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“I Was No Longer Afraid to Die. I Was Now Afraid Not to Die.”


Quintana in Malibu at age 8 or 9.  

“Let me be in the ground and go to sleep,” a teenage Quintana is quoted as saying, several times, in Blue Nights. Or, rather, she is quoted once, while depressed, on the floor of their Brentwood home. But, having appropriated the line for Democracy, Didion appropriates it once more in Blue Nights, repeating the phrase again and again throughout the book, like a mantra of self-flagellation.

It’s unclear when exactly Quintana began exhibiting what Didion calls “quicksilver changes of mood,” or when she first became depressed, or when she began to have problems with alcohol. It’s also unclear, even in Didion’s mind, whether she and Dunne had anything to do with it. Dissecting herself in Blue Nights, Didion seems unable to decide if she was too coddling as a mother—“I had been raising her as a doll”—or too cold—“Did we demand that she be an adult?” She did once bring up her parenting with a grown-up Quintana, she says. Her daughter reassured her, sort of: “I think you were a good parent, but maybe a little remote.”

If Didion was remote with Quintana, she was consumingly close to the third member of the family, her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The central, immutable premise of both memoirs is John and Joan’s idyllic marriage—the one Utopia in which the skeptical Didion placed her faith. “They were always together,” as their old friend Calvin Trillin puts it. “They could finish each other’s sentences.” Working on screenplays together, they did. Beginning with The Panic in Needle Park, they embarked on a lucrative career that put them in rarefied celebrity company and earned them, for the indignity of not having final cut, paychecks that made them two of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood. In this setting, as in others, Joan was the greater writer but the lesser social force—the observer. “I liked being on set more than John did,” Didion says, “because you could just sit there and have other people do things around you. You could just watch.”

Quintana didn’t always fit easily into this universe of two; sometimes she must have felt like the clumsy apprentice in a sleek dream factory. Susan Traylor, Quintana’s best friend since nursery school, used to envy the structure of Quintana’s household—but Quintana envied the freedom of Traylor’s. “It used to drive her crazy that her parents were so on top of things,” says Traylor. She remembers warmly one ride to elementary school with Dunne and his daughter. Quintana showed him a paper she was going to turn in. He asked her if she’d given it to him or Didion to proof, and when she said no, he threw it out the window. There’s an echo of that moment in Blue Nights, when Didion unearths a journal Quintana kept—in which Quintana dwelled on her “present fear of life”—and finds herself proofreading it. “Considerable time passes before I realize that my preoccupation with the words she used has screened off any possible apprehension of what she was actually saying.”

Quintana went to college at Bennington, where Didion had wanted to go (she’d studied at Berkeley instead). “I think the only reason she stayed there for two years,” Didion says, “was that she was immediately too depressed to think about transferring.” On a visit late in Quintana’s sophomore year, Didion knew something was terribly wrong, and persuaded Quintana to transfer to Barnard, where her mood improved markedly. But there were many ups and downs. “There was something going on in her head,” Didion tells me. “There was more going on in her head than I was thinking about.”

But by her early thirties, Quintana seemed to have gained some traction. A promising photographer—her pensive landscapes are scattered throughout Didion’s apartment—she had become the photo editor at Elle Decor. She talked to her mother daily, about “what she was doing at work,” says Didion, “why she was mad at so-and-so, why that seems to me an unworthy reason to be mad at so-and-so.” So-and-so was often Dunne. “They fought about everything,” Didion says. “They just fought.” She adds that the fights didn’t abate after Quintana left home; if anything, they got worse.

Then, one Saturday in 1998, Quintana got a FedEx package from her birth sister, whom she had never known, and flew down to Dallas to meet the rest of the clan. (Didion had learned the names of Quintana’s biological parents by accident, and writes that she dreaded the possibility that they’d ever meet Quintana.) Her birth mother began calling all the time, interfering with her job. Quintana tried to declare a temporary break, but her birth mother overreacted, disconnecting her phone. Soon after that, her birth father got in touch. He wrote, “What a long strange journey this has been.” Quintana responded with what became the funniest line in Blue Nights. “ ‘On top of everything else,’ she said through the tears, ‘my father has to be a Deadhead.’ ”

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