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has been praised for her clear-eyed, analytical approach to emotionally
challenging subjects, and criticized for being a cold, overly intellectual,
emotionally disengaged writer. What elements of Didion’s writing
style have inspired these reactions?
In writing about a subject as emotionally
charged and complex as grief, Didion takes an unconventional approach:
she remains cool and emotionally distant while documenting intense
moments of upheaval and crisis but allows herself to become emotional
while reading about grief or remembering shared moments with her
family. In most narratives of personal tragedy, emotions run highest during
moments of crisis, while later analysis is conducted in moments
of thoughtful reflection. Didion, however, avoids strong statements
of feeling while describing her reactions to John’s death and Quintana’s
collapse. By creating this emotional distance, Didion can objectively
recount the events in question. At the same time, the flatness of
her prose reflects the shocked numbness she felt at the time. In
moments of research or reflection, Didion’s emotions manifest themselves
most strongly. While reading psychologists’ accounts of grief, she
is by turns angry and bewildered at their conclusions. She suffers
the most intense feelings of anguish and distress not while remembering
John’s death but when seemingly significant triggers cause her to
remember random, unrelated moments from her past.
As a result, Didion’s responses don’t follow the conventional models
of grief literature, a notion that she herself expresses when she
states her disdain for self-help books about death and when she discusses
how her expectations of the grieving process differed dramatically
from her actual experience. Many readers have noted how shrewd and
intellectual Didion comes across when talking about moments of crisis
(the “cool customer” effect), while moments of intellectual inquiry
reveal her emotional vulnerability. These narrative strategies have
led some readers to criticize Didion for being cold or disengaged,
since she keeps the reader at an arm’s length during her story’s
most heated moments. Still others would take the same strategies
as evidence of a positive trait, praising Didion’s memoir for being
clear-eyed and analytical. These readers tend to appreciate the
decorum inherent in Didion’s style and may be thankful that the
book doesn’t engage in the sort of wildly emotional, confessional
writing that many other books about grief utilize. In the end, The
Year of Magical Thinking may elicit differing emotional reactions
from its readers, but its narrative strategy is consistent with
other books written by Didion, in which, as the narrator, she participates
in the events around her but always remains a somewhat detached
Over the course of the book, Didion
goes from a passive state of grief to an active state of mourning.
How does she document this shift?
When she believes that she has the power
to change the outcome of John’s death, Didion is living in a passive
state of grief. She only begins the active process of mourning when
she accepts his death as an unchangeable reality. She documents
her experience of the first stage, grief, by describing instances
of magical thinking and the vortex effect. Magical thinking depends
on her delusional belief that John’s death is somehow changeable,
while the vortex effect is related to her inability to engage with
her past, which causes her memories to come surging forward just
as she attempts to push them aside and cope with the crisis on hand.
Once she starts operating as a detective and engages in a pattern
of research and inquiry, however, she realizes that John’s death
was inevitable, and that at no point did she have the power to change
its outcome. While this shakes her faith in her own power to control
her surroundings, she begins to take comfort in her own limits and
accept the situation, which allows her to start imagining a future
for herself that doesn’t include John.
Didion’s transition from grief to mourning also depends
on the amount of time passed. In the immediate aftermath of his
death, her shock at his loss numbs her to the point that she goes
on autopilot, following social expectations but unable to process
the reality of her situation, either intellectually or emotionally.
Once she has some distance from his death, she can rationally look
at the causes of his health problems while critically examining
her own psychological process. Didion comes to realize that grief
emerges from a feeling of powerlessness so strong that it creates
an illusion of absolute power, while mourning can only begin when
she accepts the reality of her husband’s death and isolates the
tangible steps she can take to recover.
On several occasions, Didion emphasizes
that “information is control.” How do her beliefs change over the
course of her year of magical thinking?
Didion’s faith in the power of knowledge
gives her a level of authority in crisis situations, but she comes
to understand that, when applied to death and illness, information
has limited power to change outcomes. She describes how high-functioning
individuals have absolute faith in their own management skills,
and their ability to manage a situation depends on how much information
and access they have. Didion comes to learn that information often
creates only the illusion of control, since in life-or-death situations,
both chance and institutional forces trump individual agency. While
Didion looks to both the literature on grief and to medicine and
uses her impressive contacts and resources to gain as much information
as possible, she finds that her attempts to seize control were repeatedly met
with resistance. She slowly comes to understand that, no matter how
much research she conducts, how much access she gains by communicating
with the right people, or how often she overrides the ruling of
an authority figure with an informed statistic, she won’t be able
to bring her husband back or make her daughter get better. Learning
the limits of her own control is deeply upsetting to Didion, but
it gives her new insight into the ways that she reacts to crises.
She learns to let go of her need to manage situations and begins
to accept the circumstances with which she has been dealt. Though
she has only begun taking these steps by the end of The
Year of Magical Thinking, her decision to let go of her
need to control life by commanding information allows her to begin
to absorb the reality of John’s death.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!