The Brothers Grimm, Matt Damon and Heath Ledger play
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, fictionalized as con men roving through
18th century French-occupied Germany, “exorcising witches.”
But when they find themselves wandering through the forests
of Marbaden, they enter into the kinds of fantastic and unnerving
stories in Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
It’s a funny movie with decidedly Terry Gilliam humor. “Trust
the toad!” Will says, as it stretches its leg in the direction
they should travel—a primitive GPS. The sets are part Faust,
part Lord of the Rings.
But I had to watch The Brothers Grimm two nights in
a row, because it spoke to me more profoundly than anything
has in about as long as I can remember.
I know that’s a weird thing to say about a movie that is,
on the most obvious level, a comic romp. But beneath the humor
is hortatory: we watch as Jake and, later, Will (and then
maybe the viewer) come to realize that they are not just collectors
of stories and dealers in deception. They are in the
story,” Jake says, “it’s happening to us now. We’re living
it. It’s alive, it’s real, it’s breathing. And we could give
it a happy ending.”
Call me simple-minded, but that notion of story as
something we cannot not be part of, because our lives
and the story are inextricable, was the best news I’d heard
in a while.
Maybe it’s because of what I do for a living, but I think
I have always had the sense that somehow we transcend our
own stories. We aren’t really making them; we’re just passing
through them. And finally, that’s a grim (no pun, honestly)
frame of reference.
So I came into my office today resolved to write something
about The Brothers Grimm. But what? I opened my copy
of Grimm’s Fairytales, hoping for inspiration. Instead
I saw an inscription. I had forgotten—the book had been a
birthday present from a college roommate, a girl both beautiful
and troubled, dogged by depression.
A whole chapter of story rose in my mind.
I got up from my desk and knelt down before a beat-up cardboard
banker’s box that has been sitting in the middle of my office.
I had hauled it out of the closet weeks ago because there
was some paperwork in there that I needed. But I knew it held
something else as well, a bulging manila envelope marked “Memories”
in red Sharpie.
I often try to avoid “Memories.”
I reached into the envelope.
I pulled out a little bound book. My autograph collection
from when I was 10, signatures from New York City Ballet dancers
alternated with messages from my fifth- and sixth-grade teachers,
my sister’s boyfriend and my friends from a traumatic week
at church camp. And then a stamp-sized bit of paper slipped
out and fluttered to the floor. I picked it up.
8 rue des Meunieres,
Pont Aven, France.
couldn’t be—but it was. Sylvie, my pen pal from high school.
It hadn’t been a long-lived correspondence—I was a high school
French student, after all. But lately I have been wondering
if I could find her somehow, send her a note now that my French
can actually be used for communication. I held her address
between my thumb and forefinger incredulously. Would I be
able to find her? How could I not want to try?
I pulled out old photos of my daughters. I pulled out their
early drawings and a whole stack of “I love you, Mommy” letters
from back when they called me “Mommy.” I pulled out thank
you notes from people I had forgotten, responses to old columns
(I only save the positive ones). Somebody had once written
asking, “Do we remember or do we remember the continual re-telling
of the tale?”
I pulled out a copy of an invitation to a Christmas party
I’d written as a parody of “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
Nice party, stupid invitation.
I reached in again. I found a copy of the sermon the pastor
had given at my wedding to my ex-husband. A few cards and
photos later, I found a poem I had written during the marriage’s
I found a letter from a quirky professor and poet I had worked
for in graduate school. I had heard about his death from an
old classmate. He had died suddenly and alone.
I found a postcard, Picasso’s “Nude Under a Pine Tree” from
my college boyfriend. He regularly shuttled between me and
a woman in Chicago whom he was living with when he sent the
postcard. He wasn’t subtle. After that I pulled out some e-mails
we’d exchanged after decades of silence. He had married the
woman in Chicago, and they had three sons. He sounded just
like his old self: “One of my battles right now is with my
own search for meaning as an artist, or an observer or a maker
added his e-mails to the pile of narrative evidence from the
“Memories” envelope and I spread it all in a circle around
me. I sat for a while within that circle of chapters and fragments.
story,” Jake says,” it’s happening to us now. We’re living
it. It’s alive . . . And we could give it a happy ending.”
I get it now. I do. I am not simply living a life. I am making