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Didion cites studies by Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein
that refer to grief as a temporary state of manic depression. She
details how, in the year after John’s death, she stops thinking
rationally. During that year, she believes that her thoughts or
wishes can change outcomes. She can’t read his obituary, for example,
since its publication means that she has allowed other people to
think of John as dead—and if they believe him to be dead, he might
never come back. She can’t give away his shoes, since she believes
that he will need them when he returns. Didion’s magical thinking
begins with John’s autopsy, when she irrationally believes that,
if the coroners can diagnose what happened to John, they will then
be able to fix the problem and bring him back to life.
The day of the autopsy, Didion receives a call from the
hospital asking if she will donate John’s organs. Shaken by this
question, she later realizes that they must have wanted his eyes,
since they’re among the few organs that be harvested from a dead
body. Thinking about John’s eyes, she recalls a poem by E. E. Cummings
that she later tries to find in her library. She instead discovers
a poetry anthology that John owned at boarding school. In the book,
she finds the young John’s process for analyzing a poem outlined
on the flyleaf: “1) What is the meaning of
the poem and what is the experience? 2) What
thought or reflection does the experience lead us to? 3)
What mood, feeling, emotion is stirred or created
by the poem as a whole?” Didion applies these questions to the call
she has received from the hospital, treating the experience itself
as if it were a poem.
On the surface, Didion seems to understand that John’s
death is irreversible. She arranges for the autopsy, cremation,
and placement of his ashes. After Quintana wakes from her coma,
they hold a funeral service. Though she has now made a public acknowledgment
of his death, Didion still believes she has the power to bring John
Since her childhood, she says, she has dealt with problems
by conducting research. How-to guides and inspirational books seem useless
to her, but clinical literature by psychiatrists and psychologists
prove to be more helpful. As she reads various texts, she also sifts
through her own memories to make sense of her feelings. She thinks
about PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines), which offered cheap flights
between Los Angeles and San Francisco. PSA planes had smiles painted
on their noses, and the toddler Quintana used to refer to flying
on PSA as “going on the smile.” Didion remembers how John had noted
Quintana’s childhood phrases on scraps of paper and used them as
dialogue for a character, Cat, in his novel Dutch Shea,
Jr. Cat, the protagonist’s daughter, is killed by the IRA,
and her parents struggle to make sense of the immense loss. Thinking
back to the book now, Didion realizes that John’s novel was always
about bereavement, though she didn’t realize it at the time. Didion
cycles between memories of flying PSA and her wedding to John at
San Juan Bautista. She also recalls the poem “Rose Aylmer,” an elegy
she had read as an undergraduate. In the poem, the speaker feels
great sorrow at the death of a young woman but restricts his mourning
to a single night of “memories and sighs.”
Didion reads a study by Dr. Vamik Volkan, which describes
a therapy that analysts can use to understand the relationship between
a survivor and the deceased. Didion becomes incensed while reading
the study, wondering how a doctor could ever understand her shared
history with John. Didion later reads a passage about coping with
grief from Emily Post’s 1922 etiquette guide, which
offers detailed instructions for the practical steps one must take
after the death of a loved one. Didion connects Post’s book to the
writings of Philippe Ariès and Geoffrey Gorer, which track the evolution
from death as an accepted part of life to a concealed event in which
mourning is treated as “morbid self-indulgence.” During Didion’s
own childhood, she says, there were prescribed scripts to follow
when someone died: bake a ham, drop it by the bereaved’s house,
and attend the funeral. During Didion’s grieving period, a friend
brings over quart containers of congee from Chinatown every night,
as congee is all she can eat at the time.
Magical thinking is a strategy that Didion uses to cope
with her lack of control over what happened to John and Quintana.
This mentality allows her to assert some agency in a situation where
she is powerless to determine outcomes. Didion knows herself as
a high-functioning person, able to manage situations by conducting
rigorous research, communicating with the right people, and approaching
problems with an organized, pragmatic outlook. Her daughter’s illness
and husband’s death are fundamentally unmanageable and illogical
events, and though at some level she understands that these situations
are beyond her control, she clings to the idea that she has the
power to change them. Didion suddenly develops a child’s mentality,
believing that she can change her situation through her heartfelt
wishes. Though this magical thinking is only a coping mechanism,
she cannot acknowledge it as such, since this realization would
deprive her of the ability to believe that she has the power to
bring back her dead husband. For Didion, magical thinking remains
a temporary outlook rather than a permanent reality, since she ultimately
realizes that John cannot, in fact, come back.
Didion’s memoir quotes extensively from other books on
grief and mourning, highlighting the fact that Didion sees herself
as a student engaging in a process of self-education. The first
step taken by any reporter working on an in-depth story is to conduct
research, and Didion approaches John’s death as a puzzle she must
decipher. Didion believes that, once she is equipped with the proper
knowledge, she will be able to correct the problem—another manifestation
of her magical thinking. Though she reads grief literature and psychological
studies as a student, she has intensely emotional responses to what
she reads, indicating that her intellectual objectivity is affected
by her personal feelings. As much as she may want to simply absorb
the knowledge available to her, she repeatedly responds as if the
studies were written directly in response to her own experiences.
In the end, she finds that she really wants affirmation and comfort
from her readings. She finds support in unexpected sources, most
notably in Emily Post’s book on etiquette, which outlines the practical
steps one must take after the death of a loved one, without analysis
or judgment. Didion finds that she is not ready to fully engage
with the intellectual and philosophical questions of grief but needs
assurance and guidance through the first stages of her own emotional
response to John’s death.
As a result of her reading, Didion comes to understand
the shifting status of grief in American culture and attempts to
understand how cultural expectations inform her own behavior. Previously
a public, ritualized condition, mourning has become a private, guilt-inducing
phenomenon in today’s culture. Didion focuses on Emily Post’s book
of etiquette, noting that at the time of publication, death occurred
in the home and was a much more familiar part of life. Adults were
supposed to respond to death maturely and capably, tending to the
immediate needs of the person in mourning while respecting that
person’s grieving process. Over the course of the twentieth century,
death was pulled out of the home and into the hospital. As common
illnesses became less prevalent because of medical advances, death
was removed from the natural rhythms of home life and became a source
of shame. Didion’s own anxieties about exhibiting self-pity lead
her to focus on this cultural shift. She is acutely aware that she
feels obligated to respond to John’s death with stoic calm. She
questions this assumption, trying to determine whether her calm
exterior is a genuine product of shock or an internalized set of
cultural expectations. In looking to literature, she tries to ascertain
what reactions are expected, which reactions are appropriate, and
how her own reactions fit into those expectations.
Trained as a reader and writer, Didion uses the method
of poetry analysis that she finds in John’s high school anthology
as a tool for examining her responses to his death. Though simple
and direct, the questions that form John’s method resonate profoundly
with her own experience, as she tries to analyze the meaning and
experience of each event related to his death, the thought or reflection
inspired by that experience, and the emotions that are stirred up
by the experience as a whole. When applied to poetry, the method
asks the reader to examine the poem and its effects directly, in
an attempt to understand how individual responses speak to the larger
emotional experience that the poem creates. Didion realizes that
she cannot analyze her responses in such a measured way, and that
each decision she makes is informed by her inability to confront
John’s passing. By clinging to the idea that she can somehow make
John come back, Didion cannot step back and analyze her emotional
responses in the truly analytical way she wants.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!