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Joan Didion: Crafting An Elegy For Her Daughter

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 2, 2011

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion contemplated how the rituals of everyday life were fundamentally altered after her husband died suddenly in 2003. The book was published in 2005, just months after Didion’s only child, her daughter Quintana Roo, died at age 39.

Didion pieces together her memories of her daughter’s life and death in her new book Blue Nights. She tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that she was unable to start mourning her daughter’s death until she started writing again.

“I didn’t actually want to write it,” she says. “I had some dim idea that it was a much less personal book than it turned out to be.”

Quintana died from complications of pneumonia, after many months in the hospital. For Didion, it was an emotional nightmare, and one that brought back the many fears she had when she first became a parent at the age of 31.

“She was adopted and she had been given to me to take care of,” Didion says. “And I had failed to do that. So there was a huge guilt at work.”

Didion’s fears about caring for her daughter started shortly after Quintana was born, she says.

“I had dreams about leaving the baby uncared for while I did something that I would have done before she was born,” she says. “All of these things we do without children, and suddenly we don’t do them anymore and it comes home to us in a real way, that it’s very different to have the responsibility of a child.”

When Quintana first arrived home, Didion admits that she still thought of her like a doll to dress up, and not a baby.

“I made sure that her clothes were taken care of, I dressed her,” she says. “She was a doll to me, which in retrospect, probably gave me a distorted idea of who she was. I didn’t give her enough credit for being a grown-up person. Even as a 4-year-old, she was a grown up person.”

It wasn’t until Quintana became a preteen that Didion began to view her differently.

“When she was 12-13, then the reality that this was a real person started coming through to me,” she says.

Didion had a close relationship with her daughter. In later years, they began talking in depth about their relationship. Didion recalls one conversation where they discussed her role as a mother.

“She, to my surprise, said, ‘You were okay, but you were a little remote,’” says Didion. “That was a very frank thing for her to say, and I recognized myself in it.”

Blue Nights marks the end of a reflective period for Didion. She says she’s spent the past five years immersed in death, and feels ready to emerge and tackle something new.

“I’m feeling very strongly the need to do something in another vein,” she says. “I don’t know what that vein will be, but I want to find it.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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