A broken friendship is a drastic loss. Why don’t we talk about it more? | Australian books


IAt the beginning of November 2019, I boarded a plane in Paris when I returned from a memory workshop that I teach. I felt relieved to have finished work and ready to go home. Suddenly, ahead of me on the airlift, I saw a woman with an easily identifiable mane of black hair – my ex-friend Gina who had dumped me nearly two years earlier. Since then, we hadn’t spoken at all.

What was she still doing in Paris? A rush of memories of our friendship invaded my mind: glasses of red wine at the Petit Fer, concert at the Tuileries, walking up rue Muller behind Montmartre. And back in Sydney, there were dinners at each other’s houses, meetings in cafes, the dozens of times we’d worked together on a play she was writing.

Then, without warning, the brutal pruning – leaving me, the sappy branch, on the ground.

What would I do when I pass his seat on the plane? Would I nod my head and continue? Would I stop briefly and drag on, “Well, this is clumsy,” like a cool woman in a movie?

The woman in front turned to check her wheeled suitcase – it wasn’t Gina after all. Of course not.

As soon as I was seated on the plane, I started taking notes, always my first reaction to confusion. Gina and I had been close friends for 15 years, then there was a period of a few months of her canceling dates or not responding to texts, and finally, a text asking me not to contact her. A clean and fast cut. What had I done wrong? And why did an erroneous observation two years later trigger a reservoir of memories of joy, then pain and confusion? When I returned to Sydney, I knew I had a book to write.

Two things struck me when I started working. One was the paucity of writing on friendship breakups, compared to the outpouring of movies, plays, songs, poems, and novels about breakups. The other was the illusory nature of memory compared to friendship, its unreliability.

We owe memory – Mnemosyne, the mother of all muses – our sense of self. Without it, there can be no sense of identity, no consciousness of being, no book, no poetry, no friendship. But memory is basically a storyteller. Depending on what he considers “salient”, he collects sensory impressions – the smell of coffee, a mane of hair, the feel of a porcelain cup – and assembles them into a story: I’m having a coffee with a new friend. The friend might have noticed another full set of impressions and come away with a different story. A lot has crossed my mind about the end of the friendship that Gina is oblivious to and about which, no doubt, she has an entirely different and equally valid story.

And all this without taking into account pure and simple oblivion. In the middle of our years of friendship, I said something at a table that, unbeknownst to me, hurt Gina. Months later she talked about it and I had completely forgotten about the scene. For me, it didn’t happen because it wasn’t in my memory; for her, it always caused pain and was proof of my lack of sensitivity. Funnily enough, once she started describing the location of the memory in detail, I also started remembering – apparently all memories are pinned geographically. Every time we pull out a memory and broadcast it, we unconsciously add or subtract a little from it. My memory of the friendship was constantly altered during the writing, so I can’t say how closely it relates to verifiable truth.

“It’s shameful” to be pruned by a friend, writes Patti Miller, whose book True Friends is now out. Photography: UQP

A friendship ending is a drastic loss, but it is not dissected in the same way as the end of a marriage or an affair. It is shameful; it’s definitely not something you can talk about with other friends. I have been deemed unworthy by a friend – why should I tell another? Somewhere in all the neural pathways of memory, or perhaps further down the DNA of our survival, there is the dark glow of the fear of being kicked out of the tribe. I must not talk about the breakup in case it spreads.

My truth is, in all my circles, I still haven’t figured out why I was pruned. It could always have been an unintentional injury that I inflicted, something that I don’t remember. I’ve become a burden, clearly, but I still don’t know why. It is embarrassing to express the pain of being seen as a burden. It sounds pathetic, like an old single great-aunt staggering through the living room, bumping into the coffee table with her walker, apologizing, trying not to inconvenience anyone.

It’s not the kind of pain you write a poem or a song about; there is no drama or passion, just humiliation. In four years the pain has faded, or rather, it looks like an artifact stored behind glass in a museum cabinet, all of its ability to hurt is gone, but I still feel confused at times. Looks like it’s time to claim an end to the pain and confusion of friendships – time to write, sing and talk about it.

Writing True Friends was like venturing into taboo territory; dangerous to write and dangerous to publish. But the unexpected reward was rediscovering the intense joys of friendships throughout my life. Some of my friendships may have been glass, but others have been the strongest thing I know.

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