Bonnie Friedman’s Shebook, Devil Doll, is about the common, and often heartbreaking, experience of breaking up with a best friend. Here, she answers questions about female friendship.
Devil Doll is about a “breakup” with a best girlfriend. In what ways is this different from a breakup with a guy?
There’s more guilt. And it’s harder to explain, even to yourself, why you became estranged. In a romance, the breakup might be due to an overt cause: he wants kids and you don’t. Lousy sex. One of you is simply moving too far away. With a girlfriend, the break-up tends to be for inchoate and visceral reasons, and there’s no accepted method of how, emotionally, to process it. It isn’t quite supposed to happen, whereas we understand from the very beginning, with a romance, that there might come a time the relationship will end.
Do you think these kind of “break-ups” with best friends are common?
Yes, but because they cause shame and there’s something mysterious about them, we tend not to talk about them so much. We worry people will think that we don’t know how to be friends or to love. But yes. My mother and her best friend stopped seeing one another or even speaking the day my mother married. Her best friend didn’t believe that she herself would ever have the opportunity to get married, as off-base as that likely sounds. It was the 1950s. It was a lifelong sadness for my mother. Even in her nineties, she talked about her girlhood friend Anne, who she missed. I think lots of friendships break up because one person begins to evoke the other’s envy to an unendurable extent.
In Devil Doll, you write about how you craved to be Catherine’s friend, and how much you longed to learn from her how to have style and originality. Do you think many early girlhood friendships have this aspirational quality?
I do. When you think of the literature of girlhood friendship – the friendship in Jane Eyre with the generous and otherworldly Helen Burns, the friendships in Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, Mary McCarthy’s The Group (although those women were recent college graduates) – there’s a sense of one’s friends providing possible versions of one’s self, of one’s own life. We inspire one another. Jane Eyre learns a lifelong spirituality from her childhood friend; the women in The Group provide cautionary experiences. In real life, our friends are the people who show us how to be a viable person. We’re in flux together, our identities being invented and molded at the same time; we aren’t yet fixed. And we gratefully accept one another’s mistakes – until maybe we don’t.
Lastly, did you find a method of processing the end of your friendship with Catherine?
Yes and no. If I saw her again, I’m sure I’d still feel a surge of guilt and admiration and happiness and longing. But the time when we could become friends again is long past – it was a moment in our youth. I betrayed her, I believe, by not being able to talk to her about my almost violent sudden estrangement. The reasons why I couldn’t stay friends with her weren’t actually her fault. It resembled the girl’s sudden antipathy and longing for her mother in Jamaica Kinkaid’s first book. A visceral shift happened, for good or for ill, and there was no going back.