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On Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking"

I’m having difficulty wanting to finish The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

I find it inaccessible, as a memoir, and am perhaps reactive about that: I hope that whatever I write as a memoirist will be accessible to a broader range of readers.

This book has value as an intimate look at how grief shaped Didion's first year after her husband’s passing. In it, Didion's mind is fractured, as evidenced on the page, by memories of him, thoughts of him, regrets about interactions with him, magical thinking that he could return the next day—disbelief that he won’t return. What I find inaccessible is that fracturing into intimate memories is difficult to digest; those memories are so very intimate, are characterized by a “you had to be there” tenor, that I could do little but skim them or skip over them just to keep moving forward. Otherwise, I’d become mired in those details that to me are entirely insignificant and meaningless. What makes those moments doubly frustrating for me is the volume of what feels like name-dropping and place-dropping she includes. The name and place-dropping got to such a crescendo for me that it felt haughty, elitist, detached from the lifestyles of the lower 99%. In one moment, Didion talks about her husband hopping on a plane to come see her for dinner, flying from one California town to another just for a meal, then back again. The next moment, she’s name-dropping Donald (“Rummy”) Rumsfeld, who was apparently in the same class as her husband at Harvard. And I felt sick to my stomach. When I read these things, I can think of nothing other than this: such a memoir would not have been published if it were written by anyone other than Joan Didion. It left me so nauseous that I needed to check in with my bestie, Gretchen, who thankfully reminded me that this is sort-of what Didion is known for: she broke out, with that very first award-winning essay, as someone “on the beat” of current politics. That was how she made a name for herself. So it’s what can be expected from a memoir of hers about her life and lifestyle (jetting between NYC and LA, dinners at high-end posh restaurants, an entire summer in Paris, hobnobbing with the nation's elite, etc.).

Okay. So it’s to me to weed out what feels like elitist snobbery to attain the message: grief does strange things to the mind and body. She wrote the book in a two-month fervor, perhaps in just a few brief sittings, during the year after Dunne died. So perhaps there is something to be said for that, too. Her portrayal of that grief is timely, concurrent with her writing, a snapshot from the inside as it unfolds, if you will. In that sense it is very real and incredibly intimate. I can value the universality in that. I can look past the parts that I find alienating to see the humanity in it.

There’s something in the grief she feels, too, that speaks to the Buddhist concept of impermanence. I have not truly grieved someone who passed away, yet. The only grief I know has been for my grandparents, with just one of whom did I have a close relationship. Otherwise, I’ve grieved the loss of my mother, as I went No-Contact with her; in that, I grieved more the loss of a mother-figure, or the expectations that a mother-role might have in my life, than I did the person herself. So what do I know of grief? Nothing, really. I have no true connection. So I might try for compassion, and I recognize that without any equivalent life experience, I might fail.

Nevertheless, Didion’s portrayal of her grief (and her helicoptering of Quintana’s care, probably fueled by that grief—or a reluctance to face it alongside dissociation), often reflected, to me, her unwillingness to accept change. It highlighted, to me, her clinging to a reality, and a desire to control outcomes. All of this clinging, attempting to control what is uncontrollable, the Buddhist philosophy points out simply causes more suffering.

At moments, I wanted to point a finger at Didion and say, “HA! You’re too attached. You’re clinging. You’re controlling! You’ve not ever accepted the concept of impermanence and allowed yourself to become over-attached to earthly, impermanent things.” As though she were somehow culpable for that—as though she had any control over her behaviors during grief.

The truth is, this may simply be a manifestation of grief—a very real, very candid, representation of how her brain functioned on the drug that is grief. And how could I possibly know? As I just said, I’ve never lost anyone close to me the way that she did with her husband and nearly did with her daughter at the same time.

There can be no finger-pointing here. There is only humanity.

It makes me wonder how I will face grief, when I do. I have, in fact, thought much about it because of all my research into Buddhism and this concept of impermanence. The truth is that my mental breakdown in Madrid, at age 38, happened because I was clinging too hard, trying to control too much, trying to prevent my life from changing—such that I began to look at the one thing that nobody can ever control: death. I developed a terror of death, knowing that it would come for me and that I’d never know when and couldn’t alter that outcome. I could attempt to prolong my life, but nothing is guaranteed.

That was when I began my journey to evaluate my attachments. What would happen if I let my children go—as they were beginning to pull away from me and need me less, moving into middle school, then high school, and soon enough, college? Would I collapse into a puddle of inconsequential nothingness? The answer is that if I defined myself as their mother, that is to say, if I attached myself too closely to their care and wellbeing, the answer was going to be YES. I’d disappear when they no longer needed me.

The same could be said of my husband. What would happen to me if/when he passed away? How much of my own identity, happiness, life, was bound up in my relationship with him? This was yet another cause for detachment to begin. I was over-dependent on him; in fact, I was codependent with him, doing so much for him in a backwards manipulation to ensure he never left me: “Look how much I do for you! You can’t leave me. You need me.”

I suppose, in this sense, I have pre-experienced grief for both my children and my husband. I was forced, in that existential crisis, to reconsider my attachment to everyone who mattered most to me, to ensure that if/when they left me, I could still survive—thrive, even. It’s a detachment that has served me well in friendships since then, giving me the strength to walk away in my own power from any relationship that does not serve my best interests.

So I couldn't help but wonder, was Didion too attached to Dunne? Does such grief occur in the way she described it if we are not codependent with others? But I can’t say. I’ll have to live it to know for sure. Nevertheless, I swore to myself during that time of my own crisis that I would never allow my husband’s impermanence to destroy me. Likewise, I would not allow my own impermanence to destroy me. Our limited lifespans are natural, inevitable, and good, even. This evolution of the human life is how it should be. Moreover, I know that we outlive our current state of existence when we die; our energy and the elements of our body do not just disappear…they simply change form and function. In that sense, reincarnation is real: the bits and parts of my body may become bits and parts of another body in the future, whether it be a rock or soil or plant or animal.

I suppose that what I took from Didion’s book was a more acute inspection of attachment/impermanence and a compassion for the human experience of grief. And I suppose, in that sense, it was very much a worthwhile read.

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