Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion




(Highly Recommended)




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I started reading Joan Didion’s account of the year following her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, when it came out last October. I felt a powerful sadness coming over me within a few dozen pages, and decided to set it aside. I returned to it recently, and found that Didion’s description of the power of grief to be so perfect and so raw that I understand why I needed to give it a little time. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 3, pp. 34-41:


The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted. The act of grieving, Freud told us in his 1917 “Mourning and Melancholia,” “in­volves grave departures from the normal attitude to life.” Yet, he pointed out, grief remains peculiar among de­rangements: “It never occurs to us to regard it as a pathol­ogical condition and to refer it to medical treatment.” We rely instead on “its being overcome after a certain lapse of time.” We view “any interference with it as use­less and even harmful.” Melanie Klein, in her 1940 “Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States,” made a similar assessment: “The mourner is in fact ill, but because this state of mind is common and seems so natural to us, we do not call mourning an illness. . . . To put my conclusion more precisely: I should say that in mourning the subject goes through a modified and transi­tory manic-depressive state and overcomes it.”

Notice the stress on “overcoming” it.

It was deep into the summer, some months after the night when I needed to be alone so that he could come back, before I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was inca­pable of thinking rationally. I was thinking as small chil­dren think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome. In my case this disordered thinking had been covert, noticed I think by no one else, hidden even from me, but it had also been, in retrospect, both urgent and constant. In retro­spect there had been signs, warning flags I should have noticed. There had been for example the matter of the obituaries. I could not read them. This continued from December 31, when the first obituaries appeared, until February 29, the night of the 2004 Academy Awards, when I saw a photograph of John in the Academy’s “In Memoriam” montage. When I saw the photograph I real­ized for the first time why the obituaries had so dis­turbed me.

I had allowed other people to think he was dead.

I had allowed him to be buried alive.

Another such flag: there had come a point (late February, early March, after Quintana had left the hospi­tal but before the funeral that had waited on her recov­ery) when it had occurred to me that I was supposed to give John’s clothes away. Many people had mentioned the necessity for giving the clothes away, usually in the well-intentioned but (as it turns out) misguided form of offering to help me do this. I had resisted. I had no idea why. I myself remembered, after my father died, helping my mother separate his clothes into stacks for Goodwill and “better” stacks for the charity thrift shop where my sister-in-law Gloria volunteered. After my mother died Gloria and I and Quintana and Gloria and Jim’s daugh­ters had done the same with her clothes. It was part of what people did after a death, part of the ritual, some kind of duty.

I began. I cleared a shelf on which John had stacked sweatshirts, T-shirts, the clothes he wore when we walked in Central Park in the early morning. We walked every morning. We did not always walk together because we liked different routes but we would keep the other’s route in mind and intersect before we left the park. The clothes on this shelf were as familiar to me as my own. I closed my mind to this. I set aside certain things (a faded sweatshirt I particularly remembered him wearing, a Canyon Ranch T-shirt Quintana had brought him from Arizona), but I put most of what was on this shelf into bags and took the bags across the street to St. James’ Episcopal Church. Emboldened, I opened a closet and filled more bags: New Balance sneakers, all-weather shoes, Brooks Brothers shorts, bag after bag of socks. I took the bags to St. James’. One day a few weeks later I gathered up more bags and took them to John’s office, where he had kept his clothes. I was not yet prepared to address the suits and shirts and jackets but I thought I could handle what remained of the shoes, a start.

I stopped at the door to the room.

I could not give away the rest of his shoes.

I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.

The recognition of this thought by no means eradi­cated the thought.

I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.


On reflection I see the autopsy itself as the first example of this kind of thinking. Whatever else had been in my mind when I so determinedly authorized an autopsy, there was also a level of derangement on which I rea­soned that an autopsy could show that what had gone wrong was something simple. It could have been no more than a transitory blockage or arrhythmia. It could have required only a minor adjustment—a change in medica­tion, say, or the resetting of a pacemaker. In this case, the reasoning went, they might still be able to fix it.

I recall being struck by an interview, during the 2004 campaign, in which Teresa Heinz Kerry talked about the sudden death of her first husband. After the plane crash that killed John Heinz, she said in the interview, she had felt very strongly that she “needed” to leave Washington and go back to Pittsburgh.

Of course she “needed” to go back to Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh, not Washington, was the place to which he might come back.

The autopsy did not in fact take place the night John was declared dead.

The autopsy did not take place until eleven the next morning. I realize now that the autopsy could have taken place only after the man I did not know at New York Hospital made the phone call to me, on the morning of December 31. The man who made the call was not “my social worker,” not “my husband’s doctor,” not, as John and I might have said to each other, our friend from the bridge. “Not our friend from the bridge” was family shorthand, having to do with how his Aunt Harriet Burns described subsequent sightings of recently encountered strangers, for example seeing outside the Friendly’s in West Hartford the same Cadillac Seville that had earlier cut her off on the Bulkeley Bridge. “Our friend from the bridge,” she would say. I was thinking about John saying “not our friend from the bridge” as I listened to the man on the telephone. I recall expressions of sympathy. I re­call offers of assistance. He seemed to be avoiding some point.

He was calling, he said then, to ask if I would donate my husband’s organs.

Many things went through my mind at this instant. The first word that went through my mind was “no.” Simul­taneously I remembered Quintana mentioning at dinner one night that she had identified herself as an organ donor when she renewed her driver’s license. She had asked John if he had. He had said no. They had dis­cussed it.

I had changed the subject.

I had been unable to think of either of them dead.

The man on the telephone was still talking. I was thinking: If she were to die today in the ICU at Beth Israel North, would this come up? What would I do? What would I do now?

I heard myself saying to the man on the telephone that my husband’s and my daughter was unconscious. I heard myself saying that I did not feel capable of making such a decision before our daughter even knew he was dead. This seemed to me at the time a reasonable response.

Only after I hung up did it occur to me that nothing about it was reasonable. This thought was immediately (and usefully—notice the instant mobilization of cogni­tive white cells) supplanted by another: there had been in this call something that did not add up. There had been a contradiction in it. This man had been talking about donating organs, but there was no way at this point to do a productive organ harvest: John had not been on life support. He had not been on life support when I saw him in the curtained cubicle in the emergency room. He had not been on life support when the priest came. All organs would have shut down.

Then I remembered: the Miami-Dade Medical Exam­iner’s office. John and I had been there together one morning in 1985 or 1986. There had been someone from the eye bank tagging bodies for cornea removal. Those bodies in the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office had not been on life support. This man from New York Hospital, then, was talking about taking only the corneas, the eyes. Then why not say so? Why misrepresent this to me? Why make this call and not just say “his eyes”? I took the silver clip the social worker had given me the night before from the box in the bedroom and looked at the driver’s license. Eyes: BL, the license read. Restrictions: Corrective Lenses.

Why make this call and not just say what you wanted?

His eyes. His blue eyes. His blue imperfect eyes.


                                                            and what i want to know is

            how do you like your blueeyed boy

            Mister Death


I could not that morning remember who wrote those lines. I thought it was E. E. Cummings but I could not be sure. I did not have a volume of Cummings but found an anthology on a poetry shelf in the bedroom, an old textbook of John’s, published in 1949, when he would have been at Portsmouth Priory, the Benedictine board­ing school near Newport to which he was sent after his fa­ther died.

(His father’s death: sudden, cardiac, in his early fifties, I should have taken that warning.)

If we happened to be anywhere around Newport John would take me to Portsmouth to hear the Gregorian chant at vespers. It was something that moved him. On the fly-leaf of the anthology there was written the name Dunne, in small careful handwriting, and then, in the same hand­writing, blue ink, fountain-pen blue ink, these guides to study: 1) What is the meaning of the poem and what is the experience? 2) What thought or reflection does the experi­ence lead us to? 3) What mood, feeling, emotion is stirred or created by the poem as a whole? I put the book back on the shelf. It would be some months before I remembered to confirm that the lines were in fact E. E. Cummings. It would also be some months before it occurred to me that my anger at this unknown caller from New York Hospital reflected another version of the primitive dread that had not for me been awakened by the autopsy question.

What was the meaning and what the experience?

To what thought or reflection did the experience lead us?

How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?


If you’re prepared for the power of a chapter like this one, and for the questions at the end of the excerpt, you’ll find reading The Year of Magical Thinking to be a moving and powerful experience. This book is a personal memoir, a tribute to Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, and a memoir of grief itself. The writing is outstanding.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2006 issue of Executive Times


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