My review in the Los Angeles Review of Books
MY BEST FRIEND died not long ago after a 15-month illness that was relentless in its attack on her body and soul. She and I first met in the eighth grade, and we were soon closer than sisters or lovers. Indeed, we were often mistaken for the former and accused of the latter. We came to feel that we were part of the same self — a complicated, compromising, and often painful stance — but also one of enormous comfort and unparalleled exhilaration. Where did I begin and she end? We never quite knew, but we also recognized our separateness and, as such, could do for each other what the renowned feminist literary scholar and writer Nancy K. Miller, in her powerful new memoir My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism, claims the greatest friendships do: we saw in the other what we could not see in ourselves. My best friend and I also learned, over the years, what Miller calls “[t]he hardest friendship lesson to learn: There will always be something about your friend that remains unknowable, including her deepest feelings about you.” It is one thing to share that unknowable element — part of the pain and exhilaration — but it is another to be left alone with it.
Writing about my dead best friend and our relationship is something I still cannot fully bring myself to do, so it was with great admiration, and trepidation, that I approached Miller’s new book, a portrait of her three closest friends — Carolyn Heilbrun, the feminist scholar, mystery writer, and first woman professor to receive tenure in the Columbia University English Department; Naomi Schor, the feminist literary critic and theorist; and Diane Middlebrook, the biographer and poetry scholar — all of whom are now dead.
There is a long literary tradition of writing about friends, both dead and alive, both in fiction and fact. This tradition, like most traditions, is male dominated. Male friendships, now often referred to as “bromances,” permeate our classic and popular culture and have been written about extensively since Aristotle. Representations of genuine female friendships, however, have been scarce. “Sometimes women do like women,” Virginia Woolf facetiously points out in her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own:
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …
Despite Jane Austen and seminal works on female friendship by Woolf, Vera Brittain, Simone de Beauvoir, Gail Caldwell, Maxine Kumin, Lyndall Gordon, and Deborah Tannen, to name a few, depictions of women’s friendships have remained so rare in popular culture that in 1985, the cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel invented the “Bechdel test” to ask whether a fictional work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Although some strides in this arena have been made since then, more than 30 years later, the failure rate continues to be astounding.
In Nancy Miller’s group biography, her deep exploration of female friendship, and the role of death in friendship, is a welcome and extraordinary addition to this impoverished genre. As in all of her work, Miller does not flinch from tackling difficult issues, nor is she shy about revealing her darkest sentiments. (I think now may be the moment of full disclosure: Nancy has become over the past decade a “late-life” friend of mine, though I have revered her from afar since first reading her essays on literature and feminism while I was in college in the 1980s.)
In the “prelude” to Miller’s book, she posits that writing about her friends is “keeping them alive, and in keeping them alive, I’m staying alive with them.” This declaration, which is both literal (Nancy was diagnosed with lung cancer several years ago) and figurative, gets at the heart of the importance of that age-old practice (and buzzword of the moment): storytelling. If our storytelling remains limited to the representation of only a few groups and subjects — which has certainly been true for Western civilization so far — then those whose stories are not told are condemned to a kind of nonexistence, a living death. Stories are as crucial to human life as oxygen — if they do not get told about all people, all experience, they are suffocated. Nancy’s project, then, is to keep her friends and herself alive, but it is also to keep alive the importance of insisting that all voices be heard through the act of putting a pen to page.
Though these four women share an unwavering feminism, an ardent interest in the mind, and a genuine curiosity about the other, the passion that binds them above and beyond everything else is a love of writing, a belief in the written word’s power to create and unite, to reveal and change both the self and the world.
In her portraits of her friendships with these three highly accomplished feminist intellectuals, Miller looks squarely, and from a nuanced and refreshing later-in-life perspective (she’s in her 70s), at the evolving roles of things like envy, anger, ambition, aging, and indeed friendship, in a woman’s life. As one gets older (I am in my late 50s), and the relentlessly debilitating power of the white male gaze wanes, these traditionally unseemly traits in a woman can be embraced and owned, their negative impact transformed into honor and agency. These days, I often feel that one of the best things that ever happened to me was to grow old.