‘I Was No Longer Afraid to Die. I Was Now Afraid Not to Die.’

Joan Didion on her wrenching new memoir.

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

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.”

Quintana, Dunne, and Didion in Malibu, California, 1976.Photo: John Bryson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

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.”

By far the best-selling book of her nearly half-century career, The Year of Magical Thinking sold more than a million copies and made its author, for the first time, a truly public figure, even a kind of literary saint—no longer a cult favorite but a celebrity writer embraced by book clubs and heralded in airport bookstores. That success was a disorienting shock, she says—especially the crowds. “People would stop me in airports and tell me what it had done for them,” she tells me. “I had no clue; I hadn’t done anything as far as I could see.” When that happens, “I go remote on them,” she says. “I actively do not want to be a mentor. I never liked teaching, for that reason.”

Nonetheless, she got busy touring. “I promised myself that I would maintain momentum,” she writes dispassionately in Blue Nights of a mourning period she filled with distractions. She let Scott Rudin persuade her to adapt Magical Thinking into a play directed by playwright David Hare. Vanessa Redgrave was the star. Critics would complain Redgrave was far too large and strident to play Didion, who weighed less than 80 pounds. The crew set up a table backstage, which they called Café Didion, in order to make sure she ate daily.

And Didion kept working, tirelessly. There were screenplays, which she had so often written with her husband: a movie on Katharine Graham and an adaptation of her novel The Last Thing He Wanted. There were also articles for The New York Review of Books, including a takedown of Dick Cheney and a devil’s-advocate essay on the vegetative Terri Schiavo—an essay she says she wrote for reasons unrelated to Quintana’s hospital experiences.

She continued to see friends, as she still does today, a few times a week. Some of them insisted Didion take a vacation. She was in her seventies, after all, and had just lost both members of her immediate family, then wrestled with the loss in a remarkably public way. One day, during the run of the play, she came down with a very bad case of shingles. A doctor said she was making an “inadequate adjustment to aging.” She corrected him: She was making no adjustment to aging. Instead of taking a vacation, she began to think about another, more painful project.

“My intention had been to make Magical Thinking less polished, and I thought I had done that until I finished it,” Didion says. “And then I realized that it was exactly as polished as everything I wrote had always been.”

She set out to try something rougher—though not quite as rough, she says, as the book she ultimately published. “I was going to make it more theoretical than it turned out to be, less specifically about Quintana,” she says. “It was going to be much less personal.” Instead, she wrote the most personal, wrenching book of her life. Magical Thinking, not exactly a breezy piece of work, “simply wrote itself,” she says. “This did not write itself.”

Didion has always been known for the crystal sheen of her writing—as a child she retyped pages from A Farewell to Arms—and the seeming casualness of her prose has long divided readers. The critic John Lahr once condemned Didion for suffusing her writing with nothing more than her own anomie, which he memorably called “the Brentwood Blues. She meditates on her desolation and makes it elegant,” he wrote. “Sent to get the pulse of a people, Didion ends up taking her own temperature. Narcissism is the side show of conservatism.”

And yet Didion owes her stature to more than solipsistic style. She’s also a soothsayer, always timely and often prescient. By virtue of her age—just ahead of the baby-boomers, young enough to recognize them and old enough to see them clearly—Didion has made a career as a canary in the American coal mine. In the sixties, she observed, from the vital center, the dangers of the counterculture, and long before Woodstock. Beginning in the nineties, she anticipated the shallow polarization that now dominates American politics. In the aughts, just in advance of aging contemporaries like Joyce Carol Oates, she anatomized the pain of widowhood. And, in Blue Nights, she warns against the false comforts of helicopter parenting and industrial medicine.

In each case, she makes the story her own—slyly conflating private malaise and social upheaval, a signature technique that has launched a thousand personal essayists. But sometimes it’s difficult to tell which of her confessions are genuine and which calculated for literary effect, how much to trust her observations as objective and how much to interrogate them as stylistic quirks. Her clinical brand of revelation can sometimes feel like an evasion—as likely to lead the reader away from hard truths as toward them.

In person, Didion does concede to me the occasional hard criticism. She admits that her writing might lack empathy, even human curiosity. “I’m not very interested in people,” she says. “I recognize it in myself—there is a basic indifference toward people.”

Didion in 1970.Photo: Julian Wasser/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

But there is one critique that still gets her hackles up, decades later. In “Only Disconnect,” published in 1980, Barbara Grizzutti Harrison called Didion a “neurasthenic Cher” whose style was “a bag of tricks” and whose “subject is always herself.” That wasn’t the worst of it: “My charity does not naturally extend itself,” Harrison wrote, to “someone who has chosen to burden her daughter with the name Quintana Roo.” Asked 25 years later, in this magazine, whether she felt Magical Thinking was criticproof, Didion replied, “Not if my daughter’s name wasn’t criticproof.”

It’s a telling scar. From the very beginning of her career, family has been the secret heart of Didion’s work, the empathic center of that otherwise icy moral universe. Critics may charge Didion with a lack of feeling for her subjects, but her reverence for blood ties and her esteem for clan loyalty animate everything she wrote about the social disorder wrought by the generation that followed hers. Didion took the title of Slouching Towards Bethlehem from the apocalyptic Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” with its proclamation that “the center cannot hold.” For her, the true center that could not hold was the family—sacrificed, she felt, on the altar of universal love and self-fulfillment. No Didion scene is more evocative than the kicker of the title essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: A neglected 3-year-old hippie child, having just burned his arm in a fire, is caught chewing on an electrical cord.

The real engine of this scene, Didion now acknowledges, was Quintana, whom she worried that she was herself neglecting. “I was leaving her alone while I was in San Francisco,” she says. “I went home to Los Angeles on weekends, and she would turn her face away when I would kiss her because I had been away for a week. So I was feeling very strongly the sense of failing at parenting there.” In her libertarian cri de coeur, “On Morality,” Didion criticizes the tendency of social movements to “assuage our private guilts in public causes.” It wasn’t just the American family she was worrying about, but her own.

Blue Nights dwells on the warning signs of Quintana’s incipient instability, which one doctor diagnosed as borderline personality disorder. It started, Didion now believes, at a very young age, perhaps not long after she was adopted at birth. (Didion and Dunne had tried and failed to conceive for two years.) As a toddler, Quintana would go on about a “Broken Man” who haunted her nightmares. At age 5, she called Camarillo, the mental institution rumored to have inspired “Hotel California,” to ask what she should do if she went crazy—a story Didion insists is not just family lore. When Quintana got chicken pox, she told her parents coldly, “I just noticed I have cancer.”

At 14, she informed them that she’d written a novel “just to show you”: It involved a girl named Quintana who got pregnant. Her parents “said that they would provide the abortion but after that they did not even care about her any more … Her father had a bad temper, but it showed that they cared very much about their only child. Now, they didn’t even care any more.”

Didion had always wanted to be a novelist. Like Tom Wolfe and Susan Sontag, she grew up thinking she was put on Earth to write fiction, and it’s in her novels that she is typically most revealing and reflective. They usually feature a distant woman, intelligent but inscrutable and generally fatalistic. Almost invariably, she has a troubled daughter.

In Play It As It Lays, she writes about a 4-year-old who’s in treatment for “an aberrant chemical in her brain.” In A Book of Common Prayer, a broken woman finds herself in a fictional banana republic, dreaming of being reunited with her daughter, a fugitive radical. (“It was about having your children grow up,” Didion realizes now. “Quintana was reaching that age.”) Inez Victor, the mother in Democracy, published when Quintana was 18, has the all-too-­familiar “capacity for passive detachment,” but in the course of the novel she is forced into action when her daughter, Jessie, runs off to Vietnam just before the 1975 evacuation of Americans. One night, Inez discovers Jessie prostrate in her bedroom with a heroin needle in her Snoopy wastebasket. “Let me die and get it over with,” Jessie says. “Let me be in the ground and go to sleep.”

“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.

Quintana in Malibu at age 8 or 9.Photo: Courtesy of Joan Didion

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.’ ”

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

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.”

Photo: Courtesy of Joan Didion

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.

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.”

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