Quintana had to be told three times that her father had died—twice in January, as she drifted in and out of consciousness, and once more at UCLA Medical Center the following spring. The family finally held a funeral for Dunne, also at St. John the Divine, on March 23, 2004. Two days later, Quintana flew out to California with her husband—“to restart their life,” as Didion wrote in Magical Thinking. When Didion said good-bye, Quintana seemed anxious. While leaving the airport in Los Angeles, she collapsed with a cerebral hemorrhage. Another month of touch-and-go hospitalization left her partially paralyzed. After recovering yet again, she came down with acute pancreatitis in the late spring of 2005. She died on August 26.
Mystery surrounded the sequence of events—a mystery Didion worried over in Magical Thinking and continues to worry over today. Was it possible, as widespread rumor has it, that Quintana was drinking on the flight to L.A., and that her fall might have been the result? Had Quintana’s depression and her drinking contributed to her illnesses? “I think they were probably intertwined,” says Susan Traylor. Was it the trauma of Quintana’s fall that caused the blood vessel in her brain to rupture, or vice versa? A surgeon told Didion the fall had come first, but Didion stubbornly considered the question unsettled—as though she wanted it to remain that way, more comfortable with the uncertainty. “I realized that the answer to the question made no difference,” she wrote in Magical Thinking. “It had happened. It was the new fact on the ground.”
“How many vast shelves of literature are devoted to the misunderstandings between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters,” asks Dickey, who wrote a memoir about his own father and thinks it’s obvious why Magical Thinking was so much easier to write. “When you have a partner, someone you love, who’s your age, with the same terms of reference, and you are together for decades, you really do understand each other,” he says. “Your child is never going to be understood in that way.”
Didion agrees. “I guess I do know her better than anyone else. But as well as I knew her, I barely touched knowing her,” she says. “I couldn’t possibly have written a biography of her.”
What she has written instead is a kind of biography of Joan Didion, and an elusive one at that. Like her novels, it’s more a work of accumulation than of argument, at the end of which Quintana the grown-up remains the enigma Didion must want her to be, while Didion is the woman revealed. All of her fears are in it, and so is the central contradiction in all of her work, laid bare: the fear of not knowing overlaid with the terror of knowing.
“The goal of the book was to get it off my mind,” says Didion of Blue Nights. But she contradicts herself just a moment later by saying it was meant to “bring it back.” Anne Roiphe, one of the authors who followed Didion into widow-memoir territory, wrote in her book Epilogue, “I will be sad often but not always.” Didion says she doesn’t feel that way about Quintana, at all. “I will be sad always,” she says.
“I don’t think she’s a masochist,” says Dickey. “But one of the things that happens when you write an intimate memoir, an honest memoir, is that you think it will be cathartic—that you can say, ‘I have now positioned this memory, and now I can move on.’ But very often it just doesn’t work that way.”
I ask Didion if she knows herself better now. “Yes,” she says. “I don’t know that there’s any value in knowing yourself better, but I think I do. I don’t feel worse or better. It’s just there.”