Didion in Mourning

In this interview, author Joan Didion reflects on the obsessiveness of grief, the value of ritual and the inability to bring about happy endings in life.

Shiri Lev-Ari
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Shiri Lev-Ari

"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." These were the first words Joan Didion wrote after this happened to her.

At a very ordinary moment in her life, the American author, essayist and journalist writes in her book, "The Year of Magical Thinking" - her life was transformed dramatically. "Nine months and five days ago," she writes in a precise, almost detached manner, "at approximately nine o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death."

Three winters ago, a week after Christmas, Didion lost her husband of 40 years, author John Gregory Dunne. She began writing "The Year of Magical Thinking" 10 months after his death. During that same period, their only daughter Quintana was hospitalized in an intensive-care unit for pneumonia and an infection that had spread throughout her body. With sad irony, after Didion finished writing the book, in which she describes how she dealt with her husband's death, with the experience of losing a loved one and with her grief, and while she was awaiting the book's publication, Quintana died at age 39 from an infectious virus that attacked her pancreas. Suddenly, Didion found herself alone, without the small family unit she had nurtured for so many years.

Didion, 71, a prominent figure in American culture and journalism, was one of the founders of the New Journalism, which emerged in the 1960s, and for years she chronicled cultural and political life in America.

After the publication of her book, many people wondered how she could find words to express her grief, how she could write and publicize her book, and even embark on a campaign to promote it. She says she had no choice - that this was the only way she could maintain her sanity. "Yes," she explains in an interview which we carried out by email, "writing the book turned out to be necessary or therapeutic for me - it forced me to articulate what I was thinking and not thinking."

In "The Year of Magical Thinking," which appeared in Hebrew two months ago (translated by Irit Miller and published by Matar), Didion recollects and records the tragic chain of events and presents her thoughts about life, death and loss. What she terms "magical thinking" incorporates her magical, irrational thoughts during that year of mourning. All of these thoughts are characterized by an inability, or an unwillingness, to make peace with irreversible events. For example, she was convinced that she must not give away her husband's shoes because he would have to wear them after his return. She did everything in her power to avoid the places they had been to together. She found this book, the only one that her husband had not read before its publication, difficult to finish, because as long as she kept on writing, she felt that she was still in touch with him.

Remaining questions

Joan Didion was born in 1935 in California. At age 21, she completed her studies at Berkeley and was accepted as a staff writer for Vogue magazine. In New York she met Dunne and the two were soon married. After publishing her first book, she left Vogue and began publishing short stories in various journals. She surveyed the hippie literature of the 1960s for a number of newspapers and then went on to write about political issues. Together with her husband, she wrote screenplays for Hollywood, including those for the 1976 remake of "A Star is Born," with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and "Up Close and Personal" with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Didion's marriage to Dunne was always a topic that aroused great interest. People were curious to know how two prolific authors were able to live under the same roof and to what extent they encouraged each other and competed with each other. Whenever she was interviewed on the subject, Didion would reply that they never competed with one another, that they always helped one another because they believed that they both benefited from each other's success.

While writing this book, Didion remembered all the major and minor events in her family's history. She recalls the outings and travels, the family meals, the gatherings.

"The Year of Magical Thinking" depicts the full, rich life Didion and Dunne enjoyed as a couple, but it is sad to realize that despite all the personal and social ties, and all the money and knowledge - none of these provided any help in the encounter with life's misfortunes.

One idea that arises in the book is our powerlessness as human beings when faced with life's problems. Is there any way of dealing with them?

Didion: "What the experiences of the last few years taught me was that I have no control over events. You could describe this as being 'helpless,' and a few years ago I certainly would have, but I think of it now as 'accepting.' By which I mean accepting my own or anyone's lack of omnipotence."

While reading "The Year of Magical Thinking," the illogical thought sometimes arises that perhaps the story will have a different end, a happier one. Did you experience this need, so characteristic of writers, to control the plot? To change its end?

"The urge to control the story, change its end, is so much a part of our reaction to a death that it was the strongest thing in my mind from the time it happened - by the time I started writing, some months later, I was mainly trying to deal with my own dawning recognition that nothing I did could change the ending."

Was it only through a dream or through writing that she could reveal her thoughts, she asks herself in the book. Her response today: "I thought I knew the answer when I finished the book, but I learned when I was writing the play that there were still unraised and unanswered questions."

The word 'audience'

"The Year of Magical Thinking," Didion's 13th book, has won the National Book Award and she is now turning it into a one-person play, which is due to open on Broadway: "The making of the play has been an intense and very private experience, between me and the director and the producer. Only a few days ago when I saw a model of the set (it will open in late March at the Booth Theater in New York) did I realize in any visceral way that other people were going to see the play. We were talking about 'audience sight lines,' and suddenly the only word I heard was 'audience.' This was a little startling."

How do you find the words to describe your grief and pain? Can words even touch that kind of experience?

"It seemed to me that the only way I could touch or describe the feelings of mourning was to try to replicate the experience - which meant in technical terms to describe the same scene over and over - trying to transmit the obsessiveness of grief."

In "The Year of Magical Thinking," she notes that few books have been written about mourning. Why? "I think mourning is a subject we avoid because we are raised not to exhibit self-pity," she explains. "We're afraid of it. We're afraid we'll sink into it. So we hide our grief. I realized at some point that I was not in fact hiding it very well, so I thought I had better deal with it."

The book contains frequent references to Christianity, its beliefs and customs. When her husband dies in hospital, Didion meets a confessional priest and she quotes from the Christian liturgy. Apparently, her religious faith did not vanish in the wake of her encounter with life's difficult moments: "I would have to say that my religious belief is largely in the value of ritual. This remained unchanged, although I did find a deeper meaning in some of the litany - for example, 'in the midst of life we are in death.'"

When we are faced with grief, is there any room for positive thoughts?

"I suppose you can find a positive perspective in anything you live through. Not that you become a better person, but you do become a different person, and maybe with luck a more understanding person. It just becomes part of who you are."

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