Parenting and Privilege in Joan Didion’s Blue Nights

The deluge of praise heaped on Joan Didion’s Blue Nights has been excessive, bordering on sycophantic. The New York Times has run three pieces about the book (a daily review, a Sunday review, and an essay about Didion as a “polarizing force”). The Los Angeles Review of Books ran a whole week’s worth of essays, some of them quite good, particularly Matthew Spektor’s.

Before the reviews came the profiles — in PW, in New York, in Vanity Fair. Among other things what they have in common is admiration for her voice, which even given the subject matter of her adoptive daughter, Quintana Roo’s, illness and death at the age of 39 in 2005, is “blunt,” and “unflinching.” The memoir itself is “heartbreaking” and “haunting,” but it is more troubling than that. Reviewers have been taken in by Didion’s ability to make wine out of water a second time, for this book follows her account of grieving for her husband, John Gregory Dunne, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a much more substantive and less solipsistic book.

To put it bluntly, there are issues in Blue Nights that need addressing. One has been done elsewhere: the question of privilege. In a well executed roundup on the topic on Slate.com David Haglund rightly points out that Didion addresses privilege directly in the book as well as pointing out all of the critics, past and present, who have found her defense lacking. What he does not point out is that there are 75 pages of name dropping (glamorous people; rich people places; brands of clothes, of dishes, of jewelry; all to the point where it feels like a Vogue article) before Didion talks about whether or not Quintana’s childhood was privileged. Yet Didion writes:

‘Privilege’ is a judgment.

‘Privilege’ is an opinion.

‘Privilege’ is an accusation.

‘Privilege’ remains an area to which — when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later — I will not easily cop.

Quintana’s suffering, however, does not negate her privilege. Rather, the fact that she has a mother who can pull strings to get her the best medical care speaks to her belonging to a different class of people than the average patient. Didion writes about doctors calling her directly and making special arrangements for Quintana (and for Didion herself) in a nonchalant and direct way that frankly reeks of privilege. Cop to it or not, what else can that kind of treatment be called? (This enactment of privilege, it should be said, takes place across the two books, not just in Blue Nights.)

In the beginning of Blue Nights Didion writes, “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.” The line is repeated several times; it obviously resonates with Didion and the themes of her book. Much of Blue Nights is given over to an examination of her skills and shortcomings as a mother, and of her fears of aging and implied death. What irks about this mortality statement is that life, as Didion knows, is bigger than “our children” (never mind that the statement suddenly leaves the childless with nothing to talk about). What survives us after death is not just offspring, but art, which Didion has certainly made throughout her life. Or is what Didion ultimately alluding to with that repeated statement, as Mary-Kay Wilmers suggests in the London Review of Books, “the children who won’t be there to mourn us when we die?”

There is an elegiac tone about the praise for Blue Nights, a fear or an acknowledgement, perhaps, that this is not only Didion’s reckoning with mortality, it is her swan song. She contradicts herself here: in the PW interview it says “she is not sure if she will ever write again,” but in an excellent profile in the Telegraph Didion claims she is returning to a novel in progress. [Full disclosure: this profile is written by a friend, Adam Higginbotham. It is also the only one in which Didion laughs.] If Blue Nights is Didion’s last book, it is not her best work, but it is obviously one with great meaning to her, and a bookend to The Year of Magical Thinking, another contribution to a canon Didion obviously knows very well — the literature of grief.

Sketch: Joan Didion by Lisa Brown