Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 17 2005 11:29 AM

The Anatomy of Grief

Does Didion's memoir do for grief what Styron's did for depression?

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And then there is the matter of spareness. In Darkness Visible, the reader is on a need-to-know basis, shielded from the talk-show family intimacies that mar so many memoirs of melancholy. The stance confers dignity. When Didion takes the same approach, the posture feels depriving. Depression can arise out of the blue. But grief is always about the loss of something—a person, a relationship.

Didion supplies snippets of Dunne's voice, a model of Hemingway-Carver terseness. But what was he like to live with? Didion neglects to tell us so much as his age. The authorial posture comes to seem willfully idiosyncratic—or else a privilege of celebrity, with its understandable wish, even in autobiography, to hide loved ones from public view. But bereavement has an object; bereavement is about relationship. Paradoxically, an account of grief that aimed for universality would overflow with memories of the person lost.

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Didion's reticence limits our understanding of her own experience. She refers to Freud's special concern about losses in relationships tinged by ambivalence. Was her marriage of that sort? Didion presents herself as finicky and controlling. Did Dunne love these traits in her, or ignore them in the manner of a man who has a mechanical understanding of emotionality? The reader can form no independent opinion of the basis of Didion's reaction to her loss.

That is to say, the impulse to control extends to Didion's relationship with her readers. The theme of Didion's book is et in Arcadia ego, death appears when and where you least expect it. In an account replete with recordings of dates and calculations of intervals, hiding Dunne's age (he died at 71) appears strategic. So does Didion's decision to delay revealing Dunne's longstanding history of heart disease. Only in the second half of the memoir do we learn that Dunne had angioplasty in 1987, a repair to an artery his cardiologist called "the widowmaker." Didion entirely omits mention of Dunne's subsequent heart-valve replacement. (In his own memoir, Monster, Dunne described how his new valve clicked with every heartbeat, so that his daughter called him the Tin Man.) Not until the final pages of Didion's book do we hear that Dunne repeatedly asked her to consider how she would cope when he predeceased her. Didion's magical thinking, that she could be with Dunne forever, did not begin with his death; she had lived in denial, of her husband's extreme vulnerability, for almost half of the marriage. Perhaps we are witnessing a special sort of grief, grief in a woman whose longstanding defenses have been overwhelmed.

Unlike the memoir of melancholy, territory that Styron reopened, the grief memoir confronts no stigma or taboo. The loss of the writer-spouse was something like a genre before Didion made her contribution. Donald Hall has written extensively, in poetry and prose, about life with and without Jane Kenyon. A recent book that has not received nearly the attention it deserves is Standby, Sandy Broyard's luminous examination of her grief upon the death of her husband Anatole Broyard, the book critic for the New York Times. Though she made notes from early on, Broyard took years to write her recollection. Distance in time lends the narrative grace, contemplativeness, a digested quality. By contrast, Didion's forte is immediacy. Because grief is so various, we need both books—many books. It is not a criticism but a locating of The Year of Magical Thinking to say that it is evocative and particular, a selective recounting of a certain sort of response to stress and loss.

Peter D. Kramer is the author, most recently, ofFreud: Inventor of the Modern Mind. His blog In Practice considers matters of brain and mind.

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