By the standards of Joan Didion’s other collections of journalism, After Henry (1993) is not that great, although it has some strong individual essays and would be a satisfying enough read if it were the first Didion I encountered. It did not help that I had previously read Political Fictions, which reprints one and expands on another of the three essays in the Washington section of After Henry—the one really strong section in the book. I will grant that the opening, eponymous tribute to Henry Robbins is one of the better personal essays of hers that I have read: Didion is usually best covering subcultures, politics, or crime. Regarding the last, “L.A. Noir” is a hilarious and brutal smack-down of what Didion describes as the nonsensical news coverage of a 1983 murder. Otherwise, the California section felt a little ho-hum.
The final New York section’s sole essay, “Sentimental Journeys,” also the longest essay in the book, is a more complicated treatment of the various narratives rising up around a particular Central Park rape. In many ways in echoes “L.A. Noir” in its indictment of the media, but here matters are complicated by race, by gender, by class, by the particularities of New York politics. I found myself generally admiring the essay—Didion is especially good at showing how the media and city obsessed over the crime as a way of avoiding other realities, including realities of rape and the tendency to ignore it when it does not happen to an upwardly mobile white woman.
However, from a current perspective I did question Didion’s critique of the news media’s standard practice of not naming rape victims in reporting. She does so because she believes that this anonymity contributed to the fantasy the media built up about the case and, more broadly, because of the possibility that this reinforces a shame surrounding rape that is, essentially, victim blaming. I don’t entirely dismiss that point. Nonetheless, we live in a world now where, partially due to the sensationalism of the 24-hour news cycle and even more due to internet tabloid journalism, rape victims get named all the time. And the general effect has seemed to be that people become incredibly dismissive about rape, probing into the victim’s sexual past in order to find reasons why she shouldn’t be taken seriously. We know the victims all too well these days, in ways that are meant, by those who tell us about them, to suggest that, well, the women really wanted it and are crying rape just to get someone in trouble. This would, in fact, seem make it harder for victims to speak up, knowing that they are likely not to be taken seriously—not quite what Didion is hoping for in her desire for transparency.