Joan Didion's 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking describes the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, of cardiac arrest in their apartment in 2003. Some time before her husband's death, her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, had been hospitalized for a mysterious case of pneumonia that had developed into septic shock. Quintana was unconscious at the time of her father's death and later, just before the publication of her mother's book, died of pancreatitis. With her usual close observation and detachment, Didion examines the bizarre states of mind that accompany life's shocks, including behaviors that amount to temporary delusion and even insanity: speaking to people who aren't there, the powerful emotional need to keep certain possessions, and the magical thinking that assumes that performing particular actions can change reality. Didion gives unashamed and potent examples of how the most rational person can be made irrational when they are blindsided by such calamity.
Because much of the literature about this subject is by nature corrective—offering solutions, easy answers and descriptions of "stages"—it is oddly refreshing and useful to see an author describe and fully recognize the derangement of grief and trauma. At least someone who is suffering such agony knows she isn't the only crazy person out there.
In this issue, our authors face everything from a terminally sick child to being uprooted and living in an alien environment to abandonment by a [End Page 5] spouse. Dan Stolar's story "Emma Won't Get Better" describes how the unexpected tragedy of a child's illness can undermine even a stable and happy family. Jennie Lin's "In the Quiet" is the tale of a girl who has been sent to live in China with an uncle who is a farmer. Her cousin ignores her, the uncle and aunt leave her untended most of the time while they work in the fields, and the grandmother is senile. It is a story of being exiled in a place that seems almost in a different century, where nothing looks right or familiar. Karl Taro Greenfeld's story "Even the Gargoyle Is Frightened" is a first-person fictional narrative from the point of view of a young Japanese naval officer with high connections who has been assigned to do increasingly irrelevant work on an aircraft carrier, including investigating the murder of a pilot who failed in his assignment to fulfill a suicide mission. This leads the young officer to even darker discoveries in the demented world of total war.
In Carol Ghiglieri's ironically light-toned "Fergus," her protagonist, Jackie, seems to be undergoing a terrible time, at least on the surface. Her husband precipitously gave up his dental practice and disappeared on an extended sailing voyage. Jackie adopts a dog who is anything but a perfect companion, yet she finds herself able to cope surprisingly well, particularly when you-know-who comes slinking back through the door. Adam Krause's wonderful "Gandhi Is Dead" is another first-person story with a tone of muted irony. Protagonist Sampuran runs a slum tourism business in New Delhi, exploiting both altruistic tourists who want to help in the developing world and the people of the slums, from whom he receives large kickbacks. Yet he defends himself as someone who at least has some positive influence, providing infrastructure and facilities that improve lives in the neighborhood.
Danielle Ofri's essay "Unstrung" describes her experience as an ER doctor dealing with a patient who has apparently experienced a psychotic break. The woman is a middle-aged Polish janitor who has up to that moment led a seemingly normal life. In the ER she violently resists all drugs to sedate her and continues to fight and scream and threaten the doctors and nurses trying to administer her tests. It is a story about puzzling through a diagnosis made all the more difficult by sheer physical desperation and about how the mind can suddenly snap without warning or apparent reason. In his essay "I'm OK, You're OK," Daniel Mueller recalls hitchhiking as a young man to Alaska, under the illusion that he is...