said Joni Mitchell (which really doesn't make any sense at all) but my dad listened to me and hired her and she played "Woodstock" by herself and sang "Get Together" with Tom Jones and I can't find it anywhere on YouTube so you'll just have to take my word for it. I watched her rehearse and then she introduced herself to me and I probably made a fool of myself but I didn't care then and I don't care now.

I met Joan Didion when I interviewed her in 1977 for a newspaper. I had an hour alone with her at the Ritz Carlton in Boston (her daughter was taking a nap in the other room.) Didion was generous with her time, and patient and kind to a very young journalist (me).

One hardly ever gets to meet one's heroes and usually when one does it's a bit of a letdown. Meeting Didion and Mitchell was uplifting - confirmation of what I already knew. Don't just admire your heroes. Aspire to emulate them but mostly just accept yourself, struggles and all.

These two didn't just talk the talk. Joan Didion not only survived the gut-wrenching loss of her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, but she lived to tell about it, first in an award-winning memoir called The Year of Magical Thinking and then with an award-winning Broadway play of the aforementioned memoir.

Joni Mitchell recovered from an illness that was assumed to be the end of the road. But it wasn't. Slowly but surely, she taught herself to play guitar again, and talk again, and with faith and determination and a little help from her friends (thank you Brandi Carlile) performed at the Newport Folk Festival again, in 2022, and is gearing up to tour this summer.

Didion passed on a few years ago, well into her eighties and still going strong. Mitchell is finally getting all the accolades she deserves for her vocal and musical and songwriting talent. She never really was 'the blond in the bleachers'. Even if she sang that she was 50 years ago.

In times like these, with Gaza, Ukraine, and America all under siege (the first two literally, the US existentially) I find myself drawn once again to these powerhouse women of words and music. Not that they ever left the room of one's own that is my heart. But they continue to encourage and inspire me and, yes I admit it, others, so many others too, just as they did so many years ago.

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Added to Library on April 12, 2024. (616)

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