Nancy K. Miller’s My Brilliant Friends: An homage to friendship among women and to writing
By Claudia Moscovici
It is unspeakably sad to lose one’s best friends. Even more so, perhaps, when the bonds of friendship are interwoven with professional mentorship and mutual support, a deep emotional interdependency, and a time-tested solidarity as women and as feminists in male-dominated institutions. Within the span of a few years, feminist literary critic Nancy K. Miller lost three of her best friends, all of them close professional colleagues and confidantes: Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook. As she states in the April 11, 2019 interview in Book Forum with Liz Kinnamon, she lost “Carolyn Heilbrun in 2003, Naomi Schor in 2001, Diane Middlebrook in 2007—and in a sense, I wrote the book to keep them alive. I’ve written memoirs before, but this one posed a particular literary challenge because I wasn’t sure how to write about friends, rather than parents or lovers. There were few models. It was also the case that these stories were indebted in different ways to second-wave feminism and I wanted to keep that context present”. (See https://www.bookforum.com/interviews/bookforum-talks-with-nancy-k-miller-21500)
All three of her brilliant friends were, like herself, stars in the academia and pioneers in the world of second-wave feminist theory. All of them paved the way for other women scholars in fields and departments that were (then) dominated by men. In My Brilliant Friends (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019) Miller remembers and recreates—for herself and her readers—some of the most poignant moments of these important friendships that shaped her personal life and her career. The retrospective look at the fabric of her life as interwoven with the lives of other women is as much an homage to her friends as it is an elegy to friendship itself.
Though perhaps occupying a less central space in mourning than the loss of close family members, Miller illustrates that the loss of close friends can be, in some respects, even more painful and unsettling. There is less social support for mourning one’s friends. Moreover, friends often occupy the optimal emotional distance from us, which makes sharing and helping one another possible. Sharing day in and day out one’s professional and personal challenges with close family members risks eroding those intimate bonds or, even worse, transforming them into burdensome therapy sessions. Not so with good friends, who are familiar with our lives without being so much part of them as to prevent the most intimate confidences. Which is not to say, as Miller herself observes in her narrative, that female friendships are ideal, or that they should be idealized. They too endure ups and downs, periods of tension, and even, at times, a sense of rivalry. The narrative indicates that they are best appreciated for what they are: fallible human bonds that are, nonetheless, absolutely essential to most women’s existence. Each friendship left its own unique imprint upon Nancy K. Miller’s life.
Carolyn Heilbrun tended to assume a mentor role in other female graduate students and professors’ lives, and Miller was no exception. Heilbrun was one of the first women to receive tenure in the English department at Columbia University. She is well known in the academia for her studies of modern British literature and particularly of the Bloomsbury Group as well as for starting, along with Miller, Columbia University Press’s Gender and Culture Series (in 1983). Heilbrun was also a prolific fiction writer. From the 1960’s until close to her death, she wrote a series of popular mystery novels, which were usually set in the academia, under the pseudonym Amanda Cross. Her critiques of sexism in the academia were thus powerfully voiced in several registers: in her institutional support of women faculty; in her brave critique of her own department’s double standards to women in their hiring and tenure policies during the 1970’s and 80’s; and in her support of feminism. While no doubt a brilliant scholar and writer, Miller recalls, above all, Heilbrun’s loyal friendship and hidden vulnerability. She describes little details like the manner in which Heilbrun’s usually confident voice sounded feminine and childlike when placing an order at one of her favorite restaurants; her underlying melancholia, which she rarely unburdened on others but which may have played a role in her resolute decision to end her own life on October 9, 2003, at the age of seventy-seven. While aware of Heilbrun’s long-standing desire to choose the moment of her death, Miller continues to feel ambivalent towards her friend’s decision and remains haunted by the shock of the loss.
With Naomi Schor, Miller oscillated between an almost sisterly complicity—both about the same age, both “second wave” feminist theorists, both French scholars (Miller studied the 18th century while Schor studied the 19th)—and the occasional moments of rivalry provoked by an academic institution that prizes and honors hierarchy. The background to their friendship and to their feminist scholarship is mostly hinted at in this autobiographical friendship narrative: namely, the French feminist “revolution” of May 1968. The Mouvement de libération des femmes, or Women’s Liberation Movement, started in France by Antoinette Fouque, Monique Wittig and Josiane Chanel in the late sixties. They were inspired by the Women’s Lib movement in the U.S. whose most prominent champion was Gloria Steinem, but also propelled by the particular sexism of French institutions at the time.
Until the French feminists fought patriarchy in their own country, French law deemed that the father and husband made all the legal decisions for a family. Women, like children, were considered minors under the law. They were also, de facto, barred from political power. During the Fourth Republic, only four out of the twenty-seven cabinet positions were occupied by women. As the French feminists made headway in championing women’s rights in politics and society, in the academia feminism became influenced by new currents of thought: structuralism, poststructuralism and deconstruction. French feminist scholars such as Monique Wittig, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva adopted and adapted these theoretical methods to study what Cixous called “feminine writing” (écriture féminine) and to undermine, both textually and socially, the binary opposition between “masculine” and “feminine” which had organized the hierarchy between men and women.
Both Naomi Schor and Nancy K. Miller were very influential in disseminating French feminist scholarship in the American academia. Miller, a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, has published several books on women’s writing, biography and trauma. Her narratives interweave a careful textual analysis with personal reflections: a unique style that readers can also find in her book on friendship. Schor, the daughter of Jewish Polish-born artist parents who lived in France until their immigration to the United States after the war, would adopt not only her parents’ Francophilia, but also their underlying melancholia, which was no doubt related to the fact that they lost most of their family in the Holocaust. This sadness would sometimes tip Schor’s friendship with Miller into an asymmetrical relationship, where all too often Nancy had to do most of the listening and consoling. That played a role in their temporary fallout, one that Miller states in her book, and reiterates in her interview with Kinnamon, was unintentional. Sometimes distance—both geographical and emotional—creates a space that isn’t easily bridged. One doesn’t fully grasp the estrangement until it has already crystalized. As Miller explains in her Bookforum interview, “I didn’t try to absorb the moment as a difficulty that we might have moved through; neither of us did, and this remains to some extent a troublingly murky memory.” In early December 2001, at the age of 58, Schor suffered a brain hemorrhage and passed away. Her sudden death left no opportunity for reconciliation, only for grief and a sense of loss.
Fortuitously, life offered Miller another chance at close friendship in her rapport with Diane Middlebrook, a noted American writer and poet, known for her biographies of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Their friendship began later in life (both were in their 60’s) and deepened once Middlebrook was diagnosed with cancer only a year after they had met. Miller notes her friend’s health challenges and frailty as she has been living with cancer and enduring various treatments that took a toll on her body. She also emphasizes her resilience and continued passion for writing. During the last years of her life, Middlebrook was working on a creative biography of the Roman poet Ovid. As the poet left no journal, the biography was drawn by inference, from his poetry. Realizing that, as her cancer metastasized, she would not even get to finish the first part of this book, she asked Miller to help bring this project to fruition after she’s gone. Middlebrook succumbed to cancer in December 2007, at the age of 68. For Miller, the work sessions with her dying friend epitomized the best of both friendship and professional collaboration: a loyalty and dependability that were heightened by the sense that this book would be her friend’s legacy and, more subtly, an elegy to their friendship.
For the past several years Nancy K. Miller has herself been living with lung cancer. She states in her book that her doctor tells her cancer is treatable but not curable. None of us know how long we have left to live, but in the case of cancer survivors, each day entails a negotiation with the illness and a small victory. My Brilliant Friends is, in many ways, a survivor’s story. Her daily survival while living with cancer. Her survival as an intellectual and a writer, through her writing and mentoring other women. And, above all, her survival as a woman, a feminist and a friend, who offers as a gift one of her most important works: her unapologetic, unidealized yet moving homage to her brilliant friends.