SEPTEMBER 11, 2019
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.
Carolyn Heilbrun was a keen believer in the advantages of age for a woman and, as Miller writes, age and friendship between women “were two of the great subjects lodged at the heart of Carolyn’s lifelong project to reinterpret and revalue women’s lives, a kind of grand, collective biography.” Miller was 35 and Heilbrun 50 when they met in 1976 as members of the Mellon Society of Fellows, and they would go on to co-teach graduate seminars in then groundbreaking feminist subjects such as “Heroines in French and English Novels,” and to co-found the Gender and Culture Series at Columbia University Press. Theirs began as a mentor/mentee relationship, and for all the depth and variation that developed between them over the years, the early dynamic was never quite shaken off and remained a source of tension between them over the many decades of their friendship. Miller credits Heilbrun with giving her the courage and encouragement that allowed her to become a writer, something utterly life-changing and a source of eternal gratitude. The trouble comes with a perceived lack of reciprocity — what, Miller wonders, could she ever have done for Heilbrun in return?
Despite the support of such notables as Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, her tenure, her prolific output of both scholarly work, fiction, and memoir, Heilbrun realized at some point along the way that no matter how great her achievement, it would never gain her entrance into the hallowed halls of male privilege — and she questioned if that was, in fact, a goal worth seeking. But her journey was lonely, and her life, even after she resigned from Columbia in 1992, according to Miller, “continued to be the scene of a persistent sense of exclusion, like the traumatic reopening of a wound.” In 1993, in an afterword to the anthology Changing Subjects: The Making of Feminist Literary Criticism, Heilbrun compared her experience at Columbia to domestic abuse, and felt “like someone who has escaped a battering marriage,” finding refuge and endurance in her friendships: “I cannot change the isolation of all my time at Columbia. But the friendships I have found among women […] have made that isolation, if not welcome then benign as a tumor is benign: it’s not cancerous, but it doesn’t do anyone any good.”
In 1997, Heilbrun famously declared her intention to commit suicide “as a definitive gesture of autonomy.” On October 9, 2003, she kept her word. Miller wonders (and projects) if perhaps she was “gripped by a writer’s panic, the terror of having written a last book.” To make sense of the insensible, Miller returns to the idea of the unhealable laceration that comes with sustained inequality: “[P]erhaps she was tired of occupying the mentor position […] locked as she was into a stance of invulnerability, unable to reveal the wound, the need for reassurance, after so many years of wearing the mentor mask.” In her habitual eloquent prose, Miller steps back and examines the act itself for some kind of solace: “Some decisions trump, and necessarily betray, any intimacy or love because they require the ultimate withdrawal of self. Perhaps that removal is the definition of suicide, what in German is called self-murder; the friendship that requires two selves is just another casualty.”
Ultimately, Miller returns to the act of writing as a bond and legacy among women. After a 2005 conference held in Carolyn Heilbrun’s honor, Rachel Kranz, a novelist and Heilbrun mentee, wrote to Miller:
If she taught us anything, it was that women who could write new lives, couldn’t necessarily live them. […] It means I’m allowed to imagine beyond what I’m capable of achieving. If someone else reads what I write and lives beyond what I could live, I’ve done my work. And so, I think, she’s done hers.
Virginia Woolf would concur.
Miller and Naomi Schor also met at Columbia in the 1970s, but they were of a similar age and on comparable career paths. Their friendship was one of peers and began on an equal footing. They were both ambitious French scholars, one specializing in the literature of the 18th century (Miller) the other, the 19th. As feminists, they both made a concerted effort not to be divided by the trope of female envy. They shared their work — and love of clothes and stylishness — and did whatever they could to help each other get ahead in the Columbia French department where “there was never room for the two of us; in reality, there was no room for any of the junior women.”
Miller sees in her relationship with Schor parallels to Elena Ferrante’s famous fictional friends Lila and Lenù (hence the title of her book). They needed each other’s approval in almost everything they did and they needed to enjoy each other’s successes almost as if their own in order to fuel their ambition, their sense of worth, for their very sense of existence in the world. “The pair’s emotional seesaw of evaluating, judging, and comparing,” writes Miller of the Neapolitan women, “was the lifeline between Naomi and me for more than twenty years.” But above all, Miller and Schor were determined to help each other get ahead in a male-dominated world where the odds were very much against them while “trying to figure ourselves out together — what we wanted, who we were becoming.” They felt they were creating something new: “[W]omen who compete with but also complete each other.”
Their friendship developed against the backdrop of the burgeoning second wave of feminism and the phenomenon of consciousness raising. Inspired by Vivian Gornick’s article on the phenomenon in The New York Times Magazine in January 1971 entitled “Consciousness,” Nancy and another friend started The Group, in which “[w]e imagined ourselves as part of a new kind of history, a history that would be created by telling our stories and documenting them. […] Each woman’s narrative would illuminate the larger pattern of women’s lives, our collective oppression under patriarchy.”
As Miller and Schor navigated their careers and personal lives, they contended with a misogynist advisor, problematic love affairs, the trials and tribulations of academia, extended periods of depression, inevitable resentments and falling outs, but also elation over their union and celebration of each other’s successes. Anger, envy, and competitiveness were part of their repertoire, bearing each other’s pain “[p]art of our pact.” Together they figured out how, for the most part, to make these aspects of their lives work for them — until Naomi suddenly died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2001. Miller aptly cites the French philosopher Jacques Derrida on the vulnerability of the pair: “One always leaves before the other.” Such a simple observation, the truth of it both shocking and devastating.
Diane Middlebrook, author of several groundbreaking biographies including Her Husband, a dual biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, was what Nancy called a “late-life” friend, and their connection as women and writers was relatively free of much of the messier, male-gaze-tainted life issues that afflict us as younger women. They were both past 60 when they met, and the attraction between them was immediate and strong, the nature of their attachment generous and giving. “The friend we love is the friend who transforms us,” writes Miller, “into the person we want to be, and consoles us for thinking we’re not that person, yet. Diane was a great consoler.” A year after they met, Middlebrook was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. She died seven years later in 2007.
This last portrait of a friendship, suffused with death, also describes the birth of a great and lasting friendship that existed in spite of a terminal diagnosis — and flourished more intensely because of it. The two writers exchanged their work and formed an intellectual and emotional intimacy that had little use for such barriers as time or geography (Middlebrook was living in London and San Francisco, Miller in New York City). Middlebrook had been working on a biography of Ovid when she fell ill, and toward the end of her life it became clear she was not going to be able to finish it, but that perhaps a short book on his early life might be possible. A couple of months before her death, Middlebrook wrote to Miller to ask her to be her literary executor and to help her prepare the manuscript for publication to be called “‘The Young Ovid’ or some such. Anyway, I don’t think that the executor’s role would be a burdensome or time-consuming activity, and if you are willing, I think you would be the ideal executor.”
Though the request was certainly daunting, Miller enthusiastically accepted the challenge and worked on the manuscript in jumps and starts (depending on Middlebrook’s energy levels, which were amazingly high given what she was battling) via visits and email up until Middlebrook’s death. After one of their meetings, Middlebrook wrote: “Thanks so much for carrying through on this visit. It was a gift in every way, and maybe most powerfully in the way it stirred me back to life in my mind. Really, there was never a better friend in any way, than you have been, are being, at this point in my life.”
In one of the more stunning passages in a book that is chock full of them, Miller reflects on the concept of “gift” in friendship, which gets at the very heart of friendship itself and resonated mightily with me in regard to my best friend. Her terrible vulnerability, her ferocious neediness, the prodigious attention and time she required, I considered as true gifts that she gave to me. I will forever remain grateful to her for allowing me to be there for her in every way I could be, and more than I knew I could be.
As Miller writes: “So the gift, of course, lies elsewhere: In Diane’s asking me for help, trusting me to bring the book along then, not the work itself. This is the gift of friendship that can never be reciprocated: the complete evisceration of the notion of symmetry itself.”
Miller’s book, a brave and beautiful act of storytelling, is itself a gift — to her brilliant friends, to feminism, to friendship, to the literary endeavor, and to all of her readers.
Jenny McPhee is the author of the novels The Center of Things, No Ordinary Matter, and A Man of No Moon, and she co-authored Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits. Her translations from the Italian include books by the authors Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Giacomo Leopardi, Curzio Malaparte, Anna Maria Ortese, Paolo Maurensig, and Pope John Paul II.