Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Source of book: I own this


I picked this book up a few years ago, and kept intending to read it. I finally just put it on my list of books that I wanted to prioritize for the year. (Mostly, this is my selections for Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Pride Month, Banned Books Week, Native American Heritage Month, as well as classics of fiction and non-fiction from my collection.) So, count this as an outlier on the list - it isn’t old enough to be a classic yet. 

The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s account of the death of her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne and the year of grief and disorientation that followed. Dunne’s death of a massive heart attack right before dinner would have been traumatic enough, but it was combined with another trauma. Their adopted daughter, Quintana, who had struggled with years of mental health issues, contracted pneumonia which went septic and nearly killed her. It was while she was in an induced coma that Dunne died. After Quintana recovered, she collapsed due to a clot and hematoma, and again nearly died. Sadly, after this book was published, Quintana succumbed to yet another medical emergency. So quite the run of bad events for Didion. 


Didion’s account of this time is raw, emotional, and scattered. She captures the out-of-time-and-place feeling of loss and grief, with her thoughts triggered in familiar places. Everything triggers memories, and she tries to present them as they came to her. Honestly, while often difficult because of the obvious pain, this is really great writing. 


Both Dunne and Didion were professional writers, which appears to have made for an interesting partnership, one that grew closer with the years, until they were almost a part of not only each other, but their art. So, when he dies, she is left with the equivalent of an arm ripped off of her. The marriage is both inspiring for what it was, and the greater tragedy for Didion when it ended. 


There are a lot of literary references in the book, for obvious reasons. Literature was something Dunne and Didion shared, and also what comes most readily to mind for Didion to describe moments. The death of Sir Gawain gives the line “I have only two days to live,” while Gerard Manly Hopkins and other poets contribute passages throughout. 


The book opens with the lines that Didion wrote down a few days after the death. 


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.


These lines will recur throughout the book. 


I also loved the description of their marriage - and the assumptions made by other people. 


I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way “competitive,” that our private life 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 our marriage. 


That is actually a great description of my own marriage. We are in different professions, but we have taken on different roles over time. For the first part, I out-earned my wife, while she spent more time on schooling the kids and keeping the house clean. Now, she works longer hours and out-earns me, and I have taken the “soccer mom” role in the family. But there is no minefield of resentments. 


When we married, a lot of people seemed surprised that we don’t really fight much. We are both strong personalities, but we are on the same team. 


Another line that fascinates me from the book is one that comes from Dunne. When Quintana was a child, she felt that bad news was unequally distributed. Her uncle committed suicide and a cousin was murdered. Dunne told her that “it all evens out in the end.”


Didion admits that she did not understand what Dunne was meaning, but Quintana did. It wasn’t that good news balances the bad. It is that we all experience loss in the end. It evens out. Grief comes for all of us. 


Also profound in the context of our current culture, is Didion’s observation that we are bombarded with the message that we can avert death. And also the punitive corollary: that if death catches us, we have only ourselves to blame. 


My wife and I have talked about this a lot lately - she is an ICU nurse, and has observed that the more religious a family member is, the less likely they are to be at peace with the death of a loved one. (It doesn’t matter which religion, either.) As in, “God is going to heal my 95-year-old mother who has terminal cancer” level denialism and disbelief that death will come for us all. 


This saddens me. I mean, I don’t exactly look forward to dying, but I know I will. I think I am at better peace with that than a lot of people I know, particularly the religious ones. That really puzzles me too. 


I read this book at a time in my own life when I am grieving the loss of my parents. Not the death of their physical bodies, but the loss of the good people they used to be once. As things stand now, we are estranged, and they have shown no interest whatsoever in trying to repair things. As it has been since my teens, when Bill Gothard told them that God speaks to children - even adult children - through their parents, an estrangement has probably been inevitable. 


What has ensued over the past 30 years is very much like what I see my clients experience. I work in elder law as part of my practice, particularly the issues that arise as an elderly person declines physically and mentally. For my parents, the change in them has been very much a form of dementia - not so much a loss of memory, but a moral and spiritual dementia combined with an increasing detachment from the reality that others have to live in. 


I have witnessed the erosion of the Christ-following values they raised me with, replaced by Fox News xenophobia and the fear that someone else is getting something they don’t deserve. The empathetic discussions we used to have when I was young started to become assertions of talking points and political slogans from the Reagan and Thatcher years. They made racist and sexist statements that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap as a kid. And in the era of Covid, they went hard down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. As I said, it is a form of dementia. 


Like dementia, it has been both a gradual slope, yet a punctuated and variable path. There are times I have recognized the old them, but these moments have gotten more and more rare. Once in a while, we could talk and connect, but increasingly, we would bump up against the reality barrier - the ideology of the political and religious charlatans would shut down acknowledgment of empirical reality. 


One passage in particular haunted me in this regard. Didion keeps finding herself saying “I need to talk to John about…oh.” 


There is no one to hear this news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back.


I feel this particularly about my dad. I keep finding myself thinking that I should talk about this with him, except I remember that the person I could do that with is gone, and has been for a while now. (My mom is more complicated - we haven’t been able to really talk since I hit puberty, something she didn’t take well. And, she has had an emotionally incestuous relationship with my narcissist sister for many, many years, which is a factor in why she rejected my wife.) Again, I am saying this not out of hate for my parents but out of profound grief at the loss of them. 


I guess I will end this with the fairly bleak reality of Didion’s experience. 


I look for resolution and find none.


This is the reality of grief. There is never a resolution because the loss cannot be fixed. Particularly when a relationship has been close - like it was between Dunne and Didion, or between me and the parents who raised me - the scar cannot ever truly heal. We can become functional again, but part of us is gone. That cannot be “resolved” in any meaningful way. 


I am curious to read more of Didion - probably her earlier journalistic work. She has a way with words, so I imagine less personal (and traumatic) subjects would be fascinating to read. 


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