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When Didion began writing The Year of Magical
Thinking, she says, she hadn’t known how, when, or why
John had died, even though she had witnessed his death. A year later,
she receives the autopsy report and emergency room records, which
were delayed because an overwhelmed Didion had, eleven months earlier,
written down the wrong mailing address. According to the paperwork,
the EMS call had been received at 9:15
ambulance had arrived five minutes later, and a series of medications
had been administered. The doorman’s log indicates the ambulance
had left for the hospital at 10:05
where John had been received for triage at 10:10
physician’s log showed that John had been seen at 10:15
pronounced dead on arrival due to cardiac arrest. By 10:30
log states, the wife had been at bedside with a social worker. The
autopsy report indicates that both of John’s major arteries had
been almost entirely blocked. The paperwork confirms that John had
died after his initial collapse, and that the time spent at the
hospital had been entirely procedural.
Though Didion knows that, statistically speaking, most
people who suffer cardiac arrests outside of a hospital have little
chance of being resuscitated, she persists in her irrational belief
that some kind of medical anomaly must have been responsible for
her husband’s death, and she continues to search for it. Equally
irrationally, when she hears that the famous chef Julia Child has
died, she is relieved to think that John and Child can now entertain
each other in heaven.
Didion plays closer attention to health news, and frets
over a commercial that indicates that Bayer, an over-the-counter
aspirin, can reduce the risk of heart attack. Though she knows that
John had been taking a much more powerful anticoagulant, she becomes
frustrated that she could have overlooked something as obvious as Bayer.
Other studies about the risks associated with heart attacks upset
her, as well. Her distress leads her to understand that people often
believe they can avert death, and when it strikes they feel as if they
only have themselves to blame. After Didion reads the autopsy report,
she finally realizes that there was nothing she or anyone else could
have done to prevent John’s death.
Though Didion has been presented with the facts of John’s
death numerous times, the arrival of the hospital report, with its
air of finality and authority, slows her obsessive reconstructing
of the weeks leading up to John’s death. This chapter signals a
change in her thinking: up until the arrival of the hospital report
she had continued to resist the facts about cardiac arrest and chastised
herself for not taking precautions that now seem obvious in retrospect, such
as taking Bayer. Her natural impulse is to viciously blame herself
and become frustrated for having missed a simple solution to a difficult
problem. Her bittersweet realization that John can now share a meal
in heaven with Julia Child indicates that she finally, truly understands
that John isn’t coming back, but she still can’t avoid punishing
herself for what she sees as her own contribution to his death.
The autopsy report is a kind of blessing, in that it releases her
from an unending cycle of pain and self-blame.
Didion hasn’t stopped mourning John, and she hasn’t fully
abandoned the notion that he might somehow come back, but she has lifted
the burden of correcting the problem off of her own shoulders. Through
a patient and steady process of questioning and trying to understand
her tragedies, she has come to a place where she stops trying to
assign cause or blame. John had died at the moment of collapse,
and every effort made to resuscitate him after that fact had been
entirely procedural. Deep down, Didion had understood that she couldn’t
bring John back, no matter how much she wished and no matter how
much she fought to pinpoint and correct the cause. Didion realizes
that though she made her best faith effort to help John, those efforts
While the intensity of Didion’s magical thinking has subsided, mourning
a loved one is an ongoing experience that will likely last the rest
of her life. She has come to understand that magical thinking can
be insidious, showing up unexpectedly and shaping her perception
with a delusional illogic. At the same time, magical thinking has an
obvious benefit, in that it allows her to cope with the day-to-day experiences
of grief without feeling helpless, overwhelmed, or hopeless. While
the derangement is undesirable, magical thinking is a crucial coping
mechanism that allows her to keep feeling that she has a degree
of control over her circumstances.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!