After I graduated from college in 1976, I went to work for my father. It was a trial by fire from the start—from sequestered, under-developed college boy to my first real job—thrust out into the real world. I had a rough transition from the old, high-falutin' academic environment to the pedestrian world of a Southern town. A few days before Christmas, I attended a performance of Messiah at a local church. My sister sang alto in the choir, and her husband sang bass.

Next to me sat an elderly woman with a ball of white hair pulled tightly onto the crown of her head. I recgonized it as a German hair-style, and since I knew already that I wanted to go to Europe after working for a year, I introduced myself to her. I was basically looking for someone who could teach me a foreign language or two.

She said her name was Hermine Kahl and that she had emigrated to America from Vienna, Austria, years before. She had taught school in Connecticut and had a French mother, who had given her the French first-name. Hermine said her son-in-law played cello in the orchestra and, indeed, she could teach me a foreign language. We soon settled on German. She already had text-books.

I didn't know it at the time, but I had lucked out beyond my wildest dreams. After she emigrated to America, Hermine worked as a teacher. Before emigrating, she worked in the administration of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire—in Austria, but also in the ethnically complex coastal area north of the Gulf of Venice. Much of the coastline changed hands after World War I, and again after World War II. That Hermine's life went back that far tells me she was at least 70-years-old when I met her, but I did not ask her age.

Among other things, Hermine had education. She knew music and poetry. She suggested I listen to a recording of German poetry to improve my pronunciation. She also introduced me to a paperback titled Die Schmiere, by Rudolf Rolfs, a nightclub-owner and kaberettist who had set up his theatre in Frankfurt/Main. Die Schmiere consists of little poetic monologues with a satirical edge, suitable for a stand-up skit. One poem "Der Backfisch" stands out because of The Virgin Suicides.

"Der Backfisch" tells the story of a girl who is enthralled, but also tormented, by a series of movie-based fantasies. Each stanza suggests that der Backfisch has seen another heart-throb sort of movie and can hardly tolerate how much she identifies with the heroine. In a sense, der Backfisch becomes the tragic heroine of each movie: "Ach, ich möchte mal verzweifelt an der ganzen Welt!"

   Ohh, I just despair of the whole World!
   I would like to feel deep unhappiness!
   A man who I cared deeply about has cruelly deceived me!
   "Help me!" I cry out hysterically.

   But I only saw this in a movie—one of those "For adults only".

   I would like to be kicked out of my own home!
   During a murder-trial, and with a trembling voice, I would like to
   lie under oath!
   With suicidal thoughts, I would like to stand on the rim of a bridge!
   Or throw myself from a shiny new luxury-car!

   But all of this, I only saw in a movie, unfortunately!
   And I only managed to get in because I'm so pretty!

   During a murder-trial, I would like to be the accused.
   Convinced of my guilt, I eat stale bread behind prison-bars.
   Sobs shake my entire body as I cry out, "Ohh!  My beloved!
   Why a duel? Now he is dead!"

   But I only saw this in a movie. . . .

Perhaps this is the important insight about The Virgin Suicides, about poorly-equipped boys and girls who still struggle to separate the real from the imaginary. They hear the line "Somebody has deceived me!" or "I lied under oath. Now I'm going to jump off a bridge!" and internalize the grief or angst of it. Then, when the movie ends, and we remember that it is only a movie, we feel flat and apathetic.