In Defense of Bad Best Friends
On Women's Friendships in Edna O'Brien and Kaitlyn Greenidge
My first bad best friend and I were neighbors growing up. I would run through the woods most afternoons to her house, where we would make prank calls to our teachers. Sometimes we would go to a room in the back of her house and watch movies that were way too old for us, like The Shining and A Fish Called Wanda. I was prudish then, afraid to know certain things about adults and their world, but I watched these movies willingly, for no other reason than because she wanted to.
I’ve had other bad best friends over the years, and they all had one thing in common: they didn’t care what people thought of them. There was the friend who, in tenth grade, wore a backless halter-top and leather pants to the barbeque welcoming new students to our prep school, the friend in college who would talk openly about period nightmares and catastrophes involving diarrhea in front of relative strangers in the cafeteria, and the friend I met after college when we both worked a miserable job at a coffee shop, who taught me how to steal the bread left at the end of the day that our horrible boss had ordered us to throw away—and thank goodness she did, because they didn’t pay us nearly enough—and whom I would spend evenings with on the porch of the fancy country inn next door nursing one glass of expensive white wine for hours while blowing Lucky Strike smoke in the faces of the inn’s wealthy patrons as they ascended the steps to its illustrious front door.
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Women are regularly taught from birth to follow the rules. We are told that our value lies in our ability to get along with people, to foresee danger and avoid it assiduously, to look the way we are told to look and behave the way we are told to behave. Girls should be polite, they should keep their hair neat and their clothes clean, they should hand in their homework on time and perfectly printed, they should be modest and nice to look at. Girls should smile just the right amount—not so little they seem unapproachable, and not so much that they their affections seem to be given freely.
We are also taught from birth by family, and the news, and films, and just what happens when we go outside, to be afraid of what might happen—and by this I mean real, physical danger—should we break just one of these rules.
Men have bad best friends, too, but they don’t need them the way so many women do. For a woman who hasn’t learned to see past the rules, to see what can be created from the ashes of destroyed expectations, the bad best friend can be like a visionary, a prophet. A bad best friend can show you that yes, life is dangerous and terrifying, but it can also be fun.
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My favorite example of this dynamic in literature—and there are many wonderful bad best friends to choose from—is the friendship between Baba and Caithleen in Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls trilogy.
Baba, the bad best friend, and Caithleen, the narrator, grow up neighbors in a small Irish town in the 1940s. In one of the book’s first scenes, Caithleen sets off to school clutching a “foam” of lilacs for her teacher. This is who Caithleen will be throughout these books—nervous, eager to ingratiate herself to those in charge. Making her way down the road, she hears the “impudent ring” of a bicycle bell. Along rides Baba, beautiful head in the air, one hand in her pocket. As she passes Caithleen, she grabs the lilacs from her trembling hand. “I’ll carry those for you,” she says, riding off to give the flowers to Miss Moriarty herself. And this is who Baba will be throughout the books—a force of chaos, shaking Caithleen out of her rigid need to please, radical in her selfishness, yet always willing to slow down long enough to drag Caithleen along with her.
When The Country Girls was published in 1960, the Irish censorship board banned it for indecency, and the priest of O’Brien’s family parish publicly burned every copy he could find. “Indecency” is a broad accusation, and could refer to many things about the book—the girls’ sexual adventures (with various men and out of wedlock), the treatment of Catholicism and its acolytes, discussions of abortion, or even its general irreverence for male conventions and concerns.
Without Baba, this book would certainly have passed the censorship board. In fact, without Baba, there would be no book at all. When the choice is fight or flight, Caithleen does neither. It is in her nature to stay put, to wallow. Met with trouble, she closes her eyes and sinks into it. Baba fights. If they are in Catholic school in a convent and Baba is over it, she writes a dirty note and leaves it in church to be found. If she’s bored with their village, she packs up and moves to Dublin. If she wants to sleep with a man, she does. If she doesn’t want to be pregnant, she tries every remedy under the sun. She always wants more, and she takes it whenever she can.
The world isn’t kind to women now, and it was even less kind to them in Ireland in the 1940s and 50s. The men were back from fighting a war, and though they were damaged and depleted, they wanted to pick up exactly where they’d left off, doing all the work out in the world while the women stayed home and did their work there. But women had tasted a different life, one in which they were freer to choose how they spent their time, and now they were being asked to forget all that, to step back into the home and close the door behind them.
The Catholic Church’s restrictions on women in the home were so great that many chose either to immigrate elsewhere or to join a convent in order to obtain some semblance of freedom. Soon, nuns made up the largest group of women workers in Ireland, a statistic which remained true well into the 1970s. In order for women to gain respect and status, as well as the freedom to pursue a profession, they had to don a habit and shed their sexual selves.
Baba and Caithleen do not, of course, become nuns, but they do flee their small village for Dublin, and, later, flee Ireland all together. Together, they go to dances and meet men and stay out all night drinking. But such activities are always laced with at least a hint of menace, just as they continue to be for women all over the world today.
Female friends’ tendency to all go to the bathroom at once, rather than one at a time as the need strikes them, may have been favored fodder for stand-up comedians in the 1990s, but it reflects a truth that many women learn, either implicitly or explicitly, from birth—there is strength in numbers, and the world is safer when you have a friend by your side.
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The central friendship in Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is another favorite example of the bad best friend’s virtues. Berie, the narrator, and Silsby, the bad best friend, meet in their small hometown of Horsehearts, NY. At 16, they spend the summer of 1972 working in an amusement park, sneaking cigarettes, and planning their next trip to a nearby club, where they’ll drink and dance with much older men, one of whom, once they’ve had enough, they’ll trick into driving them home.
Somehow, these adventures mostly end tamely for Berie and Silsby, but there is one ride home with a strange man that ends with him pulling a gun on them and forcing them out of the car and into the woods. He orders them to strip naked, and once they’ve obeyed, he, too begins to strip. In that moment, Berie catches Silsby’s eye, and, together, they escape the man and run home through the woods.
It would be understandable if, after this experience, neither girl wanted to go out anymore, to drink, to even be in the same space as a man again. But they keep doing what they’ve always done, even hitching rides home, and as Berie sits in the backseat, she prays there isn’t a gun: “I was a Baptist, and had always prayed, in a dark squint, for things not to happen. Sils was a Catholic, and so she prayed for things to happen, for things to come true.”
A 16-year-old girl has a lot to fear from the world, especially the world of men, and Berie knows this. Without Silsby, she would stay home. Bad best friends see us sinking into the quicksand of worry and grab us by the hand before we disappear.
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A few years ago, I spent a night drinking wine on the couch with my mother and her own bad best friend from high school, Annie. Small, strong, eyes glinting with remembered mischief, Annie told stories about wild parties, skipping school, and dropping acid before Biology class (which Annie insisted my mother participated in and my mother insisted she never did).
At one point, she recounted a walk home from school when she was only eleven or twelve years old. She remembered relishing the fact that she was alone—her older brothers, who would normally have been with her, were at a friend’s house—and losing herself in her own quiet thoughts. Just as she was about to turn up her own street, a car slowed to a stop next to her, and a man leaned out the window. He had a map spread out on his lap.
“I’m sorry, I’m trying to get here,” he said, tapping the map desperately. “Can you help me?”
Annie walked closer, but she couldn’t see where he was pointing.
The man’s tapping increased. “I know it’s right here,” he said. “I just can’t figure out where I am.”
Now, Annie was at the car window. You know where this is going, and if you don’t, you’re likely not a woman. Just as she leaned in to squint at the place he was tapping, the man moved the map to reveal his erect penis. Annie screamed, and he drove away.
When I gasped at this story, Annie waved me off. “It was no big deal—” she grinned— “if you know what I mean.”
Annie is a bad best friend because she, like many bad best friends real and imagined, somehow found a way to wave away such experiences, to see through or around them to the potential moment just beyond it, the moment in which she is having the time of her life.
Of course, a moment like this could have gone a lot worse for Annie, which is why so many girls and women prefer to stay out of harm’s way all together. But cloistering is rarely the answer. Women are even more likely to suffer abuse at home than they are on the street. Not only does the metaphorical habit preclude women from many of the joys of life, it’s no guarantee of safety, anyway.
* * * *
Caithleen, Baba, Berie, and Silsby are white girls. Their bodies are restricted and threatened because of their gender alone. In Kaitlyn Greenidge’s stunning debut novel, We Love You Charlie Freeman, it is 1990, and Charlotte has just moved with her family from Dorchester, a majority black neighborhood of Boston, to a small town in western Massachusetts, where she will meet Adia Breitling, her bad best friend.
Adia is late for class the first time Charlotte sees her. She is cool, with her hair in a fade and two lightning bolts nicked above her ear, she is beautiful, and she is one of the only other black students in the school. At first, Charlotte doesn’t want to be associated with Adia. A typical good best friend, she is worried about what everyone will think—she wants more than anything to fit in, and for a number of reasons, including their shared race, Adia doesn’t. But eventually, of course, they do become friends, and, later, more than that.
While Charlotte and Adia don’t adventure much out into the world, they embark on adventures within their relationship. Adia and her mother teach Charlotte about black culture and history, about their specific angle on the black experience and the politics surrounding that. This is certainly an adventure for Charlotte, and helps her to put into words what bothers her about why her black family has moved to this very small, very white town—they’ve been chosen to participate an experiment in which they live with a chimpanzee.
Though Charlotte’s family rebels in its own, quieter way, against racist structures, Adia teaches Charlotte to be angry, to demand more at a loud volume. Anyone paying attention to the news knows that being black in the US is dangerous, and that to be black and a woman is to have two compelling reasons to stay quiet and follow the rules.
Adia helps Charlotte to articulate what bothers her about her life and our racist world and her family’s role in it, and she encourages her to protest it in whatever ways she can. Of course, Adia isn’t perfect, and neither are her politics, but she is doing what a bad best friend should—she’s an instigator and an accomplice, encouraging Charlotte to imagine a world in which the rules are different, and to act accordingly.
* * * *
So good best friends need bad best friends, but what do the bad best friends get out of all of this?
As Berie puts it in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, “Conspirators. Emotional business partners. That’s what we were.” These friendships are a trade—the bad best friend gives the good best friend the courage to break the rules. The good best friend serves as a witness and confidante, as a steady presence in an otherwise dangerous life.
It is easy, as a woman, to feel invisible. Not only is women’s labor in the home as mothers and wives and even roommates often unremarked, a woman’s labor can go unrecognized outside of the home as well. Women continue to be paid less than men for the same job, while being expected, often, to perform unpaid tasks in addition to their regular duties. At a tech start-up where I worked a few years ago, the women were almost always the ones who cleaned the communal kitchen and threw out the old food in the communal fridge. And they were always the ones who helped to set up for office-wide events, who remembered birthdays and organized a card and a cake.
Girls and women need a witness in their lives. They need someone who is always there, living their stories and remembering them later, someone who is available to talk, to listen and really hear them, and to remind them that yes, they exist, and yes, they matter.
Bad best friends remind good best friends that they deserve more, and they should take it. Good best friends are there to watch and steady bad best friends, to love them no matter how many rules they break.