Review: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

"I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer ,even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs..." -- Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Reading certain books is like putting your hand to a flame. These books make you understand why the moth is lured to the fire that consumes it. To be consumed is to be alive. There is a pleasure that flares before the pain. The moth enters death but it also enters light. This, for me, is the contradiction of reading grief texts: they are at once dangerous and seductive. A powerful after-effect of loss is the need to connect to other people who understand your experience. You need to talk about what you have lost, what your grief feels like, what you remember about the dead. Grief texts provide a space in which death and mourning can be confronted rather than avoided. 

However, there is a price to always being conscious of one's grief, never being free of it. Grief texts take us back to our own trauma. They dislodge memories that we thought were safely put away, maybe even forgotten.

The Year of Magical Thinking was a book that forced my hand to the flame. Didion's clear and crystalline prose lured me because I need a language for grief; like her, I need to "make sense" of my loss even as I realize, just as she did, that we "need more than words to find meaning." But reading her memoir meant that I had to return to my past and see my own experiences reflected in her story. The sudden loss of a loved one, the numbing arrival at the hospital, the funeral, the days and months of trying to cope with so much devastation--I lived all of it again through Didion's memoir. And that was difficult, but it was also therapeutic and necessary.

Some people only believe in the future; some, the present. The past gets thrown away, overlooked, but the past gnaws at us, demands reconstruction and even reckoning. Didion does not turn away from the past (grief texts never do). It is only by going back that one can find a way forward, or maybe one keeps going back and perpetually rearranging memories, piecing together the puzzle of cause and effect. Maybe writing the loss is one way to disentangle ourselves from it. Or maybe it only binds us tighter to what we have lost.

For decades, Didion's life was intricately intertwined with that of her husband's, John Gregory Dunne. As writers, they read one another's books and often collaborated on projects. Didion writes that "our days were filled with the sound of each other's voices." This unity was violently broken on December 30, 2003 ( a date repeatedly mentioned, as though the cold truth of numbers can add sense and logic to the tragedy) when Dunne collapses and dies as he and Didion eat dinner. A wife instantly becomes a widow. The circumstances are even more tragic because Didion's daughter, Quintana, is in the hospital. Didion's mourning is postponed. She must attend to her daughter. There is no time to fall apart or dwell on what has happened. One gets the sense that Didion is only able to confront her husband's death through writing about it. The memoir offers her the time and space to make sense of her loss.

People often speak of the shock that follows the death of a loved one. You're at the hospital and then there is the funeral and nothing seems real. This can't be your life. The dead can't really be dead. You're still the you from before, the person who had their loved one. You can't fathom being anybody else. You expect the dead to walk through the front door. Didion herself writes of her own "magical thinking," her belief, all throughout the year after Dunne's death, that her husband would come back, that "what had happened remained reversible." Didion uses her own personal story as a starting point for larger inquires into the nature of grief, how it affects the mind and body, how we process loss as human beings. 

For a writer, anything can be changed. Words can be added and replaced, whole paragraphs are rearranged to create rhythm and meaning. We relish that power, but death is not within our control. This seems obvious, but we still think we can alter the course of events. it's only later that we discover the dead will only live again through our words. At Dunne's funeral, a healthier Quintana "reads a poem she had written to her father." Even Quintana reaches for words, believing they can somehow convey the depth of her anguish. She writes about Dunne. Didion writes about Dunne. Later, Didion will write about Quintana's death in Blue Nights. The living write; the dead are written about.

As the memoir progresses, an important theme that emerges is Didion's realization that she cannot protect the people she loves. Years before Dunne died, he'd been diagnosed with a serious heart condition that he and Didion knew would kill him. It was not a question of if but when, and yet their lives went on as normal, until that devastating night in December. Didion could not prevent his death; she could not save him, and she cannot save Quintana either. She is at once in control stylistically with her concise prose, and utterly helpless as a wife, a mother, a human being. Didion admits that "things happened in life that mothers could not prevent or fix." While Dunne's death was sudden, Quintana's declining health is a prolonged and agonizing deterioration that Didion can only watch. Perhaps the need to write about loss springs from a desire to no longer feel out of control or like a bystander in your own life, watching everything fall apart.

When my father died in 2006, I could not read or write for a week. Having constructed my life around words, I suddenly faced their limitations. My aphasia lasted but a few days but it was enough to show me what it really means to be speechless, to not have the language you need to convey your grief and devastation. Fortunately, the speechlessness that momentarily afflicted me did not claim Joan Didion. The Year of Magical Thinking is the antithesis of wordlessness. It is a text that defiantly and tenaciously pursues language. Didion is determined to lay her hands on the words that will describe her loss, words that are naked, flayed of artifice and superfluity, so alive and luminous and aching and unforgettable. This book forced my hand to the flame. It wounded me as I read it, reminded me of my own losses, all the funerals I've been to, all the grief I've had to cope with, but it is a book I cherish, that I would not be the same without.

When my stepfather had a heart attack in March of 2013 and I anxiously sat with my mother in the hospital waiting room wondering if he would survive double bypass surgery (he did), Didion's words came to me and I kept reciting them in my head like a prayer, like a sign that someone else understands, someone else has the words to say what I cannot about how fragile life is, how close we are to tragedy, how thin the line really is between life and death, how none of us are ever, ever prepared for the worst:

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
In a heartbeat.
Or the absence of one.


I wanted more than a night of memories
and sighs.
I wanted to scream.
I wanted him back.


Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.