I was drawn into Joan Didion’s latest memoir, Blue Nights, immediately. She begins by writing about a season changing from spring into summer into fall:
To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.
I’ve only read one other Didion book, The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir that preceded Blue Nights. Tragically, the former is about the death of her husband in 2003; the latter, the death of her daughter two years later. It’s hard to escape the fact that few have unexpectedly suffered more than Didion.
In both books, the difficult subject matter is made easier by her beautiful writing. Her prose is positively poetic. I read The Year of Magical Thinking weeks after the death of my beloved grandfather, and it helped me immensely in dealing with his death. The book also touched on her daughter’s struggle, who was in a coma at the time of her father’s death (but managed to recover long enough to attend the funeral). When it was published, I was eager, as odd as it sounds, to read the second part of Didion’s saga. Her recent experience is heartbreaking, and accompanying her on her journey through grief is comforting.
But if Blue Nights drew me in right away, I had a hard time finishing it. In some ways, what Didion describes in both books is universal: With grief come questions. How did the illness actually cause death? Did the deceased anticipate the end? How did I fail my loved one? How could I have made the time we had left more meaningful? Why didn’t I . . .? And no one articulates these hard questions better than she.
In other ways, Didion mistakes her experience as universal. Toward the end of the book, she contemplates the suddenness of change: “One day we are absorbed by dressing well, following the news, keeping up, coping, what we might call staying alive; the next day we are not. One day we are turning the pages of whatever has arrived in the day’s mail with real enthusiasm — maybe it is Vogue, maybe it is Foreign Affairs, whatever it is we are intensely interested, pleased to have this handbook to keeping up, this key to staying alive — yet the next day we are walking uptown on Madison past Barney’s and Armani or on Park past the Council on Foreign Relations and we are not even glancing at their windows.” The general sentiment rings true, to be sure, but the details that are supposed to concretize her state of mind are alienating. Didion uses the word “we” — but her world isn’t one that I recognize.
Indeed, her two works that I’ve read are full of this kind of name and label dropping: Payard and Bouvier des Flandres, Bendel’s and The Bistro, Minton dinner plates and I. Magnin soap, Lilly Pulitzer shifts and Donald Brooks dresses, David Webb bracelets and Christian Louboutin shoes. I don’t even know what most of those words mean. And it goes on. Tasha (Natasha Richardson). Nick (Dominick Dunne). She spends two pages listing the (presumably very fancy) hotels that she and her daughter stayed in on her book tours. She even identifies something as banal as a kitchen implement: a “Craftsman knife.”
I probably would have dismissed these details had they gone unremarked. I’ve come to think of them as window-dressing, ornaments whose specificity probably connote something deeply meaningful for Didion (indeed, a photograph of Sophia Loren at a fashion show in 1968 prompts a lengthy ode to a past era in her life) but which for me are almost meaningless. I feel deeply for Didion’s losses, and these references, signifying wealth above all, give me hope. Whatever else she is — bereft, grieving, heartbroken, broken — she’s not poor. She has the resources to give herself the space to heal. It’s one of the benefits of privilege.
But Didion is angry about this label, and she breaks into a defensive address of the reader halfway through Blue Nights: “‘Privilege’ remains an area to which — when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later — I will not easily cop.”
But she’s wrong. Just wrong. Wrong, full stop. It’s hard to imagine a more privileged type of person in the U.S. than a wealthy white Hollywood family. Didion’s daughter undoubtedly suffered terribly at the end of her life — and, to hear Didion tell, struggled with debilitating mental issues when she was alive. And she did so in a life of privilege. With all due respect to Didion’s experience, health problems, even fatal ones, don’t negate privilege.
I found this refusal to acknowledge her daughter’s — and by extension her own — privilege so troubling that I had to put the book down for several months. I was recently able to finish it, and I’m glad I did. Ultimately, I do recommend the book — how can I not love a book whose author describes a scene of her daughter’s walking to school as “beautiful as anything I’d ever seen”? — but I also recommend skipping chapter 15. Didion should have skipped it, too.