The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 5 | Summary



Didion goes into more detail about her daughter Quintana's illness. Quintana had married in July 2003. Near Christmas 2003 she had the flu. It got rapidly worse until she was hospitalized on Christmas Day. In the days leading up to December 30, the day of Dunne's death, Quintana's "chance of surviving" was "calibrated at a point between 56 and 69 percent." On Monday, December 29, a physician's assistant told Didion it was encouraging (maybe surprising?) Quintana had lived through the weekend. Didion suggests she was in denial about how serious Quintana's illness was. She wanted to believe Quintana would get better.

Didion remembers her wedding to Dunne in January 1964 and Quintana's wedding to Gerry only "four months and 29 days" before her illness. Didion wants to hide from her memories of Dunne and Quintana in happier days, but she can't avoid them. She comments on how all people who lose someone bear a similar look of "extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness." She knows she has had the same look. She is angry she lost Dunne only a month before their 40th wedding anniversary. She says she "wanted to scream" and she "wanted him back."


The first four chapters focus on Dunne's death, with Quintana's illness mentioned as a detail. As with Dunne's death, Didion recounts the facts about the illness as she knows them, but she opts for a different style. For Dunne's death Didion relies heavily on short phrases or sentences. For Quintana's illness she uses more complex sentence structures, incorporating many details into a single sentence and varying the "subject-verb-detail" construction.

At the same time, Didion attempts to be matter-of-fact about her child's potential death. Her emotion comes through in her choice of words. She describes Quintana as "a deliriously happy bride five months before" and contrasts the image with an unconscious Quintana hooked up to machines keeping her alive.

Looking back on Quintana's illness, Didion recognizes she was in denial. Denial is a mental health process, a defense mechanism. A person in denial is unable to face the full reality of the situation. People who struggle with addiction, for example, may deny they have a problem—an unhealthy form of denial. Denial can also be a healthy part of processing a difficult situation. Didion describes talking to one of Quintana's doctors on the night Dunne died. She and Dunne asked if Quintana was getting better and the doctor said, "We're still not sure which way this is going." Didion's mental response was, "The way this is going is up ... because it has to go up." She and Dunne needed to believe Quintana would recover. The thought of their daughter dying was too painful for them to face. Denial provided them psychological protection. Didion's magical thinking is another form of denial.

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