Joan Didion's Life: An Insider's View

Tragedy in Joan Didion’s life became a common theme of her writing. "The Year of Magical Thinking," her memoir about the death of her husband John Dunne, won a National Book Award, became a Broadway play, and was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. On November 1st, Knopf publishes "Blue Nights," her latest book documenting the death of her daughter, Quintana.

To coincide with its release, the author and long-time friend of Didion, Sara Davidson has written a new ebook titled "Joan - Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didion" (Byliner, $2.99.)

In the text, Didion reveals insights about her life, her writing and the time that Warren Beatty stared into her eyes and said "This is all I want, right here. I don’t have to be on the set until ten Monday morning.” (Her response? “This is not… feasible.”)

In this exclusive extract, Didion opens up about the role of sadness in her family life.

TRAGEDY STRUCK, as it often does, with no warning. In 2003, Quintana, thirty-seven and fresh from being married at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, came down with flu (which may have been SARS, Joan thought later), which morphed into pneumonia, which put her in the hospital, where she developed septic shock.

After visiting her in the ICU, where she was unconscious with tubes snaking in and out of her body, John Dunne came home and died of a heart attack.

The doctors brought Quintana out of the coma three weeks later and her first question, on seeing Joan, was, “Where’s dad?” Joan had to tell her that her father had died. After John’s funeral, Quintana flew with her husband to Los Angeles for a rest, but collapsed at the airport with a massive cranial bleed. It’s not known whether the fall caused the internal bleeding or the bleeding caused her to fall. She was rushed to UCLA Medical Center for emergency surgery. A doctor called Joan late at night and told her it was uncertain whether her daughter would “leave the table.”

“How do you go to sleep in New York,” I asked, “when you’ve just been told your daughter is having brain surgery in L.A. and may not leave the table?”

“You just do,” Joan said.

Quintana did leave the table, and began a long course of rehab, but less than two years later she developed an infection of the pancreas and was hospitalized again.

I was in New York shortly after that happened, meeting with an editor at Oprah magazine. Joan was scheduled to start a promotion tour for "The Year of Magical Thinking," the incandescent memoir she’d completed about losing John, but she’d put things on hold because of Quintana.

When I came to see her on a steaming day in July, the air conditioner was running and the windows were wide open. She said they were too heavy for her to move up and down. Dressed for comfort in a sleeveless shirt, sweatpants, and athletic shoes, she sat down in a rattan chair with her back to the fireplace where she’d built a fire the night John died. Fires were important to them, she’d written in "Magical Thinking." Fires meant “we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe through the night.”

When I’d heard that John had died, I kept checking in by phone and Joan said she was doing “okay.” But Magical Thinking made it clear she was not. I asked why she didn’t tell me how raw she was feeling. Joan made the familiar circling motion with two fingers, round and round. “The truth is, it’s easier for me to write than talk… to express the state I’m in at any time.”

She wrote the book fast—in less than three months—to capture how she felt: “Raw. Exposed. Unprotected.” She said it was like “sitting down at the typewriter and bleeding. Some days I’d sit with tears running down my face.”

She and John were married nine months [after they met]. She was twenty-nine, which in 1964 was “as old as you got” without being considered an “old maid,” and John was thirty-one. During their wedding at the Catholic mission church in San Juan Bautista, California, Joan cried behind dark glasses, and they promised each other that if they wanted, they would release each other “before death did us part.” Joan recalled, “You aren’t sure if you’re making the right decision—about anything, ever.”

“As marriages go,” I said, “I think you had a pretty great one. Do you feel that?”

“Yeah, I do. Finally it was—which is not to say we thought it was great at every given moment. Each of us was mad at the other half the time.”


“Maybe a quarter.” She shrugged. “A tenth of the time. In the early years, you fight because you don’t understand each other. In later years, you fight because you do.”

She laughed. “What I came to love later was different from what I loved in the beginning. Later we had so much history, we had a life together and we were the only people in it.”

At the time John died, Joan had a contract to write a book about Kobe Bryant. As months passed, she couldn’t focus on Kobe and the broader subject of athletes and sex.

“Something else overtook that.” She began making notes on “the strongest thing going on in my life. You know how, when you’re starting a book, you look for something that’s obsessing you, that you don’t know the answer to?”

She didn’t have an answer to why she kept thinking that John would come back.

Grief, she said, was not what she’d imagined. “Crying all the time—that’s not what happens. You become crazy. I found quotes from Freud and Melanie Klein where they call grief a form of psychosis we don’t treat. We let it run its course.”

Joan said it came to her that everybody she’d known who’d lost a husband, wife, or child looked the same:

“Exposed. Like they ought to be wearing dark glasses, not because they’ve been crying but because they look too open to the world.” It was this rawness that shocked her, she said. “I had spent so much of my life guarding against being raw. I mean, part of growing up for me was getting a finish, an impenetrable polish. And suddenly to be thrown back to this fourteen-year-old helplessness...”

I asked if she planned to stay in the apartment, which was filled with photos of Joan, John, and Quintana at different stages: Quintana as a baby next to Quintana as a bride. “I can’t imagine moving,” Joan said. Every few days she thought about hanging pictures that were stacked on the floor, but to do that, “I’d have to move something that was here.”

She glanced about the room.

“I just want everything the same.”