- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005


By Joan Didion

Knopf, $23.95, 192 pages


These days, it often seems as if everywhere we look we see disaster, public and private, on a scale both global and individual. Not surprisingly, this feeling is reflected in memoir and fiction alike, yielding what is almost a new genre and an important one at that: the narrative of personal disaster. Putting aside the question of whether or not the Novel is being edged out by the Memoir, what both forms have in common is their focus on the personal and their potential to reveal how it can actually feel to suffer such life-altering experiences as terror, loss, violence, illness, pain and grief.

One of the most powerful testaments of such an experience is Joan Didion’s literally stunning memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Whether or not you happen to be a fan of Ms. Didion’s earlier work, this starkly written account of the year following the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, on Dec. 30, 2003, has an emotional honesty, a realistic intelligence and a compelling plainness that make it hard to stop reading. “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

Ms. Didion and Dunne had just returned from a visit to the bedside of their adult daughter, Quintana Roo, who had been lying unconscious in an intensive care unit for the past five nights. Ms. Didion had set the table for dinner; Dunne was reading a book on World War I and having a Scotch. They were conversing, as she recalls: “I have no idea which subject we were on, the Scotch or World War One, at the instant he stopped talking.” Next thing, she was calling for an ambulance, paramedics were working on him in the living room and he was rushed to a hospital. Ms. Didion followed in a second ambulance; when she got there, she was told he was dead.

To the hospital staff, she seemed to take the news calmly enough: “She’s a pretty cool customer,” the social worker remarked. But Ms. Didion’s apparent composure, although in keeping with her personal temperament, was in this case a sign of deep shock. As she later learned from her readings of psychiatric studies, stunned disbelief is a frequent reaction to death: Survivors at first may feel “wrapped in a cocoon or blanket” because “the reality of death has not yet penetrated awareness… .”

And indeed, Ms. Didion’s first instinct was to discuss what had happened with the one person she had always turned to: her husband. As the author explains, their marriage of nearly 40 years had been an unusually close one. Apart from its initial six months, they had not spent a night apart:

“Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices.

“I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted … . Many people assumed that we must be … in some way ‘competitive,’ that our private lives must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.”

Ms. Didion movingly contrasts the sadness she had felt over her parents’ deaths with the crushing, all-but-paralyzing grief assaulting her now. Outwardly she manages to behave rationally enough and she knows that John has died. But somewhere in her mind “there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible … . This was the beginning of my year of ‘magical thinking.’”

Unlike some distraught souls, Ms. Didion never summoned in a spiritualist to “make contact” with the Next World, nor does she claim to have “seen” her late husband’s ghost. Yet, although she knew better, for months she kept feeling that perhaps he hadn’t really died, that at any time he still might turn up, needing those shoes of his, which she naturally couldn’t give away. But what seems to have been more devastating than her recourse to such “magical thinking” was the staggering and persistent sense of disorientation that she felt: her sheer confusion and the actual diminution of her cognitive abilities. In more ways than she would ever have imagined possible, this once capable and tough-minded woman felt reduced to a wraithlike shadow of her former self.

Still being a lifelong reader and writer, she did manage to read up on the phenomenon of grief. And what she learned from the various psychiatric, neurological, sociological and literary accounts of human — and animal — behavior brought her to a single, overwhelming conclusion: The grief that she was feeling, the kind that comes from losing someone whom you were extremely close to and profoundly dependent upon, is as devastating as an illness. Yet, “abnormal” though this state of mind and heart may be in that it makes us feel unlike our “normal” selves, the truth of the matter, as Ms. Didion makes clear, is that it is as universal as mortality itself.

Few writers have managed to portray so disoriented and irrational a state of mind (particularly when the mind in question is their own) with the lucidity and rationality that Ms. Didion brings to the task. And all the while that she was reeling from her husband’s death, the author was also living through the terrible and baffling ordeal of her daughter’s continuing medical crises. (Quintana Roo, as I was shocked to learn, died a few weeks ago, after her mother had completed writing this book). Although Ms. Didion poignantly evokes her feelings of confusion and her sense of not being herself, what one also sees is the equally poignant figure of a woman valiantly struggling to make sense of what is happening.

As she nears the first anniversary of her husband’s death, Ms. Didion’s sense of loss is not assuaged: “I look for resolution and find none,” she reports. “This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to the credit sequence for a new life, a catalyst for the discovery that … ‘you can love more than one person.’ Of course you can, but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory, marriage is time.”

Her vision darkened but clarified by grief, Ms. Didion is now critical of her former blindness to the painful realities of human loss and suffering. As she speculates earlier, her former attitude seems a reflection of modern (post-1930s) Western culture, treating death and mourning as pathological rather than normal. “Death,” she observes, quoting French historian Philippe Aries “so omnipresent in the past … would become shameful and forbidden.” And public mourning would become less acceptable because of what [social anthropologist] Geoffrey Gorer described as a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself.”

Ms. Didion begins her book with a reference to “The question of self-pity.” Contrary to D.H. Lawrence’s poem praising animals for not succumbing to this emotion, she points out that dolphins, swans and other beasts do indeed grieve for their lost mates. The time has come, she now believes, to reconsider our automatic scorn for self-pity and other painful, very real emotions: “I remember despising the book Dylan Thomas’ widow Caitlin wrote after her husband’s death, Leftover Life to Kill. I remember being dismissive of, even censorious about, her ‘self-pity,’ her ‘whining,’ her ‘dwelling on it’. Leftover Life to Kill was published in 1957. I was twenty-two years old. Time,” she soberly reflects, quoting a poem by Delmore Schwartz, “is the school in which we learn.”

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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