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Not really girlfriends to the end

In “‘The Friend Who Got Away,” edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, writers  offer stories about what happens between women when their friendships dissolve. Here's an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

At some point in their lives, most women have had a falling out with a friend. So what exactly happens between women? Authors Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell were invited on to the “Today” show to discuss their new book, “The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women's True-Life Tales of Friendships That Blew Up, Burned Out, or Faded Away." Here’s an excerpt.

You hear the name, and your heart starts to pound, your palms sweat. You catch a glimpse of a familiar face on the street and suddenly you find yourself sideswiped by memories better left forgotten. It may have been years since you last spoke and yet it all comes back in a moment, the first giddy rush of talk, the shared confidences and sudden adventures, the certainty that your friendship could survive anything, and the startling heartbreak when it didn’t.

We all have one. A story about the friend who got away. A tale we replay on sleepless nights, turning it over in our minds, chastising ourselves for our cruelty or betrayal, our longing or jealousy. Sometimes we mourn the loss of a friend; other times we celebrate the break, but no matter what, we don’t forget it.

The loss of a friendship can be nearly as painful as a bitter divorce or a death. And yet it is a strange sort of heartbreak, one that is rarely discussed, even in our tell-all society. Tales of disastrous loves abound, but there is something about a failed friendship that makes those involved guard it like a shameful secret. Whatever happened to your friend? someone asks, and more often than not the answer comes back carefully crafted to give away nothing. We had a falling out. It’s complicated.

Why does the thought of seeing an ex-friend sometimes stop our heart in a way that seeing an old lover doesn’t? Why is it so difficult to trace the arc of a failed friendship, to shape it into a recognizable narrative? Even country music, with its laundry list of heartache and longing, won’t touch it.

Perhaps this is because stories of lost love feel somehow universal. Behind each bad breakup or broken marriage there are a litany of complaints such as infidelity, alcoholism, or bankruptcy, but no matter what the sordid details, the fact that a romance has failed is never all that surprising. That love can end suddenly, inexplicably, is the refrain of a thousand pop songs. No one expects anything less.

But friendship is supposed to be made of sturdier stuff, a less complicated, more enduring relationship. Because of this, the story of a breakup with a friend often feels far more revealing than that of a failed romance, as if it exposes our worst failings and weaknesses. After all, an ex-friend is someone who knew our deepest secrets and then vanished, someone we drove away or who chose to leave us. Often this person knows a self we have kept hidden from the rest of the world, a self that we may have hoped to retire or to pretend never existed.  The passing of time or an expensive therapist may make us believe that we can erase an unpleasant past, but ex-friends are nagging reminders that this is a false hope. They know our history, and they remember it. And for this reason they haunt us.

Among the threads that tie the stories in this anthology together is the surprisingly fierce emotions that are released when a relationship based neither on blood nor romantic love is forged and then broken. Every close friendship offers the same fundamental thrill; someone has singled you out and chosen you, someone who had no obligation to do so. No wonder that when a friendship ends it feels like being cast out into the cold again.

There are countless reasons that friendships fail or end, but each broken bond feels deeply personal, as the pieces in this anthology will attest. In order to protect the privacy of others, some of the writers have changed names or small autobiographical details so as to allow themselves greater freedom to tell their stories. The result is that these essays represent the truth as each writer sees it. No doubt some of the people depicted in these pieces will dispute their former friends’ version of events. How dull it would be if they didn’t. The dizzying subjectivity of such emotionally charged experiences makes questions of guilt and innocence impossible to pin down with any assurance.

How much to trust their own account of events is something many of the writers in this anthology have grappled with in their pieces. Some have worried about the ambiguity of their final conversations or the haziness of their memories; one writer even conjured up the voice of her ex-friend, disputing and debating the facts as she tried to get them on the page. And two writers, once best friends, took the extraordinary step of telling both sides of their painful break-up, allowing readers to observe up close how a shared experience can be refracted very differently through the prism of emotion.

It is a measure of the complexity and difficulty of this topic that so many writers who were initially eager to be a part of this anthology retreated when it came time to sit down and revisit their lost friendships. Some fled out of guilt or fear of retribution, some because they were afraid to open the door to all that confusion and pain again. A few writers even began essays, only to find, somewhat eerily, that the friends they’d thought they’d severed ties with had suddenly reappeared in their lives, hoping for reconciliation.

In the end, because these stories of betrayal and loss and longing involve such revelation, the decision to tell them requires an act of faith in the reader, one we are very thankful the twenty brave and eloquent writers in this book have chosen to make.

Excerpted from “The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women's True Life Tales of Friendships that Blew Up, Burned Out or Faded Away,” edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell. Copyright © 2005 by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell. Published by Doubleday Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.