A friend of mine sent me this article, a question and answer session with Kelly Valen, author of the new book Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships about female friendship, based on a survey completely by more than 3,000 women across the country. What interested me more than her actual book, however, was the story behind the book: the article links to a New York Times article back in 2007 that was supposedly her inspiration for creating the survey called “My Sorority Pledge? I Swore off Sisterhood.” It’s sad and somewhat disturbing: the author describes joining a sorority and being encouraged to lose her virginity, losing her virginity through the process of what was essentially public rape, and then being shunned by her sorority sisters until eventually being forced to leave. Because of this traumatic experience, she found herself avoiding female friendship at all costs, but having no problem with men, as the boy who raped her apologized and his frat brothers made his life miserable. The author lived her life this way, void of female friendship, until finally, one day, she ran into one of her ex-sorority sisters in a store and was faced with a smiling, friendly woman who wanted to laugh at the past as friends–and all of the anxiety, shame, and anger she felt at 18 came rushing back. While she had moved on with her life and become a lawyer, gotten married, and had children, the memory still hurt her, and forced her to think once again about cruelty among females, and inspiring her book.
Now, I find the article to be disturbing for a few reasons. First, the seemingly offhanded way that the author deals with what was really rape—she says that the offender apologized and the blame was put on him, and so she moves on, rather than attributing any of her shame to him rather than to the women around her. (And there is very little condemnation of “Ledge Parties,” the frat ritual of having public sex with an unknowing girl). More importantly, I think, is this: the fact that her story is real is disturbing in its sadness. It upsets me greatly that women do these cruel things to one another, or really, that anyone does these cruel things to one another. I’m part of the generation that grew up watching “Mean Girls,” I know, but it still gets to me (read it–how can it not?)
Besides simply caring about other women and their friendships, as I’ve blogged about before, I think a lot of my initial visceral disgust at reading about what happened to the author comes from the fact that it is so foreign to my own life. While for most of my life I’ve considered myself a “boy’s girl,” preferring to have male friends than female, I recently have come to terms with the fact that I have a group of very close female friends without whom my life would be completely different–for the worse. My grade in school went on a trip this weekend that ended up being emotionally trying and tumultuous, with half of the people there, especially the females, crying and revealing personal and intimate details about their lives (it sounds a little weird/cliche in retrospect, but so do a lot of things, after all.) After the weekend was over, I came home and realized that unlike a lot of the people there, my friends and I had, and really always do, have each other to turn to for anything and everything, from advice about boys to people to discuss politics with to people to hold our hands when we need someone–and for that we are incredibly lucky.
At the same time, however, I do know that for a lot of women and girls, what the author describes is a reality; perhaps not necessarily involving the same gruesome details, but definitely involving the same feelings of isolation, loneliness, and anxiety. Women can be incredibly cruel to one another. But a part of me, and this is just my own personal instinct, feels uncomfortable simply saying that women can be cruel–people are cruel. Men hurt women, and women hurt women, and men hurt men, and women hurt men; to me, at least, it seems that the author was particularly hurt by the women because they were the people she expected support from–not necessarily because they were women. It seems that what hurts the most, more than female gossip or exclusion, is betrayal by the people you consider your friends. I’m not trying to argue with the author (she’s gotten a lot of negative feedback from a lot of people, and her pain is certainly legitimate); I’m simply putting it out there that instead of emphasizing how we can become better girls, perhaps we should focus on how to be better friends–that rather than talking about “Mean Girls,” we should talk about fake friends and backstabbing, and teach children of both genders the importance of loyalty and trust.