by Collin Mitchell
In her memoir Grand, writer and comedian Sara Schaefer reflects on her childhood and career by way of a river trip through the Grand Canyon that she took in celebration of her fortieth birthday. “The Canyon will take you apart and put you back together again,” she writes, reflecting on the promise a “bucket-listy” adventure like white water rafting makes to its often anxious enlistees. Schaefer readily admits she is one of them. “Maybe down there I could find answers. I wasn’t even sure of the questions, but in that moment I wanted to believe.” In Grand, Schaefer, whose career credits include her comedy show “Sara Schaefer is Obsessed with You” and an MTV late night talk show, “Nikki & Sara Live,” indirectly asks what makes any of us worthy of being alive, and it’s this perspective that gives her story much of its appeal.
For most of her childhood, Schaefer and her three siblings grew up happy and healthy in the wealthy suburb of Midlothian, Virginia, with their lawyer father and stay-at-home mom. She writes fondly of piles of gifts at Christmas, listening to Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Murphy albums with her brother, road trips to Disneyworld, and putting on fashion shows for her father so he could see “what his purchasing power had earned [them].” But when she was twelve, her father gathered the family together in the living room and tearfully confessed to misappropriating client funds. The theft doesn’t break them apart, but rather teaches everyone—children and adults alike—about perseverance. At stake throughout her memoir are her sense of self-worth and a need to outgrow the anxiety in her head (“the Doom,” as she calls it). Often she depends on family to get her to where she needs to be. “My childhood had two sides,” Schaefer writes, reflecting on the effect her mother’s later cancer diagnosis had on her perspective toward change.
“Everything before Dad confessed, and everything that happened after—and I feared that at some point in my adult life, a horrible tragedy might open up a new divide, a new line from which to look at both sides now. Is this it?”
The answer is yes: embrace what you can when you can.
Grand is fairly linear, moving through Schaefer’s college experience, early career successes with AOL and MTV, divorce, her mother’s cancer diagnosis, and confronting the inequities of the entertainment industry. Each of these is a “divide” that opens up new possibilities and challenges. It’s here, when Schaefer writes about facing uncertainty, that the book is most successful. On questioning her Christian beliefs she writes: “I felt torn between my old life and my new one, worrying that I was going to become bad.” She admits to a need to be perfect and the “innate responsibilit[y]” she felt she owed to her family. “These included everything from knowing how to correctly spell the word ‘Chief,’ to managing the feelings of my stuffed animals … to preventing the untimely death of myself and everyone around me.” Her insecurities and circular thinking are relatable, and she writes on these challenges with clarity and openness. The Grand Canyon trip is both an encapsulation and a redemption of these doubts, and Schaefer tests her vulnerabilities, from a fear of water to her overwhelming sense of inferiority, with introspection and self-effacement. Part of the river narrative is framed around the “no-talent show,” an end-of-trip celebration where everyone does something silly. “The stakes could not have been lower,” Schaefer writes. “But it felt like I had everything riding on it.” More often than not she gets in her own way, something she is more than aware of. “I shook my head, trying to clear my mind of these thoughts. I couldn’t believe I was down here in this amazing environment, comparing myself to a comedian in a completely made-up scenario and just deciding I had lost the competition! Why was I even thinking about my career at all?” The challenge with the narrative, however, is that self-acceptance seems like a foregone conclusion, and the book often reads less as a story than a statement of purpose. “I couldn’t have any feeling at all without judging it,” she writes, and it seems obvious—where else could her journey lead?
The close relationship between Schaefer and her parents is touching, especially her relationship with her mother. As if in tribute to her mother, the latter half of the book reaches moments of lyricism. Schaefer writes about the pile of clothes she and her mother made while clearing out the closets in the months leading up to her mother’s death:
A humble monument to this church lady in a Wonder Woman belt, a giver and forgiver, a volcano of love, a human cure-all, with so much unfinished business: Lovie. Her legacy here, so plainly piled, whispering the hymn of her miracles unperformed, of cruelly interrupted adventure. She wasn’t done yet. Not even close. Her voice rang out in my head. Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.
Schaefer does not weigh the book down with advice, but rather makes a point of openly sharing her life, now half done. She is by turns afraid, proud, indignant, and understanding. The acknowledgment of her basest desires (fame and recognition) is unabashed, giving the book the lack of ego necessary to deliver its message—go forth and forget the haters, especially yourself. As her father liked to say ad-nauseum to the Schaefer kids: “It’s all about choices.”
Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.