Op-Ed: I thought Joan Didion's essay would ruin my life. But something else happened

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A police officer looks at the seared remains of the Volkswagen Beetle in which dentist Dr. Gordon E. Miller was found dead, in San Bernadino, Calif., Oct. 10, 1964. His wife, Lucille Miller, escaped the fire but has been booked for investigation of murder because of unanswered questions about the origin of the fire and her escape. Police said an empty gasoline can was found in the back seat. (AP Photo)
A police officer looks at the charred Volkswagen Beetle in which Gordon E. Miller was found dead on Oct. 8, 1964, in San Bernardino. His wife, Lucille Miller, escaped the fire but was later convicted of his murder. (Associated Press)

Many people have been influenced by Joan Didion’s writing. But few of us can tell you what it was like to be the subject of one of her essays.

One of her most famous, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which appeared in her book, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” is about my family. It is, in particular, about my mother, Lucille Miller, who was convicted of killing my father in one of the most infamous murder trials in California history.

To be the subject of a famous author’s work is both thrilling and devastating. Over the years, I have cycled through many emotions before coming to a kind of peace about my family’s strange connection to this iconic writer.

At the time of my father’s death, we lived in Alta Loma, a new subdivision of San Bernardino County. My father was a well-established dentist who hated his career and wanted to be a physician. My mother was an upwardly striving housewife who was deeply unhappy in her marriage and in love with the husband of one of her best friends.

One night in October 1964, as we three children slept, my mother and father drove in our black VW bug to the store for milk. On the way home, as my father slept in the passenger seat, the car caught fire and he burned to death.

My mother, who maintained her innocence until the day she died, was found guilty of setting the fire and murdering him. I was 14. My brother Guy was 10, and our little brother Ron was 8.

Didion’s essay is not sympathetic, but it helped make her famous. And rightfully so; she was able, by focusing on my mother, to rip apart the tissue of lies that California newcomers tell themselves about how life will be better, different, happier here.

“Here,” wrote Didion, “is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers. The case of Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller is a tabloid monument to that new life style.”

My mother hated Didion’s essay and taught her children to hate it too. She believed it was Didion’s revenge on her for turning down an interview request. Whether it was or not, I think my mother made a huge mistake refusing to talk to Didion.

Didion would probably have found my mother to be a sympathetic character. Yes, she was vain, but she was small like Didion. At the time of her trial, she weighed less than a hundred pounds, even though she was pregnant with our little sister, Kimi, to whom she gave birth at St. Joseph’s Hospital in San Bernardino. She had petitioned Gov. Edmund G. Brown to have her baby away from the prison so Kimi would not have to bear that stigma.

At the time she was convicted, I believed deeply in my mother’s innocence. As Didion wrote about me: "'She didn't do it,’" Debbie Miller cried, jumping up from the spectators' section. ‘She didn't do it.’"

Now I’m not so sure. I think I need my mother to be guilty because she suffered so much, and no innocent person should pay such a price. I believe her infidelities doomed her. She was also stoic during her trial, hardly seeming like a grieving pregnant widow. The lines of her mouth turned down, making her look cold.

My mother spent seven years in prison and was paroled in 1972. If she wasn’t a criminal before she went to prison, prison turned her into one. Using her children to supply contraband, she ran the entire illicit alcohol supply in the prison and was never caught. She tried but failed to ever make a legitimate income once she was released. She died of breast cancer, broken and estranged from her children in 1986.

I struggled with addiction, got sober and became an English teacher in an all-girls school in Los Angeles. For years, I had been ashamed of Didion’s essay. I thought it was cruel, portraying us as a more upscale Joad family, only from Oregon instead of the Dust Bowl, having moved to California to find a nonexistent Golden Dream.

I remember one day in the early 1990s hearing a colleague musing about “Some Dreamers,” weighing the merits of teaching it to his seniors in conjunction with “The Great Gatsby,” both stories about strivers run amok.

I was horrified. I had never talked about that essay, not in high school, not in college, with one exception, my best friend Jill Bickett, chairman of our English Department to whom I immediately ran with this information. I feared some student might ask if the “Debbie” in the essay was related to me. One excited student might pass on the news to her parents, who would then call the school demanding to know if one of their teachers had been hired without revealing her sullied and infamous past. I would be called in, excuses would be made; the school couldn’t be embarrassed this way. I certainly understood, didn’t I?

I knew that essay would one day ruin my life and now it was happening. The situation worked itself out. I don’t remember how. I just remember I was assured the essay wouldn’t be taught.

Then a few weeks later, I sat on my pink couch at home in Venice looking through my books on writing for a good descriptive essay describing a place that reflected the author’s feelings. I found myself once more reading Didion’s essay, and then I read it again.

It had caused me to keep silent about my past, interfere in my colleague’s curriculum decisions out of fear of what could happen to me. I saw that Didion’s descriptions of us, where we lived, and my mother were in fact spot on. I was an adult. My mother was dead. Didion was a genius. I was free to have my own opinions. It was then that I saw what Didion saw. I knew my mother hadn’t fooled her. We were a modern day Joad family. My burdens were lifted.

I decided to write to Didion. I wanted her to know what had become of us. My baby sister, Kimi, died of lung cancer at the age of 25 in March 1991. Guy is a dentist. Ron is a high school English teacher.

My letter began, “Dear Joan Didion, I am anxious, angry, and jealous as my fragile self-esteem evaporates. I just can’t seem to avoid ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.’ It helped to make you famous, but it’s my life.”

I anxiously awaited her reply. Her letter arrived a month later in November 1991. It began, “Dear Debra Miller, I’ve begun this letter so many times, because there’s no real way to tell you how moved I was (am) by your letter.” Then her letter moves away from me and talks about the weird relationship between an author and her subject. She continues, “as a writer I tend to compartmentalize the people and events I’ve written about — the writer goes in, tries to understand the story, as if the act of writing it down completed the situation, became the truth. I guess I think writers need to do this, have to do this to maintain the nerve to write anything at all. But of course it’s an illusion.”

“I’m glad you wrote to me, ”she concluded. “Thank you –"

Six years later I met Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne at the Directors Guild in Beverly Hills. My husband’s daughter, Robin Abcarian, The Times columnist, was to interview Didion onstage about her latest novel, “The Last Thing He Wanted.” Robin cautioned me that Didion was famously shy and that I shouldn’t expect more than a hello, nice to meet you.

But that’s not what happened. When Robin introduced me to her backstage, she threw her arms around me, called her husband over to meet me, then tucked her arm in mine and escorted me into the auditorium and sat me down beside her. When an excerpt of the essay was read, focusing on the moment my father burned to death, she grabbed my arm and gave it a hug. Years of mortification melted away.

Sometime after that, I gave my colleagues permission to use the essay in their classes. I also gave them permission to tell their students that Ms. Miller was “Debbie,” the 15-year-old who cried out for her mother when the judge read the guilty verdict. I told my story to each junior English class, inviting students to ask me anything they wanted. It was intimidating to them, but it was rewarding for me.

Today, I’m proud to be the subject of a Joan Didion essay, and inspired by her, I’m working on my own memoir.

When people find out who I am they're often shocked and then fascinated. I know they think that Debbie must have ended up a drug-addicted hooker on Sunset Boulevard. But that's not what happened; I like seeing how the contradiction between what should have been and what is registers on their faces.

When I heard that Didion had died, the loss felt so personal to me. I called my brother Ron to talk about what she had meant in our lives. If not for her essay, I would not be the woman I am today — a woman to tell her own story, who survived and flourished rather than succumb to the darkness that consumed my mother and beckoned me.

Debra Miller is a retired high school teacher in Los Angeles.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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