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Title: The Year of Magical Thinking
Author: Joan Didion

Summary: In this National Book Foundation award winner, Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage–and a life, in good times and bad–that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child. Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later, the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery. This powerful book is Didion’s attempt to make sense of the “weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”

1. Discuss the notion of "magical thinking." Have you ever experienced anything like this, after a loss or some other life-changing occurrence? Did it help?

2. In the 8th century epic, the Song of Roland, death is always announced, even if accidental. Didion uses Gawain's refrain "I tell you I shall not live two days." Was death experienced differently when most everyone believed in God?

3. Reread the last paragraph of the book. Does it give you a feeling of closure?

4. Emily Dickinson's poem #599 would seem to fit this book. Do you agree?

There is a pain - so utter-
It swallows substance up -
Then covers the abyss with trance –
So memory can step
Around - across - upon it
As one within a swoon-
Goes safely - where an open eye
Would drop him -- bone by bone.

5. Discuss how Didion's experience of her physical self changes after the death of her life partner of forty years.

6. Consider the tone Didion uses throughout the book, one of relatively cool detachment. Her grief is muted. How did this detached tone affect your reading experience?

7. Is there a turning point in this book? Where would you place it and why?

8. At several points Didion describes her need for knowledge, whether from reading medical journals or grilling the doctor's at Quintana's bedside. How did this help her to cope?

9. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, thought there was need for a special room, devoted entirely to grieving, in hospitals, so that the survivor had a place to go before they went home. What are your thoughts?

10. Sherwin Nuland, in How We Die, suggests that as a culture we have a romanticized view of death where a person dies slowly and is surrounded by family and friends who make last moment connections. Is this realistic?

11. Before you read The Year of Magical Thinking, had you read any other of Didion's books? Do you see similar themes or motifs?

Related Information

Just before Christmas, in 2003, only 5 months after a joyful wedding, Joan Didion’s only child, her daughter Quintana Roo, developed what was believed to be a case of December flu. On Christmas Day, Quintana was admitted to the intensive care unit of Beth Israel Medical Center, the mis-diagnosed ‘flu’ having exploded into severe pneumonia and ultimately, septic shock. On the night of December 30, Joan Didion and her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, had gone to see Quintana in the hospital, and then wended their way home together. Once home, Joan Didion poured her husband a scotch, lit a fire, and made dinner.

Joan Didion tells us ---quote---“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it’ - Didion very unexpectedly reached that place when, just as she and her husband of nearly 40 years sat down to eat the dinner she’d prepared that December night, John Gregory Dunne dropped dead of a heart attack. Were this not terrible and calamitous enough, her daughter Quintana relapsed in the spring of 2004 and was hospitalized for months.

These events are the catalysts that plunge Joan Didion – one of America’s most acclaimed authors—into a year of ‘magical thinking’ where she must grapple alone with life-threatening illness, the finiteness of death, and almost bottomless grief.

Joan Didion tells us, on page 7 why she came to write this book. She says, quote…”This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, the weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had 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.”

The Year Of Magical Thinking is a powerful, deeply personal, statement on grief. The book also offers us a glimpse into the 40-year marriage of two profoundly talented writers. Since they both worked from home, Joan Didion and her husband were together almost 24 hours a day for virtually all of their married life. She writes, quote: “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.” Didion shares with us explicit memories that make the marriage come alive for us--- She tells us of the glorious afternoons they spent, reading and writing, taking breaks to swim in the pool or watch a favorite TV show together. She writes of making soufflés with the actress Katherine Ross, and living at the beach in Malibu. She shares the fact that, whenever they flew together, John always held her hand as the plane took off. She admits to their great good fortune, both financially and professionally...she tells us of the time when they had badly needed to sell their house in Malibu, as their resources were dwindling...they’d had no offers, and then, suddenly Joan tells us ---quote ---“the sun came out in Malibu and we had an offer within range.” And she includes for us John’s own written memory of their wedding day…Here it is, quote: “She wore sunglasses throughout the service the day we got married, at the little mission church in San Juan Bautista, California...she also wept through the entire ceremony. As we walked down the aisle, we promised each other that we could get out of this next week and not wait until death do us part.” Months after John’s death, Joan suddenly realizes that, since they had only rarely been long apart from each other, she had no letters from John, to evoke a memory of other times in their lives. Instead, what she had were souvenirs---a small black alarm clock from a hotel suite---a set of colored pens---mementoes of time together, irreplaceable, and full of meaning. And she also had, to keep forever, his final birthday present to her, her birthday occurring only a few weeks before his death. To my mind, it was the most beautiful gift a writer husband could give his writer wife, and I think it speaks volumes about their particular sort of intimacy. On that last birthday night they shared, December snow had precluded them from going out to dinner. Instead, they lit one of their customary fires, and John read aloud to Joan from one of her own novels. Didion recounts that moment, quote: “Goddamn, John said to me when he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.” She goes on to tell us---“I remember tears coming to my eyes. I feel them now. In retrospect, this had been my omen, my message, the early snowfall, the birthday present no one else could give me. He had 25 nights left to live.”

Joan Didion, from what I’ve learned researching material for this book discussion, is a writer who has never been easily categorized. She is famously liberal now, but she started out as a Goldwater Republican, born in Sacramento to a family whose roots in California go back generations. Both her parents ’families had crossed the Great Plains in the 19th century. She says that she has always admired her pioneer ancestors, and that pioneer spirit of stoicism, and also taking it as it comes, seem to resound to me in her prose. I’ve only read one other book by Joan Didion….that was Play It As It Lays. …I believe that this novel is her most celebrated and best-known. It’s set in Los Angeles, and is full of women in extreme situations, making extreme choices. I read it in college, at the urging of a girlfriend, and I’ll be honest when I tell you, I wasn’t overly impressed. …there is something cold and analytical in her writing that doesn’t speak to me. “What makes Iago evil?” some people ask. I never ask” are its famous opening lines. Published in 1970, it catapulted Joan Didion to fame.

Didion’s work has always been personal. In an NPR interview, she said of herself, “I write entirely to find out what I am thinking, what I am looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want, and what I fear.”

Critics have often been divided over what they see as Didion’s self-involvement. The literary critic Benjamin Schwartz, from The Atlantic Monthly, who has reviewed several of Didion’s works, says he’s often been bothered by what he calls---quote----“a self-important ennui”----the careful attention she pays to her own image….which is very carefully and deliberately cultivated, so people who actually like that image like reading about it. But for the rest of us, it can get on our nerves,” said Schwartz. Another critic, Karen Bates, a commentator for NPR’S Day-to-Day program, says the personal lens through which Didion has always written is what makes the author, in Bate’s opinion, one of the most interesting writers today. She says ---quote---“It’s like thinking out loud, only we’re privy to it. And eventually, her thoughts get put between book covers, and it goes out for everyone to make their decision as to what they think about it one way or the other. But I think she probably is, first and foremost, writing for herself. And her mission seems to be to write as honestly and as unflinchingly as she can, and I think that’s probably why we got the book we got in The Year Of Magical Thinking.”

I agree. I found The Year Of Magical Thinking an EXTREMELY unflinching and honest commentary on the unpredictability, the un-know-ability of our day-to-day futures, as human beings. She addresses both the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the finality of death. Her commentary on these issues she makes intensely personal, sharing with us her own journey in the year after she lost her husband. But she also makes us think about our own journeys--- our relationships with our loved ones, and the importance of living in the moment. Kings or slaves, privileged or down-trodden, wealthy or destitute: all of us, just by the simple fact that we are ALIVE, are vulnerable, and may one day be subject to, the most terrible, unforeseen, totally unexpected, most defining moments we will ever endure: the sudden death of someone we love. Those moments can be far-reaching, caused by acts of Nature or war or terrorism, and thus, shared by anonymous others in a collective experience: there is the appearance of the Army soldier in his dress greens, knocking on a mother’s door with unbearable news….there is the ordinary Sunday morning that dawned over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941….the gorgeous autumn morning sky we all remember on September 11, 2001… the 9.0 Richter earthquake that triggered the 2004 tsunami…. without warning, we, along with our neighbors, or our country, or with the entire world, are plunged into collective grief.

Then, there are the most deeply personal moments of our experience as human beings, and these ---despite as much loving support as we are fortunate to have in the way of friends and family--- these, we must ultimately bear alone, in our own ways. These are the times in our lives when someone we’ve truly known completely, inside-and-out, and lived with, side-by-side, and shared our very being with, and loved, in a way that only WE could have loved, or been loved by, that one person, in our own unique way, leaves us. No matter how ill or elderly that person might be, no matter how hopeless the case, even if there is a terminal diagnosis, and we’ve had the chance to say a prolonged good-bye, I don’t think we are ever fully prepared for the moment when life relinquishes itself to death, and our beloved fellow human being is no more---gone, forever. BUT, when death occurs completely out-of-the-blue, suddenly, without warning, blind-siding us, finding us totally unprepared and defenseless, at moments like the one Joan Didion recalls, quote--- “John was talking. Suddenly, he wasn’t”…well then, we are cast out, totally adrift, to swim and flail in waters so deep and so uncharted that I think it sometimes can take a lifetime to find our way back to dry land.

In the seconds after her husband fell to the ground, Joan Didion immediately called for help. She says, quote: “In the kitchen by the telephone I had taped a card with the NY-Presbyterian ambulance numbers. I had not taped the numbers by the telephone because I anticipated a moment like this. I had taped the numbers by the telephone in case someone in the building needed an ambulance. Someone else.”

Shortly thereafter, at the hospital where her husband arrived, DOA, the social worker who was immediately assigned to work with Joan described her as a ‘cool customer.” My impression of Joan Didion is that, by nature, she probably IS quite a cool customer. But in the necessity of facing and accepting her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness, she showed herself to be anything but. She couldn’t manage the storms of grief that raged inside her. As the days without John stretched into weeks, and weeks into months, she tried to research and rationalize her way out of that grief: quote----“Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control.”

She attempts to cope by turning her reporter’s eye on the sequence of events----she reads the manager’s log at their apartment, detailing the time sequence of the arrival and departure of the paramedics on the night John was stricken. Then, there’s the paramedic’s report, the autopsy results, the medical details of her husband’s previous cardiac treatment. When Quintana relapses, Joan writes almost like a medical reporter of her daughter’s physical condition, the experimental drugs they turn to, the measures taken to save her, and the signs that recovery is growing increasingly unlikely. But the outward calm of her rather clinical approach can’t mask the terror she feels in her mother’s heart.

There are also all the books she turns to for guidance, and comfort. It makes complete sense to me that she would look to literature for help---after all, she’s been a writer all her life. From poetry, to medical journals, to Sigmund Freud, she searches for some answer, some understanding, some comfort. But death and grief can’t really be managed, or understood, or rationalized away by thinking or reading about it. It’s too merciless, too huge for that. The only helpful hint she found in all the literature she plowed through, was in Emily Post’s 1922 Book of Etiquette, wherein Emily suggests that, after the funeral, the bereaved be given a little hot tea or broth. Joan Didion watches herself become irrational, unhinged, not a ‘cool customer’ at all. Despite all her efforts to exert some control over her situation, she is, simply and terribly, a grieving widow, with no tools to stem the pain and reconcile the loss. And so, she begins her “Year of Magical Thinking.”

She says it began on the very night of her husband’s death, when she refused to let anyone stay in the apartment with her. She says, quote—“I needed to be alone, so he could come back.”

She eagerly awaits autopsy results----then realizes that she’s hoping to understand what killed John, so that she might be able to get it fixed.

She cleans out his closet, but cannot let go of his shoes. She says ---quote---“I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, and then realized why: He would need shoes if he was to return.”

She holds a funeral service for John, and she says quote---“I had done it. I had acknowledged that he was dead. I had done this in as public a way as I could conceive. But later I realized that my immediate thought had been - I did the ritual. I did it all. And it still didn’t bring him back.”

More than anything, both in her style of writing, and in her magical thinking, there is almost a musical sense of repetition. She repeats a thought, over and over again, until it is almost swelling with an undercurrent of meaning -- for example, quote: “What would I give to be able to discuss this with John? What would I give to be able to discuss anything at all with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one small thing be? If I had said it in time, would it have worked?” Joan Didion’s TheYear Of Magical Thinking ends with the first anniversary of John’s death. As she tells us, quote: “ I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 31, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead.” Didion speaks directly to us, telling us what she learned (and there is a special poignancy here, as she ends the book….for she did not know then what we know now, which is that Quintana died the following August). Simply, you have to let the dead go. You have to go on. Knowing that, learning it, does not make it any easier to do. But it must be done. By sharing her experience with us, Joan Didion forces us to think more deeply of all those whom we hold most precious in our lives, and to cherish them while we have them….knowing that, no matter the circumstances, they will, one day, surely be taken from us. …just as surely as, one day, we ourselves will be gone.

Questions provided by Susannah Risley. Related information provided by Maria Riccio Bryce.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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