TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Joan Didion has spent the past few years reporting on her grief. Her bestselling memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," was about the year following the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. He died at the very end of 2003 of a heart attack at the age of 71.
At that time, their daughter, Quintana Roo, was in the hospital in a coma, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. In August 2005, just a few weeks before the publication of "The Year of Magical Thinking," Didion's daughter died of pancreatitis after spending much of the preceding two years in ICUs.
Now Joan Didion has written a memoir reflecting on her daughter's life and death and on what she fears were her own shortcomings as a mother. It's called "Blue Nights," and it's about a period when Didion says she found her mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.
Joan Didion, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to be able to talk with you again. Before we talk about your book, I'm going to ask you to do a short reading from it. And you're welcome to introduce this or just begin, whatever you prefer.
JOAN DIDION: When I began writing these pages, I believed their subject to be children: the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances, the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them, the ways in which our investments in each other remain too freighted ever to see the other clear, the ways in which neither we nor they can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the aging of the other.
As the pages progressed, it occurred to me that the actual subject was not children at all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children. Their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in this contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death, this fear.
Only as the pages progressed further did I understand that the two subjects were the same.
GROSS: That's Joan Didion, reading from her new memoir "Blue Nights." I get the feeling you wrote this book because you couldn't write anything else, because all you could think about was the death of your daughter, and...
DIDION: That's right. I didn't actually want to write it, and as I said in that passage I just read, I had some dim idea that it was a much more - much less personal book than it turned out to be.
GROSS: And, you know, combined with the grief that you have for your daughter, you're also feeling the frailty that comes with aging, and you have a lot of nerve pain that you've been experiencing. So you've had like the total package, you know, physical and emotional pain at the same time. Do you tend to be obsessive about physical pain or emotional pain?
DIDION: Well, I try not to be, let us put it that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DIDION: But it doesn't always work out.
GROSS: If you're trying to examine that pain, whether it's your physical pain or your grief, and report on it in a book, does it put some distance between you and the grief or you and the pain because you're standing back and examining it and describing it?
DIDION: Well, I myself have always found that if I examine something, it's less scary. You know, I grew up in the West, and we always had this theory that if you saw - if you kept the snake in your eye line, the snake wasn't going to bite you. And that's kind of the way I feel about confronting pain. I want to know where it is.
GROSS: Your daughter Quintana died in 2005, six weeks before the publication of your memoir about losing your husband.
GROSS: And when the book was published, the book about your husband was published, and I interviewed you, you said that you hadn't yet started mourning for your daughter. Could you only - yeah?
DIDION: I don't think I started mourning for her until I started writing this book.
GROSS: Could you only do one at a time, you know, one grief at a time?
DIDION: Definitely, I could only do one at a time. And I couldn't, in any way, confront the death of my daughter for a long time.
DIDION: Because she was adopted. She had been given to me to take care of, and I had failed to do that. So there was a huge guilt at work.
GROSS: What do you mean you failed to do that? I mean, a parent can't protect a child from death.
DIDION: But don't we all try?
DIDION: We try to keep our children safe. That's pretty much what parents are put on this earth to do.
GROSS: Now you said that when your husband died, it was like losing part of yourself. He could complete your sentences. He could be your protection from the world. But when your daughter died, it raised so many questions for you about responsibility and guilt: Were you a good mother? Did you adequately protect her?
One of the things I think you fear that you were at fault for, was not picking up on how troubled she was.
DIDION: Of course. She was much more troubled than I ever recognized or admitted, because she was - at the same time that she was very troubled, she was infinitely amusing and charming. And that's naturally what I tended to focus on. I say naturally, because I think most of us go through life trying to focus on what works for us, and her amusing side definitely worked for me.
GROSS: But she had been diagnosed with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder...
DIDION: The whole gamut.
GROSS: And looking back, you think you maybe could have seen that earlier.
DIDION: I certainly could have seen it earlier. I don't know what I would have done about it. I mean, what we can do - what we can see and what we can do about what we see are two different matters for parents, usually.
GROSS: And I think an example you give in the book is that she had an assignment to write a journal as a school assignment, and she gave it to you to edit. And you were kind of like line-editing it, suggesting different words, when you realized you weren't paying attention to the pain that she was expressing in this journal.
DIDION: Exactly, which is kind of the way we tend to deal with our children. We don't - later we realize that maybe we haven't been listening to them at all. I mean, we've been listening to the very edge of what they say without letting it sink in.
GROSS: You adopted your daughter after trying to conceive for a couple of years. You were 31 when the adoption came through. But for years before that, you were adamant about not getting pregnant. You so much didn't want to get pregnant. What changed your mind?
DIDION: It just came over me suddenly. I could almost day it, if I remembered what year it was. But I suddenly, I needed - I had to have a baby. I started cutting out pictures of babies from magazines and sticking them on the wall in my bedroom. I have no idea how - why that came over me at that moment, but it became really necessary.
And then lo and behold, a baby was in my house.
GROSS: Yeah, you got a call from a doctor who was, I guess, was an obstetrician-gynecologist?
DIDION: Gynecologist, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, and who delivered the baby, and the mother wanted to give it up for adoption, and you became the mother. So after you got the call, the baby, you know, Quintana, remained in the hospital for a couple of nights, and those two nights you say you had dreams about forgetting you had a baby, leaving the baby in the drawer and then going out to dinner without making provisions to feed her.
DIDION: I had dreams about leaving the baby uncared-for while I did something that I would have done before, before she was born, like decide to stay in town for a movie and stay for dinner and all of these things that we do without thinking before we have children. And then suddenly we don't do them anymore, and it comes home to us in a real way, that it's very different to have this responsibility of a child.
GROSS: And you write, too, this is right before you took home the baby: What if I fail to take care of this baby? What if this baby fails to thrive? What if this baby fails to love me? And worse yet, what if I fail to love this baby?
DIDION: That's something that we don't talk about very much, but almost everybody I know who has ever had a child is afraid before the baby comes, that they won't - that they won't like the baby or love the baby, that they won't be up to it.
GROSS: So what was the reality for you when you brought Quintana home? Did you still fear that you wouldn't love her? Did you still fear you'd leave her in the drawer?
DIDION: No, no, no, no, it was - the reality was actually - couldn't have been more perfect. I remember driving, leaving the hospital with her and driving. We were living down the beach then, and we were on the San Diego Freeway going home, and I always thought of myself as bonding with her on the San Diego.
GROSS: My guest is Joan Didion. Her new memoir about her daughter's life and death is called "Blue Nights." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Didion, and her memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," was about grieving over the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Her new memoir, "Blue Nights," is about the life and death of her daughter, Quintana Roo.
Quintana was born in 1966, and this is like the early stages of the women's movement, and I think women then were working so hard to figure out what it meant to be a mother with still having some sense of equality and without giving up your work and the life and identity that you had created outside the home. Were you trying to figure that out for yourself?
DIDION: Actually no I wasn't. It never crossed my mind that I would have to figure it out. I always thought I would be working, and I always thought that I would have a baby, if I was lucky enough. So I wasn't as troubled by that.
When I got troubled by it was when I realized I wasn't really doing it as well as I thought - as I had anticipated I would be able to.
GROSS: You had planned a trip to Saigon for a magazine piece, and the trip was to take place shortly after you adopted Quintana. You didn't know that you were on the verge of becoming a mother when you accepted the Saigon piece.
DIDION: No, no.
GROSS: So you say that you had planned on going through with the trip anyways, bringing Quintana with you. You brought a beautiful flowered, I think silk parasol to protect her from the sun. And you realized that you were acting as if you were going to, like, to a high-fashion place with her and that you weren't really dealing with the reality here.
DIDION: Right, it was all going to be tea and lemon presses at, you know, at the Cirque Sportif. It was not - I wasn't seeing that there was an actual shooting war going - a bad, bad war going on, and we were really at the worst - this was 1966. We were kind of at the worst turn in it.
GROSS: In the Vietnam War.
DIDION: In the Vietnam War.
GROSS: And you say you realized you were raising Quintana like a doll. What do you mean by that?
DIDION: She had a lot of - when I say I was raising her like a doll, I mean literally I was dressing her. That was my main conception of my role. I made sure that her clothes were taken care of. I dressed her. She was a doll to me, which in retrospect gave me probably a distorted idea of who she was. I didn't give her enough credit for being a grown-up person. Even as a four-year-old she was a grown-up person.
GROSS: When did that change for you? When did you start feeling like she wasn't a doll, and there was more than dressing her?
DIDION: Oh, when she was 12, 13, when she was, you know, beginning to be in high school. Then the reality that this was a real person started coming through to me.
GROSS: It's hard for me to imagine that when she was 10 and 11, you were still treating her as a doll.
DIDION: Well maybe less when she was 10 or 11. But certainly...
GROSS: I mean, children are so demanding. You know, it's hard to - it's hard to treat a child like a doll at some point because they're asking for things, they're insisting on things. They're crying. They're laughing. I mean, they're making their presence felt. They're willful.
DIDION: Well, she was actually not a willful child.
GROSS: Because your daughter had a cerebral brain hemorrhage toward the end of her life, and she was in a medically induced coma for a while, her memory was not good, her comprehension wasn't good because of these medical problems, you were, I assume, unable to talk about the things that you might have liked to talk with her about at the end of her life?
DIDION: No, I was able to talk with her at the end of her life, because she was very open about her fears and her condition.
GROSS: Would it be an intrusion to ask about the kind of things you were able to talk about and maybe resolve? Did you talk about any of the fears about your - how you behaved as a mother, the fears you express in the book? Did you express any of those fears to her?
DIDION: Once, we talked about what kind of mother I had been. And she, to my surprise, said: You were okay, but you were a little remote. Now, that was a very frank thing for her to say, and I recognized myself in it. I was a little remote.
GROSS: You write that your daughter once expressed the fear that your husband would die, and there would be no one but her to take care of you.
DIDION: Yeah, that was a scary moment.
GROSS: When was that?
DIDION: Well, it was actually not long before she died. It was in the last few years of her life. But I had not realized how responsible she - how heavily she bore the responsibility of having - of taking care of me, which hadn't occurred to me as a necessity.
GROSS: You think it's because she saw you as frail.
DIDION: I think it's because she saw me as frail.
GROSS: And you see yourself as frail?
DIDION: Well, I certainly do now. I'm not sure I did then.
GROSS: When you were younger, and your husband and daughter were alive, did you ever expect you'd be facing the last years of your life without them, that you'd be left on your own?
DIDION: No, I never did expect that. And I don't know why I never expected it because, I mean, there was no reason to think that Quintana would be ill, but John had demonstrably had things that could kill him. He had heart disease that had undergone a number of interventions for heart disease, and eventually one of them wasn't going to intervene. But I didn't face this. I didn't have a very - I never had a very realistic view of everybody else's survival time.
GROSS: Do you worry about being alone? Like it sounds like you like being alone, but you hate being alone.
DIDION: I love being alone. I mean, I need to be alone. I get terribly anxious and nervous if I'm not alone for a period of enough time.
GROSS: Are there objects from your husband or your daughter that you actually want to look at every now and then and that bring back good memories, like helpful memories?
DIDION: Yes, I have certain things of Quintana's. I have her - for example, some school uniforms and the pinafore that she wore for volunteering at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. Now, those are things that I feel very warm when I look at, and I wouldn't want to live in a house that they - a house that didn't have room for those. So they'll be around.
GROSS: You have been immersed in death since 2005. Your husband died that year. Your daughter died that year. And since then, you've been writing books about their death. So I feel like as an outsider, it seems to me you probably haven't emerged from death yet, from their deaths. Do you think, like, with this book published and with your reporting kind of done about those deaths that you'll emerge more?
DIDION: Oh, I think so. I think it's - I mean, I'm feeling very strongly the need to do something in another vein. I don't know what that vein will be, but I want to find it.
GROSS: Are you getting any pleasure in life?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: What's giving you pleasure?
DIDION: Well, I mean, quite simple things. I mean, for example yesterday I went to a concert, and the music gave me pleasure.
GROSS: Well, Joan Didion, I'm really glad we had the opportunity to talk again. Thank you so much.
DIDION: Thank you.
GROSS: Joan Didion's new memoir is called "Blue Nights." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.