Kelly Valen, author of "The Twisted Sisterhood
" has a bone to pick with women, particularly with the mob mentality that can evolve when a group of girls gets together.
She, like so many females, had a Bad Sorority Experience back in the day. A really bad one, in fact: After she lost her virginity to a fraternity pledge in what was then known as a "ledge party" -- i.e., an unbeknownst-to-her public deflowering with all of his frat brothers looking on -- her sisters turned against her, eventually blackballing her from the sorority house.
Decades later she ran into one of those same "sisters" at a Pet Smart one day, and was surprised to find her former sorority nemesis chasing her through the cat food aisle -- "Kelly! Kelly! Is that you!?" -- acting as if none of it had ever happened.
Valen, though, still bore deep scars from that particular college experience. She went on to write about it in a New York Times
"My life's greatest sorrow stems from my inability to feel close to other women. At 41, I've cautiously cultivated a few cherished female friendships. But generally I feel a kind of skittish distrust and discomfort when dealing with most women, particularly women in packs."
What happened next? Well, after she published the piece, half of the blogosphere eviscerated her as being woman-hating. The other half rushed to her defense, writing epically-long comments telling her what a nerve she'd hit with them. Turns out, they, too, had suffered at the hands of fellow females. And so many
women came forward to talk about the dark undercurrents at work in the office, in mommyhood, and even within their close friendships, that Kelly soon had a book on her hands.
In "Twisted Sisterhood," she surveys 3,000 women across the country, as the book's tagline explains, to unravel the dark legacy of female friendships. Whether you agree or disagree with her thesis, if you've ever felt a pinprick of unease in the company of a woman, Lemondrop's interview with Valen should be pretty much required reading. And we mean that in the most sisterly sense.
Lemondrop: We've published essays before about women who've had horrific sorority experiences. Can you tell us what first prompted you to write a New York Times essay about it?
I wrote a piece for the Times in 2007 called "My Sorority Pledge? I Swore Off Sisterhood." It described a pretty awful experience I'd had back in college and explored how my disappointment, hurt and feelings of betrayal ultimately impacted my ability to trust and relate to women for years. Although that incident involved both men and women, I was coming to terms with the fact that it was the hurt dealt by fellow females that impacted me most. For years I shied away from women, held them at arm's length, stayed busy, and pretended it didn't really matter. I thought I was alone in feeling and behaving this way.
The reader response to the article genuinely floored me. Never in my wildest dreams did I think the piece would resonate with so many other women. Nor did I think it would anger and offend some as being "misogynistic" or disloyal to the gender. But I ended up hearing from hundreds who, like me, were concerned about deteriorating civility and what it's actually doing to the gender. Women got in touch to share their own difficult stories and told me how they felt ambivalent, wary and outright distrustful in their relationships. It was pretty overwhelming, actually.Then, in response, you launched your own survey of women.
Right, I figured if I got such a response from those who happened to see a single newspaper article, there must be a whole lot of other women out there feeling some of the same. Plus, I didn't really want to keep writing about myself; I wanted to hear what other women had to say about all this.
I launched the survey online through friends and family around the country, and the grapevine effect just took off. I had to shut it down at around 3,000 women just to keep things manageable. But it's a solid representation of women from all across America, ages 15–86, rich and poor, rural and urban, mothers and non-mothers, various ethnicities -- all of them bringing their distinct backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences to the table. The questionnaire included open commentary boxes and women just wrote and wrote and wrote. Many of them told me the mere exercise of taking it was a therapeutic and illuminating wake-up call. For me, that was very gratifying.
What I found was this: While women are generally reluctant to speak openly about their female hurts, they were more than willing to let it all out in an anonymous survey -- the wonderful, the good and, yes, the really bad too. I can tell you that, in addition to the warm friendships most of us are enjoying, there is also a whole lot of suppressed annoyance, anxiety, lingering hurt, wariness and uncertainty percolating beneath our smiles.
Is that what you meant by "The Dark Legacy of Female Friendships"?
Well, 97 percent of the women in my survey told me it's essential that we improve the female culture in this country. That's an astonishing figure when you consider that most of these women have at least one close girlfriend and are singing the praises of female friendship, Girl Power, feminism, and even "sisterhood." Eighty-eight percent of these same women told me there's a darkness lurking beneath all the good stuff -- an undercurrent of aggression, competition, and negativity. So I wrote the book as sort of an invitation to girls and women to pay more attention to what's going on within the gender. I think it's fair to call the book a wake-up call or gentle, shake-by-the-shoulders reminder, one that holds up a mirror to this darker side.
I have three young girls. I want something better for them and the next generation of females -- a new status quo in terms of how we relate to one another. If we aren't careful and don't pay closer attention to this, I think we're really dampening our ability to thrive and prosper as a gender and, ultimately, squandering a precious world resource: us.
Eighty-four percent of your respondents said that they'd experienced "palpable emotional wounding" at the hands of their female friends. What were some of the most memorable stories you heard second-hand?
Really, I've heard it all -- compelling, heartbreaking stories. Women recalled being harassed and treated as less-than, loser outcasts because they were Jewish, from the wrong side of the tracks, outspoken, wrongly labeled "loose" because they were threateningly gorgeous, dressed unfashionably, or were just plain different in some way. It could be something as silly as a hairstyle. For several, these really were life-altering events that took a toll on their self-narrative and general ascent in life.
Some had gone for decades without a single girlfriend simply because they couldn't muster the trust in women again. They didn't feel safe. Others have turned to men for companionship. And a whole lot of women are simply keeping each other at arm's length through a sort of superficial, less intimate, and less sincere style of relating. I stopped counting the number of times women used the phrase "been burned too many times" to explain why they feel anxious or use caution when approaching unknown women who haven't yet proven their trustworthiness.
I have to say the work-related stories of pointless sabotage and throwing female colleagues under the bus -- sometimes done out of sport or boredom -- really distressed me. I'd personally had the opposite experience with a warm and supportive group of women colleagues so it was surprising to hear it.
It was actually an incident of teenage bullying, which only seems to be becoming more common, that prompted you to finally write the book. Can you tell us what happened, and what the impetus was?
That's true. But let me back up. This may sound a bit wimpy, but I really didn't enjoy being attacked in the blogosphere after the Times piece ran. I can't sugarcoat it. In addition to the wonderful outpouring of support I was getting, I was also treated to some hurtful, gratuitous, cruel, and snarky stuff by women who didn't know me, but nonetheless felt qualified to rip me apart in a very personal way. I was an idiot, bad mother, PTSD freak, misogynist -- and various other unprintables -- who desperately needed therapy. I'm a pretty tough cookie, but this stuff gets to you. I felt ashamed and foolish and started questioning this project again and again, not sure I wanted to open myself -- and potentially my family, too -- to that again.
Then one morning I was standing in the lobby of an Oakland, Calif., post office when a friend's husband told me that their lovely niece had hung herself in the midst of Facebook harassment by her "girlfriends" and related teen pressures. This was a wonderful, promising kid close to her family. She'd confided in her parents and school officials and was trying to process the hurt with support. But kids are impulsive and we all have different levels of resiliency. I truly believe most human beings don't wish to cause the kind of harm they do, and in this case I'm sure those girls assumed their nastiness was just the "usual," everyday cruelty we've come to expect and even accept in our society. I certainly hope they didn't mean the harm that resulted.
But that episode jolted me to action. I thought, This has to stop. People need to appreciate the power they have over others.
If they did, I have to believe they'd wield that power more responsibly. Maybe they'd pause and think twice. I continue to think how great it would be if we actually saw it as cool and socially advantageous to be kind and supportive. Period. Because the truth is, it's kind of the opposite right now. It's sort of cool to be a snarky, critical jerk, especially if you're lacing your commentary with humor. If you're paying attention, you'll see girls and women actually bonding over this stuff. Petty gossip and judgment can be valid social currency -- all too often there's a socially rewarding payoff.
We're also intrigued by the fact that you don't ignore that women can suffer slights at the hands of men, but you believe that female friendships are different. How do you put it into words?
Ah, yes, men can be downright dreadful. We all know that. I've certainly experienced it firsthand on numerous occasions, in all sorts of ways -- not just what happened with me at a fraternity house in the 1980s. But while there are, of course, exceptions, generally speaking girls and women learn from an early age to expect a lot (especially in terms of support and nurturing) from each other. Even in our earliest friendships, we share a lot, we talk talk talk, and we're inclined to create a close, sometimes intense intimacy. This is obviously where things can be oh-so-right and wonderful -- it's why our female friendships are so uniquely rewarding. But it also can leave us vulnerable and tee things up for a great fall when things go awry. The people who we've given a part of ourselves obviously have greater capacity to hurt us.
As one woman, Rebecca, wrote in response to my Times piece, "Men can hurt my body but women can scar my soul." A whole lot of women see a profound truth in that. I sure do. It explains that while I don't excuse date rape or what a man did to me, it ultimately hurt me less as I stand here years later than the betrayal, rejection, and lack of support from my fellow women or "sisters." It left me feeling worthless, dirty, and ashamed -- the odd girl out, so to speak.
How much of it comes down to outward-focused female comparison? As you say in "Twisted Sisterhood," "I can't think of any man who outwardly seemed to care whether I was thinner, better dressed, better accessorized, or could outstyle someone's girlfriend, sister or wife."
I think the outward comparisons, judgments, status and one-upsmanship games are manifestations of our insecurities -- about whether we fit in and are good enough, or, in fact, better. Many women (and men, too, let's face it) get that little buzz when they know they compare more favorably -- whether it's intellect, beauty, wealth, Martha Stewart-like accomplishment on the home front, whatever.
It's human nature but can be uniquely intense and painful with other females. If we felt more secure in ourselves and accepted the body and mind we were dealt with at birth rather than looking outside ourselves for valuation all the time, we wouldn't get so caught up in those frantic games. As I say in the book, people who are content with themselves and not so caught up in the comparing are the happiest people I know -- and usually the ones who make great friends, too.
You also describe a hot mess of antagonism on the mommy front. Why do you think that is?
Talk about a vulnerable time in one's life! Mothering should be this wonderful shared circumstance that brings women together and showcases the true champion instincts in us to support and collaborate - and I think it absolutely does oftentimes. I've heard lovely stories about this and experienced some of it myself. But, again, I think often we're feeling insecure and want to make sure we're doing okay or are, in fact, doing a better or more competent job than Sally down the street "who, did you know, isn't even breast-feeding but is Ferbering her baby and you can hear it crying all night -- can you believe that?!"
I'd like to blame it all on the hormones, but I do think it's more than that. Our offspring can become just one more marker of our worthiness, mastery, and competency in life, right?
What did you learn in the course of the book that could be helpful to women who want to de-rivalize their friendships?
Though it isn't so much my style to offer self-help lists, I actually do include a handy Top 15 to steer women in the right direction toward self-awareness and greater harmony and civility in their female relationships. Whether it's at work, at school, or on the social and mommy fronts, I encourage women to open up, reach out, include others, and simply be more hospitable. To simply behave.
Chances are, others are feeling the same hesitancy and wariness. Even a smile or extra minute to ask how someone is doing and making an effort to get to know them can make a great difference in one's day. And, bonus: chances are, that person will, in turn, do the same with others. It's good social contagion. We are meant to be cooperative, collaborative, and connected beings, after all.
Strangely enough, recent studies actually do link the number of solid friendships in our lives with greater health benefits like improved memory. So perhaps we'd all benefit from at least considering adding more beds at the inn. And, no, I'm not talking about adding 200 new "Friends" to your Facebook profile. We're talking something a little more genuine than that.
Carrie Sloan is the editor of Lemondrop. She once buried one-half of a "Best Friends" heart locket in the backyard. She thinks she's over it now.
Meanwhile, here's a list of the friends every woman does -- and doesn't -- need.