This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows. The Mormons settled this ominous country, and then they abandoned it, but by the time they left the first orange tree had been planted and for the next hundred years the San Bernardino Valley would draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in the dry air, people who brought with them Midwestern ways of building and cooking and praying and who tried to graft those ways upon the land. The graft took in curious ways. 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. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids,” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here 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.
During junior high, my parents got divorced and things got a little messy. It was the early eighties, and after my dad read the self-help book Your Erroneous Zones, by Wayne Dyer, I think he suddenly realized how unhappy he was —and that was that. He and my mom never figured out how to make it work. They were both warm, caring people, but neither handled the divorce well. For reasons I never quite understood, they fought in and out of court for years— until everyone was broke. I was lost and scared. At one point, I started shoplifting with the secret hope I would get caught so that I could finally have an excuse to yell at them: "This would never have happened if it wasn't for this divorce!" (Sadly, I only got caught once, and when Macy's couldn't reach my parents by phone, the store Iet me go.) It's hard to be a teenager witnessing your parents at their worst. This was way before the days of "conscious uncoupling." This was war. I remember thinking to myself at one point, Well, I guess my parents' advice can't be any good—just look at how they are handling this situation. I need to figure out how to support myself financially and emotionally.
Oddly, that pain and fear became the fuel in my tank. It inspired me to work hard and has led to every success and good thing in my life. It worked so well that today, a parent now myself, I am frying to figure out how to fuck up my daughters just enough that they, too, develop outsize dreams and the desire to get the hell out of the house.
If a revolution is not accessible, tangible, and replicable, how on earth can it be a revolution? "Because I'm worth it" and "Does she or doesn't she?" were powerful, then precisely because they were commercials, for commercials come with products attached, and products offer something that songs and poems and political movements and radical ideologies do not, which is an immediate and affordable means of transformation. "We discovered in the first few years of 'Because I'm worth it' campaign that we were getting more than our fair share of new users to the category - women who were just beginning to color their hair," Sennott told me. "And within that group we were getting those undergoing life changes, which usually meant divorce. We had far more women who were getting divorced than Clairol had. Their children had grown, and something had happened, and they were reinventing themselves." They felt different, and Ilon Specht gave them the means to look different - and do we really know which came first, or even how to separate the two? They changed their lives and their hair. But it wasn't one thing or the other. It was both.