The Year of Magical Thinking

          Among the many words and phrases used to define magic and magical in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus are the following: charms or spells believed to have supernatural power over natural forces;  something that seems to cast a spell leading to a state of enchantment. 

          Certainly one implication of magical thinking is that it is different.  And what happened to Joan Didion in the year following the death of her husband of 40 years was certainly different. His death seemed to have taken control over her and it led to her mind moving into entirely new thought  patterns.

          I am reading Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking for the fourth time now.  It seems to have some sort of addictive hold on me. I have given away at least ten copies of this book and recommend it to you enthusiastically.

When I was telling Buzz Stone about it he asked if I had written a column about it.  I said that I thought the answer was no and that maybe I should.  I said that I must have written a paragraph about page 98 in one of my columns. But more about page 98 below. 

          Joan Didion’s year and the first three sentences in her book are as follows:

          Life changes fast.

          Life changes in the instant.

          You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

          Didion was aware that the moment when her life changed completely followed such an ordinary moment.  Like the sunny beautiful morning of 9-11-2001 or the ordinary Sunday morning in Honolulu just before the attack on Pearl Harbor or moments in your life or mine when life changes instantly with no foreshadowing at all.  Something happens and life is different forever after. 

          Joan Didion sat down to dinner. He was talking and then he wasn’t. He slumped over onto the table and then fell hard to the floor. He was never revived by paramedics at their apartment or by the staff in the emergency room at New York Hospital. He had died.

          Joan Didion’s magical thinking included hundreds of things:

The first night after he died she had to be at home alone.  “I needed to be alone so he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking”

Wondering the morning after he died why she was alone in their bed.  Had there been some sort of fight.  This wondering why he wasn’t there persisted for weeks.

Combining the cash he had with the cash she had placing twenties with twenties, tens with tens, fives with fives and ones with ones and thinking that John “would see that I was handling things.”

Not removing John’s shoes and clothing from his closet because he might return at any time.

Life does change in the ordinary instant and Joan Didion’s book has made me look for changes that are making my life different each day, each week and each year.  Her book has awakened in me curiosity about changes that happen in an ordinary instant and then have ripples down through our lives. 

I have read page 98 of this book to 50 or more people or groups of people.  It points out the power of telephone numbers to sustain relationships, get things done and manage one’s life.  The power of one’s telephone numbers, she suggests, is unmatched.

But powerful lists of telephone numbers do not alter other events: “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” 

Robert A. Hatcher MD, MPH
Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics
Emory University School of Medicine
Atlanta, Georgia