Women catch courage from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage friend. –Carolyn Heilbrun
On a blistering August day in 1989, my boyfriend, Adrian, and I were trudging up 123rd Street on our way to his dorm, and I was lagging behind. He always seemed to be several steps ahead of me, which wasn’t surprising, since I was barely five feet tall, and he was close to six. But he felt that I should have walked faster, and he diagnosed the problem as hesitation, fear. (He studied the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich, who wrote a book called The Courage to Be.) Whenever he noticed me falling behind, he made this observation: “You fear to step.” It made me laugh, and also caused, as he seemed to intend, a stab of shame about the pervasive anxiety that in fact kept me from moving forward. “You fear to step,” he announced, as we sweated up the hill, and I protested that my feet hurt because I wasn’t wearing any socks. I began to compose a mantra of my own inadequacy:
I fear to step
I have no sock
Then, because these failings reminded me of other failings, I added:
I have no dick
I need to pick.
Did I have “penis envy”? I’m not sure, but what I did envy very deeply was Adrian’s intellect, his academic savvy, and his writing mojo: he could get up, turn on the computer, and write for seven hours without stopping. He had already published a stack of articles and would soon publish his master’s thesis as a monograph. I had never published anything except some jejune poems in an undergraduate magazine.
Since childhood, I’d had a habit of picking and biting at the skin of my cuticles until they bled. I did try to stop, but it was the most pleasurably painful sensation, and it perpetuated itself: a little shred of skin would beg to be pulled away, which led to another little shred of skin begging to be pulled away, and so on. It was not something I could really hide, even though I wore black all the time so the blood didn’t show on my clothes. My friend Caroline, in eighth grade, put paper bags over my hands and sealed them with masking tape. In my internal language, “picking” also meant something else: my disgusting, secret habit of constantly picking at food, compulsively nibbling whenever I was home alone. I was even more ashamed of this habit than of chewing on my hands, but it was more easily concealed.
I sang this mantra as we walked along Riverside Drive.
I fear to step
I have no sock
I have no dick
I need to pick.
I experimented with rearranging the lines, reciting my villanelle from hell:
I have no sock
I have no dick
I fear to step
I need to pick.
I understood that Adrian’s diagnosis was not just about how slowly I walked, but about what was wrong with me. From his Tillichian point of view, I lacked courage, I was not bold enough, I did not embrace life. This was the nature of my character: I feared to step.
Adrian only wanted me because when he arrived in New York, I was dating his best friend from home. (Their friendship ended shortly.) And being a New York Jew, I was somewhat exotic to a young man from Kentucky. His contradictions entranced me: his humor was smutty, but he had intimations of the divine; he played guitar in a raggedy band, but he was studying at a seminary; he was enormously ambitious, but believed that mediocrity reigned at the highest levels of the academy. There was no such thing as an ordinary conversation with him, nor a mundane experience: a trip to the supermarket with Adrian became a surrealist adventure, and every object—whisks, zucchini, oven mitts—suddenly looked like a strange erotic instrument, an occasion for wordplay and flirtation. I became obsessed.
Despite his contradictions, Adrian knew exactly how he wanted to be. His genius was not just for thinking and writing, but for constructing a self—he was morally serious and self-ironic, sophisticated and irrepressibly silly, monkish and lewd; he could revert to his Kentucky drawl or speak flawless, unaccented French or German. He was thoroughly himself and he contained, as Whitman put it, multitudes. Next to him, I felt like a hologram—an image you could pass your hand through. Did I even have a personality, apart from my weird compulsions?
Sheila Heti’s 2012 novel How Should A Person Be? transported me back to that moment. The book captures so well the suffering, the humor, and the melodrama of being in your twenties; at times, I felt the story was not meant for me—or for any of us much over the age of 35. (A friend in her twenties loaned it to me.) But reading it for the second and third time, I got past my sense that it was too young and edgy, perhaps too messy, for me; I found insight and optimism about the dilemmas of a person who fears to step—but who wants very much to have artistic conviction and, to use Tillich’s phrase, courage to be.
I looked to Adrian to tell me how to be; Sheila, the narrator of Heti’s book, regards everyone as a potential guru. For instance, she looks to Uri, the owner of the hair salon where she works. Working under him offers respite from the constant inner questioning. “There was a great simplicity to my life when I was there. I knew what was expected of me and I was happy that I could comply.” She craves situations that give her clear directions about what to do—unlike the task of writing her play, which is infinitely demanding and completely without guidelines. Creative work—open-ended and not rule-bound—becomes a kind of torment. She worries about whether or not her brain works well enough: “Over the past year I had become convinced that I did not think as well as other people…that I didn’t know how to think at all.” At the salon, she happily serves—washing and drying hair, putting wet towels in a bin, sweeping up—but does not have to think.
As the salon provides relief from the obligation to figure out what to do, so too does Israel, Sheila’s compelling and sadistic lover. Israel loves to tell her what to do, coercing her from the first night and dreaming up self-abasing tasks for her. Israel’s sexuality draws her in, in spite of her determination to remain celibate. “I’ll decide if you’re celibate or not,” he tells her on their first night together. She describes the sex through an internal monologue—for her it is violent and humiliating—but she welcomes this masochistic surrender and invites him to use her even more: “Whatever you want me to do, I will do it, and whatever I don’t want to do, I will do that too, and will want to.” As long as Israel is using her, as long as she is possessed by desire for him, she has relief from the terrible inner confusion. He releases her, as I wanted Adrian to do, from the obligation to think, to make decisions.
Luckily, she finds a friend, Margaux, who refuses to command but is willing to help her figure out what she wants. Sheila reflexively turns to Margaux for answers—for how to write her play, for how to be—but Margaux is baffled and uncomfortable being cast in the role of guru. Their friendship is intense, playful, philosophical, but they reach an impasse when Sheila encroaches too much on Margaux’s identity, even poisoning her friend’s pleasure in painting. There is a rupture, an insight, and a coming back together. When they reunite, Margaux offers her a route to redemption: finish the play. She will finish it (in the form of a novel) for Margaux. What begins as a tale of anxiety and uncertainty becomes a story of growing self-awareness and resilient female friendship.
Sheila has a mirror image in the character of Frances, the heroine of Noah Baumbach’s 2013 film Frances Ha. Both are struggling through their turbulent twenties and trying to become artists, and the narratives follow similar arcs. But Frances (Greta Gerwig) doesn’t fear to step; in fact, she hurtles forward at top speed, even when it’s not clear she has anywhere to go. One delightful sequence follows her running through the streets, for no apparent reason besides exuberance, every now and then indulging in a jeté or a pirouette. It’s exhilarating and worrisome to watch; she’s not afraid to fall, but I’m a little afraid for her—maybe she should fear to step. In fact, she does fall once, but just hops back up and continues running. She doesn’t even notice the bleeding scrape on her arm until her date points it out: “You’re injured,” he says. Her best friend Sophie makes fun of her, she confesses to him, “because I can’t account for my bruises.” As a dancer, she’s not measured and precise, but loose and a bit floppy. She carries herself more like a child than an adult, and her face is mobile, open, expressive—by turns beautiful and comic.
The person who fears to step is worried, above all, about making mistakes; we can’t tolerate being wrong. On the other hand, Frances comments on a performance of her own choreography: “I like things that look like mistakes.” She actually embraces mistakes, and we see her make some doozies: charging a weekend trip to Paris when she is broke; turning down a full-time job at her dance studio; leaving New York to waitress for a summer at her former college. She’s spirited and brave, but miserable. We don’t have access to Frances’s inner monologue, as we do Sheila’s, but we don’t need it in order to understand her sense of how to be. We can see it when she runs through the street or swings her limbs on the dance floor. To be, for Frances, is to move: to step fearlessly, even if you fall.
I followed Adrian to Harvard, where he began a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion, while I worked a mechanical data-entry job in the library. We did not live together, but I trailed him around campus in jealous agony while he flirted with women who were even more brilliant (and beautiful) than he was.
He still made me swoon. One day in early May, we were lounging in the grass near the Charles River, eating bagels and reading. He had just turned 30, but his face was as radiant and smooth as a child’s. Grey eyes behind round horn-rimmed glasses. Coming to Harvard had not changed his style: he still wore clothes from the thrift store in Louisville—a pale-blue button down shirt, worn thin with age; a faded pair of jeans that bunched around the ankles; a cracked pair of dress shoes. He lay on his side with his long legs stretched out, propped up on one elbow, book in one hand, bagel on the paper in front of him. I tried to read, too (Alice Walker), but was distracted by his beauty, the glimpse of skin beneath his shirt, his elegant hands. I felt the familiar ache of longing in my chest, painful and pleasurable.
Adrian looked up from Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Gazing into the distance, he announced: “There are three types of people: the Colorless, the Beautiful, and the Abject. The Colorless don’t suffer. The Beautiful suffer, and they become more Beautiful through suffering. The Abject suffer, and they are only made more Abject by their suffering.”
Like a good student, I asked a question when the lecture was over: “What are you?”
“Abject,” he said. (For all his drive and success, he was not happy.)
“And what am I?” I asked.
“You—” he paused. “Are in danger of becoming Colorless.”
I don’t know what I said, but I do remember being stunned by his ignorance of how I suffered for him. I stood up as if to walk away, scanned the bucolic landscape of the park, and sat back down. If I had walked away, I would not have known where to go, what to do: how to be. We spent the evening as usual, eating a dinner of canned peas and peanut butter sandwiches on the bed in his tiny dorm room.
Two weeks later, I got letters of admission to graduate programs at Boston University and NYU. Where should a person go to graduate school? I visited both programs and weighed the pros and cons and, before long, was in a fever of indecision. How could I be apart from Adrian? On the other hand, how could I turn down a chance to go back to New York? In desperation, I decided to call a former professor at Columbia for her advice: the venerable feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun. I called her from my bare room in a shared apartment in Inman Square, where I rarely spent time. Next to the phone was a copy of Heilbrun’s recent (1988) book, Writing A Woman’s Life, which I had just finished reading, and I scribbled notes from our conversation on the blank pages at the back of the book. I knew it was inappropriate to bother her with this dilemma, but I was so tied up in misery, I didn’t care. I just wanted someone to tell me what to do, and Adrian was remaining strictly neutral (which should have been a sign in itself). I explained the whole situation to Professor Heilbrun, including my relationship with Adrian. “I have never been obsessed with someone,” she said thoughtfully, and it made me long to be free of the obsession.
I began to see my life through the lens of Heilbrun’s argument that women who wish to pursue independent lives, who want to live a “quest” narrative rather than a romance plot, don’t have a ready narrative to follow. Some women have lived unconventional stories, she writes, but they don’t necessarily help the rest of us because “lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts.” The texts betray the absence of a “quest” narrative for women: “I have read many moving lives of women, but they are painful, the price is high, the anxiety is intense, because there is no script to follow.” This became a way of explaining the fear to step: the desire to follow a different path, but not knowing how to go.
Although now the claims seem overstated, when I read the book at 24, they rang with truth. Today, Heti’s perspective seems truer: I wasn’t constrained by the available narratives, but overwhelmed by so many possible ways to be. At the time, though, it was Heilbrun’s version that I clung to. Her book was a bridge to another place, where I could live courageously and free of my debilitating obsession with Adrian. I could see that place in the distance, even though I knew it would be hard to get there. Inside the back cover of the book, I had written in pencil her words of advice: Grit your teeth and pretend it is already over. Pretend the relationship—and the obsession—is over.
I did pretend, and it worked well enough that I managed to choose NYU. But even after I moved back to New York and we broke up, I remained obsessed with Adrian. When he started dating another girl, I was demented with pain—walked around the city like a zombie, my head a theater of non-stop movies of Adrian making love with that other girl.
Rachel sat across from me in the master’s seminar for graduate students in American Studies, and she began to like me, she said, because I could not keep a straight face in class. I smirked involuntarily when a student said something silly, winced when something was off the mark, furrowed my brow deeply when a comment was penetrating. It made her laugh and eventually, she said, she had to stop sitting across from me. I lacked the mask of neutrality, the respectful kind of interest that one is supposed to wear in a seminar.
Rachel was, like Frances, a modern dancer, but in temperament the very opposite of Frances. She was what Frances aspired to be: in the company, not just the training corps. And even though she was successful as a dancer, she chose graduate school—a long-term plan. She had an exacting discipline in all things: she applied herself with a fierce dedication to her studies and sustained an exercise regimen that kept her in what she called “dance shape.” With her beauty and austerity, she was regal.
It happened very gradually over the course of our first semester together: lingering after class to chat, lunch at the vegan salad place, until finally—oh joy!—Rachel invited me to a dance performance, the Urban Bush Women at the Joyce Theater. Their signature piece, the funniest and most in-your-face, was called “Batty Moves.” “Batty” is a Caribbean term for “butt,” and they turned their gorgeous butts to us, wiggling and swaying and bouncing them in unison (proto-twerking). The dancers—all black women—were not delicate, but solid and muscular, and they moved with exuberance and force, stamping, twirling, stretching. They shouted with one voice: “Urban Bush Women in the house, y’all!” They made us laugh and cheer without restraint. I felt triumphant: in spite of all my uncertainty and sorrow, I had made the choices that led me here, to this moment.
Rachel became my Margaux, my Sophie: the best friend who makes our heart flutter. There were others, of course, but she was the first to help extract me from my obsession with Adrian; the first to make me feel as if I could go forward. We took long walks, deep in conversation about relationships, writing, and the politics of our department. Although she was tall and athletic, I kept pace with her all throughout Brooklyn, across the bridge into Manhattan and back again. We wrote our dissertations together, we taught together, and saw each other through several serious boyfriends.
But in the eighth year of our doctoral work, Rachel developed a mysterious illness that caused her terrible abdominal pain and seemed to absorb all her energy. Doctors couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong, and she cut various things out of her diet to see if that would help. Mostly, it didn’t, though she was pleased that she dropped about fifteen pounds. Her friends thought she looked gaunt. The illness was like a fascinating new friend who demanded all her time. Rachel was also preparing to defend a dissertation, which had already won awards; she was negotiating the terms of a visiting professorship at a small, prestigious liberal arts college. She no longer had time for long walks and, because a dissertation grant had exempted her from teaching, I rarely saw her at school. Once again, as at the beginning, she seemed distant and beyond reach.
There was a rupture and a period of estrangement, but not—as in both fictional stories—a renewal of the friendship, made more precious by the near loss. The friendship with Rachel just ended, and an enduring sense of rejection prevented me from making overtures once we had embarked on our post-graduate lives. But Rachel was for me, for a time, the bearer of courage, and those long walks through Brooklyn sustained me through the second half of my twenties.
In the chapter on female friendship in Writing a Woman’s Life, Heilbrun makes some claims that are truly startling when I read them today; it’s hard to believe that women’s experiences (and the written accounts of them) have changed so radically in the past thirty years. According to her account of the established literary tradition, men find brotherhood as they take action in the public sphere, while friendships between women must be called “societies of consolation. Women nourished men as they went forth to a world of activity, and consoled one another while they waited, passively and with fear, for what life might force them to endure.” Critiquing these gendered distinctions in the sphere of friendship, Heilbrun writes:
Friendship has too much resembled for men the camaraderie of battle, for women the consolations of passivity; marriage has owed too much to romance, too little to friendship; both marriage and friendship have suffered from the separation of sexuality and the more general energy of love and life itself. We have not dared to say “I love my friend.”
Writing in 1988, Heilbrun observed that “friendship between women has seldom been recounted,” and we have not seen stories of “the love of women for one another as they work and live side by side.”
The story of Frances and Sophie in Frances Ha might have been written in direct response to Heilbrun’s complaint. Following the opening sequence, which shows the friends indulging in various kinds of girly fun, the next scene shows Frances in a tense conversation with her boyfriend, Dan: will she move in with him? She interrupts this conversation to answer a call from Sophie. Immediately, her affect shifts from sad and subdued to exuberant: “Waaaaaaasup, girl?” she shrieks when she answers the call. Sophie is out drinking and wants Frances to come; it’s a brief, casual conversation, but the calls ends with Frances repeating: “I love you. I love you.” It’s not surprising that, after the ecstatic energy of this phone call, the talk with Dan ends badly.
On the evening after Frances breaks up with Dan, she asks Sophie to tell “the story of us.” “Again?” Sophie says, but then obliges, reciting a fairy tale of parallel success and lifetime friendship. Frances wants to live the fairy tale, but Sophie soon betrays the “story of us,” choosing to live with another friend, and later gets engaged to an absurdly conventional man, a businessman named Patch. She follows this sanctioned heterosexual path, while Frances doggedly pursues her quest to become an artist. Frances Ha is far from a programmatic feminist film, but I feel certain that Heilbrun would have noticed the juxtaposition of these two arcs: the woman who puts a man at the center of her life; the woman who chooses art and independence—the one who has courage.
Against the background of Heilbrun’s claims, the pinnacle emotional moments in both stories look radical. In Heti’s novel, Sheila discovers the singularity of her friend and recognizes that their bond forms the vital core of her life: “I had never wanted to be one person, or even believed that I was one, so I had never considered the true singularity of anyone else. I said to myself, You are only given one. The one you are given is the one to put a fence around.” As for Frances, the recognition of loving friendship resolves the story: the culminating moment of Frances Ha is a glance exchanged with Sophie across the room at a party, which bespeaks the absolute solidity of their connection. If we live our lives according to narratives, as Heilbrun claims, then here are two stories that invite women to love women: to create art and to make our relationships with other women central to the meaning of our lives. These friendships partake of the intensity of romance; women dare to say “I love you” to their friends.
Heilbrun would have rejoiced over these stories of female friendship, funny and honest and brave as they are. But she is not here to see them. I write this on the tenth anniversary of her death, on October 9th, 2003. A suicide.
Her death was not the result of a despairing impulse, but a deliberate choice she had made much earlier, a plan to end her life with dignity, before the steep decline. It was an act of courage and profound will. And yet. Katha Pollitt observed that at Heilbrun’s memorial service, “several eulogists expressed anger, regret, and self-blame.” It was as if her friends and family were thinking: Weren’t we enough? Didn’t we do enough? Chloe and Olivia (as Virginia Woolf called them)–the women who work side by side with us, the women we love—were vital, but in the end, they weren’t enough to offset the dread of a slow decline. I have read that Heilbrun’s most intimate friends, and her daughter Margaret, with whom she was very close, remained confused and ambivalent about her choice. I can imagine how much they still wanted to say to her, the walks they planned to take with her in Central Park—but now would never take.
Although I barely knew her—was her student for only one semester—I wish I could have spoken to her once more before she died. I would like to have said: thank you for taking that phone call from a distraught former student. Thank you for that magical sentence about pretending, and for helping me begin to write my own life.
On a surprisingly pleasant August day in 2013, my mother and I are walking up 5th Avenue, on our way to the Guggenheim. I have taken the train up from DC, and she has taken the train down from Connecticut. We are going to see James Turrell and, later, The Designated Mourner: one of our mother-daughter weekends. As we walk, I am not looking ahead, but down at the pavement, which seems treacherously uneven. I’m afraid my mother will trip and fall. I scan the sidewalk and monitor my mom, holding one hand near her elbow, just in case I need to catch her. I keep picturing the moment when her foot will snag on a bump and she’ll tumble forward. But I’m also afraid to ask if I can hold her arm or her hand—won’t she regard that as ridiculously overprotective? She’s tiny and fragile, but she walks for an hour every day in her small Connecticut town. She likes to walk.
People watch out for us. Everywhere we go in the city—restaurants, subways, museums—they stand up to give my mother a seat. When I regard us from the outside, I can see that we make a rather touching pair. Here are two birdlike Jewish ladies, the graying middle-aged daughter attending to her elderly mother. The daughter in a red polka-dot dress that is too young for her; the mother concealing herself in clothes that are several sizes too large. The daughter fusses over the mother, asking solicitous questions, insisting on holding her bag. Something about this picture inspires people to stand up and motion my mother towards a seat.
On these trips, my mother is frank about wanting me to make all the decisions: I choose the play, the hotel, the museum, and the restaurants, even what to order. In fact, she loves these trips largely because she can turn control over to me, knowing that I will take on the role of competent, decisive guide. She sees me as confidently leading the way; I see myself differently. I still catch myself reciting mantras of inadequacy, singing little odes to my own odiousness. I still spend too much time scrutinizing my sockless feet, my dickless self. But on the whole, I am more concerned with making sure my mother’s feet navigate the uneven sidewalk, and more interested in my own daughter’s brave steps towards becoming herself.