Joan Didion 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 observer.
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.
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