Friend fatale

Whether it happens in a blowout battle or years of sniping comments, the ends of our girl friendships make us feel more alone, guilty and bereft than the ends of our greatest romances.

Published May 22, 2005 9:51PM (EDT)

It was January when I found myself yelling out loud at Katie Roiphe's essay in my galley of "The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women's True-Life Tales of Friendships That Blew Up, Burned Out or Faded Away." When the volume first landed on my desk, my heart started beating fast, as I realized that someone had finally put together a book to chronicle an experience that every woman I know has been through, but which still feels illicit, shameful, nausea-inducing: the friend breakup.

It was probably all that anticipation that led to the yelling.

Roiphe's ugly tale is about how she slept with the romantic obsession of her brilliant college best friend, Stella, a big, brash woman whom Roiphe describes in a sentence that feels cribbed from "frenemy" bible "The Underminer: The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life": "She was kind of wonderful looking, with her fabulous, disheveled gestalt, but at the time being overweight was an enormous, almost insurmountable, taboo." Roiphe half-apologizes for her betrayal, but mostly wonders about why she did it. "Why would one night with a boy I didn't even particularly like seem worth ruining a serious and irreplaceable friendship?" she wonders.

It was in response to that sentence that I began shouting and scribbling furious notes in my book. "Maybe because you need to assert your dominance over other women, to prove you were more desirable than a friend who threatened you intellectually?" I scrawled. "Maybe because you enjoyed preying on the weaknesses that the intimacies of friendship had revealed to you?" Roiphe's essay does not touch on the insights that I would gladly have shared with her, had I been her editor. Instead, she explains that she probably did it because of her own sexual insecurities.

I don't usually yell at books. As much as I dislike what I read in Roiphe's piece, it clearly struck a nerve. I know it sounds as if I reacted so strongly because I've had a close friend sleep with a man I was interested in, but that's not true. Friend breakups are like LSD; years later, hearing tales of other women's strife, even when they don't have anything to do with the specifics of our own bust-ups, can trigger vivid emotional flashbacks. All it takes is the slightest tickle of recognition, the tiniest tremor in our girlfriend nervous systems, and suddenly all the agony and fury and sadness flood back. It often seems that no one -- neither man nor beast nor mother-in-law -- can hurt us with the same intensity as our best friends. Whether it happens fast, in a blowout battle, or insidiously, with sniping comments about how our clothes look tight, or imperceptibly, as life drives space between us, the ends of our girl friendships have the power to make us feel more alone, guilty and bereft than even the ends of our greatest romances.

Female friendship has been around as long as females have, and no one can claim that it's an institution wholly ignored by art. There are Hero and Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing;" lonely Jane Eyre finds solace in fragile schoolmate Helen Burns; Clarissa Harlowe pours out her fears in letters to Anna Howe; and Anne Shirley makes a "bosom friend" in Diana Barry. But these bonds often existed to pave the way for real relationships ... with men. (And when they didn't, we rarely heard about them.) Female friends -- fictional and non -- have used each other as refuge, safe havens from the romantic upheavals or dark ends awaiting them in the world of men.

But as the terms and purposes of female friendship have shifted, so have its costs. No longer tethered to the world only by our relationships with men, women have free-standing relationships with each other that are formed in schools and at work and at playgrounds and in yoga studios. We bond over politics and religion and shopping and food. And that leaves more room for our friendships -- while nourishing and vital -- to turn poisonous and painful.

And so novelist Jenny Offill and Vanity Fair books columnist Elissa Schappell have edited "The Friend Who Got Away," a collection of essays about the devastation we feel when our friendships nose-dive. I devoured the book -- and yelled at it -- in one emotional binge that brought images of faces long banished from my own life popping into my mind. Then, just a week ago, I stumbled across "Secrets and Confidences: The Complicated Truth About Women's Friendships," an anthology published late last year by small Seal Press, dealing with the same tremulous, sticky discomforts.

Reading these two anthologies was exhilarating, and simultaneously left me feeling heavy and sad. Simply hearing that others have shared your pain is enough to both relieve it and make you relive it.

"The Friend Who Got Away," like all anthologies, is uneven. Aside from the Roiphe essay, highlights include Offill's rapturous piece about her childhood friend Mary, from whom she drifts, but whose intense religious faith stays with her -- in the form of apocalyptic fears -- for the rest of her life. It's gorgeous and original, and amplifies the fact that other women don't simply shape our interior worlds, but the ways we view the universe. That girl we played with on the swings or had our first sleepover with could also be the person -- more than any pastor or rabbi -- who informs our impressions of good and evil, of sin and redemption.

Lydia Millet writes about older, sophisticated Wendy, whom she befriends while studying abroad and idolizes. Millet loses Wendy years later, when she tells her that she doesn't like her live-in boyfriend, an admitted rapist. Years after, when Wendy has broken up with her boyfriend and asks to rekindle the friendship, Millet doesn't respond, because she feels the need to have been right. Ann Hood's piece is about how her best friend for over three decades suddenly drops out of her life when Hood's young daughter dies. It's one of the most affecting stories I have ever read about the inscrutable, mysterious dynamics between women. Why would a girlfriend -- a best friend -- dematerialize at exactly the moment when she is most needed?

And yet don't we all recognize it? Haven't we all had it happen or done it ourselves, in circumstances hopefully less tragic than the death of a child? Haven't we all at some point been so overcome by the enormous responsibility that is female friendship -- a responsibility that doesn't come with rings or mortgages or regular sex to offset it -- that we have bolted or seen someone near to us bolt because it was simply not possible to deal?

So much time is devoted to the reasons that men and women leave marriages and jobs, and to why they feel unequal to the task of parenting. So little is devoted to the moments at which women decide, often irrationally, that the burden of friendship is simply too much to bear. Millet's and Hood's stories dovetailed for me, as I remembered how, a few years ago, I met the new boyfriend of one of my closest friends and detested him on sight. Rather than figure out a way to grit my teeth and lie, or be gently honest with her about it, I disappeared. It was simply easier than coming up with the right thing to say. I stopped returning calls, even -- especially -- when they were painful crying calls about something this guy had done to her. We haven't spoken for more than two years.

"The Friend Who Got Away" has an obvious centerpiece, a pair of essays by Heather Abel and Emily Chenoweth, women who became best friends their freshman year of college, only to grow painfully apart after the death of Chenoweth's mother, and subsequent friction over boys and eating disorders. The friendship they describe will be familiar to many -- the sort in which two women fall so deeply for each other that they actually confuse their selves. "Sometimes when I saw her and she was beautiful, I thought I was seeing myself," writes Abel, while Chenoweth, in her piece, describes a shopping trip this way: "Because there were mirrors everywhere around us, I saw her ... from many angles at once. For one thrilling, vertiginous moment, I stared at her and I thought: What am I doing over there?" When the friendship unravels, they lose parts of themselves. "It was just that sometimes she'd be sitting across from me at dinner... and I'd miss her terribly," writes Abel. "I'd miss my vision of her as buoyant, and I missed her vision of me as brilliant. It was a kind of heartbreak, the kind that makes you wish someone never existed." Chenoweth writes, "For a long time, my love for Heather was a piece of glass in my heart; it hurt every time I moved."

Bonds between women get severed for reasons so multilayered and complex that figuring out the back story and power dynamics is more exhausting -- as most women will tell you -- than telling the story of the breakup of a marriage. That's not to say that romantic and sexual relationships aren't multilayered as well. But there are certain generally accepted assumptions about them: for instance, that they will either "work out," or end in dissolution. For those of us who anticipate a monogamous future, there is only one permanent slot for real romance at a time, while there are infinite spaces waiting to be filled by platonic companions.

So when those platonic companions leave us, or we leave them, there are more penetrating and discombobulating questions to be asked: Why was there abandonment when there didn't have to be? How can we possibly explain why this person -- whom we'll never be bound to economically or legally or sexually -- is someone who, for some reason, we cannot bear to know any longer?

There are scripts for romantic breakups. While no two may be exactly the same, there are support groups, movies, novels, soap operas, little inspirational quotation books sold at the front of Barnes & Noble, and our girlfriends themselves to help us get through our "real" splits and let us know that we are not alone in our despair. But there isn't much to help us understand the vulnerability that overtakes us when one of our best friends is cut loose, with a part of us inside them, into the world.

It's exactly why books like these two anthologies are such a valuable contribution to whatever canon will someday serve as a record of how women feel about each other.

What "Secrets & Confidences" feels like, especially reading it right after "TFWGA," is another couple of dozen hammer blows to the head and heart. Edited by Karen Eng, the book includes a few illustrated story panels along with traditional essays, and some broader musings, like Kathleen Collins' piece on why the relationship between Patsy and Edina on "Absolutely Fabulous" is so important. Sara Bir's story is less of a dirge for her faded three-way childhood friendship than it is for the Barbie universe they created.

But "Secrets & Confidences" provides tales that are as familiar as the heartbreaks recorded in "TFWGA." Both collections include pieces by women unable to have children, describing the pain of spending time with friends who are mothers, as well as pieces about conflating lesbianism and friendship. Both contain tales of how racial differences can devour friendship; in "Secrets & Confidences, " white Juliet Eastland writes about her confusion when her grade-school best friend, African-American Caren, abandons her for a group of black friends. "So why did race matter?" writes Eastland at the end of her tale, with a voice that is surely true to her fifth-grade self.

The variety of stories in both volumes creates a road map leading to one powerful conclusion. Girls break up with other girls for precisely the same reasons that they break up with lovers and spouses: tussles over money, politics, religion, ethnicity, an inability to commit, betrayal, infidelity, growing out of each other.

But why can't we apply the same set of well-honed reactions to our friends as we can to our lovers? As Bitch magazine co-founder Andi Zeisler writes in her "Secrets & Confidences" essay, "Few women will say of a friendship that 'it's not the right time for us,' or 'the thrill is gone,' even when those things are completely accurate." Why do we have such a hard time ending things, and why, when we finally cast each other out, do we feel such guilt, sorrow and self-hatred afterward, when tossing boyfriends to the curb is considered a rite of emotional development? Karen Eng is so desperate for comprehensible parity in terms of how we treat our friends and how we treat our lovers that she describes an impulse to end a codependent black hole of a best friendship like a divorce -- with papers, to make it official and "real."

Perhaps severing our female bonds and then getting over them is so difficult because it's still hard for us to articulate how important we are to each other in the first place. But it's high time we figured out how to get over our self-consciousness about the intensity of our female alliances. Because while friendship may have always existed as a shaping force in women's lives, it has never been so integral to so many.

As our biological and professional horizons change, we are freer to make our associations with women the center of our lives for longer periods of time -- not simply refuges from our dealings with men, though certainly those kinds of camaraderies still exist and are as valuable as ever.

Our friendships -- their beginnings, their durations and their ends -- have become as crucial to the timelines of our lives and to the shape of our selves as the traditional family structures we have long revered and respected. A couple of new books that take the pains of female love seriously are exactly what we need to begin to develop a vocabulary of female loss.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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