A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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Michelle Williams these days divides her time between her house in Brooklyn and a house in upstate New York. The location of the latter property is a secret, for understandable reasons: Since the death in 2008 of Heath Ledger, the father of her daughter, Matilda, the beautiful and shy actress has inevitably found herself at the center of a morbid cult and, most pertinent, the object of the tabloids' banal, destructive intrusiveness.

She has been extremely reluctant, as a consequence, to give interviews of any sort, even to promote her film work -- the most recent example of which is Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island," in which she plays (not inappropriately) a ghost. Williams told me, "I didn't know what my boundaries were for a long time, which made interviews feel very unsafe. I can talk about grief, because that's mine; about single parenting; about trying to balance work and kids. But what I don't have to talk about is what happened between Heath and me in our relationship."

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On a more concrete level, speaking with Williams involves meeting her at a variety of neutral locations, urban and rural. In my case, the process culminated in a visit to the upstate house, where she and her three-year-old daughter have spent a part of the last year trying to restore equilibrium to lives rocked by heartbreak and grief. "I have been severely accident-prone over the past twelve months. I fell downstairs, broke a toe, put my fingers in a blender—seriously distracted." While Matilda was in a play group, her mother would be faced with the stark existential question "How am I going to get through the day?" Often, what she did was "cry, nap, sit and stare, try to figure out what to make her for dinner, talk to friends on the phone." She says, "I was holding it together by a string and a paper clip in the fall and winter. I didn't know if I could keep it all together." There are photos in the house of Gurumayi. Williams is not a follower and has never been to the ashram, but one day, she reached out to friends, and they arrived with the photos, constructed a "little altar," and took her through a rite of mourning. ("I wish we had rituals about grief," she says. "I wish it were still the Victorian times, and we could go from black to gray to mauve to pink, and have rings with hair in them.") The photos are a memento of that caring moment—memento because Williams is now in a different place. "Friends never really left me alone when we came up here," she says. "Women and kids really got us through the winter. One got me gardening in the spring, and that's when it started to turn around. I think it's something about being in nature that made it more possible. I remember being on my hands and knees. The ground was cold and muddy. I pushed back the dead leaves and saw the bright green shoots of spring. Under all this decay something was growing. Caring for the garden reminded me to care for myself." The story of Michelle Williams, it turns out, is not a story of a young artist derailed by tragedy and public scrutiny.

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