In 2003’s Where I Was From, Joan Didion tells of a long wagon journey on which her great-great-grandmother buried a child, gave birth to another, contracted mountain fever twice, and sewed a quilt, “a blinding and pointless compaction of stitches,” that she must have finished en route, “somewhere in the wilderness of her own grief and illness, and just kept on stitching.” Throughout the book, Didion ruminates on her female forbears, women “pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew,” even their own dead babies.
It was Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana, at age five or six, who first made all this heredity start to seem remote. And if the author harbored any lingering doubt about whether she shared her ancestors’ breaking-clean tendencies, the shattering effect of Quintana’s death in 2005, at age 39, must have swept it away. In her new memoir, Blue Nights, about life before and after the loss of her daughter, Didion writes, “When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children.”
This book may be Didion’s harshest, most self-questioning book yet; it’s definitely her most beautiful. Like the stitches on her grandmother’s quilt, it covers the same material again and again, swooping down on its author’s grief with dogged, needle-like precision, from countless angles that don’t lead her anywhere soothing. “What if I fail to love this baby?” Didion worried as she carried the newborn Quintana home from the hospital. By the time of Blue Nights, the questions have changed. What if I didn’t love her right, the author interrogates herself. What if I didn’t love her enough? How could Didion “have missed what was so clearly there to be seen” — “the startling depths and shallows of her expressions, the quicksilver changes of mood,” the list of “Mom’s sayings” that Quintana posted on the garage wall: “Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working“? “Was I the problem?” she wonders. “Was I always the problem?”
Didion dwelt in Where I Was From on her female forbears’ tendencies “toward slight and major derangements” and “apparently eccentric pronouncements,” traits she’d once seen as biologically endemic. Blue Nights, by contrast, fixates on nurture, on the terrible possibility that a mother’s neuroses might be contagious. At the age of five, Quintana called a state psychiatric facility to “find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy.” Around the same time, she called Twentieth Century Fox “to find out what she needed to do to be a star.” She dreamed of a “Broken Man” who threatened to lock her in the garage, and she wrote a novel “just to show you” that told “why and how Quintana [not just the name of its author but also its protagonist] died and her friends became complete burnouts at the age of eighteen.” Once she was born, Didion admits, “I was never not afraid.” And she all but blames herself for Quintana’s nightmares. “[M]y fear of The Broken Man [was] as unquestioning as her own,” she says.
Throughout these struggles, Quintana’s psychiatric diagnosis remained frustratingly protean. Manic depression became OCD; OCD became something else, something Didion can’t remember now, but something that ultimately gave way to a succession of other conditions before “the least programmatic of her doctors settled on one that actually seemed to apply”: borderline personality disorder, a diagnosis that didn’t lead to a cure, only “a confirmed, and therefore an enforced, debility.” Depressed and anxious, Quintana drank too much. She wished for death as she lay on her sitting room floor: “Let me just be in the ground, she had kept sobbing. Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep.” She implored Didion not to read Auden’s “Funeral Blues” at her father’s funeral. “Like when someone dies,” she once told her mother, “don’t dwell on it.”
Even as she torments herself with memories of Quintana’s troubles, Didion recognizes that child-rearing standards change. While parents measure their success now by “the extent to which we manage to keep our children monitored, tethered, tied to us,” her own World War Two-era childhood emphasized independence over schooling and friends. She roamed the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, eavesdropped on the patients, and put them into stories. “There was a war in progress,” she recalls. “That war did not revolve around or in any way hinge upon the wishes of children. In return for tolerating these…truths, children were allowed to invent their own lives. The notion that they could be left to their own devices — were in fact best left so — went unquestioned.”
In the title essay of her 1979 book The White Album, Didion recalls a psychiatric evaluation of her own, conducted in 1968 (two years after she and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, brought Quintana home from the hospital), that said her Rorschach responses “emphasize[d] her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her. It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal.” Rather than admitting to or denying these claims, or trying to trace the source of her (mild) breakdown, Didion jokes that “an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”
In Blue Nights Didion brings a compelling and paradoxical blend of skepticism, acceptance, and astringent detachment to bear on these trends in psychology — and how they both reflect and shape our own self-images. As in most of her personal writing, she’s highly attuned to these kinds of recursive absurdities, and I would guess she’s also more than a little bit amused by them. But, like the very funny Flannery O’Connor, she depicts the ridiculous with a poker-face. And, as in O’Connor, the comic element of human existence is always the obverse of something much darker.
Didion acknowledges in interviews that it was a fluke — a flu — that killed Quintana, not mental illness, not alcoholism, not anything she herself did. But as she sees her own health fail, as she tries to “maintain faith (another word for momentum),” follow the doctor’s instructions, and “collect encouraging news,” as she spends whole days in frigid waiting rooms pondering “this one question, this question with no possible answer: who do I want notified in case of emergency?,” she sustains herself by “memoriz[ing] her child’s face.” Didion’s implicit subject has always been the storyteller’s conundrum: that in standing far apart enough from life to digest it and to evoke it, the writer forgets how to live in real life. For Didion, to remember Quintana is to tell stories in which she’s not a good enough mother to Quintana, but to stop telling these stories is to run the risk that Quintana “will fade from my touch. Vanish. Pass into nothingness.” We tell ourselves stories in order to live, she once wrote. If Quintana were to disappear, Didion implies, she herself would stop existing.