OUR L I VE S IN FEMINISM
The Art of Losing As is well known, the ancients thought friends indispensable to human life, indeed that a life without friends was not really worth living. —Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times
“I can lose anything!” At nine, I bragged about my losses even though I was always punished for them. I remember the punishments, not the boasting. But pride in my losing streak featured in my mother’s set pieces, whenever she recalled my character ﬂaws, long after I had left home. I can imagine making the claim though, in a moment of bravado, standing up to her rage. Maybe it was a disclaimer: I can’t help it; it’s not about you, pushing past shame. Did this history explain my panic on the disappearance of a pair of gold earrings a few summers ago in a little house we owned then near Stony Brook? One morning, just as I always did, I reached for the earrings on the bedside table where I had left them the night before, but they had vanished. I stood there, bewildered, fearful, expecting—what? A punishment that never came, nor did the earrings reappear. Naturally, they were not any pair of earrings. They had been handmade by Resia Schor, my friend Naomi’s mother, who was an artist and a jeweler. Sandy, my husband and a graduate school
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friend of Naomi’s, had bought them for me as a birthday present at least thirty years earlier. The gift of the earrings marked a moment in my friendship with Naomi when our bond was new and the two of us were engaged in a phase of intense identiﬁcation and competition, with each other, but also—this is harder to explain—for each other. The earrings were shaped like the outline of a daisy with uneven edges that bore the maker’s hand—thin, ﬂat, and elegant, each gold ﬂower perfectly covered the two asymmetrical sets of holes in my earlobes. I always traveled with this pair because they were easy to wear—with anything—and comfortable. I am wearing them in my last, expired, passport picture and in my author photo.
;;; The losing score: one pair of earrings, three close friends: Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, Diane Middlebrook. From 2001 to 2007, nearly a decade of grief to open the new millennium.
;;; The stories of these three life-changing friendships all bear the burden of loss. I cannot look back without feeling weighed down by their endings: suicide, cerebral hemorrhage, cancer. It’s hard to resist mourning, and mostly I don’t, but I want also to return to beginnings—the excitement of unfoldings—and, in retrospect, to remember how these friendships, two long-lasting, one brief but intense, shaped my emotional biography and the map of my brain. I could not have ﬁgured out who I was without them. Simply, not
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that it’s ever simple, for starters, I’ll say that each of these women made my life worth living because we believed in each other. I will cop to Hallmark card sentiment for now. The shape of these stories has a lot to do with the luck of history, the passions of seventies feminism that challenged the academic world in which we all worked. But in the end, what mattered was how we grew into ourselves together with that luck. And how we lived our relationships had as much to do with the tapestry of our sometimes inchoate desires as our politics. Despite the rhetoric of sisterhood we embraced, a bond meant to transcend negative emotions, we suffered our share of envy and competitiveness, emotions a familiar part of the feminine palette we had inherited. The feelings were not always beautiful, and were hard to root out, but like so many other women, we came to view our friendships as a crucial piece in a new narrative. Friends mourning their losses have offered the world most of the autobiographical accounts of friendship, and the most beautiful. Elegy is the preferred mode of friendship memorialization for men, Montaigne famously, but also for women. There’s nothing like death to offer the kind of closure that allows for shapely storytelling. But elegy is also one sided. The survivor tells the story. Even if the letters and emails in my possession carry the voice of the missing friend, inevitably I am the editor, as well as the teller, for two, even if I want—and I do—to be a faithful reporter. There’s a certain solace in writing about loss, too, of course, because it’s a way of coming to terms with mortality. As long as you are doing the writing, you are rehearsing the losing; unlike the friend, you are still there. You are the mourner, after all. But what happens when you start losing yourself? When, while ﬁxed on the other, you discover that your position, secured among the living,
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is unstable, unsure? You may have imagined yourself safely on the side of the living, and then suddenly, like me, you are on the verge, possibly, of disappearing yourself. Not long after I began to write the stories of these friendships, I was diagnosed with advancedstage lung cancer (“incurable but treatable,” as my laconic oncologist put it when he delivered the prognosis). While I was struggling to understand what that might mean—how long would I live? how I would live?—I wanted to abandon this project. I had been writing from the place of the one who remained behind. Suddenly I was mourning myself. I had been writing about the friends I missed; now I was forced to imagine that other friends would mourn me. Did that mean that I had joined the object position, and, if so, was the difference between us merely a matter of timing? Was that all? No, not yet. Split in two, I still wanted to be the subject; I wanted to be in charge of the story even if it seemed I had lost control of the narrative. Cancer above all destroys the ordinary divisions of time through which we take for granted the capacity—however illusory—of severing past from present, present from future. To write about the friends I had lost in the past, while no longer believing that life in the present was propelling me, however slowly, into some kind of future, made me feel that I no longer had a place from which to write. Would there even be time to tell these stories? But living with cancer in the twenty-ﬁrst century, it turns out, does not necessarily mean the abrupt end of story, though it does, of course, mean worrying about how the story will end. It’s a newish gift of modernity, something of a poisoned gift, but a gift nevertheless. I want to make the most of it, this strange situation, to add to the stock of friendship stories, since I know
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that in having made my life with friends, I have not been alone. If I’ve come to any wisdom about friendship, and it’s as hard to say anything original about these bonds as it is about living with cancer, it’s that without friends, part of us remains missing, the part that needs to look beyond our narrow boundaries to negotiate with what’s not us. So here’s the cancer trick I’ve learned: As long as I’m writing about my friends, I’m keeping them alive, and in keeping them alive, I’m staying alive with them. We are still in conversation, even if I’m doing most of the talking.
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
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