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Jonathan Yardley
A celebrated writer recalls the devastating emotions unleashed by death and illness.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 2, 2005

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

By Joan Didion

Knopf. 227 pp. $23.95

Out of excruciatingly painful personal experience, Joan Didion has written a lacerating yet peculiarly stirring book "about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself." In December 2003 two terrible things happened: her only child, Quintana, married months earlier, was hospitalized in a coma, and five days later her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died "in the living room of our apartment in New York [after] a sudden massive coronary event" just as he and Didion were about to have dinner. For more than a year, Didion's life was completely taken over by these events; The Year of Magical Thinking is the story of that year.

It is an intensely personal story that involves a relatively small cast of characters, but Didion's telling of it is clearly impelled in large measure by the events in New York of September 2001. The theme that persists throughout The Year of Magical Thinking is the seamless progression from the ordinary to the catastrophic: "You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. " She writes:

" . . . confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. . . . 'It was just an ordinary beautiful September day,' people still say when asked to describe the morning in New York when American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on this insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note: 'Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.' "

It is true, to be sure, that John Gregory Dunne had sent warning signals about his health, just as it is true that prescient intelligence officers had issued warnings about clear threats of terrorism. Dunne, who was 71, "believed he was dying" and said so "repeatedly" to Didion, who dismissed it as depression arising from "the predictable limbo of a prolonged period between delivery and publication" of his forthcoming novel, Nothing Lost , and who thought that his cardiac difficulties had been solved by various procedures.

But, as "Episcopalians say at the graveside": In the midst of life we are in death. One moment Didion was mixing the salad and lighting the candles, the next moment her husband was "slumped motionless" in his chair. She called an ambulance; emergency technicians came speedily, tended to him and rushed him to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Meanwhile Quintana, who only days before had been a healthy, happy woman in her late thirties, lay "unconscious in an intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center's Singer Division" because "what had seemed a case of December flu sufficiently severe to take her to an emergency room on Christmas morning had exploded into pneumonia and septic shock."

In a trice, Didion's world had been turned upside down, or inside out. Her beloved daughter, to whom she clearly was uncommonly close, was on the edge of death. Her beloved husband had fallen over that edge. She "needed to discuss this with John," because "there was nothing I did not discuss with John." Their marriage of nearly four decades was complicated (what marriage isn't?) but strong:

"Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other's voices.

"I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way 'competitive,' that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.

"That had been one more thing we discussed."

Then, in an instant, he was gone. The person to whom she was closer than anyone else on the planet, the person with whom she urgently needed to discuss this dreadful turn of events, was not there to talk to her and never again would be. She was submerged in grief, which "comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life." Tough reporter that she is -- "Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature" -- she looked it up and realized that she had been struck dumb by "pathological bereavement," which frequently occurs when "the survivor and the deceased had been unusually dependent on one another."

Unusually dependent: "is that a way of saying 'marriage'? 'husband and wife'? 'mother and child'? 'nuclear family'?" For her, in that terrible time, it was all of those things, and it reduced her to a condition that she now recognizes as derangement. She wanted, simply, to "bring him back," which opened the way into "my year of magical thinking" in which, although "I did not believe in the resurrection of the body . . . I still believed that given the right circumstances he would come back." Rushing to Los Angeles, where Quintana was hospitalized again in March 2004 in a state that frequently appeared to be terminal, she found herself confronted by "a sudden rush of memories" as she passed places she and her husband had been during the many years they lived there. He was dead, yet he remained alive:

"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. . . . Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself."

Slowly, inevitably, she came back to life: her own life, that is. Characteristically, though, she declined the easy or sentimental way out. Getting out "on her own," the words so often used by well-intentioned friends of the bereaved, turned out to be no easy thing. A journalist wanted to write a profile of her, but "I was in no shape to be written about. . . . I realized that for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world." She made notes in her computer but did no real writing. She busied herself around the apartment, but "stacking magazines seemed at that point the limit of what I could do by way of organizing my life."

Quintana got better, but that too was not easy. Didion was able to lose herself to a degree in micromanaging her daughter's care at the UCLA Medical Center -- "These efforts did not endear me to the young men and women who made up the house staff . . . but they made me feel less helpless" -- but that took her only so far. She had moved from the shock of grief to the somewhat more prosaic business of mourning, "the act of dealing with grief," which proved less demanding emotionally but not much less time-consuming. and regaining her strength turned out to be a long-term process.

Part of that process obviously was writing this book, but it would be a serious mistake to think that this was an exercise in self-administered therapy or turning personal loss into publishing profit. Some books (most of them very bad) do get written because their authors put themselves on the couch, and some writers are not above cashing in on anything, including the illnesses or deaths of people ostensibly close to them. Not for a moment do I believe either to be the case with Didion. "I have been a writer my entire life," she says, and she instinctively turns to words to find meaning in experience, but "this is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning." In fact, words didn't do the job: "The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place."

This is not entirely true. The Year of Magical Thinking , though it spares nothing in describing Didion's confusion, grief and derangement, is a work of surpassing clarity and honesty. It may not provide "meaning" to her husband's death or her daughter's illness, but it describes their effects on her with unsparing candor. It was not written as a self-help handbook for the bereaved but as a journey into a place that none of us can fully imagine until we have been there. It is also as close as Didion will be able to come to a final conversation with John Gregory Dunne.

To which must be added a heartbreaking footnote: Six weeks ago, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael died in New York City. She was 39 years old. Her mother decided, properly, not to alter this book. "It's finished," she has said. ยท

Jonathan Yardley is the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post. His e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company