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.