The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 18 | Summary



Didion says she didn't fully understand what killed Dunne for almost a year after his death. She had requested the autopsy report, the medical evaluation of Dunne's body completed after his death, but when she requested it she gave the wrong address. Instead of her current address in New York City, she listed the address she and Dunne had shared almost 40 years ago, right after their marriage.

When she received the autopsy report, it took her time to absorb all the details. She learned Dunne died almost immediately. Nothing could have been done to save him: "After that instant at the dinner table he was never not dead." She recognizes the futility of all her wonderings about how to save him. Didion recounts how she would question if taking aspirin daily could have saved him (aspirin helps to thin the blood), although she knew Dunne was taking a stronger medically prescribed blood thinner. She finally accepted Dunne was right: he knew over 15 years earlier how he would die, and all the medical interventions in the world couldn't have delayed it any longer.


Didion is known for her details, tiny touches expressive of the larger theme. In this chapter she shares one of those details that, if this were a fictional book, everyone would reject as too coincidental. Didion had been waiting for the autopsy report on Dunne. She doesn't receive it until 10 months after his death because she had written the wrong address on the envelope. The address she wrote down was the first address she shared with Dunne after their wedding 40 years earlier, a little apartment "on another street altogether" where they lived only a few months.

Didion could certainly have skipped the detail, but she includes it because it illustrates some points she wants to address. First, it is another example of how she could be functional and irrational at the same time: she can approve the autopsy but can't remember her correct address. More significantly, it illustrates where Didion's mind is: remembering her past with Dunne.

Although Didion's first moment of acceptance was a few chapters earlier (after the political conventions), she goes through another phase of acceptance here. People do not experience the stages of grief in a linear way. A grieving person may jump from one stage to another and back again repeatedly. Didion finds one level of acceptance after the conventions in the summer, but she describes how throughout the fall she continued to look for a way this might have been prevented. She finds another level of acceptance after seeing the autopsy report: "Nothing he or I had done ... caused or could have prevented his death."

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