The Books: The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

Still on the essays shelf. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. (You’ll notice that not all of these books are essays. True. But I have to keep an author in one place with all of her different works.)

Joan Didion had spent almost 40 years in her own unique position in American letters. She was not defined by a genre. She did it all. She wrote novels, essays, journalistic pieces, screenplays. Her work encompassed history and personal memoir, sometimes in the same piece. Her writing is cool, clear, and sometimes a little bit frightening, in its ruthless refusal to accept cliches or handed-down ideas. She examined everything and took nothing at face value. An exhausting way to be, certainly, but Didion came by it honestly.

So when her husband, John Dunne, died suddenly of a massive coronary in 2003, after 40 years of marriage, the first thing she wrote, a couple days later, was:

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.

And that was it for a long time. She couldn’t write. How could she write about what had just happened? The loss of her partner?

Death is the most common of occurrences, we all do it, and we all watch our loved ones do it, but that doesn’t take away its horrifying uniqueness to those who experience it. My friend Alex called me the night my father died. It was a freezing January night and I stood out in the driveway talking to her. She was phenomenal. Both of her parents are now gone. I said something like, “Well, you know, you’ve been through it -” and she cut me off. “Listen, Sheila, as far as you’re concerned, your father’s death is the first death that has ever occurred. This is the only death that has ever happened. Nobody can tell you how to go through it, nobody can give you advice. This death is YOURS.” It was an incredible thing to hear, especially in the immediate wake of the loss. I would learn later that people like to be experts in things, they give you unsolicited advice, they say, “Oh, I know just how you feel. My aunt who I loved died last year.” Well, no, it’s not the same thing. No death is the same. Even the death of a parent … cannot be compared to anyone else’s experience. Because the relationships are different. I have friends who lost parents and were already so estranged from said parent that yes, they had a moment of, “Wow. He’s dead. How do I feel about that? Wow.” but they didn’t have a relationship with the parent during life, so the experience of death was not identical to mine. I came to love and appreciate those who refused to make comparisons. Who didn’t lump “my” death in with something they had experienced. “I know just what you’re feeling. I felt that way when my grandmother died,” well-meaning people would say. I couldn’t help it, I would bristle at those comments. It seemed to take away from the sheer uniqueness of my own loss, its particular qualities, and I resented having it lumped in with every other death. Oh, how I loved the people who were brave enough to go with the cliches. Oh, how I loved people who knew that the words, “So sorry for your loss” were invented for a reason. If I have any advice of “what to say” to someone who has experienced a tremendous loss, I would say: “Try not to SAY anything. If you’re a good friend, then LISTEN. And if the person doesn’t want to talk about it, then don’t talk about it. But, in general, don’t SAY anything. If you must say something, then limit it to ‘So sorry for your loss’ or ‘My condolences’ or ‘Your family is in my thoughts and prayers.’ That is perfectly sufficient.” Look out for the people who avoid cliches in times of great trauma. They don’t know how to live. This poor woman told me that she hoped my father was “dancing with the angels”, and she meant well, but the image of my cranky non-church-going father “dancing with the angels” was so off-putting (you didn’t KNOW him, don’t talk about what you don’t KNOW) that I could barely come up with a response. Again, blah blah, she means well, but lots of people do harm while meaning well.

The thing that nobody can prepare you for with grief is how time itself changes. That was the most disorienting thing. It took me months to acclimate to it. Months flew by, and yet my experience of said months was that I was stalled in the water, halfway submerged. And since I wasn’t prepared for it I didn’t know how to handle it. Another thing that nobody really prepared me for was what grief did to my concentration. I wrote about it a little bit here. Reading and watching movies is how I spend my free time. Being unable to read was one of the most upsetting byproducts of grief because all avenues of consolation were then closed to me. When I am upset, I lose myself in a book or a movie. I couldn’t do that in the year my father died. I was reading a huge biography of Nureyev, and it was very well-written, but I was unable to retain what I had read. I would manage 3 or 4 pages, and the next day whatever I had read had vanished from my mind. It was a slog. Movies were no better. I was in a fog. I went back to work soon after the funeral. It was completely disorienting. It solidified my firm belief that wearing black arm-bands should come back into vogue. Not for the person grieving, but for those who encounter that person. The black arm-band says, “I am in the first year of this. This is what I am dealing with.” So other people can act accordingly. We do not give room in our society for death and grief. Being expected to be 100% a week after you’ve lost a parent is inhuman. I wondered if I would ever be able to read again. I had expected to be sad. But, strangely enough, the sadness came later. It was not an immediate reaction. My father had been sick for so long, and I had done so much anticipatory weeping that once he passed, I felt mostly relief that he was no longer in pain. I didn’t cry at all those first couple of months, and was just totally amazed by that. I had been so afraid of what it would be like without him here. Terrified. (And I was right to be terrified. It still sucks, and in many ways now it is worse, rather than better. Time heals all wounds? What moron said that?) My cousin Mike, knowing of my distress in being unable to read or watch movies (or write), gave me an assignment one freezing night. It was a writing assignment. I “said Yes” and wrote a scene that night in 3 hours. It came out of me in one draft. (Incidentally, that was the beginning of the play that has since taken over my life, got me the attention of Broadway producers, and got me a swanky agent. THAT was the start of it. And that scene I wrote that night, on command, has remained mainly unchanged in the final version. I had futzed with it once I wrote the rest of the play, ruining it, and finally was encouraged to go back to that first draft. I wrote about all of that here.) That was the beginning of me, at least, being able to write again. And it was something new. It wasn’t my site. It wasn’t my diary. It was completely fictional, and it was a script – something I had no experience in (except on the acting side). 2009 was the year where the thing took shape, and by October of that year, we had our first reading of two of the scenes in New York. I got busy. But I was not fully “normal” until almost a year later, at least in terms of being able to be back to myself, and do the things I like to do. My concentration was not fully 100% until much later, and my solitary isolated month out on Block Island in January 2010 was really about that. That was a healing month. I read like a fiend. I wrote like a fiend. I watched 4 or 5 movies a day. I was ready. Life beckoned.

I had read Joan Didion’s grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005. My father wasn’t sick yet. I had had a lot of experience with death as a child, three uncles died, and two grandfathers in a 5 year period. These were people I loved. I am not a stranger to death. But losing my father was a whole new universe. Nothing would be the same again. I don’t think I quite understood Didion’s point about “magical thinking”, and even now I am not sure I do, although all you need to do is read her evocation of what it felt like and you can get a glimmer. It certainly opens you up to empathy for the depth of the loss someone experiences, and also how LONG grief goes on. When one thinks of grief, you think of tears and sobbing. But grief goes much deeper than that. Didion breaks it down. She could sense it early on, there’s that one line she wrote in that first snippet: “The question of self-pity.” Even in the first throes of loss, she was aware of the tendency towards self-pity. She goes into that in great detail in the book. She describes one of the effects of grief as being “the vortex”. Certain places, intersections, landscapes would tailspin her into the vortex: Here is where they bought coffee, this was the road I drove on when we lived in this area, here is the corner where such-and-such happened. Didion began to actively avoid the places that would bring on the vortex. The “magical thinking” part of it has to do with the baffled sense of how unreal life is without her husband. She can’t get rid of his clothes. She pores over the doorman’s log of the night he died, so she can see the entry about the ambulance arriving. She thinks maybe she could turn back time. How long did it take the ambulance to get there? If it had been 5 minutes sooner … would he still be here? He was here, and now he’s gone. A wrenching separation, which left her breathless, disoriented, and obsessive.

To add to the trauma, their 38 year old daughter Quintana had been hospitalized about a week before Didion’s husband died. So in the week leading up to his death, all normal routines had ceased, and they spent their time going to and from the ICU where Quintana lay in a near-coma. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with her. She was in her 30s. She had just gotten married (earlier that year, I believe). At first it was thought she had a bad flu. Dehydrated? So Quintana was not aware when her father passed, and along with dealing with her very sick daughter (Quintana eventually died), Didion had to plan her husband’s funeral, and go through it by herself. In a normal time, Quintana would have been by her side, sharing her grief. Didion was denied that. “The question of self-pity.” You certainly couldn’t blame Didion for indulging in some self-pity, but as I know well self-pity is often the harbinger of something much deeper, a self-hatred, a selfishness, a refusal to deal with actual events as they unfold, a refusal to give up your own morbid narrative of yourself. (“Oh, see, this always happens to me.” etc.) That is another thing about grief. You are so blasted open by the loss that EVERYTHING happens to you. You go through EVERYTHING and your normal defenses are shot to shit. So, analytically, you can say, “Nope. That’s self-pitying, don’t go down that path” but your entire cellular structure is pouring in that direction and it can’t be stopped. I would say that another thing you could SAY to someone dealing with a loss (if you feel you must say something, and again, I recommend sticking with “Sorry for your loss” unless you are a very close friend), is: “Nothing you experience is wrong. You might have a good day and feel happy. That’s not wrong. You may bemoan your fate the next day. That’s not wrong. Everything you go through is right right now.”

So it is difficult to imagine the trauma of having a mysteriously sick adult daughter, have your husband die in the beginning of the illness, have to continue to minister to your mysteriously sick adult daughter for a year, a year, and then to have your daughter die. I mean, how is one to process any of that? This is what life handed Joan Didion. And so she did the only thing she could possibly do, which was write about it. John Gregory Dunne died in December of 2003. Didoin started writing The Year of Magical Thinking in October of 2004 and finished it in two and a half months. It came out and was a smash hit. Didion threw herself into a book tour, and also almost immediately began adapting it into a play (which ended up on Broadway, starring Vanessa Redgrave). Quintana died in August of 2005, during Didion’s promotional tour for the Broadway production. The mind just stands totally still trying to contemplate dealing with all of that.

Quintana’s death is not mentioned in The Year of Magical Thinking (of course not, because Quintana was still alive when Didion completed it). But Didion did not add a coda, or an epilogue, to “update” the story. She remained ruthless in her desire to express what life had been like for her during “the year of magical thinking”, and one can only imagine the courage it took to put it all down.

It is an extraordinary document and was quite helpful for me when I was going through my own trauma. I did not read it again, but I referenced it often in my mind. I would find myself floundering through the pages of the Nureyev biography and think, “Didion warned me of this.” I would feel a blast of arctic pain when I would hear certain songs, and remember Didion’s vortex. So no, nobody can prepare you for what true grief feels like, but Didion’s memoir is an excellent guide. As always, her prose is chilly and filled with suffering, suffering so acute that it barely reaches the surface. She keeps her eye on the ball, as difficult as that must have been (or who knows, maybe it was easy, she wrote the entire thing in 88 days). She keeps lists, she goes over the lists, she obsessively tells us her lists, she talks about the vortex, she talks about going to visit Quintana, now alone, now without her partner beside her. She gives us the details, the sensoral details of all of this, because so much of life is experienced through the senses. And when you are traumatized, sometimes it is ONLY the senses that make any impression at all. The brain and heart are otherwise occupied. They have shriveled up behind their armor, knowing that the psyche is wounded, knowing that the “host” needs protection.

Didion is a marvel. Her work has always meant so much to me, and The Year of Magical Thinking is a breathtaking accomplishment. It can help a lot of people. I would never have characterized Didion’s work as “helpful” before, at least not in that way. She’s not a do-gooder. And, in some respects, the keening wail of depression that vibrates through most of her prose is something I often can’t handle, since I have such a keening wail myself and I need to be careful of what I expose myself to. I am often not strong enough to handle Didion. I am grateful that she had the courage and the talent to write it all down, because I can visit Didion Land any time I want to, but I do need to be careful. She can crack me open like a walnut. But to anyone experiencing a loss, and anyone baffled at some of the byproducts of grief (how weird time is, how your concentration alters, how underwater you feel) … The Year of Magical Thinking is a fantastic guide.

Here is an excerpt. In the first months following his death, Didion became convinced that he was coming back. So she needed to be ready for him, keep the apartment ready, keep his things ready. This was totally real to her. It reminds me of Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher. The film was not perfect, but one thing it did, and it did brilliantly, was to show, in an unblinking fashion, the loss of power when one ages, and also the tremendous disorientation that goes hand in hand with vast grief.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted. The act of grieving, Freud told us in his 1917 “Mourning and Melancholia,” “involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life.” Yet, he pointed out, grief remains peculiar among derangements: “It never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment.” We rely instead on “its being overcome after a certain lapse of time.” We view “any interference with it as useless and even harmful.” Melanie Klein, in her 1940 “Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States,” made a similar assessment: “The mourner is in fact ill, but because this state of mind is common and seems so natural to us, we do not call mourning an illness … To put my conclusion more precisely: I should say that in mourning the subject goes through a modified and transitory manic-depressive state and overcomes it.”

Notice the stress on “overcoming” it.

It was deep into the summer, some months after the night when I needed to be alone so that he could come back, before I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally, I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome. In my case this disordered thinking had been covert, noticed I think by no one else, hidden even from me, but it had also been, in retrospect, both urgent and constant. In retrospect there had been signs, warning flags I should have noticed. There had been for example the matter of the obituaries. I could not read them. This continued from December 31, when the first obituaries appeared, until February 29, the night of the 2004 Academy Awards, when I saw a photograph of John in the Academy’s “In Memoriam” montage. When I saw the photograph I realized for the first time why the obituaries had so disturbed me.

I had allowed other people to think he was dead.

I had allowed him to be buried alive.

Another such flag: there had come a point (late February, early March, after Quintana had left the hospital but before the funeral that had waited on her recovery) when it had occurred to me that I was supposed to give John’s clothes away. Many people had mentioned the necessity for giving the clothes away, usually in the well-intentioned but (as it turns out) misguided form of offering to help me do this. I had resisted. I had no idea why. I myself remembered, after my father died, helping my mother separate his clothes into stacks for Goodwill and “better” stacks for the charity thrift shop where my sister-in-law Gloria volunteered. After my mother died Gloria and I and Quintana and Gloria and Jim’s daughters had done the same with her clothes. It was part of what people did after a death, part of the ritual, some kind of duty.

I began. I cleared a shelf on which John had stacked sweatshirts, T-shirts, the clothes he wore when we walked to Central Park in the early morning. We walked every morning. We did not always walk together because we liked different routes but we would keep the other’s route in mind and intersect before we left the park. The clothes on this shelf were as familiar to me as my own. I closed my mind to this. I set aside certain things (a faded sweatshirt I particularly remembered him wearing, a Canyon Ranch T-shirt Quintana had brought him from Arizona), but I put most of what was on this shelf into bags and took the bags across the street to St. James Episcopal Church. Emboldened, I opened a closet and filled more bags: New Balance sneakers, all-weather shoes, Brooks Brothers shorts, bag after bag of socks. I took the bags to St. James’. One day a few weeks later I gathered up more bags and took them to John’s office, where he had kept his clothes. I was not yet prepared to address the suits and shirts and jackets but I thought I could handle what remained of the shoes, a start.

I stopped at the door to the room.

I could not give away the rest of his shoes.

I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.

The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.

I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought had lost its power.

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9 Responses to The Books: The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

  1. jennchez says:

    Your friend Alex sounds like a very wise woman. Your father and mine passed roughly around the same time, though at first you didnt mention it and so obvious since I only know you as the owner of this blog I didnt know. Then at one point you briefly mentioned it. You have no idea how your writings helped me. I also couldn’t read for almost two years, it was agonizing being my main form of escape also. When you were talking about your inabilty then mentioned the Nureyev bio I immediatly purchased from Amazon. It took me close to 8 months to read but enjoyed it. Im not trying to make this about me, my point was you helped me, a total stranger, just an occasional commenter, through one of the hardest times of my life by being real and raw and Ive always wanted to thank for you for this. Thank you for helping this occasional commenter, honestly from the bottom of my heart.

    • sheila says:

      I think when we are talking about loss and grief – it is not only appropriate to be “all about me” but it’s the only way to be. I think that was kind of what Alex was getting at.

      Thank you so much for your comment. I know we have talked a bit on FB about death. I am much more open on FB than I am on my site, for various reasons. In many ways, my site is a trompe l’oeil exercise. it has the appearance of reality but usually the most essential things are left out. That’s true right now too. The biggest events are just not here on these pages. If I had a prickly time with people who KNEW me saying shit when my dad died – then no way was I going to announce it to a bunch of strangers, many of whom would pour salt into my wounds by saying, “Oh I know how you feel – my dad died last year” or “I went through this when my great-aunt died”- and I just don’t want to ARGUE. (Especially not with people I don’t know. Not worth it.)

      My blog got extremely weird in 2009 because of the trauma – not to mention this debacle I had with a man almost directly following my dad’s death – something I didn’t mention in the post – basically a freakin’ sociopath strolled into my life. My defenses were so down, my radar so off, that I didn’t see the signs. Once he revealed his true nature, in June of 2009 – that’s when the shit REALLY hit the fan. All the delayed grief came roaring out – and I was incapacitated for a month (I had to stop going to work) – I was unable to do simple tasks (my friends all came over and put up pictures for me and put away my books – I was unable to do so) and really not in any way normal until much later that fall. I still wasn’t feeling normal until early 2010. I’ve written a bit about that before.

      I am still amazed that I was actually able to create something in 2009. The skeleton of what would end up being my script. Looking back on that time, I can’t believe it. But I got it done.

      Your words of thanks are so beautiful – and I am so glad that my site somehow helped you when you were going through a rough time at the same time. I certainly felt like I was going insane.

  2. sheila says:

    And jennchez – I am very sorry for your loss! It sucks, right?

    So weird in looking back: nobody told me I wouldn’t be able to READ for a year and a half!!

  3. jennchez says:

    I am also sorry for yours and yes it sucks!! Hard!! Time heals all wounds: bullshit. The wounds may take a break and then BAM!
    Your friend Alex really did put it beautifully. It also sounds like your cousin Mike is an amazing man, you are truly blessed. He’s pretty darn hunky too :) I’ve seen a few of his interviews and on Glee.
    No one told me about the reading either, nor did I pick up my paint brush for over a year. There are no “how to grieve books”, if there are I call BS again, at least for myself anyway.
    I am so happy for all the success coming your way, you deserve it, and I can hardly wait till it comes to San Francisco!!
    Thank you again Sheila.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, Mike is the best. I’m interviewing him tonight, actually – his film Certainty is doing the festival circuit and I wanted to talk to him about his process. I’ll tell him you said he was a hunk. Ha!!

      While he was of course 100% sympathetic to what I was going thru (and he had his own loss to deal with – my dad was his uncle) – when I told him something he could actually help me with (“I can’t write anymore”) he instantly came up with a solution. Nothing can cure grief – but that was something he COULD suggest.

      I will always have so much to thank him for for that. That script has changed my life.

      Kind of crazy that I chose to write about that moment of “saying Yes”.

      And, side note: the Nureyev biography was wonderful, wasn’t it? I eventually finished it also – almost a year later. Wonderful book.

  4. jennchez says:

    Please tell Mike he definitly is a hunk!

    Loved the Nureyev bio. During the time I was trying my damnest to read it, I would set it down and go to youtube and watch clips of him. Incredible! My favorite was a clip of he and Margot Fontaine from Romeo and Juliet, just stunning!

  5. JessicaR says:

    I’m reading this now in the wake of my father’s death in February this year (what is it about late winter that makes Death so hungry?) I don’t think I could have read it earlier because that thing about concentration being shot to Hell is so very true. In the immediate wake a fast food menu might as well been in cuneiform for my ability to comprehend it. Time has only recently stopped that taffy pull tesseract of feeling in slow motion and then weeks pass with my having no memory of them. And even now, I think I’m “processing” it and then I see a rack of Father’s Day cards and my knees buckle right in the grocery store. So the book is enormously helpful, the icy clarity of her prose a needed rope guide against the syrup of “everything happens for a reason” homilies.

    • sheila says:

      Jessica – I am so sorry! I so know what you’re talking about in terms of concentration – that was the thing that really blindsided me. I had thought it would be intense sadness – and for me it wasn’t (that came before he died). What it was for me was total disorientation that lasted a YEAR.

      I remember talking with Alex the night my dad died. And I said something to her like, “Well, you know, you’ve gone through it” and she said, “Listen. As far as you’re concerned, this is the first death that has ever happened. This experience is yours. It’s yours alone.”

      I cannot tell you how much I needed to hear that – especially with well-meaning folks who say stuff like, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I lost my grandfather last year.” Or whatever. I’d be like, “And? So? What does that have to do with what just happened to me?” Grief didn’t make me a more pleasant person, that’s for sure, but the loss felt so singular, so unbelievably life-altering that I felt honestly … insulted – like bone-deep insulted – when people would make comparisons. I knew they were just trying to help – but boy did I appreciate those who understood that the cliche of “Sorry for your loss” is not only okay to say – but WELCOME.

      All of this is to say: I am so sorry for the loss of your father – and I do understand that slow motion feeling you describe.

      Didion’s book is just so accurate about what that first year feels like – although hers describes the loss of a spouse, not a parent. Still … that disorientation thing … wow. She just gets it.

      // the icy clarity of her prose a needed rope guide against the syrup of “everything happens for a reason” homilies. //

      That’s it, exactly. She was courageous enough to write all that down. And it does help, it really does.

      • sheila says:

        I just re-read my post and realized I had already ranted about the “Oh I know how you feel, my aunt died last year and we were so close” thing. Sorry for beating a horse unnecessarily.

        But there was such comfort for me, too, in Didion’s “icy clarity” that this loss was unique, this loss was singular, it was unlike anything else, nothing could compare.

        You need to be allowed to feel that way. You need to have that honored. Or at least I did!

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