I grew up in the 1970s in a pack of girls unmoved by feminism. In the Blue Ridge Mountains and green valley where we lived, we hot-rolled our hair, mooned over boys and spent our weekends tanning. I loved my girlfriends as much as I loved those hillsides of family farms and fields of wildflowers. Even then, though, I knew I would leave Roanoke, my blue-collar hometown in Virginia.
In those days the downtown was filled with boarded-up storefronts. Businesses had moved out to the malls, but even the malls were struggling. Cheap ranch houses and duplex complexes were springing up along the highway. The mountains in the distance were still lush and lovely, and there were still occasional farmhouses and open meadows, but what they were doing to Roanoke, to me, seemed awful.
Probably Roanoke troubled me more than it troubled my girlfriends because my parents were from up north. I’d spent my earliest years in Connecticut and Philadelphia. It left me sensitive to the notes of sexism, machismo and racism running beneath the Southern charm — to the problem with high school boys regularly beating each other bloody at Saturday night parties, say, or with casual use of the N-word. To my friends, steeped from the earliest days in the town’s habits and rituals, this was only life, nothing more.
My own mom, a former beauty queen from Albany, New York, opted to embrace the culture of Friday night football games and all-you-can-eat restaurants, and tried to instill in me the local wisdom that looking good, dressing well, was the ultimate path to happiness — to finding a man, that is.
My father, on the other hand, was an unapologetic liberal. He gave me books like George Orwell’s "Animal Farm" to read and encouraged me to study The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Many Saturday nights, I’d leave my father reading Freudian case studies for the only entertainment in town — the keggers, where all the boys wore cowboy hats and chewed tobacco and fought. They made me long for a wider world: French films and abstract art, the latest literary novels and indie-rock bands. At the time, artists seemed like gods to me, making beauty out of thin air. If I could get closer to the people who created culture, I’d be fortified, even ennobled.
As soon as I graduated from high school, I headed north for college, in Baltimore, while my friends stayed down south at more traditional schools. Soon I got letters detailing sorority-pledge hazings and Saturday afternoon football games. While my friends gushed about dressing up in formal gowns and white gloves, I was in sweats, wearing a ponytail, learning to write fiction.
The summer after my sophomore year, I interned in Washington, D.C. I invited two of my girlfriends up to visit. I took them to the 9:30 Club to see the Violent Femmes. The lead singer wore his leather jacket around his head like a turban and between songs yelled, “We’re not queer, we’re cool!” Back in my room my friends huddled together, their eyes huge. One told me she felt like she’d been “down into hell.” The other said the band members “looked like vampires.” I tried to soothe them by explaining how cool 9:30 was — Hüsker Dü, Root Boy Slim and even The Police had played there! I was trying to share my new world with them. But they could only see it as evil.
I mostly lost track of my girlfriends after that. I figured it would only upset me to keep up close contact. By the time I came home to Roanoke for my 20th high school reunion, I was living in Brooklyn and making my way as a novelist. I was also divorced and struggling to raise my daughter as a single mom.
At the reunion, one of the same friends I’d taken to the 9:30 Club years earlier broke into every conversation to say how sad it was I was getting divorced. She lived in Alabama now, was married to a banker, and had two children. Her parents had been part of the evangelical Moral Re-armament Movement and, after a brief wild phase, she had joined their ranks. The fact that I felt smothered and unhappy in my marriage was, to her, a pathetic excuse. And the fact that I lavished affection on my daughter, Abbie, did nothing to soften the tragedy of divorce. As I flew back to New York afterward, I was thankful, once again, to have real distance between myself and my high school girlfriends.
So when I joined Facebook a few years ago and my old girlfriends started to friend me, I hesitated. Wouldn’t hearing from them just continue to make it clear how different we’d become? Curiosity won out and I was soon logging on to see a flurry of religious posts that seemed to imagine God as a rich, attentive boyfriend: “God causes things to happen at exactly the right time,” and “Good morning Jesus! Thanks for waking me up with your touch of love!” It’s not that I was an unbeliever. I’d moved closer to God, too, in the years since high school. But faith to me had been a complicated journey; it was a world away from theirs, which seemed so much more open, joyous and doubt-free.
After a friend’s post warned that every American would be tagged with a microchip for Obamacare by 2017, I seriously considered un-friending all of them. It seemed Facebook hadn’t really managed to connect me with my old friends. If anything, their posts only alienated me from them more. Instead of being distant memories from another time in my life, they were a daily, digitized presence in my life. I found myself growing increasingly judgmental.
I realized that if I wanted to really reconnect with them after all this time, it wasn’t going to be enough to follow their posts and status updates. I’d need to reengage with my past. So instead of un-friending, I wrote my way back to them, in a novel about my teenage years in Roanoke, and the life I’d cut myself off from so long ago.
I recalled our early phase of unconditional intimacy: the time my friends and I broke into the Econo Lodge pool to swim in the middle of the night and drove up the side of a muddy, red dirt hill to watch the porno movies at the 220 Drive In; or how we went to Kiss concerts at the Civic Center and hung out at the Hardee’s waiting for the older boys we had crushes on to show up.
In high school I’d worshipped these girls. To me they were like sticks of butter, golden and sweet. They had long hair and wore gauzy blouses, pastel cords and clogs. We traded clothes, slept in the same beds, told each other our deepest desires. They’d also helped me through adolescence in a town where I did not always fit in. I was not a cheerleader or even on the drill team. I said odd, inchoate things about characters in the books I was reading. I stuttered. But they defended me from bullies, and their gentle teasing taught me not only how to dress but also what was and was not OK to talk about in polite company.
I also remembered how that first period of oneness had come under strain and frayed. Every one of these girls had a challenge at home; one’s dad was an alcoholic Vietnam veteran, and another's a gambling addict. All our mothers were discombobulated. They’d been raised to be housewives, but the new culture insisted they get jobs and personal checking accounts. Seventies culture glorified working women like Mary Tyler Moore and Hill Street Blues’ Joyce Davenport. Our moms had become outmoded, female versions of Willy Loman, with a skill set no longer valued. One mom was so depressed she got up only for an hour at meal times. After heating up the TV dinners she went back to bed. We never talked about these problems, but we were inside each other’s houses and the darkness was palpable.
A few of our mothers went to work or back to school, but most of them, disoriented and threatened, put even more pressure on us, their daughters, to be traditional, to define ourselves through boyfriends and, later, husbands, to hold our looks as our most valuable asset and to uphold the sanctity of the traditional home. As each of my girlfriends got a boyfriend, the boy became the center of her universe. I had a boyfriend too, a tall blond god who looked like one of the guys from "The Dukes of Hazzard." I painted my fingernails and teased up my hair for our dates, but in my heart I knew I’d soon blow past him. I didn’t mean to lead a double life, but at 17, my friends already longed to nest, talking about marriage and what good fathers their boyfriends would be. For me, the idea that these sullen, tobacco chewing, fistfighting, Jeep-driving young men would be good dads seemed unlikely at best.
In fact, I realized in writing my novel that my experience of mothering has been a direct response to my mom’s misery. I remember her crying to my dad that she felt she had nothing, that she was invisible, a zero. I wanted my daughter to see that her mother had agency in the world, that I was not solely defined by my care for her. From their posts, my old girlfriends seem to be more akin to our mothers’ models, parents first and people second. At times their smiles seemed hollow and fake to me. But at other times I thought I saw an authentic satisfaction in them that I craved. I went away from motherhood to mother better; they seemed to have found a way to embrace parenthood with less ambivalence.
I was nearly finished with my book when I got another Facebook request from an old friend. Jill and I had lived in the same Roanoke duplex complex in the early '70s when we were just starting junior high. Her father had died in a motorcycle accident and her mother, who worked several jobs, had rarely been around. Jill, though, had a zillion ingenious and energetic plans. One we shared was living off the land; we spent hours pretending to keep house in the forest in back of our duplexes.
When I saw her page, at first I was disappointed. There were the usual Bible verses and photos of grown kids. But as I clicked down I saw pictures of fledgling bluebirds, a cedar waxwing eating berries, an errant heron catching a mole. Jill was a dental hygienist but also a wildlife rehabilitator. In pictures, giving a screech owl hydrotherapy, feeding a baby fox with a bottle and holding a raptor on her gloved arm, her face was transfigured. And I was jealous. Without leaving Roanoke or cutting herself off from her childhood, Jill had discovered profound work she could give herself to completely.
My friends' posts — Tea Party petitions, exercise logs — can still annoy me, as I am sure my posts — notices for my daughter’s punk rock band and links to feminist articles on Jezebel — sometimes bug them. I’m much less sure now, though, that my interests in Brooklyn’s food trends, hot yoga and the indie movies at BAM must be more nourishing than their prayer meetings, hunting trips and car shows. Leaving Roanoke might have changed me, given me more creative opportunities and connected me to my vocation, but it wasn’t, I see now, a fix-all. The lifelong search for meaning, for coming to terms with death and maturing spiritually, is mysterious and more complicated than watching foreign films and reading postmodern novels.
My life is intellectually rich. Sure, it has more capital C culture in it. But then, the lives of the friends I left behind are marked by a continuity of place and community — and by a kind of peace and conviction — that can still elude me here in hip Brooklyn. I wouldn't trade places with them. But I would say we’ve come out even in the end.