Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Grief is Not Self-Pity: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

by Vivian Lam

“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.”

When does grief become “self-pity”? What is the “proper” way to grieve?

Joan Didion begins writing what would become The Year of Magical Thinking a few days after her husband, John Dunne, dies from a heart attack. Coupled with the mounting health crises of her daughter, Quintana, Didion’s world is thrown out of joint. In the ongoing aftermath of these tragedies, Didion, acclaimed novelist and literary journalist, copes by doing what she has done all her life—write. But this time, her husband is no longer the patient proofreader working beside her, but a ghostly absence she can’t stop turning back to. She tests the threshold where “normal” grief crosses into the “pathological,” picks apart medical and societal indifference towards the patient and the survivor, scrutinizes a vast scientific and literary trove on death and mourning. But in spite of her clinical self-awareness and the terse detachment of her reporting, she can’t break out of an irrational “magical thinking” that sends her down a spiral of uncertainty and regret.

What makes The Year of Magical Thinking a quintessential work in the bereavement canon is not just her analytical prowess, but the strength she finds in vulnerability. What results from her attempts to “come to terms” and “handle things” is an extended elegy to grief and change. In the waves of raw despair that belie how lost and isolated death has left her, Didion demonstrates a resilience that, though failing to triumph, offers illuminating insights on the experience of grief and the insufficiency of our traditional views towards the process of grieving.

We might even find it wrong to consider grief a process in the first place; for Didion, grief comes as a state of being.
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In an interview with New York Magazine, Didion states that one of the main reasons why she wrote this account was to “bring death close.” In direct opposition to the invisibility of death in Western society, Didion conducts a form of investigative reporting on grief—the primary case being herself. With repetitive and desperate precision, she reconstructs and deconstructs the moments leading up to her husband slumping onto the dinner table, and is frustrated by her cloudy memory of following the ambulance only to return home alone with a bag of bloodied clothes. She pores over the apartment doormen time log for the night of December 30, and wonders “Was that ever a heartbeat or was it just electricity” (81)? She jumps back and forth in time, placing all events relative to her husband’s death with an unshakable guilt and unanswerable “what if’s.”

Directly opposing her attempts to gather information and regain control of the situation, Didion is plagued by an “irrational” disengagement with reality. “Magical thinking” refers to a belief that an action or object can influence or change the outcome of an otherwise unrelated course of events. Some might call it “superstitious,” and others might call it “prayer.” For Didion, magical thinking comprises her illogical belief that her husband was “coming back,” and that she would yet be able to save him and “reverse the narrative” (35). She balks at the hospital’s request to donate his eyes and at her own reluctance to donate his shoes, for “[h]ow could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes" (41)? She links her resistance against putting her daughter on a trach by “the same fund of superstition” that “she could be fine in the morning, ready to eat, talk, go home” (125).

Compounding these frustrations is what she calls “the vortex effect” (107)—a kind of PTSD triggered by familiar details that send her time travelling back to when her daughter was three years old, to when she and her husband went to dinner at Morton’s every week. “I cannot count the days on which I found myself driving abruptly blinded by tears. The Santa Ana was back. The jacaranda was back” (107). She repeatedly berates herself for being so easily sideswiped by these memories, to not be able to even “get as far as Rite Aid” without being swept in another deluge of regret (121).

So does Didion note the difference between grief and mourning:

“Until now I had been able only to grieve…Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention. Until now there had been every urgent reason to obliterate any attention that might otherwise have been paid, banish the thought, bring fresh adrenaline to bear on the crisis of the day. I had passed an entire season during which the only words I allowed myself to truly hear were recorded: Wel-come to U-C–L-A.” (143).

She condenses grief into textual form, expressing a fragmentation of thought and experience of reality that exposes a vulnerability she struggles to come to terms with.
Facing these mounting crises, Didion falls back to what she “had been trained since childhood” to do: “read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control” (44). She references a robust range of sources on death and grief from history and sociology (e.g., Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die, Phillipe Aries’ Western Attitudes Towards Death), psychology (e.g., Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia”), classic literature (e.g., CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain), poetry (e.g., Auden’s “Funeral Blues”), “professional literature” (e.g., the Harvard Child Bereavement Study, The Merck Manual), and a number of other medical papers. Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette, far from being outdated, resonated with her because she “wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed and not hidden from view” (57). She was taken by its practicality, as opposed to vague prognostications of abnormality.

Of particular salience was John Murray’s Intensive Care: A Doctor’s Journal, from which she “learned much that proved useful in…[her] daily dealing with the ICU doctors…” (102). So does she know that she has “made headway when a doctor to whom you had made one or another suggested presented, a day later, the plan as his own” (103). For the duration of her daughter’s hospitalization and transfer, Didion expresses a distinct distrust and dissatisfaction with the medical professionals she dealt with. In one particular instance, she argues with a doctor on the day they decided to do a tracheostomy for her daughter. She questions their rationale (“The rule at Duke [for intubation period] was also a week,” “It’s already on schedule,” “Everyone on the neuro units got a trach”), balks at their assumption that the basis for her resistance was the scar (“They were doctors…I was not. Ergo, any concerns I had must be cosmetic, frivolous”), that she didn’t notice that her daughter was taken off the EEG (“Maybe I didn’t notice that? My only child? My unconscious child?”) (123-125). She criticizes the vaguely placating status reports of the medical personnel with a kind of incredulous, dark humor:
“...I was told by a physician's assistant that after his weekend absence he had come in that morning to find Quintana's condition 'encouraging.' I asked what exactly had encouraged him about her condition when he came in that morning. 'She was still alive,' the physician's assistant said” (66).

What does “encouraging” mean? Does “leaving the table” in uncertain condition imply improvement from “not sure at all she would leave the table”? The “gilded-boy story,” used as a memory and comprehension test, “seemed to represent, in its utter impenetrability and apparent disregard for the sensitivity of the patient, the entire situation with which [she] was faced” (105). The condescension and indifference she faces in her attempt to stay informed and participate in her daughter’s care, leads her to so deep an isolation that, in a symbolic assertion of her competence, “it did not immediately occur to [her] that for the mother of a patient to show up at the hospital wearing blue cotton scrubs could only be viewed as a suspicious violation of boundaries” (105).

It is not until she had read the autopsy report that she “[began] to believe what [she] had been repeatedly told: nothing [they] had done or not done had either caused or could have prevented his death” (206). This didn’t mean that she had finally “overcome” her grief, or could now walk without the chains of memory. She still continues to reverse time and get lost in a vortex of memories. But now, instead of “trying to substitute an alternate real” she was “trying to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star” (183). She, like other survivors, still continues to “look back and see omens” and continue “[l]iving by symbols” because of the nagging feeling that she has not “sufficiently appreciated” something (152). It is the tragedy of knowing that we do not have the power to confidently say “You’re safe. I’m here” (219).

What Didion comes to realize is the insufficiency of words to grant meaning to a senseless event. The safeguard of literature can never sufficiently prepare her for the experience of grief. Nor can the assurances of her doctors ever remedy the helplessness she faces with death. Writing cannot provide sufficient catharsis to erase the “look of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, [and] openness” that mark people who have lost someone, and “think themselves invisible” (74-75). She comes to realize that the words that haunt her (“And then—gone,” “You’re safe, I’m here,” “For once in your life just let it go”) form a kind of tragic poetry that cannot be analyzed. As Didion states, the difference between “grief as we imagine it and grief as it is” lies in “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” (189). Words cannot fill the void.

And yet, a year and three days after starting this account, she realizes that she does not want to finish it. “The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none” (224). We refuse to “[l]et them become the photograph on the table…the name on the trust accounts” and “keep them dead” (224). We are told to let go in hopes that the ghosts will stop haunting us, but to do this feels more like betrayal.
Didion does not come to a conclusion. She finds no positive affirmation or overarching meaning. We are left with an awareness of the “ordinary instants” that pass uneventfully in our lives as we wait for the world to suddenly shift beneath our feet. Grief shouldn’t have to become self-pity. In the isolation of the void, where we must undo old habits and swallow the mundane discoveries we save for one listening ear, we are left only with ourselves (195). But even in a world where the divide between life and death has been pushed offstage, who are we to banish grief simply because it reminds us of the finitude of our own ordinary days? We can still support each other in the face of that void—to simply “bake a ham,” “drop it by the house,” and “go to the funeral” in solidarity (61). We must open ourselves to grief, if only to remind ourselves that we are never alone.

What Didion has built is a testament to the fragility of our lives, and to our resilience to continue on. We continue to carry these ghosts with us, and we are transformed by keeping them close to our hearts. "Leis go brown, tectonic plates shift, deep currents move, islands vanish, rooms get forgotten” (227). Life changes in an instant. The world moves on.

But memory never has to fade.

For further reading:
-Blue Nights – What could be thought of as Didion’s sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking, recounting the death of her daughter, Quintana.
-The stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking
-Interview with the “young writer” she refuses to talk to on page 168
-Interview with Katie Couric on the memoir and the grieving process

Vivian Lam is a student at Stanford University striving to contribute tangibly to the fields of end of life and palliative care, and the medical humanities. She enjoys running long distance and warbling the same songs in the shower all year long.

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