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The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan
Didion’s account of the year following the death of her husband,
writer John Gregory Dunne, and her attempts to make sense of her
grief while tending to the severe illness of her adopted daughter,
On December 30, 2003,
John and Didion go to the hospital to visit their daughter, who
is in a coma in the intensive care unit. Later that evening, John
has a massive heart attack while sitting down to dinner in their
New York apartment. He is pronounced dead shortly after arriving
at the hospital, but Didion finds herself unable to accept this
fact even as she arranges for an autopsy and plans for his funeral.
As she tries to make sense of John’s death and her own
changed identity, Didion discovers that grief is not what she expected
it to be. Consumed by memories of the years they lived in Los Angeles, shortly
after they married and adopted Quintana, Didion feels that she has
entered a state of temporary insanity. Though cool and collected
on the surface, she begins to believe that her wishes might have
the power to bring John back. To this end, she refuses to give away
his clothes and shoes, believing that her husband will need them
when he returns to her. She calls this childlike belief that her thoughts
and wishes can alter reality “magical thinking.” She finds numerous
examples of this behavior in the literature she studies on grief
and mourning, which ranges from poems, novels, psychological texts,
and even etiquette books.
As Didion tries to figure out a way to fix the situation
and bring John back, she becomes fixated on her memories of the
months leading up to his death. Also in December of that year, Quintana
had developed a severe case of flu that worsened in the days leading
up to Christmas, though doctors reassured her that she was on the
road to recovery. On Christmas morning, Quintana checked into the
hospital, where she went into septic shock as a result of the pneumonia that
had overtaken her lungs. Though John’s spirits had been buoyed by
both a new pacemaker as well as Quintana’s wedding earlier that
year, the news of his daughter’s condition devastated him, prompting
him to begin assessing his own life. Several days before his death,
John had told his wife that he felt he was a failure. Quintana doesn’t
wake from her coma until January 2004, though soon
after being discharged she must return briefly, because of blood
clotting in her legs. After her second release, the family decides
to hold the funeral for John, after which Quintana will travel to
Malibu, California, with her husband to recuperate. Didion realizes
that she will have to get back to her life as well.
Shortly after arriving in the Los Angeles airport, however,
Quintana experiences a massive brain hemorrhage that requires emergency
neurosurgery at UCLA. Doctors fear she will not survive, and if
she does, that she may have suffered brain damage. Didion immediately
flies to Los Angeles to be with Quintana, reassuring her that she
will get better even though she knows that she is powerless to protect
her daughter. Didion spends every day at the hospital and begins
to experience what she calls “the vortex effect,” a reaction in which
environmental triggers unexpectedly set off emotionally crippling
flashbacks of her life with John and Quintana. Though she tries
to avoid landmarks that remind her of in the happy years the family
spent in Los Angeles in the 1970s, the vortex
effect occurs at the most unexpected times. After several months,
Quintana moves to a stepdown observational unit, with plans made
to transfer her to the Rusk Institute in New York. After the transfer,
Quintana again begins the slow process of recuperation and Didion
again tries to resume her life.
Didion begins to examine her memories for omens and symbols that
might have warned her of John’s impending death. She looks to literature,
to events from their shared life , and to clues that John seemed
to leave in his own novels. She becomes consumed with the idea of
self-pity, its relationship to grief and mourning, and how these
feelings are perceived by society. Realizing that she had almost never
been separated from her husband during their forty years of marriage,
she finds herself turning inward in her solitude, consumed by her
own thoughts. In an effort to get back to her normal life, she makes
plans to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions for the New
York Review of Books. Though the conventions seem to pose
little risk of setting off the vortex effect, she finds herself
paralyzed by memories no matter where she goes or what she does.
Didion begins to feel that she has gone insane as she
experiences both magical thinking and the vortex effect. To regain
her grip on reality, Didion looks back to her past and tries to
remember what the world used to mean to her. As a child, she remembers,
she fixated on meaninglessness, believing that the massive geological
changes that occur slowly over time indicated the smallness and
brevity of human experience. As an adult, she had once found meaning
in the routines of her life and in her role as a wife and mother,
but she now realizes that, following John’s death, she has lost
the sense of self those roles once afforded her. Though she understands
that John is dead, Didion cannot understand how or why. Her thinking
only begins to clarify once she receives the emergency room and
autopsy reports, nearly a year after John’s death. The reports confirm
that John was dead from the moment he sat down to dinner. Didion could
have tried to fix the situation, but it would have been futile; there
was nothing she could have done about it then, and nothing she can
do about it now. Didion’s vivid memories of the months before John’s
death begin to fade, but though her heated mental state subsides,
no clarity or sense of purpose replaces it. Didion begins to focus
again on the routines of daily life, accepting the inevitability
of change, which forces us to adapt and, eventually, to move on.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!