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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Emily Mitchell

In this issue:


Two crackerjack journalists have been best buddies for more than a quarter-century, and together they explore the value, bonds and strains of female friendship—their own and those of others — in I Know Just What You Mean.


Hooray for Hollywood! It has produced a serious film for grown-ups about the war on drugs. The stakes are high in Traffic,' and it is never clear who is winning, who is losing.


The Journey Home is an affecting, beautifully nuanced novel in the form of a diary kept by an older woman re-visiting her past.


It's a Perfect Blendship I Know Just What You Mean

By Ellen Goodman and Patricia O'Brien (Simon & Schuster; 300 pages; $25)

Ellen Goodman and Patricia O'Brien met in 1973 at Harvard, recipients of the university's Nieman fellowships for mid-career journalists. As most women do, they began to talk. And talk. And talk.

The conversation has continued, and their friendship has thrived through the many events and changes over the years. On that first encounter, they were divorced mothers toiling as reporters for big-city newspapers and looking forward to taking a needed year's breather in academe. They sized each other--not quite accurately, as it turned out--and soon were sharing coffee, gossip and advice in the mornings, telling the story of their lives and strengthening ties that have connected them and their families over the years. Goodman was, and still is, at the Boston Globe, and is a Pulitzer Prizewinner for her syndicated column. O'Brien went from the Chicago Sun-Times to the Washington Post and writes novels and non-fiction. Both married, happily, a second time.

Subtitled "The Power of Friendship in Women's Lives,'' their book is a true joint effort, uniting their account of what has been like to be friends over the long haul with their interviews of other pairs of female friends, and it not only explores the fun and frivolous moments but bravely ventures onto the treacherous grounds of competition and betrayal.

"I Know Just What You Mean" has three strong voices. Goodman and O'Brien take turns narrating their individual points of view then--and this was the hard part-- write jointly as "we.'' As they note, it "meant working our way toward a level of honesty--keep it real, not nice--that people who care about each other's feelings don't usually have to plumb.'' Conscious of the fact that such a close collaboration can often poison a relationship, they were taking a risk. In this case, the friendship was strengthened, and the scrupulous examination of their own feelings gave them a deeper understanding of the dynamics of female friendship.

From childhood sleepovers and teen pajama parties, females grow up liking to spend time with their best girlfriends. Adult women shopping, gossiping, lunching, telling jokes--Oh, yes, a lot of them about men--and having serious discussions about hair color and lipstick shades may seem like pure silliness, but those things nourish friendships. All work and no play makes Jane a dull friend. Lucy and Ethel--and few have to ask Lucy and Ethel who?--are a classic couple in playfulness.

Their perpetual attraction, Goodman and O'Brien point out, "is because they convey to other women a sense of freedom: there they are on the television screen, letting go of social constraints, egging each other on.'' Good women friends do that in crucial ways too, becoming catalysts and pushing each other forward to try something new and then supporting the change. That was the experience of two New York City Roman Catholic schoolgirls, Mary Gordon and Maureen Strafford.

The authors describe how together they took a leap beyond the modest expectations of their families and the nuns of their school. Bolstered by each other's courage and ambition, they enrolled at (gasp!) Barnard, a liberal women's college. Gordon became a writer, and Strafford a doctor; they are both wives and mothers, and yes, still friends.

A sense of union, of being in something together often sets the tone of a friendship. The book offers a powerful example of this with the story of Diane Dujon, who is black, and Dottie Stevens, who is white. They met in the '70s and both were welfare mothers in a University of Massachusetts program designed to help poor women improve their lives. They became urban community activists, making poverty their cause, and Dujon went on to work in a university, and Stevens continued working for the poor.

Their friendship deepened, and they continue to exchange comfort and encouragement, sharing meals and commitment. The friendship was a turning point for Dujon, for as she says, "If I hadn't met Dottie, my life would have been different. I would have stayed more in my own community, a community of color. She's added dimension to my world.''

Friends over the long haul rarely escape what Goodman and O'Brien call the bad stuff. Outright betrayal violates the moral core of friendship and is usually unforgivable (think Linda Tripp.) A new marriage, a promotion, a new job, motherhood--these can make friends worry that they may be traveling in different directions. During periods of transition and when deep rifts occur, resilience is called for. Young girls can fight with their best friend, cry and then make up in a single afternoon. Women can't always do it that way. Some try to be "nice'' and ignore the hurt; others retreat into injured silence.

Goodman and O'Brien are attuned to the reactions of the other: one is tempted to tiptoe, the other to stew. But they write, "We listen to what we don't always want to hear. We try to balance care with honesty. We let some things pass--no big deal--and wrestle out others. We don't let things fester.''

The book touches, all too briefly, on the plight of elderly women who remember their younger selves but are not seen, even by their families, as they know themselves to have once been. They are isolated by history. "How unceremoniously many elderly women are put in their place: old, 'out of touch,' dismissable.' '' They can share their memories of a changed world with friends of the same age, but the writers wonder how it feels when there isn't anyone around to listen, no one to say I still know just what you mean.


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