Monday, April 12, 2010

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

What follows is not a book review. Instead, it is a reflection on my interaction with the book, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

I purchased The Year of Magical Thinking about a year and a half after my father passed away. In fact, I bought several books that dealt with the topic of grief thinking that I would read them in order to help me understand the rather strange state of being I entered after this loss. I began reading the book and within about ten pages I "wandered" away from it. I say that I "wandered" away from it because I didn't really make a conscious decision not to read it. I just put it down and didn't pick it up again. That was in 2006.

I came across this abandoned book while moving things around over the weekend and decided to make another attempt. After reading the first few chapters, I began thinking about the sudden lack of interest I'd experienced four years ago. It had nothing to do with the book and everything to do with the mourning process I went through at the time. This process included a terrible lack of concentration and I was unable to read more than a few lines of text, at any given time, for about six months after my father died. This was disturbing for me ... someone who is seldom without a book in reach. I remember wondering if I would ever read again.

Gratefully, I was able to read again after those initial six months; but apparently I had no interest in reading about grief or loss, even though reading is generally my preferred method of learning. Like Didion I "go to the literature" in "time of trouble." This is what I do. It was disconcerting to realize that this time I wasn't going to learn or gain any significant understanding about something or even obtain any comfort by going to the literature. Instead, I was going to learn from the experience itself. This was going to require "up close and personal" with my own thoughts instead of an "education" at a distance ... at least for awhile.

It is only after walking this path of grief and loss for a significant period of time that I've found the willingness to delve into the experiences of others who have also come this way. Joan Didion's account of what she refers to as the year of magical thinking is my first look into someone else's experience of one of the most profound encounters of human life.

I found the title of the book both attention grabbing and baffling. A year of "magical thinking"? What does that mean? Magical thinking is a psychological term that refers to an irrational way of thinking in order to cope with inevitable events and "includes such ideas as the ability of the mind to affect the physical world". An example that Didion uses is the, admittedly, crazy thought that she could not get rid of her dead husband's shoes because he would need them when he came back. She could simultaneously know that this was irrational thinking while acting on that irrational thought by keeping her husband's shoes.

I was also taken with Didion's way of structuring the book. It took me awhile to realize that the structure is similar to the experience of grief "in which you obsessively go over the same scenes again and again and again trying to make them end differently." Magical thinking indeed.

Something that I did not notice until someone pointed it out to me, was Joan's tribute to her husband John on the very cover of the book. Unless you look carefully, you will likely miss it too. The title is printed in black with four letters in the title printed in blue. Find the blue letters and you will see that they are J,O,H,N.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages.
"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” to rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself." p.188 (emphases mine)


  1. A powerful and poignant reflection on a powerful and poignant book. Thank you.

  2. I had read this book and thought I would be disturbed by its topic. I ended up loving it. I find myself drawn to your lacking the necessary concentration for reading when your father first died. I have heard of that with another friend. I am just finishing, I hope, a second round of this lack of concentration. I hate it. Glad to see you have regained your reading mind. A comfort, I'm sure.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Terri. I do agree with you that the title of the book is both attention grabbing and baffling.

    This is so true: "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it." I know this sounds crude, but when I imagine losing my mother, for example, I couldn't bear it. Tears immediately sprang to my eyes. But I guess the real pain and despair will come when I finally "reach it."

  4. The example about her husband's shoes made me want to cry. It IS irrational, but at the same time so completely human.

  5. Terri, I have long wondered about this book. Reading about it through your words has me teary-eyed.This is such an evocative entry.

  6. Although my own work is hardly a barrel of laughs, still I find myself afraid to read this book because of the sadness....

  7. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book with us, Terri. I admit I've shied away from it because of the topic. Not sure why as I take this subject head on in other books. Something I should explore more no doubt.

    My family had a scare with my dad recently. It turned out not to be as serious as we thought. The day I learned about his situation, I was attending a memorial service for a friend's mother and I realized that my father was the same age as my friend's mother had been. It hit me then how old my parents are--how easily it could have been the more serious ailment that hit my father. And how my parents won't be around forever. Not that I didn't know they would die, but, well, you know what I mean. Anyway, it was a very sobering moment.

  8. Terri, your post is old i know and i'm so late to comment. however, this was a book i first picked up when i had been married three months. i felt so sad about its subject that i put it down and walked away from it. later i bought it for my husband for his birthday and it turned out that not only had he read it, but it was a favourite of his. despite my misgivings, he urged me to read it and i did. over two-three days that involved a lot of thinking and sorting in my head. i remember i was sitting in a cafe as i finished the book and i just could not stop crying. i dont know why. never before has a book moved me to write more furiously. the blog post that i wrote about the book is also not a review but a telling of my experience with what Didion made me feel. i'm glad to have found someone else who was so moved by this book.

  9. Thank you for your blog-post. I picked up this book too because I found the title intriguing. Unlike you, I was not able to finish reading it as it was so depressing.