The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendshipsby Kelly Valen
You know all about the trouble with “mean girls” and competitive, judgmental women. Maybe you had a cruel high school experience straight out of the movie Carrie. Maybe you find yourself anxious because your daughter’s peers are excluding her. Maybe you’ve been harassed or marginalized by other females for being something they were or are not: fat, acne-prone, brainy, a different religion, too pretty, overconfident, a different kind of mother. Maybe you have a difficult female boss who is wreaking havoc on your ability to trust women in the workplace. And maybe you’ve shrugged it all off and figured: That’s just the way girls and women operate.
But have you ever considered what all this negativity is doing to us? The stories differ, and the consequences of our incivility range in severity, but one thing seems almost universal: Women carry powerful impressions and memories of their female-inflicted wounds. The hurt lingers.
In The Twisted Sisterhood, Kelly Valen picks up where her arresting New York Times essay about a painful sorority encounter left off. She pulls back the curtain on female relationships, revealing the troubling findings from her unique survey of more than three thousand women from all walks of life. Demonstrating the paradox of how we both support and sabotage one another, Valen’s research shows that although the vast majority of women report having at least one girl-friendship they wouldn’t want to live without, well over half approach female camaraderie with wariness or flat-out distrust and admit that they are unable—or unwilling—to extend themselves to certain types of women. An overwhelming majority say they have endured serious, life-altering knocks from other females, and a solid 97 percent of those polled believe it is crucial that we improve the female culture in this country.
Laying bare the legacy of the belittled “girl wars” across a woman’s life, The Twisted Sisterhood exposes the hidden, enduring, and widespread fallout of our manipulations and highlights our residual undercurrent of distrust. Capturing the true attitudes of modern women, Valen gives voice to the lingering memories, ambivalence, and struggles so many of us are quietly experiencing and considers the net effect of our darker habits: an increasingly inhospitable and dysfunctional society of women. Valen also looks to the future, offering hope and practical ideas for how girls and their mothers, women, and “sisters” can come together and improve their profoundly needed female connections.
No matter how content or supported you feel with your current circle of girlfriends, Valen explains, each of us holds a stake in helping foster a more mindful civility. Calling for a new normal in our relationships, her provocative and illuminating book is sure to spark a much-needed, meaningful dialogue that will inspire us to live and behave authentically for the betterment of our selves, our daughters, and the next generation of women.
—Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of the anthology Mommy Wars and author of the bestselling memoir Crazy Love
“If you think you are alone in nursing a clique-inspired emotional wound, are wary of certain types of women, or are worried about your own daughter’s peer-group, you need to read this validating and important book. Kelly Valen’s research shows that many of us have been hurt deeply by a girlfriend and we often carry the lingering pain throughout our lives. In sharing the poignant voices of women from her study, Valen shows us that we are certainly not alone and she points a way toward civility, kindness and true sisterhood.”
—Rosalind Wiseman, author of the bestselling Queen Bees and Wannabees
"Kelly Valen has written a smart, sweeping book about at the ways women relate and given us all something to think about."
—Kelly Corrigan, New York Times bestselling author of The Middle Place and Lift
“This is a brave and deep book. Kelly Valen shares her own painful experience of exclusion and humiliation at the hands of ‘friends’ as well as the details of incidents she’s gathered in her research – the looks, gestures, gossip, and confrontations – that have wounded other hearts. Yet she shows us that it is the caring side of sisterhood that gives our relationships the power to hurt. She rightfully suggests that we understand and monitor our own behavior as much as we scrutinize how we are treated.”
—Cheryl Dellasega, author of Surviving Ophelia and Mean Girls Grown Up
The Washington Post
- Random House Publishing Group
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- 6.92(w) x 11.70(h) x 0.92(d)
Read an Excerpt
WE ARE SO WORTH IT
There is a kind of quilt called a friendship quilt, but I imagine all of mine, no matter what their pattern, are emblems of female friendship, that essential thread that has so often kept the pieces of my own life together, and from time to time kept me from falling apart.
Before we sully ourselves with the darker aspects of our relationships, I want to make sure we’re keeping our eye on the prize by underscoring a fundamental but critical point: Most of us appear to value and adore our women like nothing else.
And that would include me. By far, the most unsettling bits of criticism hurled my way have stemmed from accusations that I must hate women or hate myself, probably suffered an intimacy-starved childhood, or never experienced females at their best. None of that is true. The joys of female intimacy swaddled me straight out of the gate, actually, and have always remained apparent. Amazing men have touched my life, and I often have an easier initial rapport with guys, but my most compelling ties, notwithstanding the struggles, have been with women.
Take my grandmothers, two of whom lived in the house next door to me throughout my entire Minnesota childhood. For a developing girl to have enjoyed such supportive, generous, and low-drama role models—well, we should all be so lucky. These were women of strength, authenticity, and grace, the real McCoys. Part of their gift to me growing up was about blood ties, sure, but much of it was plain old gender. They lifted, pushed, and pulled all the girls and women in their orbit up, maybe because it’s just what women did back then. Through years of nothing more extraordinary than random chitchat, heated games of gin rummy and hide the thimble, intense baking and jam-making sessions, and quiet reading side by side, they drew me in and showed me that, ultimately, we could count on our women. They were my safety zone, my go-to counsel, my Giving Trees, always available with a patient ear and unilateral no questions asked, no strings attached, no guilt involved brand of support—the kind a lot of developing girls out there could use. I had loving parents, four siblings, an attention-starved dog on a chain, a true saint for a grandpa, and plenty of kids in the neighborhood to draw on, but as anyone from that era can attest, you could usually find me next door with the ladies.
It wasn’t just my grandmothers, though. Looking back, I couldn’t possibly have remained sane through the travails of dating, schooling, marriage, child rearing, hard-core lawyering, pulling up stakes at forty-three for a nomadic life abroad, or hormonal madness without my mother, sisters, long-suffering pal Teri, and, eventually, other girlfriends to turn to. It’s that simple. What a relief to have finally found a few gals with whom I can be my unfettered self, to feel safe again, and to swap banter on everything from work and politics to food and hair to books, kids, and stain remover. How lucky to have stumbled upon my Diane Keaton–esque friend, Mary Kay, so consistently good and wise and accessible to me despite everything she balances in her own life. I still have my issues, as the women close to me know. But having lacked a baseline trust with female peers for so long, I am acutely aware of how much lighter life can feel with a posse of supportive women at my back.
Most of you know all this for yourselves. And, indeed, when all is said and done, the most heartening thing about this project has been this: Even as it’s focused chiefly on the fallout from our shadowy tendencies, women haven’t been at all bashful about sharing a bounty of heartfelt reverence for the women in their lives. As Julie, an actress from Los Angeles who wrote to me two years ago, emphasized, “There’s nothing on this planet like a bright, warm, open, loving woman. Believe it.”
The fundamental findings of my survey, in fact, echo that very sentiment. Of the 90 percent who say they’re enjoying at least one satisfying and fulfilling girlfriendship, nearly three-quarters call those relationships authentic, intimate, and reliable; 77 percent of them call those bonds very to extremely important, with the words sacred, essential, and life-sustaining popping up over and over. Hundreds gush that they can’t imagine life without their girlfriends, and don’t want to. These women appreciate that their healthy female connections keep them grounded and nourish their minds, bodies, and spirits. They know they’re garnering strength and support from one another and living richer lives as a result. They recognize that, often enough, their friends are the very safety nets and security blankets critical to their well-being. As Anna Quindlen so elegantly put it:
In our constantly shifting lives, our female friends may be the greatest constant and the touchstone not only of who we are but who we once were, the people who, taken together, know us whole, from girlfriend to wife and mother and even to widow. Children grow and go; even beloved men sometimes seem to be beaming their perceptions and responses in from a different planet. But our female friends are forever.
Or, as Jennifer Aniston said succinctly: “Girlfriends—Nothin’ like ’em, man.”
Sometimes It’s the Small Things
It isn’t always about the grand gestures, though, like the “rocks” who drop everything to feed your family, walk your dog, and hold your hand when the cancer goblin comes knocking or the affair is exposed. It isn’t just the old-time pals who are familiar with your every little secret and know instinctively whether to ask the hard questions or just be still and make casseroles. We find the everyday modest and mundane movements crucial as well—the colleagues, neighbors, and lunch pals who check in from time to time or suggest a run or a cocktail at the precise nanosecond of need, the ones who patiently indulge our love, work, and ethical quandaries de jour, or gift us with tiny windows of release through seemingly “nothing” coffee breaks, strolls, or two-minute phone chats.
I think of my sister Stacy in this light. Some of us poke fun at poor Stace because she literally calls our mother, me, and her legions of friends around the country up to two or three times a day while carpooling in her minivan. (My other sister, Tricia, escapes this attention by pretty much avoiding the phone altogether.) I really don’t know how Stacy does it. Oftentimes, I’m sure I can’t take the few minutes in my busyness, so I cut her off with a Maybe later. Other times I scold her for chitchatting on her cell while driving or ordering coffee. It’s dangerous! It’s rude! Your politics are crazy! And sometimes, yes, I ignore the call because I know I can take her for granted; she’ll still be there for me. But you know what? Those calls—actually, the mere fact that she even thinks of me—really do leaven the day with a blast of comfort and familiarity that each of us on the receiving end would be devastated to lose. In the final analysis, women in our lives so often grant us the validation we crave by simply reaching out and showing up. I can’t put it less tritely or more lyrically than that. Women like Stacy are our winking, blinking, beckoning lighthouses, ready and waiting for us in the shit storms and the calm.
Of course, nothing worthwhile, as they say, comes easy. A number of women in my survey emphasized how even the best of their friendships have proven high maintenance and weathered (or not weathered) some appreciable ups and downs; we’re human, after all. Take my old friend Teri and me. We couldn’t be more different. We’ve definitely ridden out the roller coasters (like, say, ditching each other in New York on our way to see Madonna in ’88 over something trivial that neither of us can now recall). We’ve moved around so many times it’s nothing short of a miracle that we remain tight. Yet, we can live thousands of miles apart, go for weeks or months without talking, and still finish each other’s sentences or be struck by the same obscure cultural absurdity, confident that there’s only one other person out there who’d truly get it. The woman knows all my quirks and secrets and hasn’t bailed on me yet, not even when I’ve held out on her emotionally (which is most of the past twenty-five years), not even when I nearly killed her in a hideous motor scooter accident, not even when I’ve proven a lame godmother. At this point, we’ve become such a Beaches cliche, it’s ridiculous. And I take none of it for granted.
Some women insist that while all of this lady love is nice, gender really isn’t the point; it’s about respecting and making meaningful connections with any person, regardless of sex. We aren’t bound to one another beneath the umbrella of sisterhood, the arguments go. We don’t owe anything to one another because of our shared female status. We can enjoy superintimate friendships with men too, yada yada. And while I appreciate the intellectual appeal of those sentiments, I also think Come on. Men step up to the plate too, but most of us agree it’s a different brand of camaraderie. We don’t even have to get into testosterone and estrogen or Mars and Venus—I think it’s disingenuous to deny the variances in complexity, depth, and tone that seem to characterize most female relationships.
How do I know? My own experience tells me so, for one thing. I have some really wonderful friendships with men, but it’s just different. For another, all of this research I’ve done underscores, loudly and clearly, both the critical importance and the distinct nature of female camaraderie. If my more than three thousand survey respondents are at all representative of the contemporary American Everywoman—and I believe they are—the good, the bad, and the ugly of our girlfriendships absolutely merit special attention. As Judith Eve Lipton, a psychiatrist who works with breast cancer patients in Seattle, has explained, “The heart-to-heart stuff is female. We women talk to each other, confide, whine, wail, plan, and just plain kibbitz.” This style of relating draws us uncommonly close and can literally become a life-sustaining support source. Like so many others, Lipton believes that women are key to de-stressing one another because we’re so skilled at making the other feel heard and understood. Of course, there are exceptions. But, really, what’s the point in denying that which makes us unique and desirable?
Female Connections: Our Cheapest, Most Effective Medicine
For years now, psychologists, neuroscientists, and other specialists have been confirming the important biological role that female friendship can play in a woman’s life. The research in this area is nothing short of remarkable. I won’t labor too much over the hard data here but, amazingly, experts have conclusively linked our positive female connections with an array of physical and emotional health benefits, perks they say don’t necessarily extend to male-female or male-male relationships. Some insist it’s all about evolution, that the patterns our female ancestors set a zillion years ago still drive the show. Ours is a socially nurturing brain, they say. We evolved as emotional and physical caregivers and come biologically preprogrammed to cooperate, coordinate, and talk, talk, talk, which, as linguistics professor and author Deborah Tannen points out, is the very glue that holds us together. In other words, girls and women have needed each other for pretty much always. Experts like psychologist Shelley Taylor, author of The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Our Relationships, and Pepperdine University psychology professor Louis Cozolino seem to be taking it a step further, in fact, suggesting that when it comes to females, we need to tweak Darwin’s survival theory to reflect that those who are tended to and nurtured best survive best.
To wit: The fascinating research Dr. Taylor conducted with Laura Cousino Klein while at UCLA found that female friendship not only makes us happier by lending a sense of acceptance, security, and validation, it can actually lower stress, blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, and overall risk for disease too. In lay terms even I can understand, the theory goes something like this: Women become more social in times of stress. Typically, we’ll resort to the more protective, nurturing, “tend and befriend” types of behaviors—unlike men, whose coping mechanisms are more “fight or flight.” We pick up the phone and call each other. We confide, commiserate, laugh, and bare our souls. We lean on and draw support from one another and, in doing so, create multiple sources of intimacy for ourselves.
No matter how you look at it, tending and befriending is a downright sound investment in one’s health. When we turn toward one another and interact in these positive, nurturing, and empathic ways, we make one another feel safe, allowing our bodies to release increased levels of the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin. Oxytocin, as you may already appreciate, is basically a gift of sunshine, one that lends a sense of contentment, peace, and calm. It also helps flip on our internal social switch, leaving us motivated to reach out, make connections, and tend and befriend all the more. The latest research suggests, in fact, that oxytocin may help inhibit social phobia and is key to our ability to feel empathy or trust after a betrayal—precisely what we’re going for in this book. For, as some experts in the field argue, when trust is absent we, in essence, “dehumanize” ourselves.
The bottom line? Women are good for one another. We’re proven natural sources of oxytocin, we have a unique ability to make each other feel great, and we can actually help each other live longer and qualitatively better lives simply by making and maintaining positive connections. As Karen A. Roberto, director of both the Center for Gerontology and the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment at Virginia Polytech Institute and State University, contends, “Friendship is an undervalued resource. The consistent message of these studies is that friends make your life better.” Dr. Taylor agrees that we can’t really overstate the importance of human connection to our health:
When we erode our social and emotional ties, we pay for it long into the future. When we invest in them instead, we reap the benefits for generations to come.
Even the Mayo Clinic has weighed in. Its publication entitled “Power of Connection” explains that supportive friendships with a strong emotional intimacy component are vital to a person’s well-being and a “major indicator of happiness.” Noting that such connections tend to buffer stressors that can otherwise erode health, the clinic urged people to literally put themselves out there and invest in friendship. And here’s something unexpected: It looks like the actual number of friends in your corral might make a difference. In a six-year study of subjects fifty and older, Harvard University researchers concluded that actively engaging in and promoting social connections could help boost brain function and hedge against memory loss. Those who had what was defined as “the most” social ties suffered memory decline at less than half the rate of those with “the fewest.” No matter how you challenge their methodology or define the terms, that’s a pretty significant ratio. A similar study involving nurses with breast cancer revealed that those who were more socially isolated or lacked girlfriends proved a full four times more likely to die from the disease than those who had ten or more girlfriends. It didn’t matter if the friends lived near or far, and, interestingly, having a spouse didn’t correlate in a similar way. Food for thought for those of us who’ve always stressed quality over quantity or insisted that our lives are too busy and friend filled to welcome any more. In fact, only a third of the women who took my survey said they had more than one to three “authentic, intimate, and reliable” friendships. This suggests that a lot of us might benefit from at least considering the thought of opening up, reaching out, and adding a few more beds at the inn.
But, of course, all of this good news applies when things are running smoothly and positively among girls and women, when we’re behaving ourselves and practicing good tending, not bad. The opposite is, naturally, also true. Like other researchers, Robin Moremen, an associate professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University, has found compelling links between friendship and health among women. She and others have also, however, documented the punishing toll on women’s health when things aren’t going so well. Fear and stress and conflict, after all, lower those precious oxytocin levels and can affirmatively hamper well-being. As psychotherapists (and best friends) Luise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach noted years ago, “Behind the curtain of sisterhood lies a myriad of emotional tangles that can wreak havoc” on the overall health and quality of our lives. We should also recall that our inclination to tend and befriend happens to sit right alongside that other basic instinct: to survive. When those values collide or the objects of our tending and befriending start presenting as some sort of emotional threat, we’re bound to have some problems. In other words, we’re certainly justified in celebrating the benefits of female friendship. At the same time, however, given the confirmed nexus between these relationships and our very health and well-being, we’d also do well to confront the hidden feelings, stressors, and struggles that threaten to undermine those benefits.
Meet the Author
Kelly Valen earned her J.D. from the University of California, Davis, where she was executive editor of the Law Review. A daughter, sister, wife, and mother of four (three of them daughters), she practiced law with a Chicago-based firm for more than a decade. Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, The Christian Science Monitor, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other publications.
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