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Big Friendship: The Least Examined Important Relationship

Book cover: Big Friendship

Debbie says:

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, co-hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, are students and examiners of friendship. One of the underlying principles of their book Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close is that friendship is both under-rated and underexamined:

There’s an expectation that friendship is the easy part of life. All support, no strife. If it gets hard? Well, it wasn’t meant to be. While there are piles and piles of books to help you through a crisis in your marriage and offer you advice on repairing estranged family relationships, not much guidance exists for best friends who can sense things falling apart but don’t know how to put them back together. … We found a lot of articles about how painful friend splits can be, and almost all of them carried an overwhelming sense of fatalism, as if this were the only natural outcome for a friendship on the rocks.

Sow and Friedman are both immensely likable and very smart. And that comes through in the book. They are phrasemakers and definers: “big friendship” itself:

it has been much harder for us to find a language for the difficult parts. The frustration of giving more to a friend than they’re giving back. The unbridgeable gaps in even the closest of interracial friendships. The dynamic of pushing each other away even as we’re trying to reconnect. The struggle to find true peace with a long-term friendship that is changing. We even lacked a name for the kind of friendship we have. Words like “best friend” or “BFF” don’t capture the adult emotional work we’ve put into our relationship.

We now call it a Big Friendship, because it’s one of the most affirming–and most complicated–relationships that a human life can hold.

They’re better known for coining (and defending) the term Shine Theory (“I don’t shine if you don’t shine”), which is a well-known road map for how women–in particular–can defend and support each other against the ways the patriarchy works to make women’s ideas and contributions invisible. The concept has been so successful that they had to trademark it and keep it from being used by grasping, anti-woman businesses and sites.

In writing the book, they chose a unique narrative voice. They wrote in first-person plural (“we” and “us”), while the feelings, reactions and responses of each of them separately are in the third person (“Aminatou thought”; “Ann felt”). It’s a little awkward, because it’s unfamiliar. They explain it early, and eventually you realize how much this choice centers the friendship as a separate entity from the friends.

These two women are hugely different from me; they are decades younger, they are much more ambitious, they are much more into consumer goods and they bond over types of popular entertainment that aren’t mine. They are like me in that they are extremely thoughtful about relationships in general and friendships in particular. They love each other deeply (but not erotically or romantically) and they love their other friends. They also love bringing friends together and creating what they call friendwebs, something I also do.

They did a lot of research for this book, aside from telling their own story. Researchers and experts on friendship are thin on the ground, but they found a handful, most of them interesting. They don’t flinch from the interracial aspects of their friendship (Friedman is a white midwestern woman, Sow is a Nigerian immigrant) and their chapter on the “trapdoor” is especially strong. It starts with a story of a party Ann hosted, where Aminatou was the only Black person (“Nothing. Not even a racially ambiguous tan.”):

The writer Wesley Morris calls this experience the trapdoor of racism. “For people of color, some aspect of friendship with white people involves an awareness that you could be dropped through a trapdoor of racism at any moment, by a slip of the tongue, or at a campus party, or in a legislative campaign,” he wrote in 2015. “But it’s not always anticipated.” The trapdoor describes the limited level of comfort that Black people can feel around white people who are part of their lives in a meaningful way. Even if these white people decide they will confront racism every day, it’s guaranteed they will sometimes screw up and disappoint the Black people they know.

The book lags in the last quarter, when they tell the story of the rift in their friendship which they prefigure at the beginning of their story: what caused it, and how they eventually healed it. This is my kind of story, but their account feels drawn out and almost bloated.

Friendships are one of the factors that can most sustain us in the travails of 2020: I find something special in the arrival of this book at this time, and would love to see it herald much more analysis, discussion, and storytelling about the joys, perils, and complexities of friendship.

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