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On the Death of A Child: Joan Didion's Blue Nights

Posted by Kara Baskin  November 5, 2011 01:57 PM

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I just finished Joan Didion's Blue Nights. The book is about the drawn-out death of her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, at the age of 39 after a battery of arcane physical problems that included a cerebral hemorrhage and pancreatitis. Articles written in the run-up to the book’s release have suggested that Quintana was also weakened by alcohol and mental-health problems, but one thing is for certain: She died very young.

The story has additional gravitas because Didion’s husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly as well. He had a fatal heart attack after returning home from visiting his only daughter in the hospital. Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking chronicled her emotions—meticulously, deliberately—in the year following his death. The book stopped just short of addressing the subsequent death of Quintana.

This book does that. Sort of.

It seems morally wrong, inept and cruel, to critique an elegy. Mourning should be immune. But Didion is a public figure who wrote a book about her child, and her thoughts aren’t private—even as she remains frustratingly detached reflecting upon her daughter’s life.

I always found Didion’s writing a bit smug and above-it-all, but I also loved the fact that she existed. She lived a life that would make any writer swoon: Working for Vogue in the 1960s, glamorous screenwriting assignments, essays that took her to foreign lands, drinks on the lawless edge of Malibu, surrounded by beautiful people doing beautiful things, discussing ideas and movies and books over strong cocktails framed by the Pacific.

I appreciated her talent—and I idolized the life that she embodied. She was like her brother-in-law, Dominick Dunne, another guilty pleasure. But her name-dropping was rooted in something loftier than social climbing because she’d so long dwelled in the pantheon of Writers Beyond Fault, like Susan Sontag and Joyce Carol Oates and Pauline Kael. But Dunne’s name-dropping was endearing, too, because he imparted the gleeful sense that he couldn’t believe he’d landed the invite. For Didion, it seems that having just the right friends a phone call away was as expected as the Sunday New York Times delivered by a doorman. She was a cool customer, as she acknowledged in Magical Thinking. She is not an easily sympathetic figure. She is not especially endearing.

So I shouldn’t have expected a mess. Didion is not known for emoting. Her restrained cadences keep the reader at an arm’s length. We see Quintana in well-crafted snapshots: adopted at birth, worrying about nightmares, frolicking in the Malibu surf, feasting in fancy hotels, kneeling on her wedding day in red-soled Christian Louboutins. But we never learn what drove her demons. There is no dialogue. There is no climax. There is no breakdown. There is no pity. There is only the fleeting sense that closure is somewhere around the corner.

I shut the book feeling as if I’d read an X-ray, not a memoir. She didn’t cry; she composed. Each sentence was stitched as delicately as a surgery. I wanted more.

Why did I want more? Because, I believe, lurking deep within the heart of any parent is the fear that their child will die. I wondered how I’d feel if Andrew died. How could I not? I imagined a fleshy toddler with tubes snaking in and out of his veins. Just the thought made my throat tighten. Did I want Joan Didion to cry too? I guess I did.

But. As much as I didn’t care for Didion’s remote emoting, it made me think. Why do we expect parents to behave messily—outrageously—fiercely—when it comes to their own children? Maybe because so much parenting writing, or any writing today, really, depends upon the extreme. So many exclamation points, must-dos, shortcuts. “Ten Moms to Avoid on the Playground!” “Is Your Child Driving You Crazy?” “Make A Nutritious Dinner in 15 Minutes Flat!” But having a child and protecting that child and, if worse comes to worst, mourning that child, is the one instance in which you can behave outrageously. It’s one instance where exclamation points and tears and urgency are expected. Devotion is beyond reproach. Unconditional love for a child, whatever form that love takes, is part of the human condition. It is not cheap; it is primal.

Yet Joan Didion’s career, spanning more than 40 years, thrived in a period long before TMZ and Twitter and instant emotional access and its accompanying worst-case voyeurism; a time when long-form essays defined eras while also creating them. She has always enjoyed the luxury of understatement, and at 75, why should she modify her style to comply to the modern culture of grief?

If today’s culture of grief is a gaping wound, Didion’s culture of grief is a slow, stinging bleed. Subtle pain is not for 30-second sound bites and 140-word characters. Real life is loneliness at 3 in the morning; real life is the chilly loss of fall to winter; real life is walking into an empty apartment at sunset and shutting the door.

And herein lies Didion’s frustrating genius. I closed the book feeling empty. Only later did I realize that there is no language for death. It is a void. Didion mourned not understanding her daughter. I mourned for her not letting us understand her, either.

So I began to wonder if I would ever truly understand my own son, or if someday Andrew’s childhood would also fade into stitched together memories—snapshots of a wedding, a sunny day, the sole of a shoe. I mourned for Andrew, even as he slept in the next room.

She had produced the desired effect.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Kara Baskin (@kcbaskin) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and mom to Andy. She thinks Sriracha and garlic make everything tastier. She loves Steely Dan and "Murder, She Wrote." Her More »

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