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The courage of Joan Didion

The author, who died in December, is praised for her polished style, but she made tough choices about what and how she wrote.
Author Joan Didion poses in 2005 in her New York apartment. Didion, the revered author and essayist whose provocative social commentary and detached, methodical literary voice made her a uniquely clear-eyed critic of a uniquely turbulent time, has died. She was 87.
Author Joan Didion poses in 2005 in her New York apartment. Didion, the revered author and essayist whose provocative social commentary and detached, methodical literary voice made her a uniquely clear-eyed critic of a uniquely turbulent time, has died. She was 87. [ KATHY WILLENS | AP ]
Published Dec. 29, 2021
Updated Dec. 29, 2021

Since Joan Didion died on Dec. 23 at age 87, there’s been a tsunami of salutes to her published everywhere from the New Yorker to (I am not kidding) Golf.com, praising the steely elegance of her prose, the sharpness of her intellect, the innovation of her style.

I would add her courage, and thank her for its impact on me.

The early days of Didion’s storied career, her run as one of the few women among the ranks of New Journalism, overlapped with my high school, college and graduate school years. I was electrified by New Journalism, a then-radical merging of intensive reporting and subjective approach to writing nonfiction, so much so that I started to sneak essays by its practitioners into the departmental-approved syllabus of classes I taught at the University of South Florida.

New Journalism was definitely a boy’s club, inhabited by brawling writers like Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Pete Hamill. Didion didn’t appear to care. After about seven years as an editor of not at all experimental material at Vogue, she hit the ground running, writing stories and columns that from the beginning displayed the cool confidence that would be part of her brand.

In those early years of her career her image certainly drew attention. Small and slim with a fine-boned face, huge eyes and long hair, she was photographed leaning on her Corvette or lounging on the deck of her Malibu beach house, cigarette always in hand.

But she was nobody’s It Girl, and the stories proved it. I devoured as many as I could, in Esquire and Life and the Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times, then in collections like Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album. She wrote a handful of novels in those years, too, but they didn’t click for me — it seemed Didion’s best writing relied on the tension between the observer and the observed. Fiction didn’t push back.

Didion had a privileged life, to be sure. But pursuing the kind of writing she did was a bold choice for a woman in the cultural context of the 1970s, and for many young women like me an inspiration. In The White Album, she writes of another groundbreaker, “Like so many successful guerrillas in the war between the sexes, Georgia O’Keeffe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” Didion might as well have been writing about herself.

She did, of course, write about herself, sometimes with breathtaking revelation. The title essay of The White Album, the one that begins “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” is the classic example: Didion weaves together a dark, disjointed portrait of Los Angeles in 1968 with a clinical account (including psychiatrist’s notes) of her own mental breakdown. It’s still a tour de force, although a number of her eulogists seem to misread her ironic intent in that opening line: The stories we tell ourselves often do not hold.

But we tell them still, as she did in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Published in 2005, it tells the harrowing story of the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the year that followed.

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Married 40 years, Didion and Dunne, a novelist, were often working partners as well, writing five screenplays together. In December 2003, their adult daughter, Quintana, was hospitalized with pneumonia and sepsis. They had come home from the hospital to their New York apartment and sat down to dinner when Dunne suffered a massive heart attack: “John was talking, then he wasn’t.”

What follows is her account of how deeply grief can fracture the survivor’s mind. At first she simply can’t accept he’s gone — she resists obituaries in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times because if people know he’s dead he’ll really be dead. She can’t bring herself to give away the last few pairs of his shoes because he might need them.

Didion, true to form, throws herself into reporter mode to cope, researching even grief itself. She requests an autopsy and a copy of the entry logs for their apartment building that night, as if his death is a mystery she can solve. She searches her memory looking for evidence he might have had some premonition of his death.

Throughout that year, as she continues to take care of Quintana (who would also die just before The Year of Magical Thinking was published, a loss Didion wrote about in Blue Nights), she relives and analyzes Dunne’s death as a way of coping with what she calls the “derangement” of grief.

What raises The Year of Magical Thinking above most memoirs of grief is Didion’s amazing ability to distance herself from herself, to show us the raw power of loss, yet filter it through her intelligence and shape it into a work of art.

I admired the book when I read it in 2005. In 2014, when my husband died, it was the book I went back to, and I realized not just what a literary feat it was but what an act of courage.