Friendship – In Several Painful Lessons
Nonfiction by Liz Byrski
It’s 1950, I’m six years old, it’s my second week at school and this playground might as well be the killing fields. I’m a poor candidate for school – a shy and timid only child, living with my parents on the outskirts of a small village. No neighbours, no playing with other kids on the street, no relatives or friends within striking distance. Kindergarten has not prepared me for this and I’ve spent the last week hiding; first in the cloakroom, then the girls’ toilets and now in the corner behind the dustbins. There’s a shuffling noise as someone tries to shift a bin and I freeze in terror. Dennis McCarthy and Julian Foot are coming to get me. Since the first juniors’ assembly, at which Mother Superior told us the story of Joan of Arc, they have been stalking me.
‘We’re building a fire, and we’re going to burn you on it,’ Dennis had whispered as he pushed past me in the dinner line.
The bin shifts again.‘You come on out of there, Elizabeth Beard,’ Betty Bartlet says, poking her head around the bin. ‘You can be my friend.’
Betty Bartlet is two years above me, three times my size and in the same class as the would-be arsonists. She has a shiny red face, black curly hair, National Health glasses behind which one eye wanders uncontrollably, and she smells of licorice, wee and gravy. I don’t want to be Betty Bartlet’s friend, but those boys are as scared of her as I am of them.
I emerge from behind the bins and she holds out a well-sucked stick of licorice. ‘Suck it,’ she says.
I loathe licorice, even the smell makes me nauseous. I shake my head.
‘Suck it,’ she insists, almost ramming it up my nose. ‘You’re my friend now so you have to.’ She glances over her shoulder to where Dennis and Julian are trying to strike Swan Vestas against the wall. ‘D’you want me to look after you or not?’
I suck the licorice, and for the next two years, until her parents move to Scotland, I am her friend. My arms and thighs are speckled purple from her pinches, she ties my plaits in knots, steals my ribbons and pencils, and tries to pull down my knickers, but I have not been burned at the stake.
Being Betty Bartlet’s ‘friend’ was pretty straightforward: it was the price I paid for protection. Her departure meant liberation; Dennis and Julian had by then found someone else to torment. I survived as a playground fringe dweller, attracting some degree of sympathy for my enslavement to the most hated girl in school, but also a level of suspicion. I was tolerated but never welcomed with open arms, and that suited my solitary nature. The intimate world of shared secrets, inspections of body parts and cosy sleepovers was not for me. I was comfortable in my parents’ world; accustomed to the company of their older friends, adept at being seen but not heard and making polite, quasi-adult conversation when necessary. I was an observer, a compulsive reader and writer, happier with books than with other children. I survived by being friendly with most but attached to no one in particular, and shone only in English composition and drama – the ideal imaginary worlds of the shy only child, grappling with a fear of the real world.
Perhaps being an only child is always inadequate preparation for friendship, but my situation was, I think, especially complicated. My parents were popular, sociable and outgoing, but at home their relationship was chilly – sometimes even arctic. There were no rows and no fights, no shouting, not even a raised voice, just a permanent state of tension. Sometimes there was more tension or less, but it was always there – the background music always off-key. I was so accustomed to the music that it didn’t occur to me that things might be otherwise. In this intricate, private system of muted emotions I felt quite secure. As long as I was a good girl, behaved well, succeeded at school and didn’t rock the boat, then the family ship would stay afloat. I knew the rules and I stuck to them. My parents may not have been able to love each other but I knew they loved me. I didn’t feel the need for other children, but when I was eleven we moved house and, suddenly, I acquired a friend.
Evelyn was thirteen, and although her family’s borderline poverty and my parents’ comparative wealth meant our situations were dramatically different, it didn’t matter to us. By some truly divine accident I was living across the street from the sort of friend I had only read about in books. The intimate conversations, the shared secrets and pacts, the speculations about boys and sex just seemed to happen, without effort or anxiety.
In thinking now about the winding paths of women’s friendship through my life I see that I was ill-prepared for closeness and trust – but with Evelyn I could switch off the self-monitoring antennae I had developed at home and employed at school; there was no need to measure my responses or edit my conversation. No fear, no timidity, and never a hint of licorice. So what was the magic ingredient?
We were thrown together because we were the only people of a similar age in close proximity. Two homes facing each other on a long winding country road; hers was a rundown subsistence farm lit by oil lamps, with water pumped every day from a well. There was never quite enough of anything and always too much grinding hard work and abuse. Her father cut hedges and dug ditches, her mother cleaned houses in the village three miles away. I lived in a tastefully renovated Tudor cottage: leadlight windows, low beams, central heating, thick carpets, hot running water and all the most desirable mod-cons of the fifties. My father was a senior executive with a major retail chain and drove to London each day. My mother stayed home and had a cleaner to help with the housework twice a week. There were plenty of social rocks on which Evelyn and I could have stumbled but we never did. I have thought since that this was due to something within Evelyn. Despite the harshness of her life she was always entirely herself: calm, confident, reliable and totally committed to doing her best in everything. She had what I see now as a sort of ancient wisdom, and she recognised in me the things that others missed. She knew my anxiety, my compulsion to be good no matter what it cost me, my shyness and need for stillness and space. She respected all that but didn’t buy into it or exploit it; she was just herself and so she enabled me to be the nearest I had come to being my own self.
At eighteen Evelyn left school, got a job and moved away to live in a shared flat. I was initially bereft but eventually grew accustomed to the fact that, although we met less frequently, we still talked regularly on the phone, and the half-hour bus ride was easily managed. Five years later we both married, and I think both of us assumed that, as far as our friendship was concerned, nothing much would change.
‘You have to give up your friends when you get married,’ my mother told me a few weeks before my wedding. ‘Husbands don’t like women friends hanging around.’
Was this the advice that my grandmother had given her? Who knows, but the absence of women friends in Mum’s life was obvious. In mid-life she had acquaintances, usually the wives of Dad’s business associates; they socialised as couples, but Mum rarely spent time with other women. I was determined this wouldn’t happen to me. By then I had several friends of whom I was fond, but Evelyn was always different, always special. We joked about growing old together, of how we would sit facing each other in our rocking chairs on either side of the fireplace, clicking our knitting needles, sucking on our false teeth and listening to the Righteous Brothers singing ‘unchained Melody’.
But somehow it didn’t work out like that. Slowly we were both drawn into that closed world of marriage to which, in those days, everything and everyone else came a poor second. It was a world of couples, and our husbands had nothing in common. Eighteen months later, Evelyn and her husband moved some distance away. The letters and phone calls, even the Christmas cards, faltered; we both had full-time jobs and then I was pregnant. Our friendship seeped away so gradually that I barely noticed until it was so obviously gone. We just lost touch. It was only decades later that I really began to reflect on what I had lost.
As a working mother of two small children I had acquired a circle of women friends, all of us bonded by mutual babysitting arrangements and the steep learning curve of becoming parents. Later, in the seventies, I discovered the women’s movement and warm and vibrant friendships that were grounded in the collective. The cause was greater than any or all of us and that sense of purpose mattered just as much as the friendships.
By the mid-eighties I had divorced, remarried, settled in Australia with my second husband and two sons and was working as a freelance writer, when the editor of a group of suburban newspapers suggested, with a dismissive wave of the editorial hand, that I might write a weekly column that would be interesting to women. I suspect he had in mind 101 Ways with Mince or Fashion on a Budget, but I saw this as a chance to bring a feminist perspective to an essentially cautious and conservative group of publications. I would simply try to write in such a way that readers might not recognise what they were getting. And so every week for five years I wrote a column on social and family issues. The topics ranged from abortion law reform, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence and women’s health to public housing, schools, homework, skateboards and anything else that occurred to me. I always wrote from a feminist perspective; I just never said the F word. My aim was similar to that which Ursula Le Guin has described in her book Dancing at the Edge of the World: ‘to subvert as much as possible without hurting anybody’s feelings’.
on reflection, I wish I had been totally upfront about it, but it was the eighties: the shock jocks were in full voice and feminists were being vilified. Besides, my whole life until then had been spent in a balancing act of making myself acceptable to other people; it was inevitable that I would endeavour to make myself acceptable in print.
It worked. The column was popular and often controversial, and many women who recognised what I was doing wrote to me with considerable glee – as though we were all part of a vast feminist conspiracy, which I suppose we were. And so I began to make new, Australian friends, often among the women whom I interviewed about a topic for the column. That’s how I met Julia.
It began with an interview, then coffee and lunch. By now I was in my forties and despite the assertiveness of my writing I was as anxious and insecure as I had been in my teens. With Julia it was easy to mould myself into whatever made the friendship work, even if, from time to time, I would have preferred otherwise. I was still too willing to bend myself out of shape to please others. But Julia was great company: clever, insightful, supportive and funny. If she was a bit controlling it seemed a small price to pay for the benefits of her enriching friendship. When she invited me to spend a long weekend in a holiday house with her and four other women whom we both knew, I was terrified. I had never done anything like that before, and the prospect of four days in a remote location with women I liked and admired but who seemed way out of my league was exciting but scary.
‘It’ll be fun,’ Julia said. ‘Very relaxed, talking, swimming, walking, vegging out on the beach.’
I swallowed my fear, formulated an escape plan to be instituted at the end of day two if I couldn’t cope, and packed my bag. It was glorious; there were moments when I was so relaxed that I let go of my need to monitor myself for appropriate behaviour. I scrapped the escape plan and allowed myself to grow into the friendships I made that weekend, and especially into the increasingly rewarding friendship with Julia. I was learning to feel safe to be myself with other women. But I never stopped to question who or what ‘myself’ really was.
We all grow up negotiating the emotional and social rules of our childhood relationships and, later, those with friends, colleagues and partners. In her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of human feeling, Arlie Russell Hochschild writes of the ‘feeling rules’ that direct the action of emotional exchanges by establishing the sense of entitlement or obligation that governs them. She describes this as ‘emotional work’. It’s what makes the juices flow in relationships; we learn the rules about signalling to others with gestures, facial expressions and language, just as we might steer a car along a crowded street taking care to avoid a collision. Hochschild calls it ‘surface acting’, and she suggests that there is another way in which we manage the rules – a more complex way that she labels ‘deep acting’. Here we work to change how we feel in order to make the relationship work. The level of our investment in another person or situation determines how far we will go into deep acting to maintain the relationship. When I first read Hochschild this seemed to explain why, when things go wrong between two people who have been very close, the centre really cannot hold and falls suddenly and dramatically apart. The acting stops, and authentic feelings twisted out of shape surface. Love is displaced by anger and resentment, intimacy by attack and defence. I realised that I had learned deep acting at a very early age and had been doing a lot of it ever since. I wish I’d known all this during my friendship with Julia.
our friendship was several years old before things began to change. By then we were both single and both had demanding full-time jobs. Talking frankly about our various and difficult involvements with men, past and present, had kept us – well, certainly it had kept me – reasonably sane through the minefield of being single in mid-life. We had laughed and cried together for ourselves and for each other, survived disasters and celebrated success and achievement. But as we became more closely stitched together the ground seemed to shift. Julia was a psychologist and those intimate conversations began to seem more like therapy sessions in which my weaknesses were being judged. Frequently her manner seemed to imply that she had moved to a higher plain of awareness and self-management while I was still thrashing about in the shallows. Was it real or was it all in my mind? I still don’t know; I never found out because all my instincts drove me into deep acting, and as I try to describe it now it is all so nebulous it just slips away. It began as a grain of sand in my shoe, and despite my attempts to change my feelings it became a small, sharp stone.
I finally summoned the courage to broach the subject but Julia either misunderstood me or I bungled it. She didn’t know, or maybe didn’t want to register, that I was talking about our friendship.
‘You just need to learn about boundaries,’ she said. ‘Anyone can walk in on you and take what they want.’
In fact I did know what my boundaries were. What I didn’t know was how to signpost or defend them.
We both knew Angela – she was one of a wide circle of mutual acquaintances – and I can’t remember how it came about that the three of us began to meet for lunch. It was an ongoing joke that she and Julia were both highly competitive; they played it up together, jostling for supremacy in their competitiveness. It was entertaining, but I began to wonder if it was just humour or whether the cutting edge was sharper than either would admit. I have only ever been interested in competing against myself, so while their combative verbal romps were sometimes amusing, they were more often tedious and made me uneasy. But we all play games from time to time and this, I thought, was simply theirs; even so, I felt trapped between them as each seemed to resent the other.
‘She’s pretty devious,’ Julia said eventually.
‘She’s jealous of our friendship,’ Angela said. ‘And why do you let her talk to you like that?’
‘Like she’s counselling you.’
It was the blue touchpaper that ignited the feelings I’d been trying to change; foolishly I disclosed that to Angela.
‘You should confront her, see what she says. If you can’t say it to her face, write to her, tell her what you’re feeling, ask for a response.’
And so I did. Julia was hurt, deeply hurt; she suspected Angela’s interference, and I, relieved to have expressed what I felt, protected Angela. My friendship with Julia was suddenly over and it left an aching gap into which I allowed Angela to step with almost indecent haste. She too was funny, clever and very supportive – sometimes so supportive I felt smothered. She was also very controlling. But her company was enormously enjoyable, her conversation intelligent and interesting, and she had a biting wit and frequently made me laugh until my sides hurt. But not rocking this boat was exceptionally difficult.
Eventually Angela accepted the offer of a job in a distant location and found a tenant for her flat. ‘I’ll be homeless now,’ she said, ‘nowhere to go when I want to come to town.’
I knew what she was doing and responded as she’d known I would. ‘Well, you can stay here if you need to – sometimes,’ I said. And I mumbled on about ‘sometimes’, about how I needed time and space to work, about not every weekend. But of course the die had been cast.
It wasn’t long before she was emailing most weeks to say she would be arriving on Friday. By now she had a lover in town. ‘If you could just go out for a while when he comes over …’
One day, when I had been out for several hours, I called to let her know I was on my way home.
‘That’s not convenient,’ she said. ‘You can’t come back for at least another hour.’
I was in my fifties and had chosen this house for its seclusion. It seemed like a sanctuary where I would be able to work in peace; I had waited years for this sort of time and place. But to afford it I needed to work long hours without interruption: deadlines were looming, and my anxiety levels were mounting. I pulled over to the side of the road and wept for the loss of control over my personal time and space.
As I walked back into the house that afternoon, the first thing I saw was three old teddy bears that normally lived in my writing room, now perched way up on the high crossbeams of the A-frame roof in the living room. The bears were part of family history, left in my care by my now-adult sons.
‘Oh, Mike was having a laugh,’ Angela said. ‘He threw them up and they kept falling off, but he finally got them to stay there.’
I was reeling in confusion. What was he doing in my study? Why did she let him in there? Why didn’t she stop him? Did she really think it was okay to let him throw my things around? Did she really think it was okay to tell me when I could or couldn’t come home?
‘You just take life too seriously,’ she said. ‘It was just fun. Lighten up.’
When I say now that I felt my space and my privacy had been violated and that she was either totally insensitive or just didn’t care, it may sound dramatic, but it was how I felt. I needed her to understand that and she obviously didn’t or wouldn’t. Once again, in attempting to accommodate by changing my feelings, I had let the situation reach the point of no return. Angela was always verbally sharper than me, adept at the lofty dismissal of anything that didn’t suit her, and could never admit to being in the wrong.
The following week I paid a local builder one hundred and fifty dollars to bring an extending ladder, attach himself to the beams with a harness, crawl along and retrieve the bears. And then I did what Angela herself had encouraged me to do with Julia. I wrote to her, told her how I felt. I said I needed some time and space to think about it, and asked her to think about it too and to respond. Take all the time and space you need, she replied in a one-line email. Just that, nothing more – not then, not ever.
It took me longer than it should have to work out just what had happened in those two friendships, both of which had brought me so much pleasure and finally so much pain. For some time I told myself that both women had changed. It was a satisfactory solution because it made everything their fault and left me as the injured party. But of course it wasn’t that simple.
It is difficult to write about fractured friendships with other women, not simply because of the personal, painful loss, but because the subject of women’s friendship is so ideologically charged. For centuries the friendship of women was treated with disdain and suspicion, as Vera Brittain wrote in Testament of Friendship: The story of Winifred Holtby: ‘From the days of Homer the friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women . . . have usually been not merely unsung, but mocked, belittled and falsely interpreted.’ But the women’s movement of the late sixties and seventies liberated women’s friendship; suddenly it was out there in the faces of those who had attempted to silence or smother it. All women have benefited from second-wave feminism, and the liberation and celebration of friendship is, I believe, foremost among those benefits. But its importance makes it almost sacred. We are so painfully aware of the dangers of misrepresentation, and the strong thread of misogyny woven through the fabric of culture and society, that critical comment or analysis of women’s friendships, and particularly their breakdown, feels risky, dangerous, and sometimes even shameful.
And shame is what I eventually came to feel. I had worked hard at both those friendships, constantly reviewing, monitoring and trying to change how I felt about the things that happened between us. I had felt that it was always me who was accommodating them: making space, adjusting, accepting, trying to quell resentment. What I was incapable of doing was speaking out about it; the prospect of saying what I needed to say, of explaining how I felt, paralysed me. I feared the worst, and of course the worst happened because I had taken the politics of my childhood and applied them to adult friendships. By not rocking the boat I had ended up sinking it. And while I do know that it was not all my fault that those friendships failed, I can now see my own, not insignificant part in it. I kept wondering what I hadn’t known about Julia and Angela that had driven the boat onto the rocks, and I eventually came to understand that what I had not really known was myself.
Well over a decade has passed and I am getting to know myself better. In recent years I have had the courage to claim my need for solitude rather than apologising for it or pretending not to mind when I feel it is being invaded. I have learned to establish my own boundaries, to say no, to speak out when things upset me. It’s been a long time coming but I have given up on being ‘a good girl’ and try now to be an honest and thoughtful woman. I have always known that friendship needs work; what I didn’t know was that I was doing the wrong sort of work. I’m fortunate now to have a small and close group of friends with whom I feel free to be myself. I treasure these friends; they give me strength and love and have supported me through some very difficult times. They have inspired me to write novels that celebrate women’s friendships.
Some years ago I began searching for my first real friend and eventually found her email address. I have thought of you so often over the years, I wrote. You were my first real friend and I have longed to get back what we lost.
Some weeks passed and I had almost given up on hearing from Evelyn when a message arrived. It was cautious, not the rapturous email reunion I had hoped for. She apologised for the delay. I’ve not wanted to go back over my childhood, she wrote. I’d closed the door on it, because I needed to forget the awfulness of it. So when I saw the first lines of your message I stopped reading it. But then something made me open it again, I remembered how I felt back then – that our friendship was like sunlight in the darkness.
When we met later that year it was as though we had never been separated. And in subsequent years we corresponded, talked on the telephone and met many times in England. We revisited the places of our shared past, reclaimed forgotten aspects of our childhoods and learned more about each other’s adult lives. The last time I stayed with Evelyn, in late 2009, she got the results of medical tests conducted the previous week. The diagnosis was cancer in her liver and lungs. ‘Put your affairs in order,’ the oncologist said, ‘and make sure you have a good Christmas because you won’t be around for the next one.’ Evelyn’s determination and incredible spirit got her through that Christmas and the next. Her emails were full of news about how well she was doing, and then, eighteen months after the diagnosis, my phone rang at two in the morning and suddenly, shockingly, she was gone.
For months I had allowed myself to believe that she had stopped dying, that her determination was enough to stop the cancer cells multiplying and destroying her body. I had suggested that we use Skype but somehow she never got around to downloading it – or that’s what she told me. She talked of holding her own and sometimes of beating the disease, and I was convinced because I wanted to be. Later I learned that she had been using Skype for several months but she had lost her hair, and she wanted there to be at least one person who would remember her as she used to be. And that is how she remains in my memory: a wise and loving woman with a warm and generous spirit, a huge smile and a ruthless sense of humour, sparkling eyes and a full head of reddish-brown hair without a trace of grey. I wish she had told me. I wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye, and I wish that all those years ago I had learned what she could have taught me about friendship. The lessons have been protracted and painful, but I’m grateful that I’ve learned not only the pain of failure and loss but also the joy of recapturing the past.
‘No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow,’ writes Alice Walker. Now, whenever I smell licorice I am reminded that since Betty Bartlet no woman friend has demanded my silence or denied my right to grow, but I have frequently denied it to myself.
Brittain, Vera, Testament of Friendship: The story of Winifred Holtby, Macmillan, London, 1940.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of human feeling, University of California Press, Berkley, 1983.
Le Guin, Ursula, Dancing on the edge of the world, Paladin, London, 1992.
Excerpted from Just Between Us edited by Linden, Nieman, Scott, Kon-Yu and Sved. Copyright © 2013 by Linden, Nieman, Scott, Kon-Yu and Sved.
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