Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Beginnings
The sun was setting when I pulled my battered red Chevy Vega station wagon
out of the driveway of the brown shingle house that I had just bought with every
last nickel to my name, and headed off for Cambridge. The hands on the steering
wheel were still speckled with the red paint that I had been rolling onto the
living room walls that day, paint financed by the sale of an engagement ring
from a former marriage and life.
I was thirty-two years old, a single mother, with a five-year-old daughter
and a brand new puppy, living less than a mile from the house in which I had
grown up, and I was going back to Harvard ten years after graduation. An adult
now, a journalist, a reporter for The Boston Globe, I had hustled and won
a prize -- a mid-career Nieman Fellowship in journalism -- and I was off to meet
the other members of my "class" for the first time.
In those days, I was breathless. Coping with work and family and love -- what
Zorba the Greek would call the whole catastrophe. I was not at all sure how the
pieces of my life fit together. At work, I had learned to say what I thought and
to write about ideas. I was by no means as confident when it came to the messy
business of feelings.
But this September of 1973, I knew, in some inchoate way, that I was on the
edge of something more than a year "off." Perhaps a year "on."
While Ellen was driving from Brookline, I was on the bus coming from my
rented house in Belmont, marveling at the fact that I had landed in this place,
at this time, in this way. Harvard was only a few miles south of the
working-class town of Somerville (known locally, I learned later, as
"Slumerville"), where I had been born -- geographically close, but in the days
when my Irish immigrant mother and father lived there, Harvard might as well
have been on the moon.
That was the past, this was now. I was thirty-seven, a newly divorced mother
of four children working as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times with a
year ahead of me as a Nieman Fellow. For a woman who had not graduated from
college until she was thirty, this new venture felt like a huge leap across a
class divide. Getting here had taken a certain amount of audacity, and even
though I had an officially punched ticket of admission, I half expected someone
to snatch it away at the last moment.
I also had two teenage daughters living for the year with their father back
home in Evanston, Illinois, and two younger girls nervously tiptoeing through a
strange house, wondering what the year ahead would hold for them. This was by no
means a carefree venture. But as I walked down those narrow streets toward the
home of Jim Thomson, the head of the Nieman program -- the brick sidewalks
scraping the backs of my high-heeled shoes -- I also knew there was nowhere else
I wanted to be. I was literally walking into a major life-changing experience,
not knowing what would come next. I knew that from here on, everything would be
different. I just didn't know how different.
I remember when I first spotted Pat. She was wearing some kind of full skirt,
heels, and bright lipstick; her long, wavy brown hair was parted in the middle.
This was Harvard Square in the black-turtleneck, ripped-jeans, straight hair,
early-'70s era. She was ironed and starched.
I added it all together and, in the way women will sum up the totality of
someone's personality through their shoes and suit jacket, I came up with this:
perky California cheerleader. Suburban mom. Smiling, pretty, very Little League,
station wagon driving. Verrrrry straight.
Yet I knew she had to be a good reporter in the competitive atmosphere of
Chicago to have made it through this process. And from the bios we'd been sent,
I also knew that Pat was the only other woman in the class with children. We
were both divorced. Cheerleader or not, we had these things in common.
I wasn't looking for or expecting a friend, just a classmate, but I was
curious. Maybe there was something below that conventional surface. She had four
children to my one and, as if my life were not overloaded enough, had
just published her first book. There was a long year ahead of us, so who knew
what I'd find out.
I first saw Ellen as I stood in the front hallway of the house, exchanging
stiff little pleasantries with a few people whose names I hadn't absorbed. She
was tall, with long straight hair and blue aviator glasses, dressed in some kind
of loose pants, clearly not wearing a girdle. (I was only weeks away from
shedding mine.) I knew there were three other women in my class, but she
certainly didn't look as nervous or uptight as I felt. Craftsy orange earrings;
no makeup. An in-charge, what's-it-to-you type. I fingered the piece of paper in
my pocket that listed all the class members, and glanced around for a bathroom
so I could duck in and check them out. But the minute Ellen opened her mouth,
there was no question -- she stood out from the crowd.
"Well," she said in an easy, cheery voice, "I wonder what bullshit everybody
threw to get here?"
How blunt were you allowed to be at Harvard? Not that I wasn't wondering
myself how the others had parlayed their credentials into this prize. But here
was somebody who actually said it out loud. The thought crossed my mind: How can
she be so irreverent in this rarefied environment? But still she had an engaging
air that relaxed me, that made me listen for what she would say next. When I
learned she was the Nieman who had gone to Radcliffe, I thought, well, no wonder
she's so casual. This is her turf. It must all be easy for her.
* * *
This is how we met, but it's not how or certainly why we became friends. Pat
saw a confident, breezy insider, but she couldn't see the missteps or wrenching
changes. Ellen saw Pat's conventional surface, but not the rebellious soul, and
certainly not the pulls of tradition and independence that had defined so much
of her adult life and that would be a running dialogue of our twenty-six-year
Would we ever have sought each other out after a chance meeting at some
ordinary cocktail party? We doubt it. But we had the gift of time to discover
and to get to know -- that oddly flat statement -- each other. We had a chance
to become friends.
Friends? What's a friend? If the Eskimos have twenty-six different words for
snow, Americans have only one word commonly used to describe everyone from
acquaintances to intimates. It is a word we have to qualify with adjectives:
school friends, work friends, old friends, casual friends, good friends.
But this catch-all word doesn't catch everything, especially how we describe
a truly intimate friend. A chosen relative? Bonded, but not by blood? When we
asked women how they define what a close friend is, they leaped past such
qualifiers to describe the impact: being known and accepted, understood to the
core; feeling you can count on trust and loyalty, having someone on your side;
having someone to share worries and secrets as well as the good stuff of life,
someone who needs you in return.
This special person is not always easy to find. "Every so often you run into
someone from your tribe, a magic person," said actress Carrie Fisher. "People
who give without keeping lists and receive with gratitude." These "magic
people," these close friends, she said, become like family.
The longing for close friendship begins early and goes deep. In the
much-loved children's classic Anne of Green Gables, the young heroine is
newly transplanted to Avonlea and pining for a "bosom friend." With a yearning
that has resonated through several generations of young readers, Anne confides
her hope of finding "a kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul. I've
dreamed of meeting her all my life."
The most famous young diarist of the twentieth century, Anne Frank, herself
yearned for a close girlfriend with whom to share her feelings when she and her
family went into hiding to escape the Nazis. Deprived of that intimacy, she
turned to her diary, making up imaginary friends and writing them letters
chronicling life in the claustrophobic, secret annex. "With them, she could
laugh, cry, forget her isolation," writes biographer Melissa Muller.
The desire for love, trust, and intimacy is at the center of all close
relationships, and friendship is no exception. But because friendship has no
biological purpose, no economic status, no evolutionary meaning to examine or
explore, sometimes we see a curious vanishing act.
A friend who might have been privy to every nuance in a courting relationship
is not in the receiving line at the wedding; the friend who delivers a heartfelt
eulogy may have been banned from the hospital room because she wasn't "family."
We have many ways of celebrating family milestones, but not the milestones of
friendship. "It's your silver anniversary? Let's make the toasts and get out the
presents!" Nobody does that for friends.
We wanted to. We found ourselves walking away from interview after interview,
feeling we'd just had some of the best conversations of our lives with women
telling us the stories of how they met, joking and laughing with each other,
thoroughly enjoying the pleasure of sharing their histories together.
- Boston publicist Sally Jackson first laid eyes on Melanie L'Ecuyer when, as
a scared five-year-old, she came into her mother's hospital room and saw
two-year-old Melanie, dressed in a camel-hair coat and leggings, throwing a
tantrum under her mother's bed. The howling child, she was told, was the
daughter of her mother's nurse.
- Nadia Shamsuddin and Maddie Hammond met as two women glaring at each other
on an elevator, wondering who would be able to write a check faster to snare the
choice apartment they were about to see.
- Mary Landrieu was boarding a bus with a group of strangers heading for a
high school leadership conference when, drawn by a friendly face, she sat down
next to Norma Jane Sabiston, the girl who would become her lifelong friend and,
eventually -- when Mary became a U.S. senator from Louisiana -- her chief of
- Author Mary Gordon took one look at Maureen Strafford when she met her in
grammar school and made a firm, instant decision to ignore her totally. Why?
Because Mary was wearing a mohair sweater and Maureen was wearing plaid.
- Eileen Fennelly and Jenn MacDonough, now college students, were
five-year-olds wearing party hats when Jenn mistakenly called Eileen "Elaine."
Eileen decided right there that she hated her. By the time they graduated from
high school, the longest period of time that went by without their talking to
each other was exactly, by their actual count, seventy-two hours.
Some of these women felt an initial spark of connection, and for some it
was just a spark, but it's with great relish that they remember these stories of
meeting each other. They were not so different in their exuberance from a young
child recounting the thrilling fact of what she has in common with a friend --
"Do you know we were born on the same day?" "I can't believe she uses ketchup on
her hot dog, too!"
Certainly the two of us were very different; in an earlier era we might never
have met. We grew up a continent away, Ellen on the older, colder side, Pat in
the sunny California world of shallow roots that had drawn her parents west when
she was a child. If we had followed the prepared scripts, we each would have
stayed in our place. We might have remained in our circumscribed ethnic groups,
our neighborhoods and family circles, holding little in common. Pat was, after
all, expected to stay in Catholic schools, and when Ellen went to college, she
was assigned a roommate with whom she had only one thing in common: they were
Looking back at the trajectory we were on, it was Pat who made the moves. She
was the one who moved in great upheavals from one place to the next. Ellen
stayed put, spending all but four years of her life in her hometown. Pat's life
was charted by its uprootings, willful and imposed. Ellen had traveled
intellectually, but her feet remained on the same, familiar ground.
It wasn't just ethnicity or geography that made for some of the degrees of
separation between us. In our early twenties, we had nothing in common. When
Ellen was starting college at Radcliffe in September of 1959, Pat was changing
diapers for two small babies. Pat cannot imagine what she would have had to say
to the young college freshman from Brookline as she stood at a changing table in
Eugene, Oregon, with a wiggling baby in front of her and diaper pins in her
At twenty-seven, Pat was a full-time mom with four kids, learning the wonders
of Hamburger Helper and Simplicity sewing patterns. Ellen had started working in
the early '60s, and had one child at twenty-seven. She stayed home after Katie's
birth for a total of six weeks; Pat was at home for nine years. Pat had the
Feminine Mystique, while Ellen had a ticket on the first anxious flight of
Superwoman before the myth came crashing to earth.
By the time Pat ventured back to school, juggling those four children and
final exams, Ellen was married to a medical resident, living in Ann Arbor, and
commuting to her job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press -- never
quite accepted as one of the doctors' wives raising babies at one end of I-94,
and never quite accepted as one of the boys covering fires at the other.
By 1968, we would at least have understood each other's language. We were
both working mothers, trying to do what we wanted to do: work and keep our
families intact in an atmosphere still hostile to the effort. Pat had broken
from the Catholic Church with a prescription for birth control pills -- and deep
ambivalence. For Ellen, Judaism had become more a celebration of family and food
than formal ritual.
By 1971, the women's movement was changing both of our lives, and -- even
before we met -- we already had more in common than liking ketchup. Each of us
in our own city was covering the first "happenings." Pat wrote an article on
being ejected from a Chicago church because she was wearing a "Women's Strike
Day" button, and Ellen also visited a church, to write a piece for the
Globe about radical feminists teaching sexual politics and karate.
You could say we had the classic first day of school meeting. We were
starting something entirely new, with hors d'oeuvres rather than shiny
lunchboxes in our hands. It's the familiar story of friendships that emerge as
natural by-products of a new venture, antidotes to the fear of being alone in an
uncertain if not totally unfamiliar environment. We've seen this happen with
small children, even our own. Recently Pat's granddaughter Charlotte, at the end
of her first day of school, tugged her mother, Marianna, by the hand and pulled
her into the classroom. "Come meet my new best friend," she implored. "What's
her name?" Marianna asked. "I don't know, let's go ask her," Charlotte replied.
The connection was made; details to come later.
As grown-ups we were not afraid of starting school alone, but we did realize
we were in a privileged, special moment of our lives. We had come to Harvard
well aware that the changes in our own lives reflected larger changes taking
place in the society; certainly as women we already had more choices and more
freedom than any other women in history. As proof, we only had to look at the
photographs of earlier Nieman classes on the wall of the Nieman House: up until
our year, in the entire history of the Nieman Fellowship program, there had been
only ten women -- and ours was the only class since 1947 to have more than one.
In all those years, there wouldn't have been another woman with whom to share
the experience. In our class, there were four.
We met in a landmark year. Richard Nixon had been elected to a second term,
and the first of the Watergate conspirators -- the tip of the iceberg ahead --
were found guilty. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that women
had a legal right to an abortion. The divorce rate had soared 8 percent from the
year before. The most popular television shows in a changing America included
The Waltons and All in the Family, while on the big screen, Ingmar
Bergman's stark Scenes from a Marriage was making people uneasy with hard
truths of this rapidly evolving age.
Against this backdrop of change, women were going through a major cultural
transition. It wasn't just laws and political sensibilities that were changing.
So were ideas about human development. The view that women had grown up with --
based on a male model -- had taught them that humans mature to sturdy,
independent adulthood by growing away -- from family, from friends, from
But most women didn't experience life that starkly. They didn't one day
arrive at a static state of adulthood and say to themselves, "Well, that's
that," and they certainly didn't want to be "grown-ups" alone. In the 1970s,
women like psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller first challenged the idea that women
grow up by separating. Carol Gilligan, charting the moral development of girls,
began to hear "a different voice."
It's been easier since then to see the female reality, that women develop
in relationship, through connection. Women don't "find" themselves
or "understand" themselves all alone but by interacting with others. They forge
and reforge their own identity in concert with others, engaged in a long dance
Sociologist Lillian Rubin argues in her book Just Friends that friends
are central actors in the continuing development drama of adulthood. Women are
born daughters, they recite vows that make them wives, become mothers through
giving birth -- but they choose friends. They aren't just picked out of a
line-up or sought through the personals column -- wanted: a friend. Women
Is there a moment between that first meeting and the time when you
become a friend? Is there a dot on the time line that says, right here
and now, from this point on, we are friends?
Psychologist Judith Jordan has what she describes her "crazy fantasy" about
the moment of becoming friends. "I think we're going to be able someday to do
CAT scans of people when they're connecting...you know, where you can actually
get imaging of different things that go on in the brain and they can say this
person's in a good alpha place!"
A good alpha place? The stage setting for our very first alpha lunch was the
much too tweedy and wood-paneled Harvard Faculty Club. It was no more than two
weeks after we had met.
We had planned this lunch as no big deal, a quick salad before a two o'clock
class. It lasted until four -- the first of a dozen times when I remember being
delighted that this time in college, I wouldn't be penalized for cutting class.
In my journal I report with little detail the "highlights" Pat told me about
that day, but I remember them vividly. She talked about motherhood, how as a
young Catholic mother she finally got contraceptives from the doctor "for
regulating her period," and for the first time realized with a lifesaving,
emancipating joy that she wouldn't be the mother of nine after all.
We shared the war stories of our divorces, in which neither of us was
entirely innocent. She confided that she still loved her just-ex-husband and
showed me the locket around her neck that carried his photo. I told her about
the end of my marriage and the lingering, troubled relationship that followed,
one that I was neither in nor out of.
I would date the real beginning of our friendship from that lunch. No, she
was not the cheerleader I had expected, not so verrry straight. We became
friends the way adult women do, telling the stories of our lives. Pat had no
idea how unusual it was for me to share those experiences or how vulnerable I
felt that autumn afternoon revealing things I had never said out loud to any but
family or my closest friends. And certainly not to a stranger from Chicago.
I didn't make friends quickly or confide easily -- chalk it up to Boston
conservatism. Or to family. My sister, Jane, and I were so close as kids, I
didn't feel the need of another friend. They used to say that Boston women
didn't buy hats, they had hats. So it was with friends. I made friends
slowly and carefully. But virtually from the outset, I felt absolutely certain I
could trust Pat.
In many ways, that first lunch set the tone of our friendship: vulnerability
and trust. The mutual baring -- slowly -- of darkest secrets seemed lightened by
the knowledge that they had been accepted. Pat had a way of taking a thought and
running with it that I found delightful. She was a natural storyteller,
dramatic, even melodramatic. I didn't do melodrama. I did wry. But Pat saw
I had the first intimations Pat would give me something I could not give
myself when I cautiously shared with her the grand finale to a marriage that was
already dying from lack of attention. I shared it in the spare and tamped-down
emotional detail I often used, but she got to the dark heart of it instantly.
She gave me the acknowledgment of the pain from the ending of my marriage that I
had put aside in a need to get on with life, to put one foot in front of
another, holding a small child by the hand.
In that first lunch, Pat offered up an expression that dotted so many of our
early years. It's one of those ordinary phrases that takes on a new truth when
repeated much as one would a motto. "Life," she says to this day, when
describing something that can be amusing, bizarre, or even deeply troubling, "is
We were each bold and timid in different ways. But her adventurousness, her
lust for experience, her energy, and a love life that was a soap opera without
the tragedy all appealed to my cautious soul. She offered both courage and
consolation, as each was needed.
Somehow my journal that year was filled with other relationships, especially
with men who swiftly became incidental. But scattered throughout are the words,
"Pat said," or "Pat thought." We began to explore the world through each other's
eyes and minds. We were becoming part of each other's DNA.
It was late one afternoon in that same first couple of weeks when I walked up
the stairs to the second floor of the Nieman House and saw Ellen curled up in a
chair, seemingly absorbed in a book. I recognized the book jacket immediately --
I would have known it from a mile away. What if she hated it? Writing The
Woman Alone had been my first tentative effort to understand the changes
taking place in women's lives -- including my own -- and for all I knew, the
breezy blonde from Radcliffe was groaning at its naïveté, even as my sudden,
unexpected appearance demanded some response on her part. I also knew I cared
what she thought -- a lot.
"This is good," she said simply, and then asked a question that got right to
the heart of the issues I had tried to raise. I knew instinctively she would not
stick to polite comments. I had my first glimpse that afternoon into a
wonderful, ruminating mind that took other perspectives seriously; a woman who
was on a learning curve, as I was. The confident Radcliffe insider who had
loomed in my first impression was not an intellectual know-it-all. She was
willing to explore a topic on terms other than her own.
I think this open-mindedness is one of Ellen's great gifts, and it comes from
more than intellectual curiosity. It comes from a deep charitable core. I felt
almost right away there was a level at which I could trust her, which meant
there was a level at which I could be myself without softenings or
embellishment. As a child, I was too awkward, too bookish, too different to
attract many friends. Home, not school, was my refuge. It was with my younger
sister, Mary, that I played, rode tricycles, baked chocolate chip cookies. She
was my first friend. As I grew, I expanded the circle, but it was never large.
Feeling accepted didn't come easily.
With Ellen, I could talk about family and politics and change and loss and
get back much more than supportive echoes. More than that, she needed me, which
is no small thing. When she broke up with her boyfriend a few months after we
met, I was home for the holidays in Chicago. She called and we talked for hours.
In all our conversations, she would offer a thought or point of view, often
unexpected. I would ruminate, take the idea further down the road, hand it back
to her like a baton in a relay race, and then she would juggle it for a moment
before taking it further herself. This was fun, but fun of a different kind. We
were exploring our minds as well as our hearts