Magical Thinking: Joan Didion’s Blue Nights

November 1, 2011 | 3 6 min read

“Sentimental Journeys,” Joan Didion’s famous essay on the trials of the five young black and Latino men accused in the 1989 Central Park Jogger rape case, follows the template of so much of Didion’s best nonfiction: she lays out the narrative of the case as it has taken hold in the public mind, and then, taking up a sledgehammer in the shape of a reporter’s notepad, she smashes that sentimental version of events to bits. In the essay, included in her collection After Henry, Didion reminds the reader that the brutal rape of a young, white investment banker was only one 3,254 other rapes reported that year, but concludes that the point is merely “rhetorical, since crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept.”

The “high concept” in the case of the Central Park Jogger, Didion says, lay in the way the crime pitted a young, white, notionally virginal member of New York’s financial elite against five teenaged members of its dark, angry underclass, who according to prosecutors and the local press, had set upon the young jogger like a pack of wild animals. “Teen Wolfpack Beats and Rapes Wall Street Exec on Jogging Path,” one headline read. Another newspaper supplied the lurid details: “One [assailant] shouted ‘hit the beat’ and they all started rapping to ‘Wild Thing.’” In a city beset by violent crime, a foundering economy, and troubling racial unrest, Didion writes, “the case of the Central Park jogger came to seem a kind of poetry, a way of expressing, without directly stating, different but equally volatile and similarly occult visions of the same disaster.”

In 2002, after another man confessed to the crime, the convictions of the five accused rapists were formally expunged, but in 1990, when Didion published the essay in the New York Review of Books, her willingness to cast doubt not only on a jury’s verdict but on the received opinion of virtually all of white New York was courageous. But such is the stuff upon which the cult of Joan Didion has been built. In her long career as an essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Didion has made a specialty of slaughtering our most sacred cows. John Wayne, Nancy Reagan, second-wave feminists, Haight-Ashbury hippies, even her own pioneer ancestors – all these have undergone the Didion treatment, which is to say that she has laboriously detailed their public myths, their most fondly held visions of themselves, and then set about pounding those myths into submission with the truth, usually in the form of their own words.

coverIn recent years, however, following a run of calamity that claimed the lives of her husband and only daughter, Didion has turned that famously pitiless observational apparatus inward, first in The Year of Magical Thinking, and now Blue Nights, out just this week. The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles Didion’s first year of widowhood after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, became a runaway bestseller and spawned a Broadway play of the same name, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Blue Nights, though it covers similar terrain – in this case, the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo – is a much pricklier beast, and I would be surprised if it finds as many readers as her previous book.

coverIn purely economic terms, The Year of Magical Thinking had two very important things going for it. First, coming out as it did as baby boomers began to hit retirement age, it caught the zeitgeist of an aging population just coming to terms with the losses and diminishment of old age. Second, because Dunne died from a heart attack while their daughter lay comatose in the hospital, the book put Didion in the position of the victim beset by an almost Biblical tide of woe that she had no hand in creating. In describing the kind of “magical thinking” that leads a widow to refuse to give away her dead husband’s shoes in case he should ever come back and need them, Didion, the least cuddly of authors, presented herself for perhaps the first time in her career as a woman the reader could identify with and care about.

In Blue Nights, on the other hand, Didion is not a victim, but at least putatively the villain of the piece. Quintana died of complications of a blood clot in her brain, but as Didion makes clear, she was a troubled woman who drank to excess and contemplated suicide long before she got sick, and one of the central questions of the book is whether Didion’s failings as a mother, directly or indirectly, led to her daughter’s death. In other words, Didion is once again following her time-tested template of setting out a fondly held personal mythos and then smashing it, except that this time the mythos is her own vision of herself as a good mother.

In concept, this sounds like a formula for a tough-minded examination of our society’s sentimental attachment to the myth of the perfect mother, and if any writer in contemporary American letters is equipped for such a project it would be Didion. Not only is she one of the best reporters we have, not only does she have a justly earned reputation for ruthless honesty, but she is a mother by choice. After some years of trying to have a biological child, Didion and Dunne adopted Quintana hours after she was born at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. Didion’s descriptions of the circumstances surrounding the adoption, her desire to have a child and her fears of not being up to the task, are among the most moving passages of the book. The infant Quintana spent her first two nights in the hospital, she writes,

and at some point during each of those nights I woke in the house at Portuguese Bend to the same chill, hearing the surf break on the rocks below, dreaming that I had forgotten her, left her asleep in a drawer, gone into town for dinner or a movie and made no provision for the infant that could even then be waking alone and hungry in the drawer in Portuguese Bend.

This passage sets the tone for much of the rest of the book, as Didion wrestles, page after painful page, with her own ambivalence toward motherhood. She castigates herself for being emotionally cold, for expecting her daughter to be in effect a third adult in the house, for being too busy writing books and screenplays to pay attention to the early signs of her daughter’s distress. Over and over, as if picking at a bleeding scab, Didion rehashes nightmares Quintana suffered as a young girl, weirdly solemn poems she wrote for school, a phone call she made at age five to a nearby mental asylum “to find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy.”

“How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?” Didion asks herself.

The sheer repetitiveness of these questions, the way the book keeps circling back to a few snapshot memories of young, troubled Quintana, speaks with its own eloquence of the pain Didion is suffering in the wake of the loss of her family. It is hard to blame her. I am a parent, and I can only imagine how painful it must be to bury one’s own child. But as a reader I found myself wondering whether Didion’s obsessive rehearsing of the evidence “against” her wasn’t simply more of what she called in her previous book “magical thinking”? To take a Didionesque interrogative approach, couldn’t it be said that wondering whether you played some role in your daughter’s death is tantamount to wondering if your daughter’s death was somehow preventable – or, to put the point more finely, that you could have saved her life by being somehow a different person? If so, aren’t you really asking not “Was I responsible for letting my daughter die?” but instead, “Couldn’t I, by being a better person, somehow bring her back?” Or, to put it still another way, is it not true that to ask “How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?” is merely another way of saying, “If I had only seen what pain she was in, she would be alive today,” and “Thus, because I do now see it, in a way, she is alive”?

I don’t know. To state the obvious, I am no Joan Didion. I am, however, fairly certain of two things. First, Blue Nights, despite some lovely writing, is finally a closed loop, a personal missive from a grief-stricken mother to her dead daughter that fails to make enough space for the reader to work as literature. Second, at least given the evidence provided in Blue Nights, Didion is not responsible for her daughter’s death. Didion may have been cold, she may have been busy, she may have even ignored some obvious warning signs, but if this book is any indication of the depth of her love for Quintana, and I strongly suspect it is, then Didion loved her daughter with every fiber of her being – and, really, what more can a parent do?


Image Credit: Bill Morris/

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022