The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: an intense and honest discourse on love, family and loss

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Published 2005 by Alfred A. Knopf, 228p


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.

Joan Didion writes on the first page of her book, an honest and vibrant autobiography written nine months after her husband’s death.

Grief makes people vulnerable and lost, forcing us to redefine our existence. The night writer John Gregory Dunne died, he and Joan were about to have dinner in their apartment in New York. John was sitting at the table when he had a fatal heart attack.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe via

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.

Magical thinking is a term used in psychology denoting the belief that someone’s thoughts can have effects in the world, influencing its course. Didion used the year that followed her husband’s death to accept the event and the affiliated new emotions, to overpass shock and to heal. For months she wished to reverse time and lived in denial, hoping John would come back. I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking, she says referring to the night following the tragic event.

It was a time of mourning and irrationality, months of feeling helpless, weak. For a person who had always found answers in books and took decisions according to evidence, Didion faced a catastrophe and had no solution.

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 addition, a few days before John’s death, their daughter, Quintana, was hospitalized with pneumonia that developed into septic shock. Joan wanted to assure her of protectiveness but she knew it would be a lie. A few months later, Quintana also had a brain surgery.

Didion felt she failed helping her family and keeping them alive. Her year of magical thinking was a year of finding wisdom and vital force.

Yes, 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. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

In the end, the only instrument that can keep people alive is memory. The book itself is also about the moments Joan and John had together, about the history they created in their almost forty years of marriage.


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