Magical thinking, the central motif of the memoir, reinforces Didion’s assertion that grief is a state of mental illness during which rational thought is replaced by an extreme version of corrective thinking. Magical thinking is the childlike belief that we are able to control outcomes and change the world around us through the intensity of our wishes and desires. For Didion, magical thinking takes several forms. First, she believes that she can somehow sift through her memory and change the outcomes of events, and by doing so be able to prevent John from dying. Second, she believes that if she controls certain aspects of her circumstances, she will bring John back, as illustrated by her need to hold onto his shoes for his return. Finally, she applies this kind of corrective thinking toward Quintana’s illness, believing that if she does enough research or makes the right phone calls, she’ll be able to help her daughter recover. Magical thinking takes multiple forms throughout the memoir, representing the varied states of delusion and denial that occur throughout the grief process and reinforcing the theme of grief as a state of mental illness.
Didion begins to experience the vortex effect—in which she is paralyzed by memories triggered by seemingly mundane circumstances—as she begins to come to terms with John’s death and Quintana’s illness. Though painful and disorienting, the vortex effect is an essential part of the process Didion must undergo to fully accept the tragedies. Didion first experiences the vortex effect when she visits Quintana in the hospital in New York. A flood of memories overwhelms her, temporarily taking her out her surroundings. The vortex effect eventually becomes a deeply upsetting experience, and when Didion returns to Los Angeles, she desperately avoids places and situations that remind her of life with John and Quintana. However, she soon discovers that even seemingly benign triggers, such as commercials or calendar dates, are capable of setting off the effect. Only after Didion has rebuilt the emotional resilience to face her memories does the vortex effect begin to subside. The vortex effect is consistent with the idea that grief is a state of temporary mental illness.
Didion notes how tragedy can strike suddenly, during an ordinary moment, and life-changing events often give no notice of their arrival. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she traces this motif through both personal and large-scale events. In her own family, John dies suddenly while sitting down to dinner, and Quintana collapses while walking through an airport. Didion compares these events to the Pearl Harbor and World Trade Center attacks. Didion describes how accounts of both events tend to emphasize how routine and ordinary the days had seemed prior to the catastrophes, which only served to throw the astonishment that spectators felt into higher relief. Didion illustrates how, when it comes to life-changing events, people irrationally expect that they’ll be given an opportunity to brace themselves to make the outcome easier to bear. And yet, this is rarely the case, and often the grieving and mourning process is intensified by the shock of the event.