A Woman Friend

Little Women
Illustration by Louis Jambor, 1947

A Woman Friend

To most women, our female friends are of great importance in our lives.  If my mother was right when she said,

“A friend is a witness to one’s life,”

we call in our female friends to witness stuff we would never share with the men.

And yet, the business of female friendship is delicate.  I hesitate to quarrel with a woman friend where I don’t hesitate with a man.  You expect a man “to be able to take it.”  Between women – and that’s the strong and the weak equally – something else is going on:

Desirability.

An objection to a woman friend goes to her desirability.  An objection to a man friend fires up his, often as not.

Maybe for that reason, I have most deeply valued friendships with women who like to think – with or without academic credentials – because, in the realm of thought, differences can be aired in safety.

Long ago, I had a woman friend in Paris, like me an American Fulbright Scholar.  With that friend I could share the sorrows and battering of a first love.  She stepped in unforgettably to guide me over what presented itself as a feminine abyss – a terrain that held no future.

Alongside the drama of that crisis, we also shared the idealism of American young women then: mostly oriented toward the high blue vagueness overhead — the transcendence that would help us to make our futures mysterious and wonderful.  Of course!  What else?

Well, our twenties were hardly that.  My friend had a mother who was, as I noted later, “the coldest being I ever encountered who was still organic.”  After Paris, she married a guy who rescued her from her mother’s home.  He was just short of brutal and eventually left her for a man!

Meanwhile, I was climbing escarpments of a different kind, too intricate to summarize in this column.  (But detailed in Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming.)  Not able to provide help or advice equal to her situation, not confident that she could even visualize mine, it seemed to me then that we should separate our lives.  Two women, each at an edge, unable to rescue each other.

We picked it up again, this friendship, some years later when our lives were on the rails again.  I was established in my life work with the problem of a personal life still unsolved.  She was single, with a lovely young daughter, refusing to be victimized by her early disappointments.  My first marriage, which did not last, and her second, which did, overlapped this period of our resumed friendship.  Our friendship during that time was a success.  Present for each other’s life struggles, we exchanged sage counsels, practical and emotional.  We vindicated for each other the nuances and complexities of a woman’s aims.

She broke it off very bruisingly when I married again.  The reasons she gave (a difference of opinion about politics) were probably not the real reason.  She was a woman who rushed to judge that she’d been abandoned.  Recently I learned that her cold mother had actually beaten her in infancy!  It’s almost unbelievable.  If that’s what happens at the start of your life – almost before the start – what would the project of your life have to be?  Of what would you be in quest?  Perhaps to get back a sense of confidence in your womanly body: its enjoyments, its functional harmoniousness, its dignity.

Up to a point, I believe my friend worked on that very project and pretty nearly recovered her body.  Her second marriage was a good partnership, with many foreign scenes, orchestral sounds and culinary tastes enjoyed together.  I suppose life in bed was pretty good too.

When he died – passing off the stage of her life rather quickly, with little suffering – she probably stood at a crossroads.  With her original aim more or less achieved, now what?  Would there be a different aim or a further realm to explore?  Apart from the practical concerns when you are left alone, I think these are questions that one has to raise seriously.  Her second marriage had been enjoyed with a husband who abhorred all talk of the invisible realities that surround the everyday world.  “Religion” for him was the butt of bad jokes. The openness to transcendence that my friend and I had once shared was casually and colloquially slammed shut every damn day.  

It can happen in a marriage.  Maybe that’s better than a narrow, mean, dogmatic religiosity.  Anyway, it left her without the habit of silent asking and silent listening. 

Instead, she embarked on a further quest for erotic happiness.  I know because she and I have picked up our much-battered friendship again recently.  As yet, we haven’t met face to face.  At first she found reasons to postpone a reunion.  Now the pandemic has prevented it.  So we’ve been telephone friends. 

Lately I’ve been unable to tell whether the stories she confided over the phone were real or part fantasy.  They were breathless, stream-of-consciousness retellings that only required of me that I go-with-the-flow.  I was not her witness but her sounding board.

Her stories lacked coherence.  The main trunk of the story line would sprout digressive branches, and the branches get sub-branches so that, repeatedly trying to understand her, I would go back to the original timeline and ask, “What happened after that?”

The last time we spoke, I wondered even more somberly how much of what she told me was true.  Of myself and the life I now live, she said nothing and asked to know nothing.  After I rang off, I felt erased — almost as if I’d been assaulted physically.  It came to me that I’ve been in the presence of enormous anger, deflected and disguised.

As a tiny child, she’d been treated so unfairly!  We look for justice but the ideal is an abstraction.  In real life, we can never entirely restore what was lost, because we can’t become the person we were before it was unfairly taken from us.

When a woman’s anger leaves no room for help or rescue, she is inflicting on herself the beatings of her infancy, again and again.  Sadly I fear I may have to back away again, if only in self-protection.

If you spoil your story relentlessly,

you will spoil the stories of others too.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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