Bookforum talks with Nancy K. Miller

My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism BY Nancy K. Miller. Columbia University Press. . $28.
Nancy K. Miller

Nancy K. Miller is a veteran feminist academic—an early scholar of French feminist literature at Columbia, the first full-time tenured member of the Women’s Studies Program at Barnard College and its first director, and now Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. All of this history flows into her recent book My Brilliant Friends, a piece of hybrid autobiographical criticism about her friendships with the scholars Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook. Rather than a portrait of rosy, simplified affection, Miller follows the tradition of Italian feminist emphasis on affidamento, or entrustment, between women—where conflict, difference, and even authority are givens rather than aberrations. The book offers invaluable insight on being a woman (which “does not exist”) in academia and a feminist in friendship. What’s more, for the gossips among us there are scintillating details from a rich intellectual life: intimacies with major figures from the academic world, couples therapy with Esther Perel, and seminars with Barthes and Kristeva in Paris. I spoke with Miller about My Brilliant Friends at her home on the Upper West Side and afterward via email.

Tell me about the genre of the book, why you chose this form.

I guess you could call it a friendship memoir. Three close friends of mine died within the space of a few years—Carolyn Heilbrun in 2003, Naomi Schor in 2001, Diane Middlebrook in 2007— and in a sense, I wrote the book to keep them alive. I’ve written memoirs before, but this one posed a particular literary challenge because I wasn’t sure how to write about friends, rather than parents or lovers. There were very few models. It was also the case that these stories were indebted in different ways to second-wave feminism and I wanted to keep that context present.

It also seems like you’re trying to say something that hasn’t been said—to pinpoint something more precise about friendship between women. Like a feminist equivalent of Foucault’s “Friendship as a Way of Life.”

There’s no feminist equivalent in his terms. But there’s Virginia Woolf. I’m thinking of the chapter in A Room of One’s Own where Woolf, in the voice of her narrator, speculates about what a novel by a woman writer of the future might reveal about women’s lives, what happens between women when they are alone together. She describes stopping over a now famous sentence from an imaginary novel, “Chloe liked Olivia.” This pronouncement is followed by a context: “They shared a laboratory together.” In other words, what Woolf wants to imagine is a story between women who are friends that takes place outside the domestic world.

I grew up a fairly typical middle-class ’50s girl with no ambition to accomplish anything beyond a vague dream of happiness. Work was not part of my future, except, as my mother would say, if my husband “fell on hard times.” In that case, I should have something “to fall back on” (all that ’50s hetero discourse about falling, which probably meant failing). So when as a young woman charged up by feminism I began to know other women for whom work mattered as much as marriage and to fantasize about having a career, I started to have “Chloe and Olivia” relationships for the first time.

The friendships with women—the women I write about in the book and others—included work. I wanted to show how shared work—parallel or in collaboration—makes for a different kind of affection and intensity. This was particularly the case when we found ourselves working in the same institution, Columbia, and a hierarchy (misogyny?) that pitted women against each other (this was the case for me with both Carolyn and Naomi). But the burgeoning feminist aspirations of the late sixties and early seventies also led us to want a collective front.

As well as A Room of One’s Own, Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men comes to mind. Your book underscores the eros in homosociality between women. The “friendships” described in this book might look different if written by someone of a younger generation who had been taught to see (and act on) desire and eros differently.

Yes, perhaps because of the intensity of the friendships there was an erotic charge to our bonds, but it was mostly unacknowledged. (The way some scholars see an implicit erotic valence in Woolf’s sly use of the verb “like.”)

A major theme in the book is the sense of asymmetry that often characterizes relationships, raising the question of whether there can be a perfectly commensurate friendship. For me, this question underlies the book’s structure. Each friendship comprises a chapter: the asymmetry in the first chapter is due to your mostly fixed mentor/mentee dynamic with Carolyn, who was an established scholar in the English department at Columbia while you were an untenured, junior member of the French department. The second is your friendship with Naomi, a presumably equal relationship between peers that is sustained by a fantasy of sameness but ultimately ruptured by differences that had always been there. And the third chapter is about a friendship that begins in late life between you and Diane. You are initially on equal footing, but Diane’s illness shifts the balance, especially at the end of her life. The reciprocity at the heart of your relationship is modified, though not the love, as if to say there will always be nonequivalence, whether now or later.

Yes, there will always need to be a negotiation within the relationship, a recognition of and adjustment to change, as lives also change, with illness, as in my friendship with Diane, and also with work, as with Carolyn’s retirement, not to mention geography—the distances that necessarily structured our exchanges. Diane, for example, lived in California and London, and Naomi left New York at the end of the ’70s. Carolyn and I both lived in New York, which made weekly dinners possible.

One thing that strikes me is your emphasis on the danger of overidentification. The presumption of sameness is an important aspect of relationships between women that isn’t discussed enough, and thus one of the most innovative aspects of your book.

Yes, and it’s at the heart of “me too” (which is why the phrase caught on to describe the movement, I think). This is why I found myself attracted to the notion of the “cline,” a term from linguistics that Deborah Tannen adopts for talking about relationships. Essentially, the cline refers to points on a continuum with differing degrees of distance from each other, a kind of grammar. There has to be room for movement between pronouns, say, between “I” and “you.” Translated into emotions, this would mean finding the right space between difference and sameness, keeping difficulty alive without erasing pleasure. That’s also why I was interested in the long, collaborative relationship between the poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, as Diane described it in her biography of Sexton. For the two of them, the play of finding the right balance was vivifying and integral to making poetry. There was no struggle between them, their styles and words, and no competition. That’s how it was for Diane and me.

But your relationship with Naomi was subtended by competition.

Oh yes. This was built into the structure at Columbia, which was where we forged our relationship. Later, we even competed about who was more depressed. With Naomi, our differences really began to emerge after we got tenure, in the shape our careers took, our CVs, as it were.

One thing I love about academics is that everything is a “project.”

[Laughter] Indeed, from the start Carolyn took our friendship as an object of analysis. In fact, she liked to theorize about why our friendship flourished despite our age difference. That’s another feminist thread that was true in all three stories. We analyzed our experience—who and how we were to each other—within the friendship itself. In all those years of consciousness-raising we were acutely self-conscious (and in our women’s group, judgmental) about our behavior as feminists.

What kinds of things did you analyze?

Well, who we were as personalities, or our emotional styles. In retrospect, I’ve come to think that mood and temperament, especially depression, not just the vagaries of career or accomplishment, in the long run shape friendships for better or worse. This is what I mean by the role played by what I call the “B-side” of friendship—the feelings of how we respond to life events like illness or loss, other relationships, sometimes feelings of self-worth ingrained in us from childhood.

You seem to suggest that Naomi was more morose than you, and that led to the friendship ending? You wrote, “I desperately needed us both to end our long, dismal conversations of complaint about our lives, exchanges that left me flattened.” You wanted to change the pattern and she took this as a final rejection.

Yes, but a break-up wasn’t my intention. At the same time, I didn’t try to absorb the moment as a difficulty that we might have moved through; neither of us did, and this remains to some extent a troublingly murky memory. We were both stuck. Naomi’s depression in that period—the late nineties—was intense. She had always been somewhat melancholic. I didn’t put this in the book, because I can only speculate at this point, but my feeling is that Naomi began life with a deep sense of loss that underlay her vision of the world and her place in it. She was the daughter of parents, artists and Polish immigrants, who had lost their families in the Holocaust. She didn’t invoke that traumatic past as the underlying cause of her depression—as an intergenerational legacy—the way we do now. We didn’t talk about it. But I think now that her dark moods came from a sadness she inherited, even if that was not the focus of our discontents. Maybe the B-side beneath the B-side.

This makes sense given Freud’s distinction between melancholy and mourning.

Carolyn always said she was melancholy not depressed. For her melancholy was a mood that could come and go unlike depression (that was my job), a persistent unhappiness that required treatment. Melancholy or depression, whatever the designation, Carolyn had decided she would end her life at a certain point—some time after turning seventy—and she did. At seventy-seven. She maintained in print that suicide was a rational decision, a lucid evaluation of her circumstances, and not an act of despair. I think that as a mentor and older friend, she could not allow herself to express vulnerability.

As a mentor, one somewhat has to perform invulnerability.

Yes. The extreme of her vulnerability was in contrast with the reality of her need, which remained, however, unavowed.

She was the one always mentoring and never being mentored?

Yes. At a seminar in Paris way back in the 1960s, Roland Barthes once introduced his former student Julia Kristeva by saying, "She's my mentor now." Carolyn readily acknowledged the work of younger women scholars (including mine), and her debt to them as a feminist, but she could never move out of the mentorship position, the role, which is not only intellectual and political, of course, but emotional.

Will you say more about the feminist part of feminist mentorshipwhat makes it feminist?

Feminism is what makes the role political, because mentorship means more than providing scholarly guidance and encouragement. It’s about demystifying one’s relationship to the institution. Helping younger women make their way is key, but so is acknowledging that the institution is corrupt. There has to be critique of hierarchy’s insidious practices. Carolyn used to say, never be sentimental about institutions. And she was right.

You wrote that your detaching from academic literary theory and moving toward autobiography was in part because you could “no longer believe in the phallus.” Is it like that? That all at once, your conditioned overvaluation of both men and the institution deflated and you recalibrated your faith.

Well, as a shorthand. My move to autobiography came about after two public humiliations, one by my advisor, one by another feminist. Don’t believe in the institution and its authorities, but do your work.

You said something earlier about Naomi not wanting to have a body. There seems to be a theme throughout the book—and I wonder if you’d call it a feminist one—related to dysmorphia. Your remark about Naomi, and about how Carolyn was always wearing clothing that masked her silhouette. You write that Carolyn often said she was not a woman, saying, “I’m androgynous.” And there’s Monique Wittig’s “Lesbians are not women.” There’s an element of dysmorphia within feminism.

That was certainly the case with Carolyn, though I now think her claim was more complicated and personal than her theoretical (political) position on androgyny. I also need to clarify what I said about Naomi. She suffered from many illnesses, all serious, during her life, but didn’t want them to interfere with her intellectual projects. She didn’t want her body’s impairments to determine her life. They meant she’d have to take care of herself and that bored her.

[Laughter] I love that. The boredom of self-care.

Naomi wrote a column about Simone de Beauvoir on the occasion of her death in 1986. She described her as a woman who was respected as a major philosopher, a thinker and an intellectual, rather than specifically as a feminist theorist. Naomi wanted to be recognized for her mind foremost.

But I need to add that Diane had quite a different perspective on her body from your interesting idea about dysmorphia. Despite all the changes wrought by the progression of her cancer, for example, the many surgeries and their aftermath, she found bodily change more interesting than disfiguring. For Diane, illness was a challenge to overcome, more an impediment than an obstacle to finishing the book she was working on at the end of her life.

We talked earlier about situations you ultimately omitted from the book due to questions around exposure and the ethics of life writing. Or just the desire to represent a person and a relationship as accurately as possible.

I wanted to be a faithful reporter. I did not always succeed. I’ve been shocked by some of the things I’ve gotten wrong, now that the book is in print.

You do seem willing to critique yourself, though; invested in seeing revisions you might’ve made to your own actions.

I am, and it’s been painful to recognize that I’ve not always been the friend I wanted to be. Something I wanted to highlight in the book is how hard in friendships it can be to say certain things if you know they will cause pain. How can you tell a person with whom you’ve been friends for over twenty years, “I don’t like the way you are being now,” or “I can’t deal with your suffering,” especially if you’ve always been there for her, and she’s always been that way? And it works both ways, of course.

You look critically at the impasses in your friendships to ask whether they had to be so, or whether there was a way forward that just wasn’t taken. Ideally two friends grow forward on parallel tracks. If one doesn’t grow, there’s mystery around what has changed, and often it’s that one person hasn’t developed in a forward way.

It happens in marriage. We’re familiar with it there.

So why not couples therapy for friendships? Your book stresses that there’s a need to treat friendship with the same dignity and attention as a romantic relationship.

That would be great! I’d go. There’s a sanitized, no, that’s not fair—glossy, I’m tempted to say girly—idea of female friendship currently celebrated in pop culture. I’m glad that version is out there if only to counter the negative clichés about us, but I feel friendship between women, especially when we are no longer young, is often a bit more textured.

The classical model we’ve inherited from Aristotle describes the important friend as a kind of “second self.” It’s an idealized, civic model that assumes equality and distinction between men. There are lots of things about the model that don’t work for women, not least because it wasn’t about them, nor does it admit flaws. What I don’t like about the model is the notion of replication—the idea that a friend is like a mirror. But the second self doesn’t have to be or maybe shouldn’t be identical. She’s not the same as you. She’s someone enough like you for there to be attraction, but there’s also a distance (the “cline” idea). In fact, too much sameness can be fatal to a relationship.

If enough similarity draws people together, what’s the recipe for keeping difference enjoyable? Is it style? Your question, “Can craft and emotional style solve the problem of competition?” is one of my favorite lines in the book.

That thought comes from the ways Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin worked together as writers. Kumin would say that they managed to avoid competition (and all those messy emotions, envy, paranoia) because they were “very different poets.”

I’m thinking now that the only reason women relate to each other through sameness is because of patriarchy. Of course, now the primary critique of the second wave is its presumed compulsory homogeneity but that was a step in a dialectical process. Surely some people took the female universal in a purist way, but others understood that it was strategic.

I think Naomi still believed in the phallus in the ’90s. And maybe that was part of our problem. I no longer did. But what are you going to do, break up with a friend and say, “it’s because you still believe in the phallus?!” [Laughter]

Well, I’d be fine if they assumed the phallus themselves. That would work for me. But not if they still believed in it.

I like that.