The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A review of the memoir The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is a study on grief, and a demonstration of how hard we work to buttress against the pain of loss. In her memoir, Didion chronicles the first year living without her husband of forty years after he died of a fatal heart attack in their apartment, and how she used ‘magical thinking’ to cope with his death.

Psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden describes magical thinking as the “creation of a state of mind in which the individual believes that he creates the reality in which he and others live.” In other words, if you think about something enough or want something enough, you can make it happen. Magical thinking is a defence against emotional pain; it doesn’t matter how irrational these thoughts are, they’re a better alternative to the reality you’re faced with. Didion packs up her husband John’s clothes for charity but is unable to give up his shoes in case he needs them later on. She is drawn to advertisements for a brand of aspirin that is said to lower the risk of heart attack. When her daughter Quintana falls sick, Didion is adamantly opposed to her having a vital operation because that would mean her daughter really is in danger; by denying her the procedure, she can pretend that Quintana is fine after all.

Of course I knew that John was dead. […] Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible.

Didion writes with remarkable clarity about an emotionally disturbing subject, one that is rarely talked about and which people find hard to face. Her honesty was comforting, and I admired her willingness to discuss how illogical her thinking had become.

In her first written response to her husband’s death, Didion wrote:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in an instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

If you’ve ever experienced the death of a loved one, you can probably understand why Didion retreated into her year of magical thinking. The impact of death is just too great, and you need some kind of filter in order to survive.

Nic James thinks too much and always talks over movies.

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