“I don’t really know how competitive I am by nature, because if you can’t consciously acknowledge something you can’t see where you are in relation to it.” I wrote this sentence to an acquaintance with whom I was having a long e-mail exchange about Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend,” which follows the early phase of an intense, lifelong, and highly competitive relationship between two Neapolitan girls in postwar Italy. Like a lot of things one dashes off in e-mails, the sentence isn’t strictly true: I can acknowledge when I’m competitive, particularly in a professional situation—but the acknowledgment is muffled, half suppressed. The competitiveness always takes me by surprise, coming, for example, in the form of a sudden sneaky urge to best someone in a minor contest that means very little. Upon “winning” in such situations, I feel a satisfaction that embarrasses me, or sometimes remorse; upon losing, a petty bitterness that is also embarrassing. Either way, I generally don’t let myself experience the feelings for long.
And those are the clear-cut situations, meaning they’re subject to some sort of professional metric—say, critical reception or audience response at a reading. In spite of my discomfort, I think that competition in such situations is natural, probably an unavoidable fact of life. Maybe it’s even good for you! But Ferrante’s novel, the first in a series, describes something far more intimate, complex, and, to me, disturbing. Reading it, I was reminded of a line I heard many years ago, perhaps on a radio show, that struck me with memorable force: “Men compete about what they do; women compete about what they are.” Which, to me, means that women are competitive about the value of their most fundamental traits, including their physical features. Ferrante’s narrator, Elena, does describe some competition about things the girls do, mostly involving skills like reading or getting good grades in school. But, as the characters get older, the protean imp of competition creeps and grows, finding its way into a seemingly infinite number of more personal comparisons: who gets her period first, who has bigger breasts, who’s more popular and why, who gives better advice, who speaks better, whose body language is cooler. They are basically competing over everything, all the time; Elena never seems to give it a break.
It sounded unbearable, and as I read the novel I felt a mounting sense of dismay. “I really don’t want that in a friend!” I declared in my e-mail on the subject. What I wanted, I explained, was warmth and support. But I began to wonder if the fact that I hadn’t had relationships like the one Ferrante described meant that something was off about me, that maybe I had missed an important developmental stage. For what struck me most about the Ferrante novel was how those feelings of intense, self-lacerating jealousy coexisted with deep love; the girls love and uphold each other, like boxers resting in a moment of clinch. I wondered if this was a closeness I’d never known because some weird timidity had prevented me from acknowledging my own competitive instincts at the crucial stage described by Ferrante.
Except that at least once, I realized, there had been acknowledgment. It came in a spasm of feeling when I was fifteen, feeling on which I acted furtively and harmfully, so harmfully that I think I insured I would never do so again. Yet I can’t bring myself to fully regret it. Because it was at least an expression of emotions that I suddenly could not suppress: fierce longing for something I did not have, and envy of someone who embodied it—a teen-age girl I’ll call Sandrine.
Sandrine appeared the summer before my first year of high school (we would have been thirteen then), when her family moved into a house a block and a half away from mine, in a small town in Michigan. Our friendship began with proximity—indeed, I’m not sure that it would have happened if it weren’t for that initial proximity, a chance connection through another girl in the neighborhood. I was drawn first by Sandrine’s personality. She had a unique manner that was sharp and diffident by turns, and a sophisticated vocabulary that sounded natural; she used slang only sarcastically. She was curious, and more perceptive than the other kids I knew; she took delight in absurd details. Oddly, I don’t think that I really “saw” her beauty at first, though I could not have been oblivious to it. At thirteen, she was mature, both ethereal and earthy, nothing like the ideal of blond snub-nosed cuteness that was so prized in my adolescent milieu. I’ve written about her once before, describing her as a brunette Julie Christie, but, really, she was more like Jean Shrimpton—to the extent that she was like anyone. Hair: wavy, nearly black. Skin: flawless, very pale. Eyes: large, dark, full of expression. Lips: naturally red. Body: average height but dramatically proportioned. During the summer that we became friends, she wore jeans and T-shirts, but on the first day of school she showed up in a low-cut minidress made of sheer black silky material that accentuated her tiny waist, with puffy sleeves and a flared skirt, and black high heels. She wore no makeup other than false eyelashes, creating a theatrical effect that was enhanced by a clip-on fall (an artificial hairpiece). The popular girls—plaid skirts, loafers—were speechless at finding themselves so outclassed. The boys were too intimidated to catcall or even to stare openly. I thought it was awesome.
Although I had spent a good part of the summer with her, I don’t think I had realized until that day how overpoweringly beautiful she was.
To understand the depth of my reaction, then and later, it helps to know that I was implicitly brought up to believe that wanting to stand out too much (in the sense of being better than others) was improper. I doubt that my parents would make such a direct statement if they were still alive, and, as an adult, I can see that my mother was sometimes conflicted on the subject. For example, she had modest ambitions to be an artist, which is almost impossible if you aren’t willing to stand out. But, for me as a child, the message seemed straightforward, especially when it came to physical beauty: having good looks or style might be desirable, but you weren’t supposed to care about or pursue them too much. You certainly were not supposed to be envious of others who had them.
According to family lore, my mother had been a short, plain, serious girl who was outshone by her two tall, beautiful, glamorous sisters, both of whom won local beauty contests. This lore was presented not bitterly but with an air of humility and charm. In truth, my mother was quite pretty (in my opinion, prettier than her youngest sister), but she wore her unconcern about it like a badge of moral honor. She applied makeup only on special occasions, and did so minimally; she dressed simply and conservatively. She considered Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch gross and cheap and reserved her admiration for women who traded in character, as opposed to sex appeal, like Katharine Hepburn. She revered the British actress Diana Rigg for her strong, intelligent persona, which seemed to inform her beauty rather than to rely on it. Once, when I was maybe twelve, I asked my mother if I was pretty, and she emphatically replied, “You will be, but it’s silly to care about things like that.”
Her attitude had a bracing quality, evoking the value of something higher than appearances: art, culture, authenticity. She had grown up with a meagre sense of what was possible and wanted more—the real deal, not superficial junk like beauty contests. As a child, I responded to the ardent dignity in this; I was bewildered and disturbed by the sexual beauty that I glimpsed on TV and was actually repelled by Barbie dolls, whose physique I would one day be expected to aspire to. I was on my mom’s side!
Or at least I was until I began to realize that, in the world of my peers, appearance and style were very important, and that failure in these areas would cost me. Looks may not have mattered much to my family, but budgets did, so my mother dressed my sisters and me in hand-me-downs sent by our former-beauty-queen aunts—clothes that did not fit us properly and eventually got us laughed at, particularly when we moved to a place where no one knew us. I was caught off guard by this scorn, and I think my mother was, too. She adjusted and took us shopping at Montgomery Ward for cheap, boring “outfits” that for some mystifying reason were more acceptable than the higher-quality hand-me-downs.
Thus began my experience of fashion as a joyless requirement, something you had to follow in order to achieve minimal acceptance—in order, that is, to not be ridiculed by people you might not even like. I say “might” because I wasn’t sure what I felt about the popular kids who rejected me. They often seemed cruel and not very interesting—but at the same time they were vital and expressive and clearly having a lot more fun than I was. I did like some nerdier girls and even bonded with one over “Lord of the Flies.” I was also friendly with a plainspoken girl jock who covered her notebooks with Magic Marker drawings of rearing, running horses; she was different, in a good way, but we had little in common. Apart from her, the non-popular kids seemed mostly bland and recessive. Which was probably how I also seemed.
And then behold: Sandrine came out of the blue (I have no memory of where she actually did come from) and upended the whole idiotic system. Her ability to do this could not be explained entirely by her beauty, though that was certainly part of it, as were her fantastic clothes. The most galvanic ingredient was her attitude, her seemingly natural disregard for the norms that effectively cowed everyone else, including the people who enforced them. She had courage! I never saw her being ridiculed or put down in the way that other unusually attractive and overtly sexual girls sometimes were. It was as if she occupied her own category that no one knew how to respond to.
Except me. I knew to adore it. And, to my delight, she seemed to adore me back, to value and respect me as much as I did her. Throughout the next year, we carpooled, ate lunch, and walked home from school together, usually to her house, where I spent as much time as possible in her room, listening to music (she introduced me to Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix), talking about people, books, and feelings, making up insulting nicknames for classmates we didn’t like (La Toilette) and sweet nicknames for those we did (the Calf). We despised school spirit, we despised the hypocrisy of politicians, we despised the English-class sanctimony about “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We defensively despised a lot of things, but we were vulnerable with each other. We wrote in our journals together and then shared them; we once spontaneously harmonized on a plaintive lyric from “Tommy,” the Who’s ecstatic 1969 rock opera, singing, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me,” then cranking up the volume and listening raptly to the loud, triumphant part. This was not something I could have imagined doing with anyone else.
We did outside-the-room things, too—I recall going to an antiwar demonstration at a nearby college (the older boys smiled benignly at me, then devoured Sandrine with their eyes) and on fishing trips with her parents. But the main thing I remember about our time together was the feeling of it: the slightly hysterical laughter, the moments of sudden earnestness, the adolescent conviction that we knew things our peers didn’t, the private confessions, the intimacy that for me sometimes bordered on erotic (I once asked her if she’d ever wanted to make out with a girl; she hadn’t), the increasingly miraculous sense that there was much more to the world than I had thought possible.
This sense of the possible became, in my imagination, epitomized by Sandrine’s crazily romantic clothes, some of which were, to my astonishment, made for her by her mother: a miniskirt with layers of multi-textured fabric, lacy low-cut blouses with butterfly sleeves, a blue velvet empire-waist dress bejewelled with rhinestones at the neckline, thigh-high platform boots, a maxi trenchcoat—all worn with the false eyelashes and the fall of fake hair.
I don’t know why I didn’t feel jealous sooner. But I didn’t, either because I loved Sandrine and felt so privileged to be friends with her that any negative feelings were overridden or because—perhaps like my mother in regard to her sisters—I had the wild ego to believe that I was, in some secret way, her equal. And, indeed, she treated me as if I was. This was one of the remarkable things about her—that she apparently did not buy into social categories at all. (The strongest proof of this was that, when she eventually got a boyfriend, he was not someone with social cachet but a quiet, handsome borderline nerd, a choice that must have sent shock waves through the school.) She had to have been aware that I was lower in, or even close to the bottom of, the social pecking order. Some people would probably suggest that Sandrine preferred that because the contrast between us made her appear more powerful. I can assure those people that, if she had been wired that way, she could have chosen a handmaiden who was more flattering to her. If she didn’t care about social metrics, then neither did I.
Until I did. I don’t know if there was a specific trigger. But roughly a year into the friendship I began to covet what Sandrine had. In particular, I coveted her clothes. The next summer, before school started, I tried, for the first time in my life, to shop for clothes that might bring out my own kind of allure. Given my undeveloped form, the limits of the local mall, and my mother’s strict ideas about how a girl should dress, this was effectively impossible. I remember persuading my mother to buy me a jumper that emphasized my small bust and then covertly padding my bra, and the terrible fight that ensued. I bitched that Sandrine’s mother cared enough to make her gorgeous clothes; my mother rejoined that I didn’t need clothes like that, that Sandrine’s clothes made her look like a cow, a gibe that appalled me in its sheer inaccuracy. During another fight, she said that my friend dressed “like a whore.”
I don’t think my mother meant these disgusting insults; I might have respected her more if she had. She talked this way not out of conviction, I sensed, but because of what I began to intuit was jealousy. In addition to beauty, Sandrine had in spades what my mother supposedly valued: culture, art, authenticity. Why didn’t she admire her? Why didn’t she want me to have what my friend had? I didn’t analyze the situation this way at the time, but I began to suspect that my mother’s rejection of appearances was not so principled, that she was rejecting something she actually wanted but believed she couldn’t have, something she assumed her daughter couldn’t—perhaps shouldn’t—have, either. “You’re pretty in a different way!” my mother exclaimed. “You look like Botticelli’s ‘Spring’!” But her compliment felt weak, mired in insecurity.
My mother’s muddled feelings about conspicuous beauty were mirrored by my father’s relationship to showy men: a teacher at a community college, he hated braggarts who flaunted expensive clothes or cars, and he sometimes blew off steam about them at home. I remember him recounting an exchange he’d had with a car salesman who tried to goad and shame him by declaring, “So you want a car just for transportation?” My father answered, “What do you want it for? Sex?” Which was funny and, I guess, shut the guy up! But the story wasn’t told with triumph. It was told with anger and a hint of humiliation. My father may have been angry at having his good sense disparaged by an asshole. But he may also have been angry because some part of him wanted, against his better judgment, to drive a big, sexy car. A car that he could have bought if he’d had more money.
When I remember these moments, I picture someone stepping in one direction while turning back to look in another, not clearly committing to either. I remember, too, certain photographs of my parents from when they were young. Both were small and slender, and they exuded a touching combination of vulnerability and vital, even proud spirit. What I’m calling their spirit would not let them accept the standards that disadvantaged them—but their vulnerability made them unable to completely reject those standards, whether of beauty or of social status.
This is, of course, an interpretation and a simplification of something so complicated that I am struggling to describe it. But the ethos of enforced modesty seems key, the attempt to shield their children from anything that might look like competition, including with one another. (“I’m proud of all my daughters,” my mother would say, a blanket statement that somehow cancelled itself out.) This modesty had a genuine, even wholesome aspect: we were never pressured to get straight A’s, or any A’s; B’s were fine—there was no need to prove our intelligence. But the underside was a kind of flattening effect: a lack of space for exuberant adolescent ego, combined with a palpable sense of suppression, frustration, and sudden, erratic anger, especially on my father’s part.
And there was an anomaly that I never quite considered as such until this moment: when I was in middle school, well before I met Sandrine, my mother started taking me to see a child psychiatrist, a choice that, well, made me stand out, at least in the family. (Few of my peers knew about this; it was impressed on me that I shouldn’t tell them. Sandrine was one of two people I told.) There were reasons for my mother’s decision. At the age of twelve, I was depressed and very socially withdrawn, mostly as a result of being bullied; when I began to express curiosity about suicide, she felt that she had no choice. It probably helped that psychiatric care was starting to be viewed as normal, even rather sophisticated—and, because going to a psychiatrist was an admission that there was something wrong with you, it could scarcely be seen as swellheaded. At first, I was fine with it; I even enjoyed talking to the strange, friendly man who was so interested in everything I had to say. But, by the time I entered high school, the novelty had worn off, and I was beginning to see him as an extension of my mother.
It was a painful time of profound distance between my family and me, and my friendship with Sandrine intersected intensely with all of this. Sandrine (a fourteen-year-old kid!) was not the cause of anything in my psyche, but my friendship with her illuminated my longing for something beyond the scope of my apparent trajectory, a longing that almost certainly touched a sensitive familial nerve. There were terrible scenes at home—paternal anger that was physically directed at me a couple of times. My mother must have become anxious about our increasingly turbulent environment.
And so, at the suggestion of the psychiatrist, who had worked with me for years, she convinced my father that, in the middle of my sophomore year, I needed to be sent away to boarding school. In retrospect, this idea seems nothing short of bizarre, especially coming from a mental-health professional. My parents could not even begin to afford the place (they obtained financial aid by having me declared a ward of the state on some bureaucratic technicality, as advised by the psychiatrist), and anyone with a modicum of sense could guess that, given my general social awkwardness, I would not be equipped to deal with such a rarefied environment. Again, it was a choice that marked me as special but in a problematic way, particularly given that the school had been described to me and to my mother as a place for emotionally troubled kids. Another oddity: though the school was described that way to us, and I do remember some of the kids seeming somewhat troubled, I don’t recall there being any psychologists on site, and I don’t recall emotional troubles being mentioned in the school’s glossy brochures.