My Brilliant Friends, by Nancy K. Miller (Carolyn Heilbrun)

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Carolyn Heilbrun They will know that there are books waiting for them as there were no books for me. —Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Women’s Lives: The View from the Threshold



CAROLYN, FEMINISM, AND ME Then someone says yes to it. —Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans

Carolyn had just turned fifty. To Carolyn, fifty was a kind of watershed. The conventional marker of age meant, among other things, publicly declaring that she was old, growing her hair long enough to pull into a bun, and giving up on dresses. “Aging set me free,” she went on to write. It became her great theme. And it was in the wake of turning fifty, when Carolyn made the decision to age, and to express that physically, that our friendship took root. I was thirty-five, feeling like a heroine who had lost the plot. At one of our early lunches at Au Grenier, a restaurant one flight up at Broadway and 113th Street, Carolyn announced that she was inaugurating the aging process by giving in to gaining weight. “The hell with living on celery,” she said, looking skeptically at my salad.

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By dessert she had offered me a dusty rose–colored ultra-suede suit with a belted jacket and a straight, below-the-knee skirt she could no longer wear. Fortunately, the suit didn’t fit me since I was much too intimidated by Carolyn then to say, “Pink ultra-suede? Moi?”

;;; We had met in 1976 at Columbia as members of the newly created Mellon Society of Fellows—I was the junior fellow to her senior. (Columbia will be a character in our story, leading man and villain.) Team teaching was part of the two-year Mellon mandate, pairing a senior faculty member with a junior one. When Carolyn proposed that we teach a graduate course together, I was both thrilled and terrified. In 1976, Carolyn was a powerful force on the Columbia campus, one of the very few tenured women and a well-known figure in the English department, filled with strong, equally well-known, intellectual convictions. I was an insecure assistant professor of French, flailing, failing in my life, anxious about tenure. Carolyn had served on the committee to select the junior people for the fellowship (as had my dissertation advisor, Michael Riffaterre) and told me not long after our introduction that she had picked me, insisted on me, because I was a feminist. I’ve never been completely sure why, beyond wanting a feminist colleague, she then took me up as she did, in an almost Jamesian way. But I’m glad she did, since I would not have made the first step, and we’d never have become friends. I did not understand then how embattled Carolyn felt, despite her position. What I saw was a woman not remotely like me: with tenure and books (including several detective novels published under a

Carolyn, Feminism, and Me


pseudonym), a woman with a nice husband, three children, and an apartment on Central Park West. What I admired, it turns out, was part of what made her resented by many in the department. Early that fall, a youngish, rather successful male colleague of Carolyn in the English department, whom I had known in graduate school, warned me, when I told him about our future team teaching, “Stay away from Carolyn Heilbrun. She’s a bitch.” I had trouble squaring his portrait, which he would not explain (“You’ll see”), with the woman I already admired and found generous and kind. His comment made me nervous, though, but not enough to reject the opportunity to know her. Much later I learned that his view of Carolyn prevailed widely in the department, no doubt in somewhat more polite language among the old establishment fogeys, who said she wasn’t “collegial.” Carolyn liked to picture our relationship as a study in contrasts. In 1994, in her foreword to a British collection of essays about women and aging (notably menopause), she painted the two of us through sartorial metaphors: I will wager that two friends with more diverse views on aging and menopause than Nancy and I have would be hard to find. But then we are friends readily distinguishable on many grounds. I, for example, am often asked how I can bear to endure constant intimacy with someone who always looks so fastidiously groomed. This question, asked in the face of my own apparel, suggestive of one who has just returned from herding sheep, ought to be reversed: how can she, so very French in her put-togetherness from hairstyle to shoes, bear to confront, as she weekly does, my rumpledness?

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Even though I was, at least when we first met, the structuralist critic, Carolyn was also enamored of the very center of structuralist theory: the binary opposition. The attraction of our friendship, as she saw it, depended on how dissimilar we were. Although Naomi and I often dwelled on how we were different, we also saw ourselves as alike. We fluctuated between those two poles, but, especially at the beginning, what we had in common trumped all: our writing, our inferior status at Columbia, our anxiety about the future, our wildly unsatisfactory relations with men. The differences between Carolyn and me were of another order. For one thing, whereas Carolyn was embracing aging, I was dreading it. Naturally, Carolyn never looked as if she had just returned from herding sheep, though the conceit is a measure of her style of self-deprecation (in fact, she always dressed rather neatly), and I looked French only in her eyes. For one thing, my kinky hair alone would have disqualified me, no matter how expensive the cut. But Carolyn enjoyed posing our personas as polar opposites, English and French tastes for starters, hence the implausibility— and value—of our bond. How could we possibly be friends given our disparate appearances? There was, as Carolyn explained in her foreword, “feminism, humanism, a passion for reading and writing, and, because of our very dissimilarities, the chance to cheer each other over the fences that stall our purposeful journeys and our idle rambles.” It’s true, and yet I find myself stalled—to pick up her verb—when faced with this rosy summary. Feminism allowed us to share part of our academic journeys despite, or perhaps because of, as she says, our dissimilarities, and to see each other through, but it was also her story.

Carolyn, Feminism, and Me


Certainly, as she recognized, when young, we would not have been tempted to become friends; even in 1976, even with feminism, the disparity in our situations and histories was impossible to ignore. Later in the foreword Carolyn reiterates her confidence in the power of aging to overcome those differences: “The answer,” she maintains, “is that such things no longer matter to friends such as we; friendships with women are perhaps the choicest rewards of aging.” Did such things continue to matter for us? For Carolyn, friendship trumped all. For Carolyn, first we were friends, then friends with differences. Friendship between women, along with the advantages of age, 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. In describing the two of us, for example, she combined the themes in this reflection about our differences and how, contrary to appearances, in the end they didn’t matter: I have three children, she has none, and were we youthful, we might regard each other’s state with more envy than accord. Our parental condition today, on the other hand, is remarkably similar; I delight in my grown children, Nancy in the young women she has mentored with a devotion and affection greater, I have no doubt, than that possible to their natural mothers. (Motherhood carries such an emotional wallop that to be an adult mother is to be either intelligently disengaged, though interested, or unhappily bereft of filial attentions.)

Is being a mother of adult children “remarkably similar” to being a mentor to graduate students? Carolyn liked to think so but

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I never did. There is nothing more crucial to who I am than the fact of my not having had children, without, however, being someone who hadn’t ever wanted them in the first place. That would have been easy. I did not not want children, I just waited too long to want them—age, not the version Carolyn was celebrating, worked against me. Carolyn lived through the dismal years of my infertility drama in the early 1980s with compassion in the face of repeated failures, so I see in this quasi equivalency between mothering and mentoring an expression of her wish, a decade later, to close the gap between us at any cost, as if repressing the difference could erase my sense of loss. I think now the collapse of the two roles was meant as a consolation prize of sorts. Still. “She has none.” Carolyn’s optimism notwithstanding, I certainly envied the corresponding fact of her three children then. (Envy has always been my fallback emotion, despite persistent efforts to root it out, and Carolyn’s belief that we had aged past the envy stage in friendship was more hopeful than true. But even for me, posthumous envy is a bridge too far.) More to the point, perhaps, about what the differences between us meant to our bond from Carolyn’s perspective is her not factoring into the equation her own role as mentor, a role she performed masterfully, and for which not only I but also generations of younger women were grateful. I know she felt she had written a heroic number of letters of recommendation for all of us though I do not recall her ever using the word mentor about herself, and she never used it in relation to me. Nonetheless, long after the fact, when I read Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s memoir of his friendship with V. S. Naipaul, I saw clearly how that aspect of the age difference plays itself out. In the memoir, for example, Theroux describes meeting the writer as a

Carolyn, Feminism, and Me


young man just starting out. Naipaul was ten years older: “He had believed in me. He had talked about how in writing you served an apprenticeship.” “Books make their way,” Carolyn liked to say in consolation for the abyss into which one of my books had fallen. “You’ll see, it’s early days.” For Theroux (sounding like Carolyn on the meaning of friendship), “Friendship is plainer but deeper than love. A friend knows your faults and forgives them.” (She did, even my dislike of dogs.) “But more than that a friend is a witness. I needed Vidia as a friend, because he saw something in me I did not see. He said I was a writer,” wrote Theroux. This Carolyn also said, and I needed to hear. I’m not suggesting that the volatile, unequal relationship between the two macho writers was a model for friendship anyone would wish to emulate (least of all Carolyn), especially since their story did not turn out well. (After thirty years of friendship, Vidia dumped Paul.) But I’m keeping the idea of friend as witness. Like Naipaul, Carolyn was already a writer, “The Writer,” when we met. I had barely begun. And just as Naipaul did for Theroux, she made something happen, by seeing what I did not see in myself. Witness was further complicated in our case by the fact that the two of us came into relation within an academic institution narrowed by hierarchy, not the wide world of literature in which the two novelists roamed. At Columbia, Carolyn acted not only as witness—believing in me as a writer—but also as protector within our violent little universe on the shores of the Hudson. Of course, it’s not hard to notice what any woman would: Where is the reciprocity in acts of witness like these? Carolyn believed in, felt, reciprocity between us, and she inscribed it in every book she signed. It’s much harder for me to see what, in turn, I bore witness to in my view of her; what, bluntly, I did in return.

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What Carolyn did for me, was for me, I could never be, do for her. She saved my life; I did not save hers. That haunts me.


My BrilliantFri nds

“In this astute, passionate, rigorously honest book about her friendships with three extraordinary women, Nancy K. Miller delineates the mysterious geography of those attachments we are not born into, but choose freely. The longing, pain, confusion, envy, and joy that inhabit the often-unarticulated distance between ‘me’ and ‘you’ are so alive on these pages, they are still resonating inside me. I loved reading this book.” —Siri Hustvedt, author of A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women “My Brilliant Friends depicts the life-altering importance of deep and nourishing friendships between and among women. Through vivid details and Miller’s singular point of view, we witness her transformative relationships with Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook and their enduring love, growth, and collective power.” —Min Jin Lee, author of Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko, a finalist for the National Book Award

“Of Miller’s many illuminating books, My Brilliant Friends may be my favorite—for its sculpted lucidity, its lancing details, its interlocking plots, and its virtuoso attention to emotional ambivalence. Like Hilton Als’s The Women, Miller’s book is a classic triple-decker account of entanglement and rupture. She reminds us, with a witty yet mournful gracefulness, that every friendship is a complex work of art, demanding fastidious analysis and enraptured recounting.” —Wayne Koestenbaum, author of My 1980s & Other Essays “Miller writes with shimmering intelligence, grace, courage, and hard-won candor about her friendships with three other significant writers, all feminists, now all dead: Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook. Miller herself is surviving cancer. Both heartbreaking and life-sustaining, My Brilliant Friends proves that death can be the mother of beauty.” —Catharine R. Stimpson, University Professor and Dean Emerita, Graduate School of Arts and Science, New York University

“In these candid, tender stories of three passionate women intellectuals who died too soon, Miller has given a gift to readers who know the importance and complexity of female friendship.” —Elaine Showalter, professor emerita of English, Princeton University GENDER AND CULTURE SERIES


ISBN: 978-0-231-19054-1

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