The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 10 | Summary



Didion writes about "the vortex effect," the phrase she uses to describe how some thoughts of Dunne or Quintana could drag her down into an emotional whirlpool. During her daughter's previous period of hospitalization, she had tried to focus on less emotional memories: a story she heard as a young journalist, one she incorporated into an early novel. Then she remembered writing the novel when Quintana was three, and this caused her to slide into the vortex. She thought of Hawaii with Dunne and Quintana, writing her famous line: "We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce." People wondered if Dunne knew she was writing it. In fact, he even edited the piece it was in.

Los Angeles is full of vortex traps for Didion because she, Dunne, and Quintana had lived there for years. She planned her driving routes to avoid familiar locations and made strategic choices of what radio stations to listen to. It wasn't enough: a TV commercial set off memories and she became lost in the vortex, unable to complete even basic tasks.


Didion coins the phrase "vortex effect" to describe how she feels when memories overwhelm her. A vortex is a spinning mass of liquid or air, often associated with a whirlpool. Didion associates grief with water imagery. Earlier she referred to "waves" of grief, and in this chapter she notes she "had hit more dangerous water" as her memories edge closer to Dunne and Quintana. Didion strives to be in control, but happy memories with her husband and daughter can pull her down into an emotional, depressed state. At one point the vortex prevents her from running an errand. To continue her water imagery, she is emotionally drowning and must pull herself to safety (i.e., bring herself back to a calmer, less emotional place).

Southern California is particularly difficult for her. As a writer, she is very much associated with California, although she has lived in New York for many years. Didion grew up in Sacramento, California, and some of her first published pieces focused on the state. She and Dunne lived in Southern California for years. They raised Quintana there, only moving back to New York in the late 1980s. These neighborhoods are full of memories that pull Didion back into the vortex.

In this chapter Didion refers to one of her most famous lines: "in lieu of filing for divorce." She seems puzzled or amused by people's reactions to it. In a joint New York Times interview in 1987, Didion and Dunne both laughed about it. The line is the epitome of Didion's style: direct and willing to say the unpleasant thing out loud. Some of her earliest work was praised for its unflinching statements about the people she saw, such as hippies in 1960s San Francisco. Didion disconcerts people, however, when she is equally unflinching about her own life. This is one reason The Year of Magical Thinking was so successful: she uses a detached tone to describe her own grief, with startling results.

Didion offers some behind-the-scenes information on the article that produced the "in lieu of divorce" line. Dunne edited it. Dunne stayed with their daughter so Didion could revise it. Dunne helped her send it to the magazine that published it. This is another reason it is so hard for Didion to avoid the vortex: her life was so intertwined with Dunne's and her daughter's.

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