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When Quintana wakes up, Didion reassures her and promises
to stay until they can leave together. She realizes that, ever since
she and John adopted Quintana, her promise to take care of Quintana has
been the foundation of their relationship. As Quintana grew older,
Didion realized she could not always protect her. Didion comes to
understand that her lifelong fear of things being out of her control
is coming true.
She tries to ascertain what exactly happened to Quintana.
Since Quintana had been on anticoagulants, the bleed she suffered
could have been either the cause or an effect of her fall. Didion
tries to find out which it was from the doctors but soon realizes
that the question is irrelevant, since either way the consequences
remain the same. The doctor tells her that the coma could last for
days or weeks, and that while they’re optimistic, it would be several
days before they know what shape her brain is in. This concern pales
in comparison to the possible consequences of re-infection, pneumonia,
or further swelling that would necessitate re-operation.
During the twenty-four days Didion spends at the hospital,
she reads and re-reads Intensive Care: A Doctor’s Journal by
John F. Murray, which documents one four-week period during his
tenure as an attending physician in an ICU. With information gained
from the book, Didion is able to ask pointed and informed questions
of the doctors. She often does not understand what the doctors are
saying to her, so she buys a copy of Clinical Neuroanatomy, which turns
out to be virtually incomprehensible. However, one story from the
appendix stands out, a mysterious narrative called the “gilded boy
story” that can be used to test memory and comprehension in patients
coming out of a comatose state. The story concerns a young boy who
was dressed as an angel 300 years ago to
celebrate the coronation of the pope but who died from the poisonous
gold foil he was wrapped in. Patients are then asked to retell the
story in their own words. The strange, nonsensical story seems to
represent the confusion of the entire situation that Didion faces.
Back in late January at Beth Israel, Didion identified
an experience she called “the vortex effect.” While lost in her
thoughts, she had a sudden memory of a former colleague at Vogue, “X,”
who had an abortion in the same hospital, an event that Didion had
fictionalized in her novel Play It As It Lays.
The memory of writing the novel inevitably brought her back to memories
of Quintana, which set off the vortex effect, a phenomenon in which
Didion becomes swept up in a series of intense reminiscences about
her life with John and Quintana. To prevent the vortex effect while
in Los Angeles, she will have to avoid any venue that might remind
her of the twenty-four years she lived there with her family. Her
hotel, the Beverly Wilshire, is an unusual exception, despite the
fact that it had been the family’s home base while working on a
film. Instead of triggering the vortex effect, the hotel gives her
a sense of familiarity and security.
Didion establishes a routine of ordering the same breakfast
every morning, driving the same daily route to the hospital, returning
to the hotel in the afternoon to rest, and having dinner with friends
in the evening. Despite her careful precautions, she often finds
herself blinded by tears while driving past a landmark she had not
remembered to avoid. In one instance, while preparing to go to the
hospital, she sees a commercial that features a stretch of coastal
highway that sets off a flood of memories about a house the family
rented after Quintana was born. In another instance, while driving
to Rite Aid, she remembers a bistro she and John had frequented,
which in turn set off memories of a trip she took with John to Bogota.
The vortex effect of these memories prevents her from making it
to Rite Aid.
Quintana’s illness sets the vortex effect into motion,
a recurring motif that Didion uses to demonstrate how every aspect
of her life is completely bound to her identity as John’s wife and
collaborator and Quintana’s mother. The vortex effect strikes unexpectedly
and occurs when a moment of contemplation or passive observation triggers
powerful memories and an intense emotional response. Once again,
Didion finds that she has no control, realizing that her perception
of the world is inevitably informed by her memories. While magical
thinking is a process through which Didion attempts to manage her
feelings and responses by imagining a degree of control over the
world around her, the vortex effect is a passive experience that
reminds her of the limits of her control. The fact that the vortex
effect happens so naturally and suddenly highlights her fragile
emotional state. Though she may be trying to manage her situation
by remaining stoic and taking charge, the vortex effect functions
as a painful reminder of her husband’s death and her daughter’s
illness and her inability to do anything about them.
Didion attempts to educate herself as much as she can
about Quintana’s condition as a way of using knowledge to exert
control, but she finds that the process of understanding the dense
medical texts presents greater challenges than did her readings
on grief. With grief literature, Didion had to look only to herself,
examining her own responses and feelings and relating them to the
literary expressions and psychological studies that she read. Even
when their conclusions were frustrating, they gave her models to
which she could compare her own experience. Quintana’s subdural
hematoma presents a much more daunting challenge, since she must
use dense medical texts to figure out what’s happening, rather than
simply evaluating her own responses to what she knows has happened. Even
when armed with the right information, she again faces a situation
outside of her control. Didion realizes that, just as she could not
prevent John from dying, she cannot make Quintana better, no matter
how much she learns or how much she promises to protect her daughter.
The knowledge of her own fallibility once again puts her in the
frustrating position of the observer desperate to exert some kind
of control but unable to change the course of the situation.
Didion’s highly analytical meditations on grief distinguish The Year
of Magical Thinking from confessional memoirs that focus solely
on individual experience. In the past twenty years, personal memoirs
have flooded the publishing market and become increasingly popular
with audiences. The recent flap around the authenticity of personal
accounts like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces highlights
the often sensational subject matter found in memoirs, which tends
to emphasize personal trauma as a way of creating catharsis, or
emotional release, for both writer and reader. Didion avoids this
model, choosing instead to mix her personal experience with observations
and reflections on cultural trends and behaviors. While the section
of the book that takes place during Quintana’s stay at UCLA stays
focused on Didion’s grief, she weaves in commentary about cultural
attitudes toward sickness and hospitals. By connecting her individual
experience to larger cultural trends regarding death, illness, grief,
and mourning, Didion avoids sensationalizing her experience.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!