Magic circle of female friendship



I HAVE a friend who goes back far enough to remember my worst sartorial excesses. She mortifies me with reminders of the lime-green hotpants and white plastic boots (Abba ruled, OK?) that made such a fetching combo with my metal-rimmed glasses and the steel braces on my teeth (at least something matched).I retaliate with her own history as a fashion tragic: also hotpants, this time electric blue velvet, with lurid matching eyeshadow. Romeo’s Juliet might have been a romantic heroine at 14, but we were more like extras from Muriel’s Wedding.

Now when we get together we often end up singing – badly, mockingly, wistfully – to the exuberant, romantic music we used to dance to in her chenilled teenage bedroom. Those were the days, my friend.

A shared history can be a big ingredient of friendship because old friends know you in a way new friends cannot. It’s like the difference between the war correspondent and the historian – one shares in the immediacy of the moment, while the other can only glimpse its outline through the haze of time.

Sydney journalist Suzy Baldwin has written a book of interviews, Best of Friends, in which she asks a dozen women about female friendship. Baldwin asks whether intimate friendships are more important to women than to men, or is it just that women are better at them? What are friendship’s limits? And what happens when intense friendships collapse?
Women friends occupy a different place in the heart to husbands or lovers, and friendship’s freedom from sexual entanglement leads to hope that it will be more enduring. As the artist Mirka Mora says, “A lover is like a flying bird – in and out – but a friend is forever.”

But Mora is ambivalent about friends and in another part of the interview announces that her only friend is her work. Baldwin asks whether she had friends as a little girl. Mora stops to think and realises, “They were all burnt in Auschwitz … Maybe that has something to do with it. When the war came I lost all my little children friends.” Her aloneness contrasts painfully with the optimism of women like art lecturer Elizabeth Elliott, who is confident she will make new friendships right into old age.

Female friendships are like the little girl with the little curl: when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad they are horrid. Little girls’ cruel magic-circle games – embracing someone as best friend one day, ejecting her as social leper the next – make parliamentary politics look stable and beneficent. Big girls’ emotional intensity can make for a sense of loss and betrayal when the tide goes out on a close relationship, as sometimes it must.

There is no consensus, in this book or in life, on crucial questions such as whether a friend has a duty to tell unpalatable truths. Would you tell your best friend if her partner was cheating on her?

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith wavers about how best to deal with a friend in trouble: “I’m not sure which is more important: for one person in her life to sit down and gently, gently, try to make her see what the problem is, or for her to have one friend who, through thick and thin, lets her be deluded when she needs to be deluded.”

Mary Vallentine, managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, made a hard call on that one. When her friend, the conductor Stuart Challender, became so weak with AIDS that his performances became dirge-like, she told him it was time to stop. “Oh, how hard it was to say that, because to him it meant, `Stop conducting and you will die.’ Which is, effectively, what happened.”

I once helped nurse a dying friend whom I had long thought of as my other mother. She invited me into her death the way she had invited me into her life, with confidence that this, too, would be better done together. At the time I thought it was something I was doing for her. It was not until afterwards that I realised she had offered me a blessing. There is nothing like a deathbed watch to make you face the truth about your own life, including the fact that not even the most treasured friendships can last forever.

Best of Friends, by Suzy Baldwin, Penguin, $19.95.

First published in The Age.