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September 27, 2005


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Scott Eric Kaufman

The short version of why she shouldn't be "allowed" is "Scott had had two glasses of wine and shouldn't have been reading a writer as powerful as Didion on the subject of the death of her husband." No contemporary writer can match Didion: her Political Fictions is the most incisive book on American politics in the '80s and '90s I've read. (It's also, gratifyingly, the cruelest.) I'll trackback when I finish my entry on Didion's latest.

Patrick J. Mullins

Didion may need to imagine it as somehow 'very different' from the way she has reacted to experiences before, but it is really no different from the way she dealt with her sense of 'alien-ness' as far back as 'The White Album,' when Dunne got sick of her staring off into space too much. What's curious is how unsurprising the essay is, it's almost an unchanged Didion. I've heard her read 3 times already, and will hear her twice in October, and I expect it to remain the same--this is a will of iron. I think she wants to imagine that her will of iron fails when she gets disoriented, but she's very clear, as Jodi says from her 2nd reading, that she is actively 'really crazy', going through the motions of the various death businesses, but simply not accepting the fact of Dunne's death until she woke up the next morning and felt a bit as if run over by a truck and saw only 'the dark'.

What is interesting also is that before she started noting her reactions to Dunne's death, it was almost 2 months after she'd attended the Republican Convention in New York and written it up in the New York Review of Books. She had also taken part in a 'freedom of expression' reading with deLillo, Rushdie and others at Cooper Union in August just before the Convention (I didn't get to this one.)

If anything, the account is curiously banal, in that it is not really that different from grief experienced by many of us--nonetheless moving of course, because Didion always is. Still, she'd already spoken in 2003's 'Where I was From' about 'after my father's death I kept going' but 'after my mother's I could not.' This is all relative, because her mother died in midsummer, 2001, and the last time I heard her read was in mid-October, 2001: A lot of other people would not call that 'not being able to go on.' She probably meant a few weeks.

Until we read the whole book from which this is an excerpt, we won't know all of the implications, because their daughter was ill, then somewhat recovered about a month after Dunne's death, then had a massive hematoma and 6-hour operation--none of the current synopses of the book, 'The Year of Magical Thinking' have said anything specific about what the current status of the daughter, Quintana Roo, is.


According to
Quintana Roo passed away just a few weeks ago.


Didion is not incapable of writing decent if predictably cynical prose, but death doesn't seem like one of her specialties; and the narcissism typical of the lesser Didion essay seems to be all over this one. People are dying each and every day, and most of them will get less than a few days of praise, remembrances, and some cheap obit. Dunne was an old guy. His death wasn't that unforeseen, especially given his health/drinking history, from what I have read. Grief is good perhaps but there are so many f-n tragedies that will never be known, never be pasted all over the Net. And Joanie's little sportswriter paragraphs so suited to shooting down whatever tyrant of the moment don't really seem to work in this essay.

Patrick J. Mullins

Thank you, anonymous, I didn't believe it at first, but found it on a search in the NYTimes. Mrs. Michael (Quintana Roo Dunne) did, in fact, die on August 29. This is stunning news to me, probably missed because that's also the day Katrina hit New Orleans.

Didion will now have her brother and his family left, after almost 2 years of unbearable grief. This is truly sad.

Patrick J. Mullins

Date of death was August 26th, was written in Arts and Leisure Desk Section, article published August 29th.

Patrick J. Mullins

I probably would have gone only to this free one at the Union Square B&N if I had known about it before I bought a ticket for the one at the YMHA next week, but for me to get to hear her read, even if it's the same opening text of the new book (this is the same text you read in the recent NYT Magazine), there will be something.

Occasionally, something slipped through in which you could see how her writing about this had made it so that she ends up being unable to not share some of it, because this probably is a way of working some more of the grief through. Celebrated, she nevertheless never behaves as a celebrity type, which is probably one of the most uncanny aspects of her appeal; somehow she was able to become successful within this system without much lying, so she doesn't condescend to her public even though she has to be set apart, because she's the one who is most capable of articulating these thoughts. I thought she stopped before she had really intended to, having gotten one of the 'waves of grief' she's been talking about; and there have been a lot of panic attacks. But maybe not, within less than a minute she took a few questions (written this time, she usually takes them straight), and one was about how this might have changed her identity. She said she didn't think it had, that 'I'm still a wife and mother, they're just not here.' That might be an interim phase kind of concept after the 'craziness subsided' but the 'clarity hasn't taken its place.' About 800 people were crowded in the 4th floor. It's always wonderful for me to hear her. The inspiration of her courage is perhaps even greater now than it was in the past (even though the nature of this ultimate subject makes it have less sensation)--but her work has always had a peculiar way of coming to me at a time when it would give me a real leg up from what horror I'd just been going through.

If she reads the exact same passage next week, it will be just as meaningful, because I will have lived a lot in between, although I still will not have read the whole book. There's no rush on that, and I do feel privileged to be around someone with that kind of strength--it has not even been 6 weeks since her daughter died.

Scott Eric Kaufman


The book's, well, it's different from anything she's written before. I've finished it, and, to my rubber-necking shame, have already reread it. I'm too interested in the power of her voice not to, but what's more interesting than that moments in which her voice is recognizably hers are those in which it isn't. I have half a poorly composed post about it (sorry to advertise, Jodi, but I suspect it may interest you as well), but I haven't digested it yet. Someone earlier suggested that a sentimental Didion veered too close to cloying prose, but I have to say that the sentiment moments are more meaningful because they're Didion's. It's not a disappointment so much as an acknowledgement. The lines repeated work to much the same effect...but I'll tape my mouth shut before I say anything more, as I'm still processing the book. (And Zizek. And Foucault. I'm processing so much at this point I can hardly keep it straight.)

Cynthia Bayard

Severe intellectualizing isn't strength, it's a defense against painful feelings. I don't like her writing style because of the intellectualization and the narcissistic pride in it. Magical thinking is a commom response to the trauma of the death of a loved one. I remember in my twenties feeling that someone close to me who had died would eventually reappear one day, albeit not for a very long time. Imagine the magical thinking of a child who loses a parent.

Cynthia Bayard

Severe intellectualizing isn't strength, it's a defense against painful feelings. I don't like her writing style because of the intellectualization and the narcissistic pride in it. Magical thinking is a commom response to the trauma of the death of a loved one. I remember in my twenties feeling that someone close to me who had died would eventually reappear one day, albeit not for a very long time. Imagine the magical thinking of a child who loses a parent.

Patrick J. Mullins

Cynthia--Didion knows how to write, that's the difference and that only. As she's pointed out, there are not a lot of books about grief. The 'severe intellectualization' did not give her strength, or rather mainly she just got through the process and writing is one of the things she did, because writing is something she always does. Writing about it may have made the difference in whether she decided 'Well, my husband just died and now my daughter just died, so I'll cancel my 11-week book tour' and she thought about doing that and didn't. And when you see her having the courage to go out in front of hundreds of people only 6 weeks after her only child also died, you can still dislike her writing style because you think it's 'narcissistic pride,' but somehow I don't think narcissistic pride is one of the 7 deadly sins when one offers an insight into one's personal grief that many others experience in just as important a way, but find great comfort in someone who had the guts to write it down while everything was still hurting. And, as of last week, everything was still hurting as I heard her read in public. In an hour, I'll be hearing her again. I'll be sure to report back on whether I thought it was an exhibitionism on top of everything else.


Cynthia--like intellectualization, so can emotion and drama be a kind of defense, so what's the problem? And, why is defense a problem? Only if one thinks that there is dignity in being undefended, but what sort of dignity would that be and why would it be so valuable?

eliza bennett

ummm......elizabeth kubler-ross, anyone? only joan didion would claim there aren't many books about grief. only joan didion would claim to be scouring the stacks for writing about grief/mourning, only to conveiently leave out all allusions indicating any awareness of the old "denial-anger-grief-acceptance" stages of mourning, while penning a memoir that is a textbook-classic case of those stages!


Maybe she didn't find that description (the stages) helpful. I'm no expert on grief books, but when I last glanced through the shelves at my local Barnes and Noble, what struck me (what dominated the shelves) were touchy feely sorts of chicken soup and unbelievably lame get in touch with yourself and express sorts of things.

S Fagan

The books on death and dying by Elizabeth Kubler Ross (so glibly stated as being ignored by Didion) are for those who are dying of terminal disease. Those stages mentioned ("denial-anger-grief-acceptance") may now have been appropriated by mourners to fit neatly into categories, but they were originally conceived to describe stages we go through in contemplating a certain death. The cancer victim who learns the condition is terminal, for example, passes through each one of those stages, according to Kubler-Ross. There's a certain amount of bargaining, too, in the process, and that could qualify as a bit of magical thinking.

Thus, it's really not right to criticize Joan Didion for saying there's little available for those who are left after someone dies. Her contribution has been to give us a direct view of mourning and coping in a way that makes us pay attention.


I thought it was a wonderful and helpful book.


I only 'happened' upon this book and am so grateful. Didion's book gave a voice to my eighteen month grieving and I'm thankful to have found this book. I was deeply saddened to learn that her daughter died after publication. I wish I could tell her how much her book means to me and to wish her well.

Laura Mercer

Reading Joan Didion's book helped me finally accept and truly grieve - 20 years later - the devastating death of my father. Grieving is a process that can take a very, very long time. I admire the way Didion used her talents - research, writing, reflection - to begin to try to understand it. I admire her, and her book, very much.

Mary Marvin

After reading Didion's book I realized that it was truly a love story about a couple that had been married for nearly 40 years and were so very well "connected". It made me realize how much more my spouse and I need to "reconnect" after our son's suicide this past Christmas, 2005. This was the first book I had been able to pick up and read beyond the first few pages. All the books I bought on "surviving" the death just don't do it for me--at least not yet.


Take care, Mary. I hope that you and your spouse will reconnect. My father's wife's daughter killed herself about a year after they married. The connecting process, perhaps one might even say an awareness of the day to day living process, took several years for her to access again. But she has.


I've just read The Year Of Magical Thinking, and was profoundly grateful that someone put into words I didn't have, experiences I did have. I bought the book after reading about it in the January 2006 issue of Shambala Sun, an article which presented a compassionate look at Joan Didion and her book.

So her book helped me. So I'm glad she shared.

BTW, I think Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and I think her explorations of death and dying, including delineating stages as she came to understand them, increased awareness for many people, and opened the door to a lot more literature and research on the subject.

Patrick J. Mullins

Didion has made a play of 'The Year of Magical Thinking' that is scheduled to open on Broadway March 29, will be directed by David Hare and star Vanessa Redgrave.


Quintana Roo's death does not come as a surprise to me! She was in NJ in 2002 running out of a sleazy motel on tonnelle ave in north bergen crying hysterical and really stoned and drunk when my husband and his friend stopped and asked if she was ok and then gave her a ride back NY. She gave both of them blow jobs and then kept on an affair with my husband for 2 months. She called my house constantly harrasing me and my then 8 yr. old son when my husband tried to break off the sleazy affair with her. For anyone out there that knows my husband Jimmy M. you know that this is the truth. So life isn't always fair and I couldn't care less about this tramp dying because in life she didn't care about me or my family!!

patrick j. mullins


Jodi, take a look at these pictures of the opening the other night. The second one of Didion is one of the most incredible photos I've ever seen. Have you ever seen someone try that hard to smile and it looks like they're crying with all their heart? She has incredible guts, but I've decided not to see this, and as much as I'm a huge fan of
Redgrave's, and thought her performance in 'Hecuba' at BAM was one of the most amazing things I ever saw, I don't believe she could convey Didion as well as Didion has here, albeit probably inadvertently. I don't even think the book is her strongest either, in a literary sense--although her oeuvre is incomplete without it. That's because her writing itself is usually more effective when she was able to be her glacial self, where she was comfortable. That's not necessarily the 'nicest' place to be (and she hasn't always been, of course), but one of the reasons 'Magical Thinking' is so popular is that she finally stops staying so detached from other people: It's still fine writing, but she's perhaps better when she's hardest. There were some interesting write-ups about the pre-theater party, which Didion attended but Redgrave didn't, due to obvious need of concentrating on this sort of role. Sometimes I think Vanessa Redgrave must be totally possessed--to do something like this for 6 months sounds like wanting to go live in prison or something. But how can you not love Vanessa, she's a great and humane human being, and probably has made a very close bond with Didion (who can still throw the political bombs out there--still writes up stuff for NYRB, as about Cheney.) I should say that, when you see her in person, as at the readings I went to, Didion is not the cool or cold person you might imagine, she is very warm even, but she is not at all usual.


The photos of Didion are astounding--particular the first close-ups. I agree with your assessment of Didion at her best--the distant analysis wherein the cold is a kind of emotional absence necessary for the facticity. These elements of Magical Thinking (I only read the excerpt in the NYT mag section) I found the most emotionally resonant.

The photos reminded me how much I love Bill Nighy and Stockard Channing. The latter because of his role in Love, Actually (surely too lowbrow for you) and the former because she puts all young girly actresses to shame.

CR Green

If you factor God into this picture (and God is there to be factored in)...and read the book(s), all of the above comments and the others on the internet...you can see God's hand in giving gifts and talents, wealth and pleasure, wisdom and judgement, time and mercy, suffering and the hope of salvation and the resurrection from the dead...we all have stories to tell, beginnings, middles and ends. Brilliant people like the Dunnes help us to "link the dots" because the God of all Creation is holding words and the world together.

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