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The Lingering Wounds of Friendship Breakups

Writing a novel about toxic friendships dredged up feelings about relationships I didn't know I still had.


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When a woman approached me about her daughter’s friendship problems at a local literary festival where I was doing a talk for my book, The Falling Girls, a novel about toxic friendships, I felt a pang of sorrow that I hadn’t felt since my first middle school friendship breakup. The middle school friend was a blonde Guess jeans-wearing mean girl who inexplicably turned on me and started a rumor that I was a thief. (I was not.) I was heartbroken, walking the halls in a daze, wondering what I did. I failed tests; obsessed over why she’d lie about me. I thought we were friends. Weren’t we?

“It’s hard,” I said to the mom. “It doesn’t get easier as an adult, does it?” The mother nodded her head because she knew what I knew—that her daughter’s friendship problems wouldn’t end in middle school. I didn’t want to state the obvious: that one day her daughter could feel utterly intoxicated by a best friend, and the next day, that same “best friend” might start a rumor about her for no reason whatsoever, completely shattering her.

We talk about friendship like how Oprah has described Gayle: “She is the mother I never had. She is the sister that everybody would want. She is the friend that everybody deserves. I don’t know a better person.” We’ve been groomed to have high expectations of our friends. We buy mugs that read #friendshipgoals, trade BFF heart necklaces, and fantasize about low-stress girls trips where everyone meditates in a circle, holding hands on a beach in Tulum or something like that. But rarely, if ever, do we talk about the other side: Friendship breakups, even though the wounds they leave behind can clamor at us for years.

In romantic relationships we’re trained to expect conflict and disappointment. We have books and couples counseling and podcasts by Esther Perel on how to resolve those conflicts, or move on when the coupling has run its course. But we have no such roadmap for the end of platonic relationships. Losing a close friendship can feel like a death, yet no one thinks to hold a shiva.

The literary festival was just the beginning of my book tour for The Falling Girls. There were more dates to come—Instagram Live events, Zoom book club meetings, and podcast interviews all brimming with women, who asked the same kinds of questions over and over. How do you talk to a friend you’re not happy with? How do you handle it when a friend ghosts you? Why do we feel so crushed when we have problems with our friends? And from parents, what is it about the intense friendships between teenage girls?

I knew I would be hitting a nerve writing a novel about bad friendships, but I didn’t know I would hear from women who were still in pain over friendship breakups 20 years ago, or from moms worrying about their daughters experiencing that same pain. Women shared so many stories. There was the one about the trio of friends who tormented them in high school. About the friends they cut off during the pandemic. Of the friend who told them they were too needy.

All of their stories, no matter how old or new, brought them back to the eye of the hurricane, the center of their heart break. And they made me think more about some of the not-so-great friendships I had—the ones where the wounds still felt tender despite the passage of time. Over the years, I had a “friend” who told me that we didn’t need to speak every day. A “friend” who said I wasn’t as skinny as I used to be two months after I had a baby. And the “friend” who constantly asked to make plans, then canceled each time we made them.

Then, there was a friend who we’ll call Shana, who decided, just as I thought we were getting closer, that I wasn’t friend material at all. Shana came into my life when I was about 23-years-old. She was Angelina Jolie’s Persian doppelgänger with wide, dark eyes, high cheekbones, and straight long hair. We met because our boyfriends were best friends and unofficial roadies for a mediocre hippie band who played at dive bars in Manhattan. Shana would join the band on stage in her long-beaded skirt, smacking her tambourine on her hip.

I wasn’t a hippie girl; I didn’t even really like the Grateful Dead. But the way Shana danced so freely with her hands, twirling her fingers in the front seat of her boyfriend’s van, was bewitching. Shana cast a spell on me: She read poetry, quoted philosophers, drew shadows of women covered in hijabs from her childhood. I wanted to be her friend, but more, I wanted to be her.

There’s a scene in My So-Called Life when wild child Rayanne Graff’s mother meets girl-next-door Angela Chase’s mother. Rayanne’s mom says to Angela’s mom giddily: “[Rayanne’s] in love with her. She wants to be Angela. Don’t you remember how there was this one person, who had perfect hair, or perfect breasts, or they were just so funny and you just wanted to eat them up? Just live in their bed and just be them?”

That’s how I felt about Shana. If she had asked me to join a cult, I would have followed her to Spahn Ranch. At first, Shana and I spent much of our friendship around the boys we were attached to, but became closer when she got a job at the tiny health food store where I worked. We’d sit at the vegetarian lunch counter eating hummus and sprout sandwiches. She told me she came to America during the Iranian Hostage Crisis and was treated as an outcast in elementary school. I watched her draw posters for the band. She filled the poster board with endless swirls like tornados.

I remember going away for a weekend to visit friends and bringing her back a present. It was a vintage t-shirt and she cried when I gave it to her. But it was a gloomy cry, as if I bummed her out. How could a gift bum her out? She disappeared in her bedroom with the gift and I never saw it again. We went for sushi later that night with the boyfriends and I hated myself for giving it to her. She barely spoke to me, and when she did, her voice was full of sarcasm.

After that, she kept me at a distance. I never asked her why; I felt too much shame, analyzing every last detail. Was I not cool enough? Not interesting enough? Did I come on too strong? Was it too early in the friendship to give a gift? I tortured myself for being so vulnerable. What was it about me that Shana didn’t want?

As someone recently said on my book tour: “With a new friend—you don’t want to blow it. You don’t want to show your full self. You don’t want to spook them.” Is that what happened? Did I scare her off? Looking back at it now, Shana had problems that were bigger than mine, the kinds of problems that she didn’t want to touch on—or, the kinds of problems she didn’t feel comfortable sharing with me. I was, and still am, the kind of friend that isn’t scared of going deep. But that’s not for everyone. We all have our thresholds. Maybe I spooked her. It’s possible.

A few months after the gift incident, I moved across the country to San Francisco with my boyfriend. Three of my best friends from college had just moved there and I wanted to be closer to them. In our apartment, my boyfriend hung a picture of the band on the wall. Shana was in the photo, too, and at first I resented seeing her up there on my wall. “Why are you putting a picture up of someone who dumped me?” I said.

The Falling Girls. $18 at Bookshop

But taking the photo down didn’t seem like the answer either. I didn’t hate her. I wasn’t angry at her. I was embarrassed. I was hurt. This was a woman who rejected me. If it had been a man, I could stomach that. But to be rejected by a woman felt like a deeper betrayal. That’s not what women do to each other. We hold each other close. We protect each other. It took years for me to make peace with it.

People often asked me on the tour if I intentionally left out men and teenage boys in the book. The answer: Yes. I didn’t need men or teenage boys in this story because it wasn’t about them. It was about the relationships between women and girls and how none of us are immune to feeling pain when that relationship falls apart.

I see now that writing The Falling Girls was an outlet for me, a therapeutic way of mourning friendships I’ve lost. My heart aches for those relationships. Some of them, I’ll never get over. But writing about them felt good for my soul, and bonding over shared experiences with women at my tour events felt even better. It’s hard to dredge up painful memories—sometimes my body aches from it, sometimes I cry—and doing so doesn’t make you forget or erase the loss, but it’s a start.

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This post originally appeared on Elle and was published December 3, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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