The Anatomy of Grief

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

Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, has been greeted with rare praise and accorded yet rarer prominence. To consider only the newspaper of record: The New York Times devoted 16,000 words to the book, beginning with an excerpt that served as a cover story for the Magazine, moving on to a front-of-the-arts-section review by Michiko Kakutani, and winding up with a Page One Book Review appreciation, supplemented by a staffer’s profile of Didion. That essay made note of Didion’s reach: “Even in her most private revelations, Didion, through the force of her prose, communicates that she is speaking not just for herself, but for an entire generation.”

The book is, as promised, extraordinary. The Year of Magical Thinking is raw, brutal, compact, precise, immediate, literate, and, given the subject matter, astonishingly readable. But the implicit claim to cultural significance is harder to assess. Does the memoir speak for Didion’s generation? Or, since it is probably not the state of 70-year-olds that drives the book’s reception, for an era? Does Didion’s memoir do for grief what William Styron’s Darkness Visible did for depression?

By now, most readers will be familiar with Didion’s circumstances. On Dec. 20, 2003, while her daughter, Quintana Michael, lay comatose in a hospital bed, Didion watched her husband, John Gregory Dunne, die of a heart attack. In May of 2004, Didion began typing notes to herself: “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” By December, she had written an account of her responses to Dunne’s unexpected death. She makes her central observation early on: “Grief when it comes, it is nothing we expect it to be.” Toward the end, she echoes: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”

This statement is deeply true and simply false. Any overwhelming experience can be known only from the inside. Few of us can say how we would fare with a child in intensive care and a spouse fresh in the grave. On the other hand, the function of Didion’s book is precisely to tell us what we might expect. And here, her experience jibes with what research has shown.

The phenomenon Didion depicts, grieving in widowhood, is well studied. One of the qualities that differentiates it from mental illness is the breadth of symptoms that grief draws upon. Loss may arouse the emptiness of depression, the superstition of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the agoraphobia of anxiety states, and the terror of post-traumatic stress disorder. Didion reports these experiences, along with some of grief’s differentiating traits. She is prone to tearfulness and to overpowering waves of emotion. These phenomena are common in grief and uncommon in conditions like depression that tend to deplete affect. Didion regrets failures to act, more than sins of commission; again, this response is typical. And grief can encompass a peculiar, self-protective form of hopefulness. One of Didion’s themes is the role of denial, the sense that the lost husband is with her after all, or waiting in the wings. She cannot throw out certain of Dunne’s shoes, in the half-belief that he will need them. The accompanying fear—that to act would complete the deed, so that discarding would be like killing—is what justifies Didion’s reference to Freud’s anthropological concept, magical thinking. This posture, too, is well described. In this sense, grief like Didion’s is precisely what we have been taught to expect.

This quality of typifying by example is part of what links Didion’s book to Styron’s. The writers also share something in the way of stature. Both are respected literary figures. Both have the additional aura of celebrity that stems from association with film. (Dunne, Didion tells us, was an admirer and student of Sophie’s Choice.) Both write memoirs that are spare to the point of anorexia, using the novelist’s method of letting salient details resonate—while withholding facts and observations that characterize ordinary acquaintance. Like Styron, Didion takes sideswipes at the medical profession, which inevitably appears mechanical and insensitive in the face of the sufferer’s sensibilities. Both authors resist meaning; they find nothing inherently edifying in their suffering. At the same time, both reach deep into the culture to locate the disruptive experience. Styron begins with Sophocles and Aeschylus and moves steadily forward. Didion quotes Euripides, Shakespeare, Lamartine, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, and W.H. Auden.

A portrait of grief

But all this similarity points to a world of difference. If Styron succeeds in speaking for the afflicted and making their plight real to those who stand outside, it is in part because the condition he describes is narrowly syndromal. If you don’t have sadness, anhedonia, guilty ruminations, and the other well-described symptoms, for the most part, you don’t have the disease. Depressions do differ. Styron’s involved exhaustion, confusion, and searing pain. His was mood disorder in an older man with a taste for alcohol. In the young, there are vigorously self-destructive depressions. But depression has sufficient uniformity to allow for an iconic exemplar. Styron captured the fundamental symptoms so well that even though he mocked psychiatry, I urged the book on patients as one to give to family members, to explain the unfathomable. For years, I kept a copy in my waiting room.

Grief, in contrast, is yet more varied than any catalogue of symptoms can suggest. The critic Philip Fisher, in his book The Vehement Passions, reminds us that the ancients admired energetic grief; Antigone’s stubbornness is a form of grieving, and so is the wrath of Achilles. I chanced, as I was reading Didion’s book, to speak socially with a depression-prone artist who had just lost her writer-husband. She was doing well physically and psychologically; her grief expressed itself through efforts to memorialize the man she had loved. This widow had read the excerpt in the Times and wanted to know whether there was anything wrong with a failure to feel the sensations Didion described. Is to grieve calmly to have loved less?

This difference between the conditions of depression and grief goes a long way toward explaining why, by my lights, The Year of Magical Thinking cannot function like Darkness Visible. Tied as it is to a pair of life stories in a cultural surround, grief is always particular. Didion’s challenges are, thankfully, unusual—the loss of a husband while a child is in peril. (Quintana Michael died this year, after the book had been written.) Didion is grieving under extreme circumstances, and she is, by her own account elsewhere, a woman prone to extremes of mood. Her grief is not everywoman’s. All unwillingly, Didion is Kafka’s hunger artist, a virtuoso and impresario of loss.

As a result, Didion’s techniques diverge subtly from Styron’s. When Didion quotes poets, she intends to clarify her own grief. Gerard Manley Hopkins leads her to deeper self-understanding, Walter Savage Landor misses the mark. Didion’s effort is to locate evocations of suffering that is finely appreciated. Styron’s literary excerpts are of the opposite sort—examples of failure to capture the experience of depression, which is ineffable in any century. 

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.

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.