U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Didion Way of Death

I recently read Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. As you probably know, it is her chronicle of the ways that grief disorders a person’s thinking, which she began writing after about a year had elapsed since her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died. The book is also a memorial to her marriage to Dunne and a celebration of their life together with their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, who was in and out of hospitals for the year after Dunne’s death and who would die shortly before the book itself was published.

The Year of Magical Thinking has been incredibly influential as a model for memoirs in the twenty-first century, especially for women writers. It won the National Book Award and Didion later adapted it into an acclaimed one-woman play. So it is with some diffidence that I buck both the critical consensus and the etiquette of mourning and state that I found the book wretched with oblivious privilege.

Didion has always liked lists and specialized argots and place names that capture a certain ambience to the cognoscenti, but If you took out the medical terms on the one hand, and the names of (mostly defunct) fashionable restaurants on the other, there would be very little of the book left. If you further removed the names of Didion’s famous friends, you’d probably have less than a Talk of the Town New Yorker piece.

I certainly recognize that Didion uses both sets of words–the medical and the renowned–as therapeutic tethers to both memory and normalcy, but there is also a performative feature to these vocabularies. On one level, this is a book written for her friends and for her husband’s friends, and thus feels something like an exceptionally detailed Acknowledgments section or an overly confessional thank you note. On another level, however, it is a book for people who will catch maybe one out of every eight of the references she makes to the worlds of the slick magazine and of Hollywood, to writers and editors, lunch spots and upscale restaurants. This group of readers is, I think, supposed to be dazzled by the glamor of the life Didion describes, much as we are–I can only conclude–supposed to be stunned by the torrent of medical jargon in which Didion dunks the reader every twenty pages or so. She never explains any of these terms any more than she describes the restaurants’ interiors or bills of fare; her references to them are not meant to represent actual body parts or conditions or actual buildings and kitchens. They are words, words which Didion controls–which is, ultimately, the point. The book is a reminder of the immense amount of power Didion–and the people she knows well–actually does have.

There are two places this becomes obvious. Here’s the first:

One thing I noticed during the course of those weeks at UCLA was that many people I knew, whether in New York or in California or in other places, shared a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful. They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone numbers they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favor at State or Justice. The management skills of these people were in fact prodigious. The power of their telephone numbers was in fact unmatched. I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events. If my mother was suddenly hospitalized in Tunis I could arrange for the American consul to bring her English-language newspapers and get her onto an Air France flight to meet my brother in Paris. If Quintana was suddenly stranded in the Nice airport I could arrange with someone at British Airways to get her onto a BA flight to meet her cousin in London. Yet I had always at some level apprehended, because I was born fearful, that some events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them. Some events would just happen. This was one of those events.

One might read this as Didion acknowledging her lack of power, her inability to control events. But that’s not really the overall meaning here. Instead, she is telling us that her control and the control possessed by these “people I knew” is not complete, but it is formidable. It is capable of surmounting many extremities. It is capable of bending airlines and the health care system to its will. “The power of their telephone numbers was in fact unmatched.”

The other moment that stands out to me is when Didion receives “a thick volume called Lives of ’54, prepared for what was then the imminent fiftieth reunion of John’s class at Princeton.” It contains biographies of all the alumni from this class, which included–Didion singles him out–Donald Rumsfeld. The book was published in 2005. Here is the passage in full:

I closed Lives of ’54. A few weeks later I opened it again, and leafed through the other entries. One was from Donald H. (“Rummy”) Rumsfeld, who noted: “After Princeton, the years seem like a blur, but the days seem more like rapid fire.” I thought about this.

“I thought about this” is not a coy nod to the Iraq War, but rather a pause to assimilate this observation about the experience of time passing. She identifies with it, she identifies her husband with it, she identifies the other men of Princeton Class of ’54 with it. In 2005, she references Rumsfeld not for political reasons but to articulate a banal truism about memory and perception.

“I thought about this.” Hmm.

Didion may not be entirely self-aware in these moments about how rare her kind of power is, but she certainly acknowledges its existence. At other times, she seems even more complacent, completely uninterested in the way that lives are being shaped and destroyed by history happening just under her nose. For instance, while she is recovering from the shock of her husband’s death, she is given an assignment to cover the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions, where John Kerry was nominated and George W. Bush renominated for President. It is difficult to argue that Kerry would have–had he won–committed to an aggressive timetable for the removal of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. And he certainly did not run as an economic populist, so it is perhaps a stretch to believe that he would have directed a clampdown on the Wall Street behavior that was so much to blame for the global financial crisis of 2007-2008.

It is nevertheless disconcerting to read how cavalierly Didion takes her assignment. Didion is still sick with grief as she travels to Boston, and for that she certainly deserves her reader’s sympathy, but when she bails on the convention even before it had begun–she ends up watching it on tv from her hotel room–she doesn’t acknowledge that perhaps such an important event should be covered by someone else. Near the end of the book, she mentions how difficult it was for her to turn her observations on the conventions and the campaigns into the essay that she was supposed to produce (I believe it became this piece). Here is the passage:

In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece. It was about the campaign. It was the first piece I had written since 1963 that he did not read in draft form and tell me what was wrong, what was needed, how to bring it up here, take it down there. I have never written pieces fluently but this one seemed to be taking even longer than usual: I realized at some point that I was unwilling to finish it, because there was no one to read it. I kept telling myself that I had a deadline, that John and I never missed deadlines. Whatever I finally did to finish this piece was as close as I have ever come to imagining a message from him. The message was simple: You’re a professional. Finish the piece.

“I was unwilling to finish it, because there was no one to read it.” Most directly, this is a lamentation for the dead, but it is also an illumination of the very personal world of writers like Didion, writers whose success over such a long period of time has turned public writing into a kind of sustained private conversation with their equally well-connected friends. Those friends have become Didion’s only real audience, and her responsibilities as a writer really end with them, not with the anonymous readers like you and I who may read Didion’s work. Didion was commissioned to write a piece about the conventions, so she’ll do it for the editor. “You’re a professional. Finish the piece.”

In 2019, it is hard not to be angry at any journalist, even a woman grieving for her husband, who looks at journalism the way that Didion does here–not really as a public service, a means of informing the public and presenting it with well-grounded opinions about important issues, but instead as a kind of continuation into one’s working life of socializing with a network of friends and contacts. Yes, keeping personal and professional lives separate is never easy, but this is a kind of deliberate merging of the two which seriously undermines one of them–the one that the public depends on.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Andy, this post captures so well why you are such a merit to this blog and well, critical thinking in general. Departing from popular consensus (among you know, us academic liberal elites) on someone like Didion takes guts, yes, but it also took a sharp eye not clouded by the failures of our current historical moment to see it clearly in the first place. This is what moral clarity looks like when applied to literary and cultural criticism. Thank you.

  2. My reaction to this post was somewhat different. It is beautifully written (as always) and it conveys beautifully (as always) not just the liveliness but the distinctiveness of the author’s perspective, and the confidence with which he holds and communicates his views — so in that I’m entirely in agreement with Robin Marie. We are not left wondering whether the writer will take a stand — this is not timid writing.

    But I think it is perhaps mistaken writing. It’s not entirely clear to me why Joan Didion’s way of processing the ultimate helplessness that befalls us all eventually is something that should offend the sensibilities. She is “performative” in writing of her grief in this way, yet not “performative” enough when it comes to fulfilling her role as…journalist? By 2004, are we looking to Joan Didion for “journalism”? Did she let America down because she was so shattered by the loss of her husband that private grief overwhelmed her sense of public duty as a “journalist”? I find this such a bizarre framing and I don’t exactly understand what is driving the critique, but I feel like it must be something that is not internal to the book itself.

    The charge of “performativity” is particularly jarring, for a few reasons.

    This past week I saw some mentions of Jane Fonda’s climate activism as “performative” flashing across my social media feeds. I don’t know if there was a think-piece written about this, or if this was just a widely-followed twitter account that made the charge about Fonda — all I saw was the backlash or backwash as the charge of performativity was itself critiqued and rebuked by others, and a lot of discussion about the ways that “performative” gestures do important work.

    But the charge bothers me as well because it’s so frequently leveled at women, so rarely if ever leveled at men–and it’s so often leveled at women by men.

    Is there a “natural” way to write about one’s experience of grief, as opposed to some contrived or showy way? Are we to be angry that Didion was absorbed in her own private miseries while the whole world was on fire? Are we to understand that the election might have turned out differently if only Didion had lived up to the task of her job as a literary essayist and cultural critic and laid bare for her readers the stark choice facing voters in 2004? “Where have you gone, Joan Didion, a nation turns it lonely eyes to you…” Is Joan Didion the one who let us down in 2004?

    And I’ll own up here: “performative” is always going to bother me. It’s a word that an abusive, bullying senior academic used to describe not just my voice on the page but my presence in academe. I mean, at least he said it to my face? In any case, at the time, the critique was so meanly delivered and so completely devastating in its dismissal not just of what I write, but of who I am, that I am still recovering from the sneer and the slur years later. So I’m always a little wary when I see “performativity” leveled as a critique of women who write about their own experience (or about anything else, frankly). Perhaps the only way to avoid the charge of performativity is to write nothing at all. That is the route some people take.

    “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society,” says Emerson. “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.”

    All writing is performative. What I don’t understand — and maybe I’m just dull — is the occasion for this performance, this blistering critique of Joan Didion’s idiosyncratic chronicle of bereavement. In a bewildered meditation on the disorienting and devastating experience of losing her husband, what did Joan Didion owe to her readers that she failed to deliver? How should she have performed her grief differently?

    I am honestly mystified.

    • Whether or not Didion is performative is actually marginal to Andy’s argument here, I think. The critique is not centered around performativity as such, but *what* she is performing and who her audience is. If you focus on that, then you get to his point: that Didion is so enmeshed in a privileged world that even in the throes of grief, this shows up. It remains her touchstone.

      I would take this as an opportunity not to reflect on Didion herself — she is, in this sense, a product of her environment — but the kind of communities some elites move in. I do think it is quite jarring that, even granting the role of grief, Didion thinks that without her husband there is “no one” to read her work. Could I ever feel like that if a national outlet like the New Yorker had commissioned me to write something that by default, thousands of people would surely read? I doubt this, but then I’m not used to being taken very seriously.

      It’s not that I am insensitive to your points here about the charge, in the wider cultural discourse, of performativity, and its gendered dynamics — I agree it’s problematic, and I’m of the Lady Gaga school that posits that sometimes authenticity actually requires putting a lot of energy into even the most obviously “performative” work. But there are certainly different ways one can be performative, and different places it can register in a scale. But again, that’s not really the point of Andy’s post here. He uses the word once.

      And certainly, he clearly never suggests that Didion could have changed the outcome of the 2004 election — his point is simply that Didion seems unmoved by being assigned to cover a story that dealt with the most important election cycle in terms of American politics and therefore, its fate. Yes, it’s not on her register because she is in the throes of grief. So we can go on here to speculate what she should have or even could have done differently in this situation. But again, Andy’s point is not to blame her for Bush’s victory – and I think that is quite clear.

      • This entire post exists to tell us that even in grief Joan Didion was too privileged and self-absorbed, and she should have gotten over it to write a better piece for the New Yorker? I have a hard time believing that’s the sum of Andy’s intervention here–it’s too small a sum for this piece of writing or, frankly, for this post’s author. There is a missing term in this equation somewhere; hopefully Andy himself will provide it.

  3. Andy, thank you for a thoughtful post. Writing about grief or writing about those who do is complicated geography indeed. Tell us more, if you can, about what brought you to this book and this perspective?

  4. Don’t really want to “take sides” here — rather, just a couple of quick points.

    I read the post as being mostly about (unacknowledged or perhaps unconscious) privilege, but I think perhaps an equally good word, if not a better word, for what the post is driving at is “insularity.”

    Of course most of us are insular in one way or another, but arguably when writing for a national pub like The New York Review of Books (which is where Didion’s piece on the ’04 election was published, not The New Yorker), one should imagine addressing a large audience. On the other hand, under the editorship of the late Robert Silvers the New York Review did have, according to some observers, certain insular characteristics (more so, perhaps, than The New Yorker or The Atlantic, say), so it’s not hard to suppose that Didion, whom I know relatively little about, saw herself as writing for Silvers and a few other select readers. Whether this was an abdication of her journalistic responsibility is an issue I’ll leave to others.

  5. Okay, one more take on “readers”. Dunne was a writer, as of course is Didion. They critiqued each others writing. She particularly relied on Dunne’s feedback. It is in this sense, I believe, that Didion is meaning “readers”, not an anxiety as to whether anyone will read her work. She wanted someone to read her work that she could trust to provide evaluation and comment.

  6. Just to add something re this phrase from the post:

    “…writers whose success over such a long period of time has turned public writing into a kind of sustained private conversation with their equally well-connected friends.”

    I do think there is probably something to this as a general point, and as the post argues, it may well apply to The Year of Magical Thinking. Whether it also applies to the New York Review piece I’m not sure, because for one thing I haven’t read the piece.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.