Joan Didion’s blue nights of the soul

A heart-wrenching memoir about the loss of a daughter cuts through the contemporary clichés about ‘bonding’ and ‘attachment’ to get at the raw stuff of parenthood.

Nancy McDermott

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Joan Didion’s latest memoir, Blue Nights, is many things, but therapeutic isn’t one of them. It is a meditation on parenthood and loss, on memory and mortality. It is an unflinching account of the human condition, filled with sorrow and dark humour, and lacking resolution or a consoling narrative. It is the second of two books written in the wake of the death of Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne in 2003 and of her daughter, Quintana Roo, 20 months later. The first book, A Year of Magical Thinking, was a requiem for Didion’s 40-year partnership with her husband, but Blue Nights is something quite different.

When she began the book, Didion believed she was writing about children, about ‘The ones we have and the ones we wish we had, and the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us’. But, over time, she came to see the book as something more. The sad truth is that all parents aspire for their children to do well, but only the truly unlucky find themselves, after a lifetime of hopes, at the end point, when all that’s left is to ask the unanswerable question: how could this have happened?

For Didion this is not about the actual facts of the past or her memories. ‘Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.’ It is about making sense of things. She does reminisce, of course, but forensically, knowing full well that she is, in a sense, inventing it all as she goes along.

Didion asks herself what lay behind the tragic death. Was it in the name they chose, Quintana Roo, ‘terra incognita’, a mysterious place on the map of Mexico? Or was the answer hidden in the poem that the young Quintana wrote and posted in the garage, the one that began, ‘The world/ Has nothing / But morning / And night / It has no / Day or lunch?’ Was it some quirk in her make-up, variously diagnosed as manic depression, OCD or borderline personality? Or was it Didion herself, who was, in retrospect, ill-prepared to adopt the beautiful baby girl from St John’s hospital in Santa Monica?

She pours over these artefacts again and again as if sifting through one of the drawers or closets in her New York apartment, where she admits the mementos she intended to keep the people in her life fully present now ‘only serve to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here’.

To her credit Didion does not try to force these into a neat pattern of meaning. She writes with heart-breaking honesty about the joys and the moments of self-doubt, of the terror of bringing baby Quintana home from the hospital. ‘What if I fail to take care of this baby? What if this baby fails to thrive, what if this baby fails to love me?… [O]r worse yet, worse by far… what if I fail to love this baby?

This is the raw stuff of parenthood. It feels far more real than the incessant dangers we are asked to, and consent to, worry about today. This contrast is not lost on Didion. ‘The very definition of success as a parent has undergone a telling transformation: We used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (that is to say adult) life, to raise a child to let the child go.’ Today, most of what Didion experienced as a child, most of what Quintana did would be ‘virtually unimaginable’. Instead, she writes, ‘we now measure success as the extent to which we manage to keep our children monitored, tethered, tied to us… We fantasise new dangers in their every unsupervised encounter.’ But isn’t parenthood about what Didion refers to as the ‘enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable’?

‘When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children.’ This single insight perhaps more than any other is what makes Blue Nights so compelling. What are children if not the possible made flesh? Time passes and we all grow old. Didion struggles with strange neurological symptoms. Friends express their concern. She swallows a small camera, faints alone in her apartment. She is in the hospital. She finds it difficult to get up from a chair. All this is juxtaposed with her reminiscences of her daughter, of old friends, of the red suede sandals with four-inch heels, the gold hoop earrings and the black cashmere leggings and the enamelled beads; all things that no longer exactly apply. All the things she never considered.

During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening. The summer is gone.

When the sense of the possible goes, she observes, ‘we lose it fast’. One day we are engaged in life, interested, keeping up, and the next we are not. How could she, how could anyone, abstract the facts of decline, all the unpleasant surprises of ageing – the bone loss, the minor skin cancers – from the absence of the one person in the world who ‘needs to know’ about them?

At a time when our relationship with our children is routinely dissected and reduced to words like ‘bonding, attachment, needs and responsibility’, Didion’s work reminds us of that ‘actual chill of apprehension’ and is powerful enough to cut through all the clichés. Blue Nights is more than a memoir. In some places it is almost a poem. It is an ode to the brightness, a lament for its passing and a powerful portrait of what may be the richest, most complex human relationship of all.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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