A student talked to me recently about his storytelling style. Film is his medium, and though he resists it, he tends naturally toward tightly constructed romantic comedies with snappy dialogue and happy endings. “I think I should just embrace my clichéd self,” he said. I told him that during my newspapering days, my co-workers, hard-nosed reporters, often teased that I covered the tearjerker beat. Sometimes, I said, we just have to admit what we’re good at whether we like it or not.
What I wanted to tell him was how The Gilmore Girls saved my life. How during the darkest days in the year after my son died, I discovered the television series, a romantic comedy set in a storybook New England small town, that brought me more comfort than can reasonably be explained.
I had completely missed The Gilmore Girls during its seven-year run on the fledgling WB cable channel, and don’t remember how I discovered it in the fall of 2007. Probably channel surfing on my mother’s television, looking for anything to distract from the nightmare my life had become. In September I’d packed a U-Haul, put my house on the market and moved a thousand miles south from my Colorado hometown of 16 years, to distance myself from the locus of my son’s final hours and to be near my mother and sisters. One sister with Alzheimer’s disease was slowly disappearing and the other was locked in grief over the death of her own son, my beautiful nephew, less than a year before. The measure of tragedy in our family over such a short time was unfathomable. We had been catapulted from life as we knew it and didn’t know where or how we’d land.
In October it was still so hot in our Gulf coast town that we spent our days encased in air-conditioned rooms. Maybe it was the overhead shot of brilliant red autumn leaves set against The Gilmore Girls’ opening song and credit sequence that hooked me. Maybe it’s that the song was written and sung by Carole King.
I bought the DVD set of the first season and watched it in bed at night, a guilty pleasure in the dark of my small garage apartment, perched high in the treetops. The show seemed aimed at teenage girls with its smart teen protagonist Rory Gilmore. Her sexy mom, Lorelai, had run away from her strait-jacketed upper-class family life at 16, pregnant and a high school dropout. When the show begins, Lorelai and Rory are firmly established in the tiny Connecticut town of Stars Hollow where Lorelai manages the local inn and Rory, at 16, is a top student with ambitions of attending Harvard. Mother and daughter are gorgeous, sharp-witted and offbeat. When Rory is accepted to Chilton, a toney private school 30 minutes up the road in Hartford, Lorelai strikes a bargain with her estranged parents, Emily and Richard: in exchange for a loan to pay Rory’s tuition, the girls promise to have dinner every Friday night with the grandparents at their chilly, palatial home. Personalities clash, alliances are formed, romances are launched and endured. A hit is born.
At first it was mainly comic relief and eye candy. But it became something more when I saw a therapist and admitted my heart had fossilized, that I could no longer feel either pain or pleasure through the shield erected around my battered psyche. She smiled kindly. She said she believed in the concept of a wailing wall, a place to release grief safely and without restraint. But I can’t cry, I said. Just find something that always makes you cry, she said, and let it do its work.
The thing that always made me cry was The Gilmore Girls. When Lorelai and Rory fought and made up. When wacky neighbor Babette’s cat died and the town held a wake. When Stars Hollow looked so sweet and beautiful and I wished for such a place to belong. When grumpy Luke, owner of the diner, did something kind and unexpected. When the girls dumped their boyfriends then felt bad about it. When the town troubadour stood beneath a street lamp singing. Laughing along at The Gilmore Girls, I was often on the verge of tears, the hallmark of watching a really good romantic comedy.
So I watched all seven seasons on DVD and, heeding my therapists’s advice, let the tears come in sweet release. The birds outside my bedroom walls could hear the wailing. Romantic comedy melded with tragedy in perfect tearjerker synchrony.
And that’s how The Gilmore Girls saved my life.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.