journal | team | miscellany | home

Commentary on “Here’s a Story”

J. D. Schraffenberger

A few years ago, my friend and colleague (and fellow Twelve Winters traveler) Grant Tracey and I shared a twelve-hour car ride from Cedar Falls, Iowa, to Denver, Colorado. By the time we arrived, I was hoarse because we’d spent the entire time talking, sharing our ideas about the craft of fiction, about teaching creative writing, about our current works in progress. I had an idea, one that I was a little hesitant to share because it was still only a glimmer of a sliver of a seed of an idea. I wanted to tell the real story underlying the performed story of a beloved television show, one that many of us grew up watching, whose iconic characters live in our collective imaginations: The Brady Bunch. While the show was a lighthearted domestic comedy, the story required death, the loss of Mike’s and Carol’s spouses, two relatively young parents, in order for the premise of the show to make sense. Narratively speaking, especially in its historical early-70s context, they could not be divorced, which would invite further complications the writers of the show surely didn’t want to contend with. Death was the clearest and cleanest way to proceed, giving Mike and Carol each permission to be single with three children. 

The title of the story I ended up writing to explore the dark premise of The Brady Bunch derives, of course, from the opening lines of the theme song, which is itself a tight narrative gem in the tradition of Gilligan’s Island, also written by the shows’ mutual creator Sherwood Schwartz. Here’s the story, the song announces, boldly, explicitly, clarifying what the audience should be paying attention to: the lovely lady, a man named Brady, their blended family and the hilarious but heartwarming tensions and conflicts that will inevitably emerge. My hope as a writer was to recover, even if only through imagination or speculation or reconstruction, who this man was before he met Carol. I like to think that Robert Reed, the actor who played Mike Brady, carried some of this darkness with him. He was a notoriously difficult performer to work with. As a serious Shakespearean actor, he felt this silly show was beneath his talents. I call him Michael in my story, an architect with a drinking problem, filled with anger, considering suicide, despairing not only over the death of his wife, but also over his sudden realization of the “most unspeakable of darknesses,” never said aloud but acknowledged here and forever internally, in the depth of his soul, the same realization as Abraham’s on the mount with Isaac. 

After my car trip with Grant, all of this revisionist recovery work became “much more than a hunch,” to quote The Brady Bunch theme song. As a writer, I understood that my task had less to do with plot and story and everything to do with character and language. A lyrical interior space opened itself to me, a dark maw of pain and suffering, the only fitting way to contain the grief that made narrative itself possible in the first place.

▪ ▪ ▪

J. D. Schraffenberger is editor of the North American Review and professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of two books of poems, Saint Joe’s Passion and The Waxen Poor, and the co-author with Martín Espada and Lauren Schmidt of The Necessary Poetics of Atheism. His other work has appeared in Best of BrevityBest Creative NonfictionNotre Dame ReviewPrairie Schooner, and elsewhere. 

journal | team | miscellany | home