I don’t have a lot to say about Emily Rapp’s essay, Transformation and Transcendence: The Power of Female Friendship. Unless, that is, I write a book-length response.
It’s a very sad essay. I’m not so much one for trigger warnings, mostly because I believe people’s triggers are too complex and nuanced to be well-protected by warnings. Let’s just say that if you have a hard time reading about the slow, inexorable death of a child, you won’t find this easy. And who doesn’t? If you have a hard enough time that you don’t want to do that to yourself, don’t click the link. The quotes below dodge the hardest stuff.
Nonetheless, the essay isn’t about death, it is (as advertised) about the friendships of women. I love to tell people that the word “gossip,” so maligned in these times, means the talk of women, and it comes from the term “godsib,” or “god-sibling,” which was a medieval term for “best friend,” the woman who is not biologically my sister, but should be. Rapp isn’t interested in gossip, or etymology: she’s interested in how a particular group of women older than herself–women she worked with in a nonprofit in a country she didn’t know–led her to see the world in a different light:
They understood, together, as friends, and apart, as individuals in the world, the urgency of compassion, and that it often goes unnoticed but that this doesn’t make it any less important or vital or difficult to sustain and cultivate. And they also understood that you could try as hard as you possibly could, and disaster could still strike – mercilessly. Without warning, without fairness, and with fatal consequences. I wasn’t ready to change my man-chasing, embarrassing ways, but a seed was planted on that afternoon. Nearly fifteen years later I get out of bed each morning and am thankful that I wasn’t so myopically committed to old, tried myths about women’s roles that I couldn’t see what was happening in that room between those three women, or what was happening in my own mind.
While Rapp pursues her young-self goals of marriage and motherhood, her older friends (self-dubbed “The Wrinklies”) follow a different path:
The last time I saw the Wrinklies was in 1999 on a return trip to Geneva. The youngest of the three had had a stroke as a result of a brain tumor. These friends she’d worked and traveled and lived and laughed and loved with for over half her life rented a new ground-floor apartment that would accommodate a wheelchair, took shifts taking care of her, all the while holding down jobs that were about saving other people’s friends, other people’s kids, other people’s lives – not directly, no, but on the sidelines, behind the scenes… I was nervous as I sat waiting in a pub to see them all again, afraid of seeing my paralyzed friend. Would my face show a reaction that I didn’t intend? Fear? Disgust? The three of them came in together, smiling. The unaffected two had learned to understand the other’s few words; they wiped her face, helped her eat and made her laugh. This was a snapshot of what my own deep friendships could lead to: transformation. I saw, on that afternoon, that it’s possible to transcend the limits of your skin in a friendship. That a friend can take you out of the boxes you’ve made for yourself and burn them up. This kind of friendship is not a frivolous connection, a supplementary relationship to the ones we’re taught and told are primary – spouses, children, parents. It is love.
Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul friends, what the Irish call anam cara. It’s what the Wrinklies did for one another, what the French resistance fighters in Auschwitz did for one another, what women do for one another in real relationships with real consequences in real time, every day, what my friends do for me. We help one another other live and sometimes, we watch – and help – one another die. It happens in movies, sure, but it also happens every day, in real life – now, tomorrow, yesterday. It is transformative and transcendent. It is real. It is love.
I have men in my own life with whom I have friendships with this strength and depth and power. I’m lucky. And when I think of those friendships, I think, “Those are like friendships with women.”
Unlike almost every other topic on the Internet, this one brought out the best in the commenters. Read the comments, if you read the essay.
We don’t write about these friendships enough, we don’t talk about them enough. But we live them every day and–speaking just for myself–I couldn’t live without my friends.
Thanks to Jill at Feministe for the pointer.