Perfection of the Work: In a New Memoir, Joan Didion Reflects on Her Parenting Anxieties

Lunches were packed, but not your basic peanut butter and jelly

"Blue Nights."

On March 3, 1966, Joan Didion and her husband and screenwriting partner, John Gregory Dunne, adopted an infant girl born that morning at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. The idea to adopt had come from the former child star Diana Lynn, herself adopted, and the girl’s name, Quintana Roo, from a map of Mexico, where the couple had recently vacationed. “The baby with the fierce dark hair,” Ms. Didion writes, “stayed that night and the next two in the nursery at St. John’s and at some point during each of those nights I woke … to the same chill … dreaming that I had forgotten her, left her asleep in a drawer.” The chill is the anxious tingle of several what-if scenarios about parenthood: “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 … what if I fail to love this baby?” [emphasis Ms. Didion’s].

Blue Nights (Knopf, 208 pages, $25) is in part and not always directly a defense of Ms. Didion against the charge—a charge that seems to be coming from Ms. Didion herself—of being a failure as a parent. That would explain the presence of certain details, such as this one, from Dunne’s wedding toast for Quintana about her school days:

“Joan was trying to finish a book that year, and she would work until two or three in the morning, then have a drink and read some poetry before she came to bed. She always made Q’s lunch the night before, and put it in this little blue lunchbox. You should have seen those lunches: they weren’t your basic peanut butter and jelly schoolbox lunch. Thin little sandwiches with their crusts cut off, cut into four triangular pieces, kept fresh with Saran Wrap. Or else there would be homemade fried chicken, with little salt and pepper shakers. And for dessert, stemmed strawberries with sour cream and brown sugar.”

The image is that of a world-famous author putting aside a manuscript (probably her 1977 novel A Book of Common Prayer) and preparing a lunch for her daughter whose artistry might measure up to that of her own sentences. One wonders whether the salt and pepper shakers were disposable or if they came home in the afternoon in the little blue lunchbox to be refilled. Did the grade schooler share her homemade fried chicken with her “basic peanut butter and jelly” classmates in Malibu, or was mama’s gourmet simply the rule there in the mid-1970s?

I don’t mean to sound churlish. This is the sort of scrutiny Ms. Didion, not a name the reading public instantly associates with the words “maternal” or “nurturing,” both invites and applies to herself. By the time they became parents, Ms. Didion and Mr. Dunne were globetrotting journalists, novelists and screenwriters. Both had to cancel assignments to Saigon when they brought the infant home. Ms. Didion worries that memories she recounts of Quintana “before the age of six or seven” staying in hotels (“On the face of it she had no business being in these hotels”) “encourage a view of her as ‘privileged,’ somehow deprived of a ‘normal’ childhood.” There are other, better things to be than “normal,” and there are worse places to stay than the St. Regis, the Dorchester and the Royal Hawaiian. The baby Quintana received 60 dresses from friends and relatives, and Ms. Didion employed a Spanish-speaking maid named Arcelia. “‘Ordinary’ childhoods in Los Angeles often involve someone speaking Spanish,” Ms. Didion writes, “but I will not make that argument.”

It’s not so much an argument she makes as a sort of refusal: “‘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.” What came later was a case of the flu, which turned into pneumonia, which sent Quintana at age 37 to the hospital and into an induced coma on Christmas night 2003. Five days later, as we know from Ms. Didion’s previous memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Dunne died of a heart attack suffered over a Scotch on the rocks at the dinner table, and 20 months after that Quintana was dead. Success and wealth and privilege can insulate those who have them from only so much. Heartbreak, mental illness and mortality can’t be bought off.

So it is strange to read Ms. Didion’s worries about accusations of privilege. Quintana grew up in nice houses, eating nice lunches, attending the Westlake School for Girls, learning how to meet boys in Saint-Tropez as an eighth grader from a 17-year-old Natasha Richardson, going to Barnard and working in Manhattan as a photo editor for magazines. She was a precocious child, who once called a mental institution in Camarillo, Calif., “to find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy”; once called Twentieth Century Fox “to find out what she needed to do to be a star”; and once wrote a novel “just to show” her novelist parents.

Perfection of the Work: In a New Memoir, Joan Didion Reflects on Her Parenting Anxieties