Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking

For those of you who wanted to read my recent review in Modern Reformation but don’t subscribe (they don’t make reviews available online), I got permission to post it here:

The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
227 pages (hardback), $23.95

What does a writer do after her husband of forty years collapses of a massive coronary event while she is mixing the salad at the dinner table? She writes. If that writer is Joan Didion, she writes an intelligent, searching memoir of her first year of life without. Without her husband and co-writer, John Gregory Dunne. Without the support of their daughter, Quintana, who is in a coma when her father dies. Without clarity. Without answers. She describes that period as The Year of Magical Thinking.

The year begins a few days after John’s death, when Didion types her first reactions in a new file on her computer: Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.

The question of self-pity is the first of many questions she explores in the months following John’s death. Did death happen to him or to me, she wonders. She had thought herself independent, yet now she worries about who will take care of her. She begins to sleep with the lights on, fearing that if she gets up at night and trips over something in the dark, it might be days before someone finds her. Though she is surrounded by supportive friends and family, she feels invisible, unstable, fragile without John.

She discovers contradictions in her responses. How can she be simultaneously angry at him for abandoning her and blame herself for letting him die? She reminds herself that she does not believe in bodily resurrection, yet she cannot bring herself to donate his corneas or give away his shoes, sure that he will need them when he returns. Are these contradictions, she suggests, inherent in the “primitive dread” of the human soul?

And what is death? Where is John now? What if they were wrong in thinking that death leads to nothingness? If she could reverse time, what might John come back knowing about the universe?

Allowing her writer’s instincts to bring focus to her struggle, she goes to the literature. She reads Freud, C. S. Lewis, Euripides, W. H. Auden. She requests an autopsy and studies medical reports on John’s diagnosis because she wants to know exactly when and how and why he died. (Would he have lived if only she had urged him to try a new medication? Why are we open to the “persistent message that we can avert death”?) She reads psychiatric studies on “normal bereavement” versus “pathological bereavement.” (Pathological bereavement is defined as that of “unusual dependency.” What is “unusual dependency” in a forty-year marriage and business partnership?)

She is no longer a wife, but she cannot bring herself to check “widow” on the marital status question on paperwork. John had once suggested she would remarry within a year if something ever happened to him. Of course you can love more than one person, she says, but “Marriage is memory … For forty years I saw myself through John’s eyes” (197). Remarry? She cannot even throw out the broken alarm clock he gave her or record over his voice on the answering machine! Both are surely betrayal.

She regrets that she did not sufficiently appreciate her life with him. What would she have done differently if she had truly believed he would someday be gone? What would he have done differently, for that matter? Had they wasted their lives? It seems suddenly clear that she never knew him as deeply as she thought she had.

No magic would bring him back, she finally acknowledges; no human power could have kept him alive. Some events are beyond our ability to control. That stark reality leads her to the ultimate question: What is the meaning of human existence?

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. This litany from John’s funeral has potential to resolve her questions, but when she turns to geology (a lifelong interest) to inform her faith, she interprets the phrase as:

a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away.…That the scheme could destroy the works of man might be a personal regret but remained, in the larger picture I had come to recognize, a matter of abiding indifference. No eye was on the sparrow. No one was watching me (190).

She concludes that John’s final message to her is that she “had to go with the change” (225). Human experience is to live and love for a time, then no more. It is appropriate to acknowledge the ache, the confusion, the loss. But in the end the impersonal universe will go on as before.

A month after publication, The Year of Magical Thinking garnered the National Book Award for nonfiction. In their coverage of the award ceremony, the Associated Press declared it “quickly becoming the classic portrait of grief,” sought after by bereaved spouses and their supportive friends. Didion is articulate, compelling, asking the most significant questions of life and death; for those reasons this book is worthy of the high acclaim with which it has been received. But Didion’s otherwise acute insight draws attention to the emptiness of her answer, which after so much searching seems like a resigned shrug of the intellectual shoulders. To complete the quest she has begun, we must turn from the final page of her memoir to the eternal promise of Scripture. There we discover the purpose of a life created to glorify God, the assurance of a future resurrection.

His eye is on the sparrow, Ms. Didion. The one watching you is the Man of Sorrows, accustomed to grief. He will not trivialize your loss; he will share it. He will redeem it. He will transform it to your joy and his glory.

That is the magical thinking of Christianity.

Mindy L. Withrow
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Mindy Withrow is an author of church history books for children and also hosts a literary blog at mindywithrow.com.

This book review originally appeared in Modern Reformation (March/April 2006) and is posted with permission from Modern Reformation. For more information, visit http://www.modernreformation.org/ or call (800) 890-7556.

10. May 2006 by Mindy
Categories: My writing, Reviews | 4 comments

Comments (4)

  1. It’s been a number of months since I read Didion’s book and I no longer have a copy to reference, but that won’t stop me from commenting!

    First, this is a well written book and was a delight to read.

    Second, since my father-in-law died nearly two years ago, Didion’s account helped me to consider more deeply the journey my mother-in-law is on. It has contributed to what I hope is a more sensitive response to her loss.

    There were several times in the book where Didion considered spiritual things, but ultimately did not understand the gospel. So in that regard, it definitely lacks.

    Overall, I highly recommend it.

  2. Mindy, your review of the book was excellent. The last few paragraphs state the answer she is indeed looking for and hasn’t yet found. That doesn’t diminish the pain and loss she suffered. Only one who has lost a spouse can understand the magnitude of that. And don’t all of us who are married secretly hope that we are the first to enter the arms of Jesus?

  3. Pingback: Mindy Withrow.com » Blog Archive » Clippings 4

  4. Your conclusion brought me to tears.
    Beautiful, true writing.

    Thank you.