I’m Ready to Admit I Haven’t Read The Year of Magical Thinking

February 11, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Catherine Lanser

I consider myself a creative nonfiction writer. I’ve been reading and studying the form for more than 10 years, but until recently, I was hiding a secret. I had never read much Joan Didion.

My Good Reads list says I started reading The Year of Magical Thinking in 2009 but quit after a few pages. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. Her dense writing made me feel self-conscious, as if I wasn’t good enough, the same way a woman I used to volunteer for did.

“Evelyn” was the head of an educational nonprofit, and I was helping her lay out her quarterly magazine. She dropped names of people in her movement and at the local university in the same way I thought Didion would. Evelyn’s large sunglasses and smart matching suits with twin sets looked very 1960s to my 1990s eyes and similar to Didion’s favored clothing on publicity photos.

It had been years since I snuck over to Evelyn’s house to drop off the last proofs at her doorstep. I thought of her when I saw her obituary in 2021 and again this fall, a few months before Didion’s death, when I finally read the book. 

This time, after struggling through the opening pages, which describe how the first lines were drafted, I continued on. Now older and married, I did have something in common with the author.

I had almost lost my spouse to a heart attack only three years after we were married in 2014. At 47, he was three years older than his father had been when he had his first heart attack. Her text still felt heavy but I continued reading.

Since 2009 I’ve read nearly every memoir about death, illness and grieving as I wrote my manuscript about my father’s stroke and my brain tumor. Though Didion was bereft at the loss of her husband John, I could think of a stack of books that felt more heartbreaking. 

The lines I highlighted are clinical and focused. Didion tells us she wrote the book not to explain her feelings, but to understand her husband’s death. She explains how words, which she has used her whole life to find meaning, failed her following John’s death. As the title suggests she begins to think like a child does, as if she can change the course of time and bring him back with her actions.

I think about Evelyn. During the time we worked together her husband faced and lost a battle with cancer. When I saw Evelyn months after the funeral in her home, his sweater remained draped over the back of the desk chair where it had always been. Over the remaining time I worked with Evelyn, the sweater never moved as if he might put it on at any minute. I compared it to my mother who cleaned out my dad’s closet, removing nearly everything in the five days between his death and the funeral. Didion talks about giving away her husband’s clothes but keeping his shoes because he would need them should he return. 

I had practiced this sort of magical thinking in my life during my illness. First as a teen, when I told myself that if I didn’t tell anyone about the “spells” I had I could make them go away. Hiding them for eight years I imagined the other diseases they might be, such as dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia, but still told no one.  

I also practiced this outcome-based imagination after I learned the spells were seizures caused by a brain tumor. When my dad suffered a stroke only a few years after my brain surgery to remove a tumor from my temporal lobe I wondered if it was my fault for not being thankful enough for surviving.

While Didion’s prose didn’t necessarily feel sad, she made me feel emotions I hadn’t in reading other memoirs. Near the end of the book I’ve circled large paragraphs of text and scribbled notes between the line breaks. As I read it now, my heart catches.

She quotes the Episcopal litany: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” About a half page down she repeats the line and I have underlined the last three words, “world without end.”

Didion describes how she found this line as an antidote to meaninglessness as a child by interpreting it as a description of how the world’s geographic structures were always changing.

I remember this childhood prayer as a Catholic prayer I would say before I went to sleep.  I began to recite it one night when I was about seven. I thought the lines would bring me comfort when I could not sleep. Instead, they left me in a state of terror.

As I said the words, I felt myself flying out from my body until I could see the endless universe of blackness surrounding me. It was the first time I understood death and eternity. Only later, did I learn that the out-of-body experience I felt could have been related to the temporal lobe seizures and migraines I soon began to have.

Didion thinks about this line as she contemplates the “unending absence” of grief. Again, she finds some comfort, finding that they mean we must let the dead go. As nature keeps on changing so do we.

I have thought about the place where my tumor was in my brain as the absence. It has remained a solid grey spot of unchanging size among the folds of my brain for almost 30 years. My cells die and are reborn. My brain reroutes and learns but this spot cannot grow. 

Still, somehow, I do. I am not the same person I was when I hid my seizures. Or that didn’t know how to act around Evelyn. I am not the person who tried to read this book in 2009. I can admit that now. 

Catherine Lanser is a writer from Wisconsin who is working on her memoir. She has been published in Ruminate, Essay Daily, and many anthologies. @catherinelanser

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§ 16 Responses to I’m Ready to Admit I Haven’t Read The Year of Magical Thinking

  • Like you, Catherine, I had never read Joan Didion until recently. Like you, I couldn’t easily relate to her writing–my big secret. Maybe I’ll go back and reread some of her books now. I love your books reviews, BTW–this is another good one.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    I harbor a Joan Didion secret, too: I’ve never been able to get through her writing. And like you, I’m a CNF writer. I guess not everything resonates with everyone. I also read “The Year of Magical Thinking” while I was working on my memoir about grief and death. I liked it, and I marked a lot of passages, too, but it didn’t stick with me like other grief and loss memoirs.

  • Ah – we share secrets. I went through the Johns Hopkins Writing Program in CNF, and held many similar secrets. Since my undergrad work & career were in environmental politics, I did not have the English Lit or Journalism backgrounds of many of my fellow students. When I finally got around to reading Didion, most of her work didn’t speak to me, but I kept that to myself. I actually disliked TYMT and felt guilty about that — I couldn’t get beyond the egoic name dropping bit you mention. The voice turned me off. Ah, well. Lovely piece, thank you.

  • dkzody says:

    >>not to explain her feelings, but to understand her husband’s death<< That is really what I got out of her book. When a close friend died, and I was taxed with cleaning out her house, Didion's book all came back to me. I could hardly bring myself to throw out my friend's makeup, all very expensive, knowing she would be furious when she returned and found out what I had done.

  • You’re in good company, Catherine. I had heard so much about Didion over the years, I was fairly convinced I had read her work when I actually hadn’t, not until The Year of Magical Thinking. I was moved by her book, but I was married and had had cancer at 43 so I could relate. Still, the way she wrote often seemed so aloof, I wasn’t sure if she was truly grieving. It took a while for me to realize that Didion was writing as she always does, that journalist’s eye but here trained on herself.

  • William Kraybill says:

    I don’t quite know I got this. I just finished reading “A Year of Magical Thinking”. My wife passed away about 15 months ago. I found it useful; relating how grieving is very individualistic and for me sort of goes on, and on. As, it did for Joan. I am glad that sort of by accident i found it. I also; enjoyed learning how she writes and edits.

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