The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 9 | Summary



Didion traveled to Los Angeles to be with Quintana. She recalls whispering to Quintana in her hospital bed: "You're safe. I'm here. You're going to be all right." When Quintana could talk, she asked if her mother would leave. Didion promised she wouldn't leave until they "could leave together." Parents want to keep their children safe, Didion says, but they cannot protect their children forever. She describes how her own mother did not want to die at age 90 because she was sure her children—who were in their 60s—still needed her.

Didion mentions how many people she knows who believed they could "manage" the situation. She herself is one of those people. Didion meticulously records the research she did, the questions she asked of the doctors, the way she hinted to the doctors about Quintana's condition—about things she was afraid they would not notice. She bought a textbook on neuroanatomy to try to understand the terms the doctors used. She studied the "gilded boy" story, which doctors sometimes use as a mental test. She ponders what the meaning of that story really is: it seems very complex and slightly pointless as anything more than a test of a person's ability to repeat a slightly nonsensical story. Didion had no sense of how she was starting to cross the line of normal behavior. When she needed lighter clothes for Southern California weather, she bought hospital scrubs, not thinking about how strange it would appear at the hospital.


Didion writes simply but eloquently of the "basic promise" a parent makes to a child: "I would take care of her. She would be all right." This is not solely in Didion's head: Quintana visibly relaxes when her mother promises to stay with her. Parents can't guarantee safety forever, Didion realizes, much as they would like to. She has a sense of responsibility toward Quintana, which is different than how she felt toward her husband. Her husband's death is a tremendous loss, but he was a partner, an equal. When he worried about dying, she "dismissed" it. With Quintana she tries to soothe the fears, promising things she cannot guarantee. Didion is powerless. She could not save her husband and she cannot save her daughter. All she can do is be there.

The reader never gets a clear explanation for how Quintana's brain injury occurred, and Didion decides the precise details don't even matter. This is a significant statement from her since she thrives on detail. Quintana's anticoagulant medicines may have been too strong, causing spontaneous bleeding, or she may have injured her brain when she fell. In any case bleeding in the brain can be fatal. The brain is confined in a small space. There is not a lot of room for extra blood. Convulsions and fixed pupils suggest Quintana may have suffered brain damage or even partial brain death, though she eventually recovered enough to be able to speak.

In earlier chapters Didion demonstrated her desire to appear in control after her husband's death. Now she wants to "manage" her daughter's care. Quintana was hospitalized at the world-renowned UCLA Medical Center, one of the largest medical facilities in Los Angeles. Yet Didion second-guesses doctors and even studies medical textbooks to learn the jargon. Didion wants control of a situation totally beyond her control. She tries to assert herself by attempting to think like a doctor. Magical thinking reappears here in a slightly more delusional form, as at the time, Didion sees nothing wrong with dressing herself in scrubs.

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