Words Are All She Has
Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking
Since understanding the human condition is her project, Didion can hardly ignore death. The title of the Everyman’s Library collection of her nonfiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (taken from a quote from The White Album), could apply equally well to Magical Thinking. Here Didion shares with us the stories she tells herself in order to traverse the grief that comes to her in “waves.” She brings in research to find out whether her reactions are “normal” (have they have been documented in academic and medical literature?), but also to point out the failure of such literature to thoroughly describe grief as it is lived by actual people. “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become…This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.”
Joan Didion. “Words cannot do this job. Yet words are all she has.”
This telling quote comes at the beginning of the book. In it, Didion expresses two seemingly conflicting ideas: 1) she must use words to find the meaning in her husband’s death, and 2) words cannot do this job. Yet words are all she has. And so she begins with a story she told herself before her husband’s death, in fact, a story they were telling each other about their daughter, Quintana, who was at the time hospitalized for pneumonia and septic shock. Together, Didion tells us, she and Dunne attempted to convince themselves that their daughter would be okay, that they could, through sheer willpower, not let anything happen to her. They tried to keep things “normal”; they took a cab home from the hospital, made a fire, Didion was preparing dinner and Dunne was reading when he suddenly fell to floor in the living room. Didion writes that “it was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened.” Later she begins to wonder whether it was so unexpected after all. In long, lonely hours by Quintana’s bedside, Didion considers the missed signs of her husband’s impending death—things he said, things he wrote. The polish of their daily life begins to wear off, to become, to some degree, penetrable. The way Didion mixes scholarly research with personal memories, relating each in her characteristically detached, cool voice is what gives the book its haunting, powerful beauty. Just as a day can dawn bright and blue and absolutely normal and end in the death of one’s spouse, so, too, one can be placidly engaged in Didion’s research only to be pounded back to life in a moment of such intensity that one finds oneself crying like a fool on the subway.
Perhaps surprisingly, Didion claims that at one point during her mourning she “realized that my impression of myself had been of someone who could look for, and find, the upside in any situation. I had believed in the logic of popular songs. I had looked for the silver lining. I had walked on through the storm. … It also occurs to me, that the logic of those earlier songs was based on self-pity. The singer of the song about looking for the silver lining believes that clouds have come her way. The singer of the song about walking on through the storm assumes that the storm could otherwise take her down.” I’m not entirely persuaded by her claim about “self-pity,” but I do agree that Didion was convinced in the power of logical thinking, just as, after the death of her husband, she becomes beholden to her own “magical thinking.” What she eventually realizes by exploring her mind in motion is not that thoughts don’t matter, but that they matter less than she had allowed herself to believe. The hard truth is that regardless of our mindset, someday the people we love are going to die, and there is very little, perhaps nothing, we can do about it. Didion’s continual “question of self-pity” might alternately be termed a “question of control.”
It is precisely because of insights like these—observations that suggest a massive change not just to daily life but to Didion’s understanding of life more generally—that I believe no one but Joan Didion could have written this book, and that there could not have been any other event (with the exception, perhaps, of the death of her daughter, which occurred not two years after Dunne’s and about which Didion did write a book, Blue Nights, which I intend to read soon) that could have facilitated such a change in her thinking, and thus her writing. To my knowledge, she had never written like this before. “Goodbye to All That” and other essays are at turns personal, nostalgic, occasionally confessional, but none of the other work contains the heartbreaking “rawness” (Didion’s word for the appearance and demeanor of the newly grief-stricken) of The Year of Magical Thinking. Like Didion’s other work, Magical Thinking does not shrink from the unpleasant facts of life. Unlike her other work, however, there is no screen here, no subject with which she can shield herself. Not every cloud has a silver lining, unless the silver lining in this case is not for Didion, but for us. It is clear that the author gave immensely of herself to write this memoir. One of the many truths The Year of Magical Thinking drives home is that writers cannot always choose their subject matter. We can only decide whether or not we will accept it. I know I am not the only one who is grateful that Didion chose to write.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Killing the Angel, and The Montreal Review, among other publications.