Joan Didion: a great love story

"It's like Margaret Fuller: I accept the universe."

The romance of Joan Didion and John Dunne:

(Excerpt from JOAN DIDION - THE ABYSS By Sara Davidson, Oprah Magazine, 2005)

"They met in the early sixties; he was a friend of the man Joan was dating when she worked at Vogue and John was on staff at Time.

"Do you remember your first impression of John?" I ask.

"I thought he was smart and funny," Joan says. "He made me laugh and we thought the same way about lots of things." A few years later, when Joan had broken up with the mutual friend, they had dinner by themselves. John said he was going to visit his mother in Hartford, Connecticut, for the weekend and invited her to come. "The minute I got into this house of great calm and order and peace and well-being, I thought, I want to marry him."
She says there was more order in the house than she'd had in her life for a while.

What kind of order?

"There were meals." She laughs. "There was a closet full of organdy tablecloths on long rollers--the way they came back from the French laundry, under tissue."

She and John were married nine months later. She was 29, which in 1964 was "as old as you got" without being considered an old maid, and John was 31. During their wedding at the Catholic mission church in San Juan Bautista, California,
Joan cried behind dark glasses, and they promised each other that if they wanted, they would release each other "before death did us part." Joan recalls, "You aren't sure if you're making the right decision--about anything, ever."

"As marriages go," I say, "I think you had a pretty great one. Do you feel that?"

"Yeah, I do. Finally it was, which is not to say we thought it was great at every given moment. Each of us was mad at the other half the time."


"Maybe a quarter." She shrugs. "A tenth of the time. In the early years, you fight because you don't understand each other. In later years, you fight because you do." She laughs. "What I came to love later was different from what I loved in the beginning. Later we had so much history, we had a life together and we were the only people in it."

Joan says it came to her that everybody she'd known who'd lost a husband, wife, or child looked the same. "Exposed. Like they ought to be wearing dark glasses, not because they've been crying but because they look too open to the world." It was this rawness that shocked her, she says. "I had spent so much of my life guarding against being raw."

I bring up something I've been brooding on: Is it more painful if someone you love dies, or if he rejects you and leaves? I'd thought the latter was more taxing because you're wounded and he's still around, allowing you to cling to slender threads of hope that he could come back, change his mind, and then you hear he's marrying someone else. If he dies, on the other hand, the love was intact; it was never withdrawn. But after reading Joan's book, I saw that having a husband die pushes you up against the maw--the extinction of life itself.

Joan nods. "That's the issue nobody wants to face. The finality." I ask if she thinks the brain is capable of conceiving of its own demise. She says, "I know I'm going to die, but not really. John's death made me look at it for John but not for myself. There's almost nothing that can make me accept the fact that death will occur to me."

She looks down at her hands. "Naturally there's a strong wish to believe in life after death. I don't happen to believe in life after death.""

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