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The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

Chapter 18

Chapter 17

Chapters 19–21

Summary

When Didion began writing The Year of Magical Thinking, she says, she hadn’t known how, when, or why John had died, even though she had witnessed his death. A year later, she receives the autopsy report and emergency room records, which were delayed because an overwhelmed Didion had, eleven months earlier, written down the wrong mailing address. According to the paperwork, the EMS call had been received at 9:15 p.m. The ambulance had arrived five minutes later, and a series of medications had been administered. The doorman’s log indicates the ambulance had left for the hospital at 10:05 p.m., where John had been received for triage at 10:10 p.m. The physician’s log showed that John had been seen at 10:15 p.m. and pronounced dead on arrival due to cardiac arrest. By 10:30 p.m., the log states, the wife had been at bedside with a social worker. The autopsy report indicates that both of John’s major arteries had been almost entirely blocked. The paperwork confirms that John had died after his initial collapse, and that the time spent at the hospital had been entirely procedural.

Though Didion knows that, statistically speaking, most people who suffer cardiac arrests outside of a hospital have little chance of being resuscitated, she persists in her irrational belief that some kind of medical anomaly must have been responsible for her husband’s death, and she continues to search for it. Equally irrationally, when she hears that the famous chef Julia Child has died, she is relieved to think that John and Child can now entertain each other in heaven.

Didion plays closer attention to health news, and frets over a commercial that indicates that Bayer, an over-the-counter aspirin, can reduce the risk of heart attack. Though she knows that John had been taking a much more powerful anticoagulant, she becomes frustrated that she could have overlooked something as obvious as Bayer. Other studies about the risks associated with heart attacks upset her, as well. Her distress leads her to understand that people often believe they can avert death, and when it strikes they feel as if they only have themselves to blame. After Didion reads the autopsy report, she finally realizes that there was nothing she or anyone else could have done to prevent John’s death.

Analysis

Though Didion has been presented with the facts of John’s death numerous times, the arrival of the hospital report, with its air of finality and authority, slows her obsessive reconstructing of the weeks leading up to John’s death. This chapter signals a change in her thinking: up until the arrival of the hospital report she had continued to resist the facts about cardiac arrest and chastised herself for not taking precautions that now seem obvious in retrospect, such as taking Bayer. Her natural impulse is to viciously blame herself and become frustrated for having missed a simple solution to a difficult problem. Her bittersweet realization that John can now share a meal in heaven with Julia Child indicates that she finally, truly understands that John isn’t coming back, but she still can’t avoid punishing herself for what she sees as her own contribution to his death. The autopsy report is a kind of blessing, in that it releases her from an unending cycle of pain and self-blame.

Didion hasn’t stopped mourning John, and she hasn’t fully abandoned the notion that he might somehow come back, but she has lifted the burden of correcting the problem off of her own shoulders. Through a patient and steady process of questioning and trying to understand her tragedies, she has come to a place where she stops trying to assign cause or blame. John had died at the moment of collapse, and every effort made to resuscitate him after that fact had been entirely procedural. Deep down, Didion had understood that she couldn’t bring John back, no matter how much she wished and no matter how much she fought to pinpoint and correct the cause. Didion realizes that though she made her best faith effort to help John, those efforts were futile.

While the intensity of Didion’s magical thinking has subsided, mourning a loved one is an ongoing experience that will likely last the rest of her life. She has come to understand that magical thinking can be insidious, showing up unexpectedly and shaping her perception with a delusional illogic. At the same time, magical thinking has an obvious benefit, in that it allows her to cope with the day-to-day experiences of grief without feeling helpless, overwhelmed, or hopeless. While the derangement is undesirable, magical thinking is a crucial coping mechanism that allows her to keep feeling that she has a degree of control over her circumstances.

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