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The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

Chapter 11

Chapter 9 and 10

Chapter 12

Summary

Once Quintana is transferred from UCLA to the Rusk Institute at NYU, she will tell Didion that her memories of the preceding months are “mudgy.” Didion describes a similar “mudginess” as she attempts to reconstruct the weeks she spent with Quintana at UCLA. She has clear memories of attempting to delay Quintana’s tracheotomy. Didion later realizes that she resisted the procedure because it would mean that Quintana could not come home with her at a moment’s notice. Though the notion that Quintana’s condition would improve that rapidly is impossible, Didion holds onto the idea that they may leave the hospital and recuperate in Los Angeles or fly back to New York. Soon after Quintana gets the tracheotomy, they move her to a stepdown observational unit. Didion continues to pepper the doctors with questions and observations, which they meet with irritation and resistance, but she persists, since asking questions make her feel less helpless.

Through careful observation, Didion begins to understand the names of tests and procedures and begins to voice her concerns more clearly. But after learning that Quintana is again at risk for sepsis, just as she had been at Beth Israel, Didion spends time gazing out the window at the empty hotel swimming pool. She remembers a party she once held where she clogged the pool filter with gardenias, after attempting to float candles and flowers on the pool surface. Since the memory does not involve Quintana or John, the vortex effect seems to remain at bay. However, another memory from the same period triggers the vortex effect. The sudden death of a neighbor in Brentwood Park in 1987 had prompted John to suggest they spend more time in New York. Didion wonders if moving back to New York was the fatal decision; if she hadn’t agreed with John fifteen years ago, perhaps he would still be alive, and she would be able to drive to the house in Brentwood Park and find him there. Each memory seems to remind Didion of her choices and mistakes. Though she knows that the house in Brentwood Park had been torn down soon after they sold it, this line of thinking does not stop.

In late April, the doctors determine that Quintana can be transported to the Rusk Institute in New York but that she will have to be attended by trained personnel on an air ambulance. Watching the helicopters land at the hospital’s helipad, Didion recalls a day in 1970 when she and John saw a passenger in another car slump over and die while stopped at a red light. As with John’s death, an otherwise ordinary day was suddenly punctuated by an unexpected tragedy.

The day of the transfer arrives, and after a miscommunication about where the plane will depart from, they finally settle into the cramped plane and take off. During the flight, the paramedic takes pictures of Lake Mead, referring to it as the Grand Canyon. After correcting him initially, Didion remembers John’s criticism about her constant need to be right, thinking to herself that she in fact always thought that she was wrong. After the plane lands in a cornfield in Kansas to refuel, Didion stretches her legs and thinks about a passage concerning tornadoes from John’s yet-to-be published book, Nothing Lost. Recently, Didion had been reviewing the manuscript of John’s book when she noticed that one of the sentences didn’t sound right. She hadn’t been sure if the mistake was intentional and had become overwhelmed by the fact that she will have to make the final decision without consulting John. Once she lands in New York, she reviews earlier drafts of Nothing Lost and decides to leave the mistake in, remembering how John criticized her need to always be right and have the last word.

Analysis

Although Didion doesn’t engage in the same kind of magical thinking as she did after John’s death, she still engages in a process of irrational thinking as she attempts to exert control over her daughter’s situation. At this stage in her grief process, the vortex effect and magical thinking work together. Her stubbornness about Quintana’s tracheotomy is a form of magical thinking, in which she clings to the idea that her daughter might suddenly get better at any moment. When she experiences the vortex effect while staring at the hotel pool, she at first seems to have some control over her memory, as she manages to call up a reminiscence that doesn’t involve John and Quintana. The pull of the vortex effect proves to be too strong, however, and she remembers the decision-making process that led to their relocation to New York. The vortex effect and magical thinking work together, creating the illusion that if they had never moved John would not have died and Quintana would not have fallen ill. Though she knows that she’s being completely illogical, Didion still clings to the notion that she can somehow go back into the past through her memories and make different choices as a way of averting the present circumstances.

Didion realizes that her need to be right is a manifestation of a need for control, and she starts to relax her need to have the final word. In doing so, she takes the initial steps toward letting go of magical thinking. Didion indicates that, during this tragic year, she never felt that she was right about anything, so any expression of confidence was actually a smokescreen for her lack of confidence. When Didion must make a decision regarding an apparent error in John’s manuscript, she must face the fact that she can never really know what John was thinking or feeling before he died, no matter how closely connected they may have been. Though their life together brought them to a point where their thoughts were often inextricable, Didion begins to understand how separate they truly were. She also accepts that, just as she cannot fully know or understand John’s thinking, she cannot fully understand how or why he died, and that she must accept the circumstances she has been given and work with the information available to her.

Didion’s willingness to cross social boundaries, particularly in the context of a hospital, shows the degree to which her need for control has disrupted her sense of accepted social behavior. On numerous occasions in the hospital she finds herself in a position where the doctors and hospital staff see her as intrusive. She makes no apologies for her behavior because, in many instances, she is correct about the proper course of action, but she finds herself slipping from being protective and somewhat overbearing to being completely irrational. While her staunch resistance to Quintana’s tracheotomy is honestly felt, she realizes later that she wasn’t concerned about potential health complications as much as she felt the need to hold onto the idea that her daughter might be able to leave the hospital at a moment’s notice. Didion finds that her natural impulse to take charge of the situation by learning as much as she can and aggressively asking questions has the expected consequence of bothering authority figures, but she also finds that the reasons behind her questions and demands originate in personal emotional needs and not genuinely logical concerns.

Didion continues the pattern of intellectual inquiry that she began shortly after John’s death, but her approach shifts. While she once was a reader engaging in a process of self-education, she is now a detective seeking clues that will produce a solution. When she previously conducted research, Didion sought out models and examples of grief experiences as a way of understanding her own emotions and reactions. Now, informed by an expanded understanding of her need for control, she assimilates information as a way to help her take action. Like a detective, she seeks out information about Quintana’s illness so she can challenge the choices made by the medical professionals at UCLA, believing that if she is properly informed she can prevent further mistakes and help bring about the desired solution—Quintana’s total recovery. She begins to apply this pattern of behavior to the problem of John’s death as well, as she works to figure out the origin of the medical problems that led to his death and, by understanding them, correct them and bring him back.

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