By Sara Davidson, Oprah Magazine, 2005
Because she’s small and thin, with blue veins standing out on her arms, people tend to think Joan Didion is fragile and might break apart. I’ve known her more than 30 years, though, and see her as a tough-minded survivor who lives by the Western pioneer ethic, laughs easily, and does not complain. When her husband of 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack at the dinner table in their New York apartment on December 30, 2003, while their only child was unconscious in septic shock at Beth Israel Medical Center, I kept checking in by phone and Joan said she was doing “okay.” The memoir she’s just published, The Year of Magical Thinking, shows that she was not.
Her intention for this book was that it be “raw,” “exposed,” which is how she felt. She wrote it fast–in less than three months–to capture that state. “It was like sitting down at the typewriter and bleeding,” she says. “Some days I’d sit with tears running down my face.”
When I visit her six months after she completed the book, on a hot July day, the air conditioner is running and the windows are open because they’re too heavy for her to move up and down. She’s dressed for comfort in a sleeveless sweater, sweatpants, and athletic shoes, sitting in a rattan chair with her back close to the fireplace where she’d built a fire the night John died. Fires were important to them, she says. Fires meant “we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe through the night.” When I ask why she hadn’t told me how raw she was feeling, Joan makes a circling motion with two fingers, round and round. It’s a moment when John might have answered the question for her. “It’s easier for me to write than talk,” she says, “to express the way I actually feel at any time. I don’t ever want to talk about that.”
Joan once said in a lecture that she writes to learn what she thinks. Known for her irony, her insights–which startle with their rightness–and the exalted musicality of her prose, Joan has published eight books of nonfiction and five novels in a style The New York Times Book Review called “one of the most recognizable–and brilliant–to emerge in America during the past four decades.” John also was acclaimed for his essays and novels (the most well-known is True Confessions), and together the couple wrote movies like Up Close & Personal and A Star Is Born.
They worked at home, spent all their time together, read each other’s work, finished each other’s sentences, and carried on a continuous conversation.
They met in the early sixties; he was a friend of the man Joan was dating when she worked at Vogue and John was on staff at Time.
“Do you remember your first impression of John?” I ask.
“I thought he was smart and funny,” Joan says. “He made me laugh and we thought the same way about lots of things.” A few years later, when Joan had broken up with the mutual friend, writer Noel Parmentel, she and John had dinner by themselves. John said he was going to visit his mother in Hartford, Connecticut, for the weekend and invited her to come. “The minute I got into this house of great calm and order and peace and well-being, I thought, I want to marry him.”
She says there was more order in the house than she’d had in her life for a while.
What kind of order?
“There were meals.” She laughs. “There was a closet full of organdy tablecloths on long rollers–the way they came back from the French laundry, under tissue.”
She and John were married nine months later. She was 29, which in 1964 was “as old as you got” without being considered an old maid, and John was 31. During their wedding at the Catholic mission church in San Juan Bautista, California, Joan cried behind dark glasses, and they promised each other that if they wanted, they would release each other “before death did us part.” Joan recalls, “You aren’t sure if you’re making the right decision–about anything, ever.”
“As marriages go,” I say, “I think you had a pretty great one. Do you feel that?”
“Yeah, I do. Finally it was, which is not to say we thought it was great at every given moment. Each of us was mad at the other half the time.”
“Maybe a quarter.” She shrugs. “A tenth of the time. In the early years, you fight because you don’t understand each other. In later years, you fight because you do.” She laughs. “What I came to love later was different from what I loved in the beginning. Later we had so much history, we had a life together and we were the only people in it.”
I tell her that I’ve wondered how the two of them could work and be together around the clock.
“It’s a mystery to everyone,” Joan says. “I can’t imagine being married to somebody who wasn’t a writer.” When she was younger, she says, she’d be lonely and wouldn’t know how to structure her day unless somebody else was in the house. “Now, I can’t describe what I am as lonely. It’s that–I really miss him.” She knits her brow. “I’m furious I can’t talk to him.”
Throughout the day, they would walk into each other’s study or buzz on the intercom and talk about something they’d just heard, or say, “I’m having trouble. Would you read this?” It’s been challenging for her to write without John because he edited her work before it left the house. “I wish John could have read this book.”
I imagine he would have been dispassionate and constructive even when reading about his own death. That was how they worked with each other—not responding emotionally but checking structure, style, logic, and accuracy. They did not seem to feel competitive or have jealous twinges. “That’s because we were one person,” Joan says. “We were the other. What was good for him was good for me.”
She believes marriage is a decision, not a matter of luck or fate. “We had each made a decision to be totally part of the other’s life.”
“Don’t you think you were well suited, well matched?”
“We wanted that to happen. If you want to be attracted to someone, you will be.”
I’m not sure I agree.
“Why are people in fairy tales always falling in love with frogs?” she asks.
“Because… they feel some inexplicable attraction?”
“They wanted a prince charming, so they saw one, even in a frog.”
We laugh, but I tell her, “I thought the point of fables like “The Frog Prince” and “Beauty and the Beast” was to teach children to look beneath the surface.”
“I generally miss the point of most fables,” Joan says.
She believes that romantic love is different from marriage. “Romantic love goes away. Gone. It can’t last your entire life.” She doesn’t find romantic love interesting, because “it has a sameness. Marriage is something else. It’s a determination and it grows, rather than going away. The more investment you have in it, the more you get out of it.”
Then why do so many end in divorce?
“It takes two people who are willing to put in the time,” she says. “If I sensed anything about John when I first knew him, it was that he was willing to do that.”
She used to travel on her own to write magazine pieces, but later, she says, “we went with each other. The reason is we didn’t have enough time together.”
I start to laugh, thinking she’s joking. “How could you not have enough time?” I ask. “You were together around the clock.”
“There wasn’t enough time in the world,” Joan says.
When her husband died, Joan had a contract to write a book about Kobe Bryant but couldn’t focus on it and began making notes on “the strongest thing going on in my life.” When starting a book, she says, “you know how you look for something that’s obsessing you, that you don’t know the answer to?” Writing about John’s death helped her work through the shock and grief, which was not what she’d imagined it would be. “Crying all the time. That’s not what happens. You become crazy. I found quotes from Freud and Melanie Klein where they call grief a form of psychosis we don’t treat. We let it run its course.” Joan says it came to her that everybody she’d known who’d lost a husband, wife, or child looked the same. “Exposed. Like they ought to be wearing dark glasses, not because they’ve been crying but because they look too open to the world.” It was this rawness that shocked her, she says. “I had spent so much of my life guarding against being raw.”
Her understanding of self-pity also changed. Before John’s death she had thought, as many do, that “wallowing” in self-pity was the most abhorrent of character defects, a failure to “manage the situation.” One of the first things she feared after John died was “having a house full of people all feeling sorry for me because I’m feeling sorry for myself.” It was only while writing the book that “this started to look silly. At this particular moment you have reason to feel sorry for yourself.”
I bring up something I’ve been brooding on: Is it more painful if someone you love dies, or if he rejects you and leaves? I’d thought the latter was more taxing because you’re wounded and he’s still around, allowing you to cling to slender threads of hope that he could come back, change his mind, and then you hear he’s marrying someone else. If he dies, on the other hand, the love was intact; it was never withdrawn. But after reading Joan’s book, I saw that having a husband die pushes you up against the maw–the extinction of life itself.
Joan nods. “That’s the issue nobody wants to face. The finality.” I ask if she thinks the brain is capable of conceiving of its own demise. She says, “I know I’m going to die, but not really. John’s death made me look at it for John but not for myself. There’s almost nothing that can make me accept the fact that death will occur to me.”
She looks down at her hands. “Naturally there’s a strong wish to believe in life after death. I don’t happen to believe in life after death.”
I tell her most religions assert the soul is eternal. “I can’t believe that,” Joan says. “I was brought up on the American rationalist tradition.” She gives a soft, breathy laugh that makes me laugh with her. “Don’t tell Oprah,” she says. I ask if she prays. She says the ritual of reciting prayers is part of her life, but “I don’t believe in a personal God who’s interested in the problems of one person.” Nor does she believe in fate. “I believe in geology.”
“You mean the inevitable forces of nature?”
“Yes. I believe in randomness. It’s not random in the larger scheme but the larger scheme doesn’t necessarily involve good things happening to good people.”
“Control,” I say, “has always been important to you…”
“I don’t have any control,” she interrupts, making a chopping gesture with her thin, expressive hands. “I didn’t know that until John died. I thought John was in total control of his health.” She also realized she’s had no control over the health and life of her daughter, Quintana Dunne Michael. “I could get the better doctor and nag at the hospital, but I couldn’t fix things.” Quintana, 39, had contracted flu that became pneumonia that became septic shock, causing the hospital team to sedate her to the point of unconsciousness in December of 2003. When the doctors awakened her three weeks later, Joan told her that her father had died. John’s funeral was held in March, after which Quintana flew with her husband to Los Angeles, collapsed at the airport with a massive cranial bleed, and had emergency surgery during which it was uncertain whether she would “leave the table.” She did, and Joan joined her in L.A. for five weeks of recuperation. At the time of our interview in 2005, we did not know what changes would occur in the following month.
I ask if the successive tragedies made her think of people in Iraq…
“I didn’t need to go to Iraq!” Joan says. “I thought about my own family burying children on the way to California.” Joan’s ancestors on both sides traveled by covered wagon to Sacramento in the 1800s. Her great-great-grandmother had to bury a 2-year-old who died of fever on the trail, fast, “because the train of wagons was going right on,” and she gave birth to another child on the plains. “That’s the persona I prefer: I’m strong, I can handle it. I can cross the plains. Bury that baby.”
While she often writes about people acquainted with despair, Joan’s default state is sunny and optimistic. She trained herself to be optimistic because she saw that “pessimism didn’t lead anywhere.” It’s hard for her to stay in a dark mood because “I know how self-defeating it is and how much it can feed itself.”
“Where do you get the strength?”
“I don’t call it strength,” she says. “I call it pragmatism.”
“How do you go to sleep in New York,” I ask, “when you’ve just been told your daughter is having brain surgery in L.A. and may not survive?”
“You just do. You’ve got to get through what you’ve got to get through.”
She tried to impart this to John, shortly before he died, when they were riding home in a taxi after leaving Quintana unconscious in the ICU. “I don’t think I’m up for this,” John told her.
“You don’t get a choice,” Joan said.
I ask if she plans to stay in the apartment, which has bookshelves covering almost every wall and books piled on tables along with photos of Joan, John, and their daughter at different stages: Quintana as a baby next to Quintana as a bride. “I can’t imagine moving,” Joan says. Every few days she thinks about hanging pictures that are stacked on the floor, but to do that, “I’d have to move something that was here.”
She shakes her head.
“I just want everything the same.”
She says she’s waiting and watching to see how her feelings, her state, her place in the world evolve. “I’m certainly not totally adjusted to the situation I’m in. There’s a lot I haven’t tried on my own yet, like traveling.” A bell tolls from St. James’s Church across the street, whose spires can be seen from her windows. “On the other hand, I no longer think of John as coming back.”
His voice still speaks on the phone answering machine. “I don’t hear it,” Joan says, “except when I call home for messages. If I do… It’s a pleasant surprise.”
When I leave her apartment, Joan is on her way to the hospital where her daughter, after multiple surgeries, is being treated for abdominal infections, and once again has been sedated to the point of unconsciousness. Joan is taking along her needlepoint, her willed optimism, and the knowledge that she will get through what she has to get through.
On August 26, 2005, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael dies of acute pancreatitis.