Reading Joan Didion on any subject is like tiptoeing across a just-frozen pond filled with beautiful sharks. You look down and pray the ice will hold. Meeting her is not a vastly different experience.
Opening the door to her cavernous Upper East Side apartment, the writer murmurs a monotone “hello” but doesn’t shake hands. There’s bottled water, she says, waving in the direction of a double-size Sub-Zero in her double-size kitchen. She wears a sun-faded white sleeveless skirt-suit fashioned from the raw silk curtains in her old house in Brentwood. She is 76 but looks older. She has always been birdlike, five two and wire-thin, but never quite this frail. Her arms are translucent river systems of veins. Her face is worn, unyielding. “She doesn’t express it,” says her agent and friend Lynn Nesbit, but “you see the pain in her face.”
It’s true that drawing out her feelings in person is a doomed project—that ice is thicker than it looks. Possibly the best living American essayist and probably the most influential, Didion has always maintained that she doesn’t know what she’s thinking until she writes it down. Yet over the past decade, she’s been writing down more about her own life than ever before. If you want to know about her upbringing, read Where I Was From, about the delusions of her California pioneer ancestors. If you want to know how she feels about the sudden 2003 death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, you can read The Year of Magical Thinking, her stark but openhearted account of emotional dislocation. And if you want to know how she feels about the drawn-out death of her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, two years later at the age of 39, you can order her new memoir, Blue Nights, on Amazon.
Having dissected the pain of others for decades, Didion has spent the last few years turning the scalpel on herself. This introverted late phase is as coherent and revealing as Philip Roth’s. The essayist who once reprinted her own psychological evaluation has always used her personal story, but in her early years she only feinted at confession on the way to observations of the larger world. Beginning with Where I Was From, which presents California’s history as her own, she’s reversed the bait-and-switch, writing about those close to her as a way of bringing herself, finally, into public view.
“Writers are always selling somebody out,” Didion wrote at the beginning of her first essay collection, 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. That warning, later echoed infamously by Didion’s contemporary Janet Malcolm, is a statement of mercenary purpose in the guise of a confession: not a preemptive apologia but an expression of grandiose, even nihilistic ambition. We think of memoirs, especially memoirs of grief, as a soft art, one that necessarily humanizes the writer. And Didion the memoirist is painfully human—heartsick, vulnerable, and honest about her fears. But she’s also as ruthless as she’s ever been, tearing down the constructs she’s built to protect herself and her family. If she’s selling anyone out with Blue Nights, it’s Joan Didion.
The book is about many things: mental illness, fate, and our overgrown faith in medical technology. But it is most importantly a reckoning with her shortcomings as a mother. Quintana died just six weeks before the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking, after a lifetime of suffering and a series of cascading illnesses (pneumonia, septic shock, pulmonary embolism, brain bleeding) exacerbated by emotional difficulties for which Didion wonders if she’s partly responsible. “I don’t think anybody feels like they’re a good parent,” Didion tells me. “Or if people think they’re good parents, they ought to think again.”
In Blue Nights, Quintana’s truncated, troubled life is interwoven with Didion’s own physical decline. The title, she explains, comes from those twilights that linger in northern latitudes in the early summer, giving the eerie impression that darkness might never come. “I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning,” she writes. And later: “I was no longer, if I had ever been, afraid to die: I was now afraid not to die.”
The Year of Magical Thinking transformed Didion, who looks today like the world’s unlikeliest self-help guru. Perched on a white slipcovered love seat in front of the fireplace in her split-level living room—which is where her husband died—she speaks reluctantly but in sudden crescendos, punctuated by nervous laughs. On a vast coffee table between us sit neatly stacked books of all sizes—many of them unread, she tells me. And all around—on shelves, mantels, and dressers, and arrayed along a hallway that leads to two offices and two bedrooms—are pictures of mostly bygone family. “I hadn’t thought that I was generally a pack rat, but it turns out I am,” she says, showing me around the orderly apartment. “Everything here is a mess.”