Celebrating the Transformative Power of Female Friendship

Unity by Nelum Walpola

Unity by Nelum Walpola

I first learnt about the work of writer Emily Rapp after listening to a radio interview about her latest memoir which chronicles the harrowing story of her young son’s diagnosis and inevitable death from incurable Tay-Sach’s disease. What surprised me the most was that Emily had finished her book and was promoting it just a month after Ronan’s death. The rawness and fragility in her voice was palpable and I was stunned that she was able to be so lucid and articulate given the circumstances.

Intrigued, I did some research and found out that this woman was no stranger to heartache. She had had one of her legs amputated, the result of a congenital birth defect and wears a prosthetic limb. She has worked all over the world in various capacities, but particularly in the humanitarian aid and relief field, witnessing firsthand just how unfair and unjust the world can be.

She has also studied at some of the world’s most prestigious universities (and even did a stint in Seoul as a Fullbright Scholar), and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has masters degrees in theological studies and creative writing. It seems to me that a large part of her existence is based on processing and making sense of the world, of heartbreak and despair. And through her writing, she does so with such grace and poignancy.

I was particularly drawn to one article of hers that was written last year about the importance of female friendship and how her relationship with a group of women she met in her formative early 20’s spurred her own development. In it, she chronicles her relationship with three older women she meets when she arrives in Geneva to work as a naive 22 year old. The women refer to themselves as ‘the Wrinklies’, but despite the age gap, they become like family, as all four women are unmarried, living alone and working to help others in need.

Despite their closeness, Emily admits to feeling sorry for them at the time. As she writes:

They weren’t married, they weren’t mothers – and at this time, and up until very recently, I clung to the belief that this constituted some failure on their part. They found me equally mystifying. Was I really worried about the size of my ass or trying to finagle a recent date with a man they thought (from my description) was boring and slightly odious? (He was.) Was it a good use of my time, they wondered, to hang out in bars getting smashed and looking to score and by doing this (they were rightfully doubtful) find “the love of my life” when I said I wanted to be a writer?  

Another thread weaved throughout the piece is the questioning of what your life ‘should’ look like. In her own words:

I was also keen to make my life look “normal” and “acceptable” in some way because I have a disability; if I didn’t get the body part right, I reasoned (irrationally, although it seemed quite rational at the time), I could get the “what your life looks like” part right. While I was obsessing about how I looked and who would love me, these women were helping to save the world – not in a way that would win them accolades, certainly – but the work they were doing was important and life-giving. And there I sat, foolishly pitying them.

Then, she zooms out and considers how female friendship is thought about in the culture at large, the narratives that are inscribed upon it, the stereotypes and myths that are so prevalent, at least in the west. In her own words:

…it also made me realize how much people diminish and poo-poo the real power and strength of female friendship, especially between women, which is either supposed to descend into some kind of male lesbian love scene porn fantasy or be dismissed as meaningless or be re-written as a story of competition. Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.

She then zooms back in on her own life and expresses how her female friends helped her during the time when she found out about her son’s fatal disease and imminent death (when the article was published in 2012, he was still alive, but died earlier this year). She writes that:

My friends stood with me in the middle of the scary, sky-howling road I was on, knowing they couldn’t take away the pain of the experience, but promising to be there when I emerged on the other side of the grief tunnel when my child would be gone. I feel them, every day, standing there as I stumble through the blissful, heart-breaking hours with my son whose brain and body fail him a little bit more each day. It is not an exaggeration to say that I would not have survived – that I will not survive — without my women friends.

And then, back to the Wrinklies. Emily tells us that the youngest of the three had a stroke as a result of a brain tumor. The other two women took care of her, as if she was family (well, they were). When Emily witnesses the ways in which they had taken care of the paralyzed friend on a visit to Geneva, she has a realization.

The unaffected two had learned to understand the other’s few words; they wiped her face, helped her eat and made her laugh. This was a snapshot of what my own deep friendships could lead to: transformation. I saw, on that afternoon, that it’s possible to transcend the limits of your skin in a friendship. That a friend can take you out of the boxes you’ve made for yourself and burn them up. This kind of friendship is not a frivolous connection, a supplementary relationship to the ones we’re taught and told are primary – spouses, children, parents. It is love. When the youngest Wrinklie died, I remember getting the news in my apartment in Berkeley, married, already knowing it wouldn’t last, and thinking she was lucky. And she was.

She then lists all the incredible, above-and-beyond things that her female friends have done for her as she has clawed her way through the dark abyss of the last few years. Finally, she emphasizes the transformative and transcendent nature of these relationships. And her conclusion is nothing short of hopeful.

Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul friends…what women do for one another in real relationships with real consequences in real time, every day, what my friends do for me. We help one another live and sometimes, we watch – and help – one another die. It happens in movies, sure, but it also happens every day, in real life – now, tomorrow, yesterday. It is transformative and transcendent. It is real. It is love.


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