Sorrowful 'Blue Nights': Didion Mourns Her Daughter

Nov 1, 2011
Originally published on November 2, 2011 12:28 pm

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion addressed the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The book was published in 2005, months after their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne — their only child — died at age 39. In her new book, Blue Nights, the 76-year-old author has pieced together literary snapshots, and retrieved memories about her daughter's life and death.

"It has not left my mind since it happened," Didion says haltingly. "I live with it, so naturally I can talk about it. ... I couldn't talk about it at first, but I can now."

But clearly, talk does not come easily. Nor, she says, did the writing of Blue Nights. That's harder for Didion now — more groping for words, less polishing. Her prose, in the past, just gleamed — terse, elegant, understated and piercing. The new book is what's left, after loss.

"We all survive more than we think we can," Didion says of living on after the deaths of her loved ones. "We imagine things — that we wouldn't be able to survive, but in fact, we do survive. ... We have no choice, so we do it."

John Gregory Dunne died of a massive heart attack. Quintana Roo Dunne died of complications from a flu that turned into pneumonia — then septic shock, an induced coma, a brain bleed, five surgeries and months in intensive care. It was a medical and emotional nightmare.

Most of Didion's books contain little mantras — quick phrases, repeated here and there throughout the text. In Blue Nights it's this: When we talk about mortality, we're talking about our children.

She means the responsibility we feel for them. Our fear that harm will come to them — from a swimming pool, an elevator, a bottle of Drano under the sink — that we can't protect them well enough. For Didion, the apprehensions arrived gradually. Just after they adopted Quintana Roo (they'd seen the name on a map of Mexico, liked it, and chosen it) the writer says she acted as if she'd gotten a doll to dress up, not a real baby.

"We had many dresses," Didion says. "We had 66 dresses that she got for christening presents. ... Everybody was clueless, everybody to do with this angel baby had no clue."

It didn't take long for the realities of baby- and child-rearing to set in, and the brand new mother learned how to deal. Quintana "had no idea how much we needed her," Didion writes. "I needed her in the sense that she was ... simply the center of my life," Didion says. "I needed someone to take care of."

Quintana Roo was an affectionate child — bright and funny. She posted a list of "Mom's Sayings" in their garage in Malibu. It included: "Brush your teeth," "Brush your hair" and "Shush, I'm working." Didion jokingly admits she was a nag who was "was totally wrapped up in keeping some time free for myself."

Didion writes that her daughter was a quicksilver child — her many moods shifted rapidly. Eventually there was a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, but Didion neither understood nor accepted that label.

Blue Nights begins in Manhattan on Quintana's wedding day: July 26, 2003. It was a happy day. Quintana wanted leis instead of bouquets, Didion recalls, because of the time she'd spent in Hawaii.

"She wanted to wear her hair in a braid down her back. ... She had worn it that way as a child when we lived at the beach. She wanted to have cucumber and watercress sandwiches at her wedding. Everything about her wedding, in Quintana's mind, had to represent her past," her mother remembers.

Memories, now, for Didion, are stored in boxes, drawers and closets. She has saved the tiny dresses her daughter wore when she was 4 and 5 years old — hanging in Quintana's closet is a black wool challis dress with a rose print that she bought at Bendel's. "I open that closet door all the time now," she says.

In Blue Nights, Didion writes that in theory, these mementos should bring back the moment, but in fact, they only make clear how inadequately she appreciated the moment back when it happened.

People trying to be sympathetic will say, "Well, you have your memories" — and Didion says she never really knows how to respond to that. "Yes, I do," she says, as though the memories make it better. Talking about this, she laughs.

It's hard — but good — to laugh. It's a way to get through harrowing times and unimaginable losses. And writing ... helps.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For the second time, the writer Joan Didion has shared with her readers the story of a loved one she outlived. Didion won praise for "The Year of Magical Thinking," her book about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. By the time that book was published in 2005, Didion had suffered another loss. Her daughter Quintana Roo, their only child, dead at age 39. Now Joan Didion has written about that death in the book "Blue Nights."

Didion has faced some difficult questions, first in life, then in print, and now in this interview with NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Well look, Joan Didion, you can write, and you've done that about the death of your daughter - but can you talk about it? And if you can, how do you get yourself to do it?

JOAN DIDION: I'm – I think maybe it has not left my mind since it happened, and so I live with it, so naturally I can talk about it. After - I mean I couldn't talk about it at first, but I can now.

STAMBERG: But clearly talk does not come easily, nor, she says, did the writing of "Blue Night." That's harder for her now, more groping for words, less polishing -her prose, in the past, just gleamed. It was so terse, elegant, understated and piercing. The new book is what's left after loss.

And you know the question that occurs to all of us - and forgive me, I'm asking you the toughest questions first - is how you survive the loss of the two people you love most in this world - your husband, and then very quickly after, your daughter?

DIDION: Well, we all survive more than we think we can. Don't you think? I mean, like, we imagine things that we wouldn't be unable to survive, and in fact we do survive them.

STAMBERG: You think we just have no choice? I mean what else are we going to do.

DIDION: We have no choice, so we do it.

STAMBERG: Yeah, you can't crawl into a corner in the closet and stay there forever.

DIDION: Well, you can try. I certainly felt like it.

STAMBERG: John Gregory Dunne died of a massive heart attack. Quintana Roo Dunne died of complications from a flu that turned into pneumonia, then septic shock, an induced coma, a brain bleed, five surgeries, months in intensive care, a medical and emotional nightmare. Most of Joan Didion's books contain little mantras - quick phrases, repeated at various times throughout the text.

In "Blue Nights" it's this: when we talk about mortality, we're talking about our children. She means the responsibility we feel for them. Our fear that harm will come to them - from a swimming pool, an automatic elevator, a bottle of Draino under the sink - that we can't protect them well enough.

For Didion, the apprehensions arrived gradually, just after they adopted Quintana Roo. They had seen the name on a map of Mexico, liked it, chose it. The writer says she acted as if she'd gotten a doll, not a real baby, something to dress up.

DIDION: We had many dresses, we had 66 dresses that she got for christening presents.

STAMBERG: Sounds like your friends were as clueless as you.

DIDION: Everybody was clueless, everybody to do with this angel baby had no clue.

STAMBERG: But they were so delighted, as you were her, to have her.

DIDION: Yes, yes.

STAMBERG: In a while, the realities of baby and child-rearing set in. And the new mother dealt. In part because, as Didion writes, Quintana had no idea how much we needed her.

DIDION: I needed her in the sense that she was simply the center of my life. And I needed someone to take care of.

STAMBERG: So, a place to put your feelings, your focus, your - more than your writing?

DIDION: I needed to put in my writing, but I also needed to put it into this person who was actually in the house.

STAMBERG: Quintana Roo Dunne was an affectionate child, bright, funny. She posted a list of mom's sayings in their garage in Malibu.

DIDION: Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I'm working. She and a friend in the neighborhood each posted their mom's sayings in the garage.

STAMBERG: We're you a nag or just an over…

DIDION: No, I was a nag, who was totally wrapped up in keeping some time free for myself, obviously.

STAMBERG: Quintana Roo Dunne was, Didion writes, a quicksilver child - moody. The moods shifted rapidly. Eventually there was a diagnosis: borderline personality disorder. Didion neither understood nor accepted that diagnosis. "Blue Nights" begins in Manhattan, with Quintana's wedding day: July 26th, 2003. It was a happy day.

DIDION: She wanted to have leis, instead of bouquets.

STAMBERG: Because she had spent enough time in Hawaii.

DIDION: Because she'd spent so much time in Hawaii. She wanted to wear her hair in a braid down her back. She'd worn it that way as a child when we lived at the beach. She wanted to have cucumber and watercress sandwiches. Everything about her wedding had to represent her past.

STAMBERG: It's lovely, it's as if she pulled together her very best memories for that one special day.

DIDION: For that one day.

STAMBERG: Memories, now, for Joan Didion, are stored in boxes, in drawers, closets. The things she saved.

DIDION: I saved dresses I bought for her when she was four or five. Well, I remember it, particularly, because it's still hanging in her closet, a black challis, wool challis dress with roses on it that I bought at Bendal's.

STAMBERG: Hmm. Can you open that closet door?

DIDION: I open that closet door all the time now, yeah.

STAMBERG: But what you write is, in theory, these mementoes served to bring back the moment, in fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.

DIDION: When it was here. Yes, exactly

STAMBERG: The business of public reaction. I find too, having lost my husband, people don't know what to say to you, and what they will say, and they're trying - just in good nature, and trying to be sympathetic and positive, they will say, well, you have your memories.

DIDION: You have your wonderful memories, yes, exactly. I don't know how many people have said that to me.

STAMBERG: Have you found the best answer to that?

DIDION: No, I've never found any. Did you find one?

STAMBERG: No, I say, yes, I do.

DIDION: That's what I say. I lie.

STAMBERG: It's hard, but good to laugh. Good to get her to laugh. It's a way to move through harrowing times, unimaginable losses. And writing helps. Joan Didion's new book is called "Blue Nights."

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.