Didion doesn’t dwell on what followed, either in person or in the book. (“Just look at the size of it,” she says now. “Clearly I’ve left stuff out.”) Dunne’s nephew Griffin Dunne says meeting the birth family “had an enormous effect on Quintana, and not for the better.” Her newfound relatives “were a troubled lot, and it struck Quintana: ‘That’s my DNA too; am I more like that or am I more like my parents?’ It was the beginning of a real emotional struggle.”
“Because she was depressed and because she was anxious she drank too much,” Didion writes in Blue Nights. “This was called medicating herself. Alcohol has its well-known defects as a medication for depression but no one has ever suggested—ask any doctor—that it is not the most effective anti-anxiety agent yet known.”
At some point it became impossible to figure out whether depression was causing the alcohol abuse or vice versa. One family friend would call it “alcohol personality disorder.” “Was it sick or was it self-destructive?” the friend asks. “Or was the self-destructive part covering up the part that was sick? It’s one of those chicken-or-the-egg questions, and as a mother, you want to solve it so that you can see one’s potential realized.”
At loose ends, Didion began seeing a therapist. “I think she was very interested in how she could better communicate with Quintana,” says a friend. The counseling helped her realize she’d been infantilizing her grown daughter. These are thoughts that went straight into Blue Nights: “She was already a person. I could never afford to see that.” In person she is more pointed: “I had treated Quintana like a baby and not a human being.”
She also realized that she might have treated herself the same way—reluctant to play the grown-up in the family. “One of her abiding fears,” she writes of Quintana, perhaps projecting her own worries, “was that John would die and there would be no one but her to take care of me.” But gradually, Didion did begin to grow more assertive and more reflective, prompted by her therapist, by her troubles with her daughter, and especially by the death of her mother, in 2001.
Unsurprisingly, the first sign of that transformation was in her writing. Where I Was From tore apart the California pioneer mythos that had shaped her emotional life and driven so much of her work. “That was a book that was very important to her,” says her friend Christopher Dickey, “and it didn’t get much of a reception at all. People didn’t understand it. My wife and I both read it in galleys, and my wife, who is very sensitive and very close to Joan as well—she said, ‘This is really about Quintana … She was kind of Slouching Towards Quintana.’ ”
Near the end of the book, Didion walks with her mother and Quintana through a re-created section of Old Sacramento. Quintana is 5 or 6, and Didion wants to explain her family’s roots there. But then, she realizes, “Quintana was adopted. Any ghosts on this wooden sidewalk were not in fact Quintana’s responsibility,” she writes. “In fact I had no more attachment to this wooden sidewalk than Quintana did: It was no more than a theme, a decorative effect. It was only Quintana who was real.”
Both The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights are recognizably memoirs of grief, but they’re rendered in Didion’s familiar remote voice. It’s an oddly effective fit: Her coolness plays against the genre’s sentimental excesses but still allows her to avoid argument and indulge in open-ended reveries built from repetitions of painful facts. Didion has always been a presence in her nonfiction, though ultimately a withdrawn (and withdrawing) one, whose bafflement at the chaos of life is meant to stand in for the reader’s. In Magical Thinking and especially in Blue Nights, she represents her own unwillingness to reach conclusions as the ultimate form of honesty. The result is a deeply personal book that still feels strangely passive: Blue Nights articulates many half-regrets but never a cohesive feeling that things could have gone differently.
In July 2003, two months before Where I Was From was published, Quintana married an older musician named Gerry Michael. An evocative description of the ceremony, at St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, opens Blue Nights. It was—though Didion doesn’t say so—supposed to mark the end of Quintana’s blue period and the beginning of the stable, sober part of her life.
Five months later, Quintana was rushed to the hospital with the flu and a fever of 103. Over the next few days she developed pneumonia, then septic shock. She survived 50-50 odds but remained in intensive care. By December 30, Dunne was distraught, talking tearfully to friends about the ordeal, incredulous that the flu could turn into something like this. When Lynn Nesbit found out through a mutual friend that something terrible had happened, she was sure Quintana had died. Of course, it wasn’t Quintana. It was Dunne, who dropped dead while Didion was fixing him a salad for dinner.