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Joan Didion

By Julian Vigo

Photo courtesy of Kathleen Ballard, LA Times

Months after my first child died, a friend recommended Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). I don’t know why people imagine that what those of us who are bereaved really need is to read about others’ grief and loss but, as I would find out over the months following my son’s death, Didion’s book came highly recommended by other friends who similarly thought that what a bereaved mother needs is to read of another person’s bereavement. 

As such, I refused to read Didion’s book until years later because, just as all grief is different, so too are all books about grief. In short, I wanted to give Didion’s oeuvre a fair read unclouded by my first interaction in 2008 when her memoir was turned into a theatre production. Vanessa Redgrave, playing the part of Joan Didion, stood just two metres in front of me on the stage of London’s National Theatre, and at one point delivered an eloquent monologue, exhibiting far more grief for the loss of her husband than that of her daughter. Truthfully, I was annoyed about this hierarchy of grief in the theatrical production when several years ago I sat down and read The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s love letter to her husband and daughter.

Joan Didion’s prose is known for grappling with the human condition: that which remains out of our control and that which lies within our grasp. She takes this delicate imbalance between circumstances and free will and delves into that space between what life offers and what we make of it. The Year of Magical Thinking chimes with her previous writing as she scratches at this same dynamic—only this time Didion is forced to confront this issue in a particularly personal way. It’s similar to the approach she took in her earlier memoir, The White Album (1968), where Didion documented her nervous breakdown.

The Year of Magical Thinking deals with the death of Didion’s husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, just as their daughter was hospitalised for a winter flu that suddenly turned life-threatening. The book opens with these lines:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. 

The question of self-pity. 

From here Didion ponders that space between thoughts uttered, actions remembered and the power of words spoken at a graveside: ‘In the midst of life we are in death’.

The prose then shifts to locate Didion in October 2004 writing about the events just ten months earlier, the day of her husband’s death. Didion and Dunne had returned home from visiting their adult daughter, Quintana, who was in the intensive care unit with septic shock, a complication of the flu. She’d been put into a medically induced coma for a week and at that point nobody was certain if she would survive. Quintana survived the sepsis but died nearly two years later from pancreatitis. 

Dunne died mid-conversation at the dinner table while Didion prepared a salad. She looked up to find her husband slouched over his plate. She returns repeatedly throughout the memoir to this moment, replaying her husband’s final weeks, days, hours and moments, over and over again in her mind. Anyone who has lost a loved one can relate to this seemingly obsessive retelling of the event as if the moment of death might have been avoidable. But then: ‘You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’ Didion perfectly expresses those torturing after-thoughts: ‘What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one small thing be? If I had said it in time would it have worked?’ Didion reads reality backwards through time reminding the reader that understanding life is very much akin to reading a text, ‘Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed.’

Didion’s writing, with its tightness and precision, attempts to impose order on the tragic, the unexpected, and the illogical. Her prose is a testament to her attempts to preserve sanity in the face of her life being turned upside-down. She undertakes a most excruciating self-examination of her past, and her present inability to imagine life without Dunne. She analyses their marriage amidst the heartbreaking loss of her husband, while watching her daughter struggle with serious health issues. All this is told without sentimentality. 

Didion chronicles her grief by turning back to memories throughout her life: ‘In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, to read, learn, work it up…to go to the literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare.’ Her turn of phrase ‘magical thinking’ refers to reality of the individual left to the ruses of self-deception which the bereaved employ to protect themselves from grief. Didion’s narrative, however, serves as a touching if not doomed effort to deny reality through the fiction of ‘magical thinking’. 

This memoir is today one of her most popular works. It chronicles grief, even surpassing her usual clarity and honesty:

Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. It was not what I felt when my parents died: my father died a few days short of his eighty-fifth birthday and my mother a month short of her ninety-first, both after some years of increasing debility. What I felt in each instance was sadness, loneliness (the loneliness of the abandoned child of whatever age), regret for time gone by, for things unsaid, for my inability to share or even in any real way to acknowledge, at the end, the pain and helplessness and physical humiliation they each endured. I understood the inevitability of each of their deaths. I had been expecting (fearing, dreading, anticipating) those deaths all my life. 

Didion poignantly puts her finger on that which so much literature avoids: how ‘death now occurs largely offstage’, a trend prescribed by Emily Post’s famous book, Etiquette (1922), where death is kept from the public sphere:

One way in which grief gets hidden is that death now occurs largely offstage. In the earlier tradition from which Mrs. Post wrote, the act of dying had not yet been professionalized. It did not typically involve hospitals. Women died in childbirth. Children died of fevers. Cancer was untreatable. At the time she undertook her book of etiquette, there would have been few American households untouched by the influenza pandemic of 1918. Death was up close, at home…When someone dies, I was taught growing up in California, you bake a ham. You drop it by the house. You go to the funeral. If the family is Catholic you also go to the rosary but you do not wail or keen or in any other way demand the attention of the family. In the end Emily Post’s 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read.

Passages like this capture the bereaved reader who knows quite well that death ‘offstage’ remains located out of sight from polite society, framed through prescriptive social conventions, because death is one of those subjects we not only do not discuss, but it’s a subject that we go out of our way to avoid. Instead, we gift books on death hoping to bypass meaningful conversations with a loved one. 

Didion’s memoir is not a surrogate for the discussions we need to have about death as a society, but The Year of Magical Thinking contaminates that sanitised social fabric which otherwise would let the reader off the hook. Perhaps The Year of Magical Thinking will forever remain a book club addition or gift for the recently bereaved in the larger virtue-signalling economy, but it has already gone down in history as the book that attempts to craft a language that makes meaningful one of the most ordinary acts that all humans carry out: death.