In 1968, Joan Didion published a book of essays entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In “A Preface”, she wrote: “This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there.” She goes on to describe her emotional difficulties after spending time in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district, at the time of her writing the loci of the American Hippie movement. “It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart…”
Proof that the center did not hold, that things fall apart, would come much later, on 26 August 2006, when Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, the adopted daughter of Didion and her late husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died at age 39. The cause of her death remains unknown, though it came after two years of increasing debility that began, innocently enough, with the flu.
Some have suggested Quintana’s death resulted from drinking. Given the circumstances, such accusations are inane, even cruel. A young woman is dead. Her mother, first a famous writer, then an infamous one for The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir she wrote when John Gregory Dunne died, is unmoored by loss. Out of that loss comes a second memoir, Blue Nights.
There should be an adjective in the above sentence. Out of that loss comes a second (insert adjective here) memoir. I open my thesaurus. “Pain” offers a page and a half of adjectives. Sadden, sorrowful, harrowing. Distress, broken, misery, slough of despond. Torment, anguish, agony. Take your pick.
Dominique Dunne, aged 22. Didion’s niece, Quintana’s first cousin, strangled by her boyfriend in 1982.
Natasha Richardson, aged 45. Daughter of Didion’s close friends Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson (also deceased), dead from freak fall while skiing.
Lenny Dunne, Didion’s sister-in-law, Dominique’s mother, who died after years of Multiple Sclerosis.
Dominick Dunne, Didion’s brother-in-law, Dominique’s father, who died of cancer in 2009.
Tita Moore, childhood friend of Quintana’s. Didion notes: “She died before Quintana did.”
This list is both incomplete (we don’t know who else Didion has lost) and entirely too long.
Blue Nights makes no pretense of hope. Why should it?
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes: “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for witholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.”
That impenetrable polish is stripped by the deaths of husband and daughter. Instead, Didion writes of losing the ease of writing, which she likened to creating music. Now creating that ‘literary music’ has become a fight for each word. Didion fears the comparative ease utilized to compose some of the American literature’s most extraordinary sentences will never return. This mistress of the impenetrable polish now addresses the reader as “you”. Here is Didion, recounting a young Quintana, getting hold of a box and labeling it with magic marker:
“The ‘drawers’ she designated were these: ‘Cash,’ ‘Passport,’ ‘My IRA,’ and, finally—I find myself hardly able to tell you this—‘Little Toys.’
Later she says of the many Intensive Care Units Quintana passed through: “I told you, they were all the same.”
Didion is flatly despairing, fearful, blunt about her own aging and health problems, which have left her frail. Recent photographs depict the familiar thinness, now reduced to translucency. Didion has taken none of the hideous surgical enhancement routes that ruin aging women’s appearances, and looks like what she is: a petite, elderly woman whose personal agonies are writ large on her expressive face.
Blue Nights is as much about aging and the inevitability of death as it is about Quintana herself: “This book is called ‘Blue Nights’ because at the time I began it 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.”
Didion writes frankly of this dying of the brightness, its attendant fear, of her own ill health: an aneurysm, shingles, a host of not-quite-diagnosed yet disabling ailments: a gastrointestinal bleed, neuropathy, a fainting spell that left her bleeding on her bedroom floor, unable to call for help.
There’s nothing to say to this, no comfort to offer an aging woman in failing health, sitting alone in a waiting room pondering the medical form’s request for “next of kin”. Didion considers her nephew, the actor and producer Griffin Dunne, whose work requires frequent travel. She does not list him.
Reading this, I’m reminded of Mark Everett’s autobiography, Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Everett, a musician, has also lost his entire family—father, mother, sister—and, like Didion, a couple of dear friends and relatives far too young to die. Things the Grandchildren Should Know also mentions what we might call the waiting room conundrum. The only difference, and perhaps the saving grace for him, is Everett is in his late 40s. He still has time before L’Heure Bleue settles ‘round him permanently.
Didion worries she was the reason for Quintana’s difficulties, an insufficient parent, one who said Shush, I’m working one too many times. She probes Quintana’s fragile mental health, the medications prescribed and not. She admits her failure to see that as an adopted child, Quintana harbored terrible anxiety over abandonment, no matter how much her adoptive parents loved her. Didion suspects she may have infantilized the beautiful baby girl whose adoption was celebrated with a christening including not one, but two christening gowns and a sum total of 60 infant dresses hanging from perfect miniature hangers.
Didion admits, in short, that despite money, famous friends, the lovely homes in beautiful neighborhoods, the boxes of soaps from I. Magnin and cashmere sweaters from London, that theirs was not a perfect family life. Quintana was a troubled child who grew into a troubled adult. She felt the need to rebel against her parents (what child doesn’t?), railing against “the suburbia house” her parents bought in 1988, at age 14 penning a “novel” wherein the protagonist, also named Quintana, becomes pregnant and is disowned by her family.
In other words, no impenetrable polish here. Only direct hits, one after the other.
Quintana’s mental health woes manifested early; the book’s back jacket features a photograph of a plaintive five-year-old Quintana Roo, perched on a kitchen chair, head resting in her hands, a look of adult sadness on her lovely face. She had nightmares about “the Broken Man” locking her in the garage, a monstrous apparition so vividly imagined she had her mother nervously checking the windows.
At age five, she telephoned the Camarillo Mental Hospital to find out what do to if she went crazy. When she came down with Chicken Pox one Christmas Eve, she waited on the steps of her grandmother’s darkened home until her parents returned from a movie. She calmly informed them she had cancer.
Of Quintana’s mental woes, Didion writes, witheringly, that by the time she memorized the latest diagnosis there was a new one: “I put the word ‘diagnosis’ in quotes because I have not yet seen that case in which a diagnosis led to ‘cure,’ or in fact to any outcome other than a confirmed, and therefore an enforced, debility.” It’s here that she mentions Quintana’s adult anxieties and tendency to drink too much. Didion notes that while alcohol and depression do not mix, no modern pharmaceutical rivals drinking’s popularity. One may read this as a defense of her daughter or, as the holidays loom, consider the contents on one’s own liquor cabinets and the relief held therein.
Didion writes of adoption, laughably simple in the ‘60s. She and Dunne had tried and failed to conceive, mentioned it to their actress friend Diana Lynn, who recommended her obstetrician, who telephoned shortly thereafter from St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica with a newborn girl available for adoption. It all happened quickly, and Didion admits to moments of pure panic, of fearing not loving the infant, of not knowing how on earth to care for a baby, right down to needing help with the layette.
As per the adoption process in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Didion-Dunnes were honest from the start about Quintana’s birth circumstances, creating a story of choosing “that baby” from all the others in the nursery. The dark side of “that baby” is the very fact that Quintana was available at all, a situation creating a deep fear of being unwanted and abandoned, a deep fear Didion failed to recognize, or found too unbearable to investigate. When Quintana’s birth family finds her as an adult, it’s an unmitigated disaster for all parties.
Early in the book Didion mentions some readers will feel Quintana, with her 60 baby dresses, two christening gowns, fine houses, help in said houses (Didion had a housekeeper named Arcelia) made her “privileged” (Didion’s term.) There is no question that Didion and Dunne, who worked as screenwriters, were (and remain) wealthy individuals. Mention is made of purchasing Quintana’s layette at Saks, clothing bought at Bendel’s, private schooling, international travel, four-star hotels, homes in Malibu, Brentwood, and a fine apartment in New York City. Didion is defensive on this point, noting that money brought neither mother nor daughter happiness. Money, and the medical care it bought, did not save Quintana’s life.
Didion is now 77 years old. She inhabits an enormous New York apartment whose closets are stuffed with lifetimes of mementoes, from her great-grandmother’s embroideries to Quintana’s school uniforms. She no longer has use for these items, as they fail to evoke lost loved ones. Yet she keeps them. But why? Because of iInertia? Depression? A physical inability to clear out decades of accumulation? She repeatedly mentions “inadequately appreciating the moment,”—the parties, the weddings, Quintana’s 16th birthday luncheon—without seeming to realize that appreciating every moment as it happens is like thinking about breathing: paralyzing.
For all but the most mindful, to be human is to inhabit the moment unthinkingly. Abandoning her apartment’s overstuffed closets, Didion walks to a Central Park bench, where a friend has donated a plaque in Quintana’s name:
Quintana Roo Dunne Michael 1969-2005
In Summertime and In Wintertime