Free Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion Essay Sample

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion provides a memoir that focuses on the death of her husband and their daughter who was critically ill. However, the focus of the book relates to Didion’s reactions towards the events. The element of magical thinking denotes the author’s experiences because of the shock related to the demise of a husband and the critical illness of their daughter. In order to make sense of her experiences, the author explores the events taking place in her life with regard to her husband of almost forty years and daughter. Didion reports her reactions to the experiences in disbelief and denial and attempts to reverse time in order to replay the events for a different outcome. The reactions are extremely ruthless in the sense that the Didion resorts to mitigate the emotional pain through resorting to archaic superstition, chants and believing in magic. Didion was extremely consumed with the aspect of magical thinking that she disputes the view that death is irreversible and the conventional grief processes. For instance, she orders an autopsy be conducted to determine the cause of death basing on the irrational view that if the cause of death is determined, there is a chance that death can be prevented. Despite the fact that Didion’s beliefs were evidently irrational, she reports them truthfully, indicating her belief in the world of magic. The book is a compelling read as evident in the failure of the author’s belief system to continue sustaining her during the times of extreme distress. This paper conducts a pathography review of The Year of Magical Thinking. The paper discusses the story being told, the scope, place and time context; who is telling the story and why; how it is told; the kind of story basing on the analysis of Frank, Graham and Hunsaker Hawkins. In addition, the essay discusses how the narrative relates to the wider sociological debates in the contemporary society and its limitations in deepening ones understanding of the social processes.

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Scope, Place, Time and Context of the Story

The Year of Magical Thinking provides an account of Didion’s experiences relating to the grief that followed the death of her husband due to cardiac arrest during 2003. Before his death, their daughter Quintana Dunne was also facing a critical illness due to pneumonia that later advanced to septic shock. Their daughter was unconscious during the death of her father. In 2004, Quintana suffered collapse and bleeding in the brain resulting in her second hospitalization. The narrative structure deployed in the book is based on the re-living of Didion and her subsequent analysis of the death of her husband in the following year and caring for her critically ill daughter. The book focuses on the emotional and physical pain associated with the experiences of Didion in reaction to the death of her husband and daughter’s critical illness. The author has also included medical and psychological research in relation to the process of grievance and illness. The book uses magical thinking in an anthropological sense, which means that if a person is extremely hopeful on certain outcomes or engages in right actions, then an unavoidable outcome can be reversed. Didion provides many cases of her magical thinking, especially regarding to the denial and disbelief of the death of her husband. For instance, she maintains that determining the cause of death can be helpful in preventing it; as a result, she could not give away her husband’s shoes, hoping that he will need them when he returns. This typifies the theme of insanity during grief.

Who is Telling the Story and Why

The story in the book is told by Joan Didion after the death of her husband. In the first chapter, Didion states that the book is an attempt to make sense of the experiences that followed the grief due to her husband’s death and hospitalization of her daughter. This resulted in a changed identity and intense consumption by past memories, resulting in a temporary state of mental illness. As a result, Didion believes that she can make use of her wishes to reverse the death of her husband. The details outlined in the book are consistent with cases associated with intimate loss, and the subsequent shock followed by the realization that one’s beloved one no longer exists, coupled with extreme loneliness and the increasing wish to share something that cannot be shared in reality. Didion embarks on literature in order to mitigate and understand her grievance. As a result, she embarks on finding answers in medical journal articles, self-help books, medical reports and physiological texts. The outcome is that Didion questions her actions and the mistakes she made in the past. The situation was worsened by the illness of her daughter, which tainted her hope on reversing the death of her husband because of the uncertainty of the outcome of her daughter’s illness.

How the Story is Told

The story is told through a personal memoir of the author’s own experience relating to her grief. There are instances when the author makes use of raw emotion. The book is a personal memoir of approximately forty years of marriage to her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana. Didion uses observation and evaluation of the changes in her personal behaviour and abilities; she outlines the direction of the grieving process. Didion is haunted by numerous issues relating to the medical details of the death of her husband. In addition, Didion is haunted by the probability that she could have predicted the death prior to its occurrence and prevented it. The momentary memories of experiences and the constant excerpts of previous conversations with her husband depict a new significance. In addition, the ongoing illness of her daughter complicates the grieving process as Didion is torn between playing the role of a caring mother and advising the doctors on ways that could be used to improve the health condition of her daughter.

The Kind of Story in the Book

Death is an undisputable fact and is usually followed by grief. In the course of history, numerous writers have attempted to depict the nature of grief, including CS Lewis, Shakespeare and Whitman. The magical thinking in the book depicts a recurrent theme associated with grief due to the loss of a husband and the illness of the daughter. Magical thinking in the book takes place in multiple levels. For instance, prior to John’s death, he was giving clues relating to his death. After his death, magical thinking is depicted in the numerous attempts to reverse his death. Grief and themes of grief are evident throughout the book. This is manifested through physical and psychological suffering. The book centred on the tension that exists between an imagined grief and its subsequent reality, which is one of the greatest strengths associated with the reflections on the theme. When meditating on grief, Didion perceives it from two standpoints, which include the universal and the personal ones. Since she was a child, Didion embraced the irreversibility of change and the significant indifference associated with nature. Self-pity is also another aspect of grief that Didion depicts in the book. Didion concludes that self-pity and wallowing is natural, similar viewpoints are held by Bingley et al. It is impossible to dismiss the importance of a unique person after his/her demise. Didion also provides a vivid description of the energy that is taken by the grieving process, which ultimately drains her to a state of temporary insanity. Subsequent bereavement is evident in the book through the illness of her daughter and her husband’s death. The bereavement is worsened again after her daughter falls ill after John’s death. It is vital to determine the extent to which the depiction of grief in the book reflects on the current theories of bereavement. According to Didion, pathologically at-risk individuals have the task of relinquishing the past and searching a substitute to replace the deceased individual. This facilitates the restoration of sense and identity of the self. Didion partially depicts the clinical role of grief work, which refers to the idea that one works through the painful emotions. Bingley et al assert that the outcome of this state is that the mourner gradually relinquishes the emotional attachments that he/she has with the deceased and the grief is gradually resolved within an interval of one to two years, which are typical characteristics of Didion’s bereavement. Didion refers to this form of bereavement as “getting past it”. However, this is not the case for Didion’s bereavement due to her personal desire to deny the death of John and the need to reverse time. In her attempts to reverse death, Didion’s approach towards grief depicts the grieving theories that emphasize an ongoing relationship and persistent attachment towards the deceased. Didion’s way of grieving is consistent with the conventional approach that argues that grieving is a continuing process associated with adaptation and change; this makes it impossible for a person to recover from grief. Simply stated, bereavement has significant effects on the ongoing life of the mourner, implying that there is no need to get over it. For instance, Didion states: “I look for resolution and find none”. This is analogous to the view that death ends life but it does not end a relationship. Didion is of the opinion that we keep the dead alive for the main purpose of keeping them with us. Therefore, grief is perceived as a temporary state of mental illness. These are evident in the change in Didion’s assumptions regarding grieving. Didion provides a description of her irrational behaviour and offers numerous texts from psychologists regarding the deranging effects associated with grief. Didion also provides examples of cases whereby grief manifests itself as a form of mental illness. The author does not concede to the view that grief is associated with extreme sadness; this is done through indicating how grief results in strong denial, increases wishful thinking that is mostly delusional, and the constant belief that the individual has the capability to control the outcomes. Central to the idea is the fact that grieving reduces functioning and negatively affects the sense of the self and identity.

How the Narrative Relates to the Wider Sociological Debates

Didion is of the opinion that grief is perceived as a case to engage in self-indulgence, self-pity and constant wallowing, which are dominant in the present American society. Grief is viewed in light of an act of individual weakness and self-involvement, which are not consistent with the American ideologies of independence, individual reliance and stoicism. After the death of her husband, Didion questions the aspect of self-pity and conducts an analysis of behaviour that is anticipated from an individual suffering from loss of a significant person. In addition, Didion examines the social conventions that usually influence personal behaviour in the context of hospital institutions, funerals and other social gatherings associated with dying. Didion provides an account of the changes associated with these behaviours in the 20th century, indicating how death has shifted from being a private experience associated with domestic life towards an institutionalized experience that takes place regularly in health institutions. Howarth points out that the pathology of grief in the contemporary society is also evident in the analysis of her personal behaviour and evaluated how grief imposed to deny the temporary state of mental illness, despite the fact that her level of grieving was a significant barrier to social interaction. The contradictory stand taken by Didion can be argued to be perfectly consistent with the existing norms when dealing with illness and death in the contemporary society. For instance, the pretence that one is handling the bereavement well is a common occurrence in the modern society. Through her personal behaviour, Didion outlines the impractical social expectations that do not depict the true nature of grief as a form of temporary mental illness. The point of argument presented in The Year of Magical Thinking is that the American society normally responds to tragedy through a feeling of self-pity and wallowing. In addition, Didion notes that mourning has changed from being public to private incidence that induces guilt on the individual. With the reduction in the prevalence of common illness because of medical advances, death has been eliminated from the confines of home life to be a potential source of shame. Didion was anxious to challenge the assumptions associated with self-pity and the conventional view that one is supposed to respond to death using stoic calmness. As Didion reveals the death of her husband and her daughter’s illness, she makes use of traditional literature, whereby women are depicted as suffering the hardships associated with husbands and children. Biblical narratives, Shakespeare and modern literature portray women as observers and dormant subjects to their own grief. The Year of Magical Thinking can be argued to be Didion’s way of offering testimony, which empowers her to go beyond the role of a passive observer towards John’s death and Quintana’s illness. The book serves to correct the flawed relationship existing between grief and self-pity.

Insights Obtained from Reading the Book

The book does not only provide a memoir of the author’s experiences, but also offers a comprehensive overview of the sociological issues associated with grieving, illness and death in the post-modern social discourse. The book fills the gap between the existing literature on the grief process and the existing social norms associated with the process. The conventional view of linking grief with self-pity is somewhat an unfair cultural standpoint associated with insufficient literature in grief. Didion refused to accept the traditional theories on bereavement and created her own personal approach towards grief, which helped in her recovery and provided a framework for understanding the complexity associated with the grief process. It is vital to acknowledge that the grief process involves a series of steps that have been integrated with cultural consciousness.

The Limitations of the Narrative in Deepening One’s Understanding of the Social Process Described in the Text

The most significant limitation of the book is with regard to its length. The book is characterized with extreme departure from the subject, as evident with constant references to the past in search for meanings, circumstances and people. In addition, the conversations deployed in the text are extremely peripheral to the core message of the book. The powerfulness of the message could have been enhanced by a shorter narrative. Despite a comprehensive literature analysis, the book is extremely personal, except for cases involving references. The personal tone imposes significant constrains on the reflections of the reader towards the text. Despite the contributions to the grief literature, Didion does not offer specific approaches that can be used to understand the grief process. Didion’s rebuttal of traditional grieving models and, later, acknowledging her mistakes is somewhat confusing, in the sense that it makes it difficult to determine her standpoint in relation to what constitutes the most effective model of grief and responding to illness and death.   


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