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The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

Chapters 3 and 4

Chapter 2

Chapters 5 and 6

Summary

Didion cites studies by Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein that refer to grief as a temporary state of manic depression. She details how, in the year after John’s death, she stops thinking rationally. During that year, she believes that her thoughts or wishes can change outcomes. She can’t read his obituary, for example, since its publication means that she has allowed other people to think of John as dead—and if they believe him to be dead, he might never come back. She can’t give away his shoes, since she believes that he will need them when he returns. Didion’s magical thinking begins with John’s autopsy, when she irrationally believes that, if the coroners can diagnose what happened to John, they will then be able to fix the problem and bring him back to life.

The day of the autopsy, Didion receives a call from the hospital asking if she will donate John’s organs. Shaken by this question, she later realizes that they must have wanted his eyes, since they’re among the few organs that be harvested from a dead body. Thinking about John’s eyes, she recalls a poem by E. E. Cummings that she later tries to find in her library. She instead discovers a poetry anthology that John owned at boarding school. In the book, she finds the young John’s process for analyzing a poem outlined on the flyleaf: “1) What is the meaning of the poem and what is the experience? 2) What thought or reflection does the experience lead us to? 3) What mood, feeling, emotion is stirred or created by the poem as a whole?” Didion applies these questions to the call she has received from the hospital, treating the experience itself as if it were a poem.

On the surface, Didion seems to understand that John’s death is irreversible. She arranges for the autopsy, cremation, and placement of his ashes. After Quintana wakes from her coma, they hold a funeral service. Though she has now made a public acknowledgment of his death, Didion still believes she has the power to bring John back.

Since her childhood, she says, she has dealt with problems by conducting research. How-to guides and inspirational books seem useless to her, but clinical literature by psychiatrists and psychologists prove to be more helpful. As she reads various texts, she also sifts through her own memories to make sense of her feelings. She thinks about PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines), which offered cheap flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco. PSA planes had smiles painted on their noses, and the toddler Quintana used to refer to flying on PSA as “going on the smile.” Didion remembers how John had noted Quintana’s childhood phrases on scraps of paper and used them as dialogue for a character, Cat, in his novel Dutch Shea, Jr. Cat, the protagonist’s daughter, is killed by the IRA, and her parents struggle to make sense of the immense loss. Thinking back to the book now, Didion realizes that John’s novel was always about bereavement, though she didn’t realize it at the time. Didion cycles between memories of flying PSA and her wedding to John at San Juan Bautista. She also recalls the poem “Rose Aylmer,” an elegy she had read as an undergraduate. In the poem, the speaker feels great sorrow at the death of a young woman but restricts his mourning to a single night of “memories and sighs.”

Didion reads a study by Dr. Vamik Volkan, which describes a therapy that analysts can use to understand the relationship between a survivor and the deceased. Didion becomes incensed while reading the study, wondering how a doctor could ever understand her shared history with John. Didion later reads a passage about coping with grief from Emily Post’s 1922 etiquette guide, which offers detailed instructions for the practical steps one must take after the death of a loved one. Didion connects Post’s book to the writings of Philippe Ariès and Geoffrey Gorer, which track the evolution from death as an accepted part of life to a concealed event in which mourning is treated as “morbid self-indulgence.” During Didion’s own childhood, she says, there were prescribed scripts to follow when someone died: bake a ham, drop it by the bereaved’s house, and attend the funeral. During Didion’s grieving period, a friend brings over quart containers of congee from Chinatown every night, as congee is all she can eat at the time.

Analysis

Magical thinking is a strategy that Didion uses to cope with her lack of control over what happened to John and Quintana. This mentality allows her to assert some agency in a situation where she is powerless to determine outcomes. Didion knows herself as a high-functioning person, able to manage situations by conducting rigorous research, communicating with the right people, and approaching problems with an organized, pragmatic outlook. Her daughter’s illness and husband’s death are fundamentally unmanageable and illogical events, and though at some level she understands that these situations are beyond her control, she clings to the idea that she has the power to change them. Didion suddenly develops a child’s mentality, believing that she can change her situation through her heartfelt wishes. Though this magical thinking is only a coping mechanism, she cannot acknowledge it as such, since this realization would deprive her of the ability to believe that she has the power to bring back her dead husband. For Didion, magical thinking remains a temporary outlook rather than a permanent reality, since she ultimately realizes that John cannot, in fact, come back.

Didion’s memoir quotes extensively from other books on grief and mourning, highlighting the fact that Didion sees herself as a student engaging in a process of self-education. The first step taken by any reporter working on an in-depth story is to conduct research, and Didion approaches John’s death as a puzzle she must decipher. Didion believes that, once she is equipped with the proper knowledge, she will be able to correct the problem—another manifestation of her magical thinking. Though she reads grief literature and psychological studies as a student, she has intensely emotional responses to what she reads, indicating that her intellectual objectivity is affected by her personal feelings. As much as she may want to simply absorb the knowledge available to her, she repeatedly responds as if the studies were written directly in response to her own experiences. In the end, she finds that she really wants affirmation and comfort from her readings. She finds support in unexpected sources, most notably in Emily Post’s book on etiquette, which outlines the practical steps one must take after the death of a loved one, without analysis or judgment. Didion finds that she is not ready to fully engage with the intellectual and philosophical questions of grief but needs assurance and guidance through the first stages of her own emotional response to John’s death.

As a result of her reading, Didion comes to understand the shifting status of grief in American culture and attempts to understand how cultural expectations inform her own behavior. Previously a public, ritualized condition, mourning has become a private, guilt-inducing phenomenon in today’s culture. Didion focuses on Emily Post’s book of etiquette, noting that at the time of publication, death occurred in the home and was a much more familiar part of life. Adults were supposed to respond to death maturely and capably, tending to the immediate needs of the person in mourning while respecting that person’s grieving process. Over the course of the twentieth century, death was pulled out of the home and into the hospital. As common illnesses became less prevalent because of medical advances, death was removed from the natural rhythms of home life and became a source of shame. Didion’s own anxieties about exhibiting self-pity lead her to focus on this cultural shift. She is acutely aware that she feels obligated to respond to John’s death with stoic calm. She questions this assumption, trying to determine whether her calm exterior is a genuine product of shock or an internalized set of cultural expectations. In looking to literature, she tries to ascertain what reactions are expected, which reactions are appropriate, and how her own reactions fit into those expectations.

Trained as a reader and writer, Didion uses the method of poetry analysis that she finds in John’s high school anthology as a tool for examining her responses to his death. Though simple and direct, the questions that form John’s method resonate profoundly with her own experience, as she tries to analyze the meaning and experience of each event related to his death, the thought or reflection inspired by that experience, and the emotions that are stirred up by the experience as a whole. When applied to poetry, the method asks the reader to examine the poem and its effects directly, in an attempt to understand how individual responses speak to the larger emotional experience that the poem creates. Didion realizes that she cannot analyze her responses in such a measured way, and that each decision she makes is informed by her inability to confront John’s passing. By clinging to the idea that she can somehow make John come back, Didion cannot step back and analyze her emotional responses in the truly analytical way she wants.

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