The Year of Magical Thinking

by: Joan Didion

Important Quotations Explained

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 been, in retrospect, both urgent and constant.

Didion first describes magical thinking at the beginning of chapter 3, while looking back on the period immediately following John’s death. During that time, she engaged in a pattern of irrational thinking, in which she believed that her wishes had the power to change reality. She thought that, by wanting John to come back, she would actually be able to bring him back from the dead. Didion’s depiction of magical thinking supports her claim that grief is a state of temporary mental illness, during which people engage in disordered, absurd thinking. Didion makes an important distinction by emphasizing that the wishful thinking itself is not the problem, but rather her sincere belief that her thinking could alter reality. She also underscores the idea that her magical thinking had an urgent quality: it was not simply wishful daydreaming. In Didion’s mind, the purpose of her magical thinking—to bring John back from the dead—had to be achieved as soon as possible.

Didion emphasizes two key aspects of magical thinking: one, that it is hidden from view; and two, that it is constant. Didion did not tell anyone about her beliefs, nor did she even acknowledge to herself that she was engaging in a pattern of irrational thinking. Instead, the activity was buried deep within her subconscious, hidden from her conscious mind to the point that she didn’t realize the degree to which she was delusional. Additionally, magical thinking is constant. Didion didn’t engage in magical thinking occasionally, while lost in thought. Her delusional thinking represented a persistent and thus overwhelming need to correct the outcome of John’s death and Quintana’s illness. The concealed, constant nature of magical thinking likens it to mental illness in its ability to overtake the grieving person’s perception while remaining compartmentalized from her conscious thought.