[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Friend Who Got Away': A Girl's Best Friend
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Sun May 22 01:14:47 UTC 2005
'The Friend Who Got Away': A Girl's Best Friend
By SUZY HANSEN
Women, especially girls, aren't always nice to one another, and
writers and movie directors have tried to document this pathology as
if it were a sociological ill to be cured. The catty and bullying few
were recast as Queen Bees and Mean Girls and Tyra Banks; even the
feminist Phyllis Chesler published a book called ''Woman's Inhumanity
to Woman.'' Of course, woman-to-woman cruelty has always existed (we
all have mothers, don't we?), and it certainly wasn't Margaret Atwood
who broke the news that women could be sociopathic misogynists (though
her women may be the freakiest). Still, it's all a little hysterical,
So it's a relief to report that ''The Friend Who Got Away,'' an
anthology in the ''Bitch in the House'' tradition, reveals women to be
thoughtful and kind, sometimes callous and neglectful, like all
humans. There are more slow fades than blowups here, and (sorry, guys)
there's nary a catfight in sight.
That might not be the best thing for an essay collection. In a book
about fighting dames, one naturally expects lots of cheating lovers,
hair pulling or face slapping (or both), friendship necklaces flushed
down toilets and perhaps a husband or two ensnared at the neighborhood
''The Friend Who Got Away'' doesn't serve up such banal treasures, and
at first, that's disappointing. Instead, we get, out of 20, a handful
of painful, resonant essays and a handful of painfully boring ones.
The editors, Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, are themselves serious
writers, and their endeavor reflects that. Wholesale nastiness is
sacrificed for the nuances and generally flat rhythms of real life.
The truth is most friendships do in fact break down slowly. Perhaps
two friends each start to dislike how the other has changed over time.
Problems fester, and then the slightest insult or missed meeting
dissolves the strongest of bonds.
Admittedly, this complexity makes for richer reading, but why must
there be so many tame essays? There's one about a 12-year-old confused
by her friend's Christianity (Offill's humdrum ''End Days''); one
about a breakup over the women's movement (Beverly Gologorsky's
predictable ''In a Whirlwind''); one by Katie Roiphe (in which she
admits she's self-absorbed, yet no wisdom is imparted). Some writers
don't seem all that troubled they've lost their comrades; others
weren't really friends with them at all.
Some essays also fail because of the writers' odd inability to conjure
up their friends. The editors' premise is that female friendships
curiously resemble romantic relationships; in that case, the writer
should describe the friend as passionately as she would a lover.
What's interesting, always, is why another human being captivates us
and has the power to wreck us. The heartbreakers should come to life
more vividly than the vexed narrators, who, especially in the case of
destroyed friendships, are fundamentally unreliable.
That's why the clever pairing of Heather Abel and Emily Chenoweth --
friends who tell different sides of the same story, the death of
Chenoweth's mother -- provides the book with a much needed core. If
''The Friend Who Got Away'' has a common theme, it's that when tragedy
strikes one friend, the other falls apart. The miseries include a
child's death (Ann Hood's devastating ''How I Lost Her''), multiple
miscarriages (Kate Bernheimer's acute study of insensitivity, ''Other
Women'') and life-altering disease (Jennifer Gilmore's magnificent and
Atwood-like ''Kindness of Strangers''). Each time, the desertion is
inexcusable; the more it happens, the more inevitable it seems.
The Abel and Chenoweth essays succeed because both writers have
uncanny memories for the tenderest details of teenage emotions, mixed
with impossibly sharp but sympathetic powers of retrospection. Abel
explains that early on she learned to ''compete without competing.''
(She writes, for example: ''Apartheid was mine. Athleticism was not
mine.'') One thing that she did not have was suffering, and she
enjoyed taking care of her best friend, whose mother fell ill during
their freshman year of college. But Chenoweth's subsequent withdrawal
and transformation baffled Abel, and her essay burns with confusion.
Chenoweth's essay -- wisely printed after Abel's -- begins not with
Abel but with, of course, the real tragedy at hand, her mother. ''My
mother was my first best friend,'' she begins, and it stings. Even
when Abel was the problem, she was not the problem.
Friends pride themselves on being able to understand everything about
their counterparts, but with tragedy, the one friend becomes aware
that no matter how many tears are shed, she will never know the
other's pain. Being shut out is almost like being killed off -- for
both parties. Chenoweth's essay is the only one in the book that
captures the severity of loss.
YET sometimes tragedy ruins relationships for an even uglier reason: a
personal loss makes someone special. Outsiders want to share in its
totality of emotion, or flee for fear of feeling average in
comparison. If the friendship already had a tinge of rivalry to it, as
almost all do, then a friend's sudden tragic glow, as well as her much
admired recovery and quickly forgiven mistakes, weighs heavily on the
more ordinary friend.
The Abel and Chenoweth essays are so obviously winning it's surprising
this book didn't turn into an anthology of companion essays subtitled
''Twenty Women Tell Their Sides of the Story: You Be the Judge.'' The
results, though, would probably be the same each time: both writers
would plead their cases, only to reveal that they're sad simply
because the friendship no longer exists. On the page, at least, the
end of a friendship is one tragedy two women can share, without the
tiniest bit of envy.
Suzy Hansen is an editor at The New York Observer.
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