Joan Didion’s New Memoir Isn’t About Grieving for Her Daughter. It’s About a Mother’s Regrets

Examining culture and the arts.
Nov. 23 2011 7:34 AM

Quintana’s Story

Joan Didion’s Blue Nights isn’t about grieving for her daughter. It’s about a mother’s regrets.

Author Joan Didion.
Author Joan Didion, 2009

Photograph by Rick Gershon/Getty Images.

Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, which was partly occasioned by the death of her adopted daughter, Quintana, is not really a grief memoir, as it has been received. It is, more properly, a regret memoir. The standard grief memoir evokes the lived experience of loss—the mourner’s delusion that he or she can get the loved one back, the period of learning to accept that a dead person is in fact gone. The genre includes books such as C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, and Didion’s own The Year of Magical Thinking. The regret memoir is another thing altogether, a stranger, patchwork beast. It is written by an author with no hope of recovery, who has let go of her magical thinking. It is pricklier, more nihilistic, composed knowing that the center hasn’t held, rather than out of a fraught awareness that the “center cannot hold.”

Didion is about to turn 77, and Blue Nights evokes regret with all the acute gloominess, unapologetic directness, and occasionally milky vision that characterize the late works of great writers. Much of the book is about Quintana, who died at age 39, after a host of health problems following a bout with pneumonia, and after years of struggling with alcohol abuse and mood disorders. But it is not a simple elegy for a lost daughter. It is, rather, an account of Didion’s circling questions about her own accountability for Quintana’s struggles and her sense of ultimate mortality—which is as much a subject of the book as Quintana is. There is nothing for the author to recover here. The book instead bears harsh witness to the realization that the past can never be fixed (a realization many parents must at some point confront).

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote in “The White Album,” her now-classic essay about the paranoid disquiet and social chaos of 1968, in which she famously described her own nervous breakdown. Indeed, it’s Didion’s keen eye for the contradictions in our cultural myths that has made her one of America’s greatest writers. But Blue Nights reckons with the failure of “the imposition of a narrative line”—as Didion once put it—to stave off chaos. In it, the famously austere Didion draws the curtain back to ask whether she herself was susceptible to the same kinds of “confusions” her work made a habit of exposing. The essayist who has carefully staged each “personal revelation” she’s ever offered (her psychiatric report; her list of what to pack on reporting trips; her susceptibility to migraine) now seems to invite us behind the scenes. What we find off-stage is a messy jumble of reality, and a troubled uncertainty about whether her habit of “imposing” narrative lines on events got in the way of her ability to see Quintana as the child she actually was. 

It is crucial to note that the title of Blue Nights doesn’t evoke the diminishing nights of late summer, as one might imagine, but their opposite: that period of early summer promise when the mind is deluded by possibility—when, as Didion puts it, “you think the end of day will never come.” This fantasy is the true subject of Blue Nights, which speaks powerfully about the illusion that each of us might somehow escape death or cheat time. The book is as preoccupied with the author’s own aging as it is with Quintana, because it is trying to convey the horror of time: our fantasies and our anxieties do nothing to slow it down. As Didion puts it, “How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.”

As Didion tells it here, the story of Quintana’s adoption had a mythic element. At a party in 1966, the actress Diana Lynn said she knew a doctor who could help the couple adopt; soon afterward that doctor called them up to say, “I have a beautiful baby girl at St. John’s.” The news came “out of the blue,” Didion writes, yet the infant “could not have been more exactly the baby I wanted.” The origin myth goes hand-in-hand with a portrait of parental confusion: Didion is unsparingly specific about the couple’s social milieu as Hollywood writers, and the ways in which she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were not conventionally prepared to absorb into their lives the child who had been given to them. Drily, she notes that she “had not considered the need for a bassinette” and describes the two of them celebrating with a baby Quintana in mob fixer Sidney Korshak’s booth at The Bistro on the day the adoption was made legal. Didion and Dunne planned to take the infant Quintana to Saigon, because they already had plans to go; Didion recounts shopping for “a flowered Porthault parasol to shade the baby, as if she and I were about to board a Pan Am flight and disembark at Le Cercle Sportif.” The couple assiduously build a vision of Quintana as “the perfect child,” with John urging Didion to come watch their daughter—“a towhead in that Malibu sun”—descend the hill toward the glowingly blue Pacific on her way to school. “How could I not have had misconceptions?” Didion writes now.

One day early on a social worker comes to check on the baby; Didion stages a scene of domestic bliss, with Quintana playing outside on the lawn, but the housekeeper spots a snake and snatches her away. Didion, flummoxed, pretends it was a game. Looking back, she sees the scene in metaphorical terms:

There could be no snake in Quintana Roo’s garden.
Only later did I see that I had been raising her as a doll.
Quintana would never have faulted me for that.

Didion suggests that all this mythologizing led both parents not to treat Quintana as her own person, with her own story. Instead, they told their stories, taking delight in her precocity, her wised-up Hollywood savvy. They found it funny and charming, as one would in a novel. In Dunne’s essay “Quintana and Friends,” written when Quintana was about to turn 11, that precocity is enshrined in ways that now seem brittle. Quintana, Dunne’s brother marvels, was “remarkably well-adjusted” for a girl who was “in a different city” every time he saw her. Dunne himself proudly describes Quintana as a child who “could pick an agent out of a police lineup,” and who “approaches adolescence with what I can only describe as panache… [with] casual arrogance, the implicit sense that no one has ever done it any better.”

“She was already a person,” Didion observes now, of the young Quintana. “I could never afford to see that.” With hindsight, Didion traces a very different narrative arc. From an early age Quintana was susceptible to “quicksilver” changes of mood, had night visions of a threatening specter she called “the Broken Man,” and, at 5, called Camarillo, a state psychiatric facility, to ask what she needed to do if she went crazy. “How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?” Didion asks. “Was I the problem? Was I always the problem?”

She never answers these questions definitively—what parent could? A tragic early death changes the way you read every element of a child’s life. But she does offer another telling scene. After Quintana’s death, Didion found herself reading an old school journal. Quintana had written about Keats’ poem “Endymion,” and detailed her fear of the idea that one might “pass into nothingness,” as Keats put it. As Didion was reading, she says, she “appallingly” began correcting the sentences. A preoccupation with the question of how to tell the story—with surface, not content—allowed her to sidestep the devastatingly sad import of what her daughter had written.

Blue Nights is looser and less polished than most of Didion’s work. As she notes, she couldn’t hear the “music” of the sentences (there’s a wonderful passage about how she used to write fluidly by ear, like a composer) and “for a while… I encouraged the very difficulty I was having laying words on the page. I saw it as evidence of a new directness.” It makes sense that Didion would have wanted to find a “direct” style to tell this story, because the story is about how style becomes a tactic that prevents you from being in the moment. And while Blue Nights is a strange, imperfect book, it is also indelible, and for this reason it earns its odd space in Didion’s canon: She is our finest living cultural essayist, not only because she is an iconoclastic thinker with one of the finest prose styles around, but because her writing taps into one of postwar life’s most vital contradictions. It dismantles myths and self-mythologizes at the same time. It exposes a generation’s narcissism while at times embodying it.

If we tell ourselves stories to live, Didion underscores, we also tell ourselves false stories in order to live. To skirt the paradoxes of this work—to focus simply, as some critics have, on how “heartbreaking” it is—is to diminish the complexity of Didion’s mind. Here after all is a writer who has described “the willful transgression implicit in the act of writing” (do note, as she would say, that word willful), a writer who has said that the act of writing is like deciding “to seize the stage.” In Blue Nights a powerful case is made that writing of regret cannot ever be a perfect performance. It cannot gesture toward redemption, or undo what has been done. Art cannot make order out of the wrong that is a daughter dying before her mother. All it can do is express the dissonance of it. As Didion writes, disturbingly: “Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”

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