Friendship’s End

Attic funerary stele ca. 380 BCE.
 Archeological Museum of Piraeus (Athens).

What else is there to record in a life except its possibilities for friendship? With what else could the political art be concerned? How else to measure a society or its relations between the sexes?

I am in the midst of facing a fact about a lifelong human relationship that is about as heavy, sad and undesirable as such a fact can get: 

a friendship’s end.

She doesn’t read this column, so I think I can write candidly about it here without making it any worse. There is nothing else so much on my mind as this: at the forefront and in the deep background as well.

We were that momentous combination: a lifelong friendship between two women. It began when we were young Fulbright scholars in Paris, standing in solidarity at the brink of womanhood. In those days, we called each other “girlfriends.” Woman friends would have sounded to our ears as if we’d stumbled into adulthood prematurely. It would have had the ring of a demotion.

We believed in feminine happiness. It wasn’t well defined. How could it be? It was the horizon of radiant possibility. True love was part of it but not the whole story. An element of transcendence seemed to us inseparable from the vector of the feminine. Being a music major, she had a pure singing voice and she taught me a song that began, “There’s a golden harp up in heaven for me,” and affirmed, in the final stanza, 

Well you touch one string

and the whole heavens ring …

Girls can hardly help shaping their lives contrapuntally to the lives of their mothers. In Paris, my friend did not tell me much about her mother; only that she was “a southern lady” — which was why my friend had early resolved never to become that. By which she meant starchy, artificial and dominated by mindless group mores.

Once we were back in the American setting, the rather brutal newly- wedded state she’d gone home to, and the self-concealments I went home to, made us almost unrecognizable to each other. We broke it off for some years. By the time we regathered our love for each other, she was single again, as I still was, both of us having outlived the earliest crystallizations of our youthful hopes. By then, we might even have admitted to being “women friends.”  

Our revived friendship still contained its original essence: whatever had happened to each of us, whatever we had done or suffered, we could still reach back and touch that “one string”… .

When she married again, she and her second husband spent their honeymoon driving from New Orleans north to the little town in Downeast Maine where my first husband and I were taking care of the house I’d inherited. So, quite an expenditure of gasoline, romantic longing and hope of reunion! Say what you like – at least it’s not cynical.

Bit by bit, I came to learn that her mother had not just been a Southern lady. That was the least of it. She’d been a living, moving tower of hatred! I met that mother only one time, but she was the coldest being I’d ever come into proximity with that was still organic. She’d hated my friend while still in the womb and beat her in infancy.

My friend’s second husband turned out a devout atheist — an outlook that seemed almost hygienic, compared with the bullying religiosity of her mother and sister. His atheism, which she came to share, was accompanied by certain shifts in focus: the vertical vector – her youthful upward look – was traded for gourmet cooking, skillful foreign travel down the rivers of Europe in his boat, and civic engagement when they were home.

I paid little attention to these minute shifts. Am I my woman-friend’s keeper?

Our second breakup came, at her instigating, when I deeply and truly married again, to Jerry, at long last. Never mind what the prompt was. Ostensibly, political differences. We flew to visit her, in the city where she and her husband then lived, pursuing my vain hope of resolving these differences. Their reception had a chilled formality about it. They described their current projects but asked nothing about our lives.

That evening, a subconjunctival hemorrhage struck one eye. We got emergency treatment for me at a facility near our hotel. I was just stepping out of that urgent care center and onto the night street when, by bizarre chance, we bumped into philosophical friends — from Australia! It was almost impossible but there was David M. Armstrong and his wife Jenny! We hadn’t even realized that there was a philosophical conference in town. Standing together on the night street, I told David and Jenny the story. 

“Will you ever see her again?” Armstrong asked sympathetically.

“Well, I won’t chase her.” I did however send a follow-up letter, reproaching my woman friend for letting differences resolvable in discussion do such personal damage, but saying I would always stand ready to rekindle our friendship. She did not reply.

Despite what I said to Armstrong, some years later I gave the lifelong friendship my third try. By then, her second husband had died and she was glad to resume our old connection. But there were odd roadblocks. She was not willing to meet in person, despite many opportunities. She seemed peculiarly indifferent to her adult daughter, in a way certainly not hateful, but uncomfortably reminiscent of her mother’s coldness. She seemed to ride blithely roughshod over the reasonable expectations of others in her life. She remembered more details of our Parisian year than I did, but showed little interest in my present life. I was just relieved to have our old connection back – the unbroken string – and did my best to make inward room for all these modifications.

My friend now lived in an urban environment where anti-semitism had become part of activist politics. Not only did she feel no objection to these new norms, but repeatedly tested my tolerance for them. Thus, over time, she became the only friend I had who I believed would rationalize a pogrom – though of course she would never participate in one physically. I wondered if she had finally become her mother. I noticed that, when I considered sharing these misgivings with her, I was scared! 

I felt that the worst mistake I could make as a friend would be to try to “help” her. She had shut down the vertical dimension. The best I could do for her was not to pretend it hadn’t happened but to notice that turn in her story and move away – to where I could still 

discern my own sky.

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 and as an audiobook. 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 and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( 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. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Friendship’s End

  1. Abigail says:

    Yes, eternal verities endure. Friendship is one of those.

  2. jerrymartin998419820 says:

    Good image. Sets the mood.

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