People have always had the fear of death. The issue of death was the subject of many myths, fairytales, poems, folk songs and books. Bereavement and grief, which always follow the death of someone who was very dear us appeal for possible solutions. That is why so many books discussing how to cope with grief and bereavement exist. In this essay I am going to discuss one of such books which is called “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. I am going to analyze what the phenomenon of magical thinking meant to the author and how it can be interpreted from the psychological point of view. For the support of my views I am also going to refer to the book “Death, Society and Human Experience” written by Robert Kastenbaum, which discusses attitude towards death both from the personal point of view and from the point of view of society.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” written by Joan Didion is an autobiographical book. It presents an account of the author experiences after the death of her husband, John Dunne of a cardiac arrest. Joan Didion found herself in a very difficult psychological state. Besides the death of her husband another grief struck her at the same period of time: her adopted daughter Quitana had been hospitalized with pneumonia and was lying unconscious in a septic shock. When her father died, Quitana was still in coma. Joan was left almost alone, for naturally her daughter and her husband were the closest people to her. In the course of her narration when she was remembering periods when she tried to return herself and find new meaning in life she even mentioned, that once she had seen being a mother and a wife to be the most important things in her life. Moreover, her husband and she were very close to each other. Not every married couple can claim to have such a sense of union as the one that was possessed by Joan Didion and her husband. They had common interests, as both were writers, often worked together, loved each other, had lived through many happy moments together and in fact were almost inseparable. In my opinion, under such circumstances it is especially hard for a person to cope with the loss of his or her partner. In such cases it is a natural consequence that the mind of a person who had experienced such a tragedy should start applying mechanisms of psychological defense, even if the person affected by grief does not want it. Sometimes the consciousness may be so overflowed by grief, that logical thinking fails to help and the mind of a person has to search for ways to skip from depression and stress in order to save the organism from dying, for it had been proved by many researches that depression may lead to death. Joan Didion experienced a kind of such mechanisms of psychological defense. By the term “Magical thinking” the author referred to her belief that she could have altered reality by her wishes and desires: “I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome”(Didion, 35). For almost a full year after her husband’s death she could not reconcile herself with the fact that John died. She felt like she could return him and the only thing she needed was to find a way how to do it.
The first reference to the phenomenon of magical thinking occurs in the end of Chapter 2 of the book. Joan’s daughter is in coma and she herself cannot reconcile herself with the death of her husband. She states, that the grief that she experienced at that time was much stronger than the sorrow that comes after one’s parents’ death, for example. People are prepared to the fact that their parents will die earlier than they and rarely feel helpless after it happens. Naturally the feel sorrow when the people dear to them pass away. However, they know what to do and how to live further. To the contrary, the death of Joan’s partner found her completely unprepared. She feels devastated and oppressed when she understands that she John is always the first person who comes to her mind as somebody whose advice she wants to ask when any question arises. She even wants to discuss some preparations for the funeral with him. She feels uneasy when her friend calls and obituary writer, since it means that John really died. On the following morning, when she cannot understand at first why did she wake up alone, an idea that somehow it is possible to return John comes to her mind and firmly sets there. Thus, here “magical thinking” gives her hope that fills the emptiness in her soul caused by the death of her husband and helps her to go on living.
As far as I see it, “magical thinking” in the case of Joan Didion was the mechanism of psychological defense which developed after the woman had been stricken by a chain of tragic events. The amount of misfortunes that were happening to her was overwhelming which could have influenced the physical health of the woman, if her mind would not have found something to console her, even though the consolation was only imaginary. Robert Kastenbaum confirms this point of view in his book “Death, Society and Human Experience”, stating the following: “The response to loss can itself contribute to further distress. For example, if we become withdrawn and inactive, we also increase our vulnerability to opportunistic infections because of lowered muscle tone” (Kastenbaum, 355).
In my opinion, the belief of the author that somehow she could reverse everything and bring her husband back helped her to stay alive during the months after the double tragedy in her life occurred. She needed to find new meaning in life, to review her previous believes and values and only then could her mind accept the death of her husband. Until her worldview had changed, there would have been no way to reconcile with the death of her partner and move along. In such complicated and challenging life situation this woman needed time in order that her mind would have been able to prepare the ground for changes that the consciousness needed to accept. Until that she was being saved by existing somewhere between reality and her fantasies. It was not an easy period of her life anyway, for sometimes the woman felt like she was going crazy because of her fantasies. Still, she managed to live it through and finally returned to normal life.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.
Kastenbaum, Robert. Death, Society and Human Experience. New Jersey: Pearson, 2008.