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The Year of Magical Thinking

September 11, 2012

Wandering around Powell’s Books with map in hand but no list of books I was particularly looking for, I stumbled upon a display featuring a paperback copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, so since I had been urged to try that one, in the wake of trying the Joyce Carol Oates widowhood memoir, I bought it.

You were right; it was better. It was still not the book I was looking for; I think probably that book doesn’t exist. Grief is too particular (to sort of paraphrase Tolstoy’s opening line). We should all probably just reread C.S. Lewis, who said (in Mere Christianity) “most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.”

There were things to like in The Year of Magical Thinking, among them her quote from a lecture series on attitudes towards death which points out that the modern trend is to “treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.” Even in conversations with my own recently-widowed mother, we steer towards the no-one-would-guess-anything-had-happened course, lest we shipwreck and become speechless on the telephone, which kind of defeats the purpose of calling.

I also like the way Didion recreates the experience of having something her husband had said to their daughter (“it all evens out in the end”) reinterpreted after his own death, ending with her realization that “it had never occurred to me that John meant that bad news will come to each of us.”

Interlaced with the musings on grief are observations that strike me as true about what it’s like to be married for a long time: “Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John’s eyes. I did not age. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I saw myself through the eyes of others. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I realized that my image of myself was of someone significantly younger.”

And woven in with the musings and observations are occasional revelations:
“All year I have been keeping time by last year’s calendar: what were we doing on this day last year, where did we have dinner, is it the day a year ago we flew to Honolulu….I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John….
I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.
I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name on the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water.
Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.”

Eventually, though, Didion takes me right back to C.S. Lewis. Her thoughts about coming home with news and having no one to tell it to lead her back to the book Lewis wrote after the death of his wife, A Grief Observed, where he says “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual.”

And rereading A Grief Observed might lead you to Madeleine L’Engle’s foreward to the 1988 volume, which concludes with this:
“No easy or sentimental comforts are offered, but the ultimate purpose of God’s love for all of us human creatures is love. Reading A Grief Observed is to share not only in C. S. Lewis’s grief but in his understanding of love, and that is richness indeed.”

A good thought on this eleventh anniversary of September 11.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2012 7:25 am

    “Even in conversations with my own recently-widowed mother, we steer towards the no-one-would-guess-anything-had-happened course, lest we shipwreck and become speechless on the telephone, which kind of defeats the purpose of calling.”

    Yes, exactly. You wield a pretty eloquent pen of your own, Jeanne.

    Like you, I thought this one had some insightful/eloquent moments, but it didn’t totally nail it for me either. I’ve thought about the problem of particularity, but I also wonder if the issue isn’t that we keep grief so hidden and protected that, to some extent, we actually lose access to it. Also, there’s probably a limit to how much we can endure to re-experience the pain by writing about it.

    Also, have you seen Didion’s memoir of her daughter’s death, Blue Nights? I wasn’t very keen on it. A (sort of) recent memoir of grief that I did like was The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke (she lost her mother to cancer). She is a poet, and her prose is just lovely, too.

    • September 11, 2012 2:48 pm

      I think we’re right to keep grief hidden and protected. No one wants to walk around saying “hi, how are you?” to people and hearing all of the real answers, nor do the grieving people want to bare their souls to the grocery store clerk, the person they see once a year at a conference, etc.
      I have not seen Didion’s memoir of her daughter’s death. That kind of answers an unasked question about this one, in which the daughter was near death for much of it.
      Maybe someday I’ll look at The Long Goodbye.

  2. Carol Schumacher permalink
    September 11, 2012 8:22 am

    Excellent post, Jeanne! I’m glad you read this and liked it.

  3. magpiemusing permalink
    September 11, 2012 10:28 am

    that book was very moving.

  4. Rita D permalink
    September 11, 2012 10:54 am

    Great post, Jeanne. I think that the reason you have not found just the right book on this subject is because you need to write it yourself. NWK (above) is correct. You have an amazing way with words. When can we look forward to your book? 🙂

    • September 11, 2012 2:50 pm

      Your comment made me think about what a kicker it would be if, after a lifetime of reading fiction, I started writing non-fiction. I would model a book about person loss on a book I once read through about weight loss, 100 Days of Weight Loss. There would be a coping mechanism suggested for each day.

  5. drgeek permalink
    September 11, 2012 5:42 pm

    I think that the quote “treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened” belies a general remove we have in the industrialized nations of the West from death. In former times, the dead would be laid out in the parlor as one more guest at the wake… now we hand the dead over to morticians to handle, so we can safely visit them in the surrogate parlor of the funeral home.

    Have you seen this? I found it quite moving:

    http://video.pbs.org/video/1082075672/

    • September 11, 2012 6:23 pm

      I had not seen that video, but now I’ve got the book on my list of books to find and read. Thanks!
      Didion actually makes the same point you do, in the process of talking about how an old etiquette book gets it right about what to say to the bereaved.
      Ron and I once spent an evening with my dead great-aunt in her apartment in Hyattsville, MD and will tell you the whole tragi-comical story someday.

  6. September 11, 2012 6:56 pm

    I preface my comments by acknowledging that I have not yet experienced the kind of loss Didion (or for that matter, Lewis) wrote about. Yes, my father died in 1999 but we’d been estranged for years and I didn’t learn of his death until 2004, so it kind of doesn’t count.

    All that to say, with the loss I have experienced I’ve done exactly what Didion wrote about doing, framing the entire first year in terms of what she and her husband had been doing a year ago. And that rang so true for me, I know that when I do have those kinds of losses, I will be doing just that. Heck I do it now for more minor things like our flood.

    I haven’t read her memoir about her daughter’s death. I’m not sure I will only because Year was so good that I’m not sure that book would live up to the standard.

    • September 12, 2012 7:49 am

      I think the part about remembering the past year rings true for most people, and about many kinds of loss–as you point out with the flood example. And other losses can become associated with a main loss. The loss of a friend and a flood, for me.

  7. September 11, 2012 7:24 pm

    I haven’t read this, but have meant to, kind of — I haven’t read much Didion, in fact. Hmm

    • September 12, 2012 7:49 am

      I’ll bet you can find this one in the library, or you can borrow my copy.

  8. September 12, 2012 4:10 am

    What a good review of this book. But Didion seems surpassed by C. S. Lewis’s thoughts on grief which are genius, although they have just shredded my heart. I’m not quite of the same opinion as you about not showing grief, though. My mother-in-law has hidden her sadness away since her husband died, seven years ago, and she has had the most enormous trouble moving on. As far as I can see, her grief has frozen below the surface where it continues to undermine her in a chronic way. It would have been so much better for her to air some of it, and whilst the suffering would undoubtedly be awful, this limbo is no better for her. But these things are very personal and what works for one may well not be the strategy of choice for another.

    • September 12, 2012 7:52 am

      Yes, these things are very personal. My family expresses grief when together, but not when we’re separated, and not in public. My son did an extraordinarily kind thing at my father’s funeral–made me laugh as we got up to go out–because he knew it would help me keep myself together and that was important.

  9. September 12, 2012 12:36 pm

    Grief is incredibly personal, and it can be difficult to express it and feel another’s pain because it is so unique. I did think that Didion’s book was more accesible than some others I’ve read, but I realize I need to read the C.S. Lewis book. Did you know that Didion lost her daughter Quintana not long after the events of The Year Of Magical Thinking? She wrote a book about that as well, and I imagine it is different than this one as losing a child is a different kind of grief than losing a spouse (or so I imagine).

    • September 12, 2012 2:54 pm

      I didn’t know that the daughter also died until I read Nancy’s comment above. What a thing to live through. I would also imagine it’s a different kind of grief than losing a spouse, although like all mothers, I hope I never found out. Of course, like all women, I have a chance of outliving my spouse.

  10. September 13, 2012 12:09 pm

    It’s my husband’s 35th birthday today. I was recently thinking something similar what Didion was saying about marriage being the denial of time. It was when I realized that when he leaves town and I’m missing him, in my mind’s eye I’m missing–maybe not quite the18-year-old boy I first met, but a young man of about 22.

    Only for me it doesn’t work reverse. I don’t see myself through my husband’s eyes.

    What you said about phone calls with your mother that struck NWK struck me too, very well put. The ritual of familial phone calls seems designed for saying everything but the things We’re Not Saying.

    • September 14, 2012 8:03 am

      So you’re only 13 years off…but that gap may continue to widen.
      In writing, I send my mother lines from poems. Sept. 12 was the 55th anniversary of her first meeting my father, and the first anniversary of the day they knew he was sick, so I sent her flowers with some lines from Tennyson, the predictable ones about better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

  11. September 13, 2012 3:07 pm

    This one was incredibly powerful to me. Didion’s portrayal of her grief was so raw and honest. It was all so fresh that it felt very real to me.

    • September 14, 2012 8:03 am

      Yes, it does feel like it was written in the moment.

  12. September 13, 2012 7:57 pm

    I read this right after A Grief Observed, which of course was unfair to Joan Didion. Lining up nearly anyone next to CS Lewis, who in addition to being a beautiful prose writer is wonderful at emotional honesty, is always going to be a fail for the non-CS-Lewis person.

    • September 14, 2012 8:05 am

      Yes. It’s like what actors say about being in a scene with a dog or a small child. Probably if you’re writing a book about grief, you should think twice before quoting C.S. Lewis.

  13. September 25, 2012 10:26 am

    Have not read much CSLewis (sure, Narnia for the win) but I was very impressed by TYoMT and Didion.

    You do write brilliantly. And what you write brilliantly is often brilliant, too.

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