I love to watch Joan Didion laugh, and I love knowing that she still can.
There is, of course, the sardonic smile in her prose that lightens even her most powerful and painful books—The Year of Magical Thinking, about the loss of her husband, and, now, Blue Nights, about the loss of her daughter. There is always that surprising moment of lightness that shields the reader from complete despair and abandonment to anger, an almost inaudible ironic way of laughing in prose that is part of Joan’s magical literary style. But the laugh I have grown to love over the almost 30 years I have known Joan is something other: deep and transformative, and it comes most often for children.
The other night when my wife and I met Joan at Elio’s Restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side, where the covers of her books and of those by her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, are on the wall, I had brought my iPad. Over our radish and onion salads, I showed her a little video clip of our 16-month-old grandson pretending to type. Joan started laughing almost as if she would cry, reaching out to the screen with those famously frail fingers of hers as if she would take it and embrace it and hold it to her chest. And I thought, as I have often thought these last three decades, that I really do adore Joan. No. That’s not quite the word. I really do love Joan.
And I thought, precisely, about how hard it is to write about someone you love. The keyboard becomes a kind of Ouija board, taking you toward places you may not have wanted to go. And when the story is one of loss the process is more frightening still.
For Joan, tragedies have come in quick and devastating succession this last decade: her own illnesses; the prolonged suffering of her daughter, Quintana; the death of her husband, who was her literary partner and constant companion; and then Quintana’s death which had come to seem horribly inevitable. And the dying did not end there, because when you reach a certain age the dying does not end. In 2009, completely unexpectedly, the actress Natasha Richardson, whom Joan had known since Natasha was a girl, and who had made her laugh, was killed in a skiing accident.
I don't think people who do not know Joan know how important she has been to her younger and sometimes much-younger friends, as an example of integrity, dedication, judgment—yes, all those things—but also as a maker of homes. So much of what she has written about over the years is the search for a sense of home. But one of her great talents has been to give precisely that to her friends, and to the children of some of those friends. And then these deaths came one after another to destroy the very core of the home Joan had made for herself.
The pain is so overwhelming that when she writes of it in Blue Nights or, indeed, Magical Thinking, she keeps turning tragedy to curiosity. How can such things happen? She is turning it all over in her mind, and that process is part of the narrative she shares on the page.
Those who know Joan, and some who don’t, will say to each other that, as physically fragile as she may seem, she is tough—very tough—like those pioneer ancestors of hers who crossed the Sierras into California.
But nobody’s that tough. “There is no real way to deal with everything we lose,” she said in Where I Was From, which she wrote about California and her ancestors after her mother, who had lived into her 90s, died in 2001. The book was published in 2003, just months before the years of cascading tragedies began—and in fact sets the tragic context. And on the last pages Joan looks back at time spent decades before with 7-year-old Quintana and Joan's cantankerous mother on a hot afternoon in Old Sacramento. The past was what it was: remembered, imagined, fabricated, reconstructed. But Quintana was the present, was the future. “It was only Quintana who was real,” Joan wrote. No, there is no real way to deal with everything we lose.
There was a time, about the time I met Joan, when she was looking at the pain and losses of others, and feeling it, to be sure, but with the protection of the notebook that we use to record our experiences and to defend us from them. She had this extraordinary ability to be deeply involved and cleanly detached.
We were in El Salvador in 1982. I’d been covering the chaos of guerrilla war and the savagery of right-wing death squads there for a couple of very bloody years, and I was burned out. But when I ran into Joan and John in the elevator of the Camino Real Hotel, I felt a little as if I stepped onto someone else’s red carpet. They were already such stars. I’d been reading Joan’s essays for a decade, and I could never put down John’s gritty narratives of crime, passion, Catholicism, and conspiracy.
I introduced myself. I told them I would take them everywhere I knew to go, introduce them to everyone I knew to meet to get a feel for the pain of that tortured country. And they said yes. So we went to the morgue. We went to interview nuns in embattled mountain villages. And Joan learned, as she would write later, “the meaning of fear.” And we all became friends and stayed friends.
Quintana was a teenager when Joan and John came to El Salvador. Quintana was 39 when she died in 2005. And I never knew her as a little girl except in the photographs that are everywhere in Joan’s home and, yes, now even on the Web. As I look at those pictures, and see Joan in them, she is smiling a little ironically. I have one in particular in mind, a black-and-white photograph taken on the deck of their house in Malibu. Quintana is about 10. John is leaning into her and toward the lens. And Joan is standing back. But as I look at it I see a woman who is about to reach out for her daughter, the barriers of irony collapsing, the laughter transforming her face.