Best Friends, but Not Forever
S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership. Lucky you.
S2: And. Hello, and
S1: welcome back to Big Nude, Little Nude, I am your host, Danny Amaravati, and with me in the studio this week is Wendy Lee, an associate professor in English department at New York University. She studies and writes about the history of the novel and philosophies of emotions, and is currently working on a new book called Jane Austen and The End of Life. Wendy Welcome to the show!
S3: Thank you. Danny, welcome to your own podcast.
S1: I am so looking forward to this. We have been discussing this possibility for some time now, and I am just so, so eager to get a chance to collaborate on some emotional philosophies. And I’m especially eager to hear a little bit about this new project that you’re working on, because I confess I love this title very, very much.
S3: Well, I am so excited to be here that I cleaned my entire apartment before talking to you because it just felt like the right preparation. I was going to say it
S1: because you were worried that I would see it. Or was it because like, I’m just so excited, I need to put this energy into a chore?
S3: I think it weirdly was both. I felt like you were coming over. And also, I had to do something with my energy. But I’ve also been listening to Big Bird Little Mood, and I’m really honored to be here. It’s such an important podcast and thing you’re doing. And I told Delia my daughter this morning and she said, Why are you on it? You give the worst advice. And I thought, that’s probably true. And also, I’m just an English professor and people and books make terrible choices, and that’s why it’s literature. So I’m going to do my best. But I I’m not going to be as good. I think as you’re the guest that I’ve heard who are give impeccable advice.
S1: I am absolutely not going to join you in announcing that you are already doing worse than other guests. But I do appreciate your daughter reminding us of the timelessness of no one is a prophet in their home country. No, nobody’s kid thinks you give great advice.
S3: That is true. I think that’s
S1: just not in the nature of the parent child relation, I think.
S3: No, no. But you are prudence and I was with you for this right now.
S1: I am simply, you know, like a deejay of moods. So I’ve shifted into a new relationship to advice, which is kind of nice too, because I think, you know, part of the role of prudence has to do with at least somewhat trying to channel one of the seven classical virtues. And now at least there’s a little bit more flexibility to say, you know, no to that note, a temperance, no to whatever the other ones are, I should look it up.
S3: I can’t remember them all I know I love, I love I. I always thought they were the best names like Mercy Charity. You know, I can’t remember the others either.
S1: Well, see now I’m confused because I’m aware that there’s at least like part of the role of the classical virtues is that most of them are pre-Christian. And I can’t remember if the seven classical virtues had a corresponding later seven Christian virtues, or if they tried to mash them together. And unfortunately, I’ve already confessed that I don’t know it, so I can’t later edit this show and just casually toss it off like, Oh yeah, I knew these all offhand.
S3: Yes. And now you’ve set me up to corroborate and in the state of being completely ignorant about things we should know.
S1: I think that is probably actually a good place to start by acknowledging the limits of our knowledge. Great. And where we might need additional resources. So with that sort of caveat in mind, I wonder if you would read our first letter.
S3: My pleasure to do so. OK. The subject of this letter is two children or three. My husband and I have always planned to have at least three children. We currently have to love our life as a family. We had been planning to get started on child number three this month when we were blindsided by a tricky diagnosis. It turns out that our oldest child and my husband both have a rare genetic condition. My husband has a 50 50 shot of passing it on to any future children. Our younger child does not have it. The symptoms of this genetic condition vary widely in some cases, like in our case. The symptoms are mild. In other cases, though, the symptoms are devastating and include serious heart and kidney problems, as well as other physical and psychological effects. Our genetic counselor told us that there is no predicting the type or severity of symptoms. My husband feels that we have two healthy children and that we should not push our luck. I feel strongly that I want to have this third child and that it is in fact slightly eugenics adjacent to stop ourselves from having a planned additional child. For context, we are financially secure. My husband has a great job and I stay at home full time. We would be able to care for another child. We would appreciate any advice or words of wisdom you could offer.
S1: This one is so big in addition to, you know, there’s this sort of straightforward question of what should this individual couple decide when it comes to their own decision to have a third child or not have a third child, either not now or to potentially put that question to bed for themselves? But I can also really appreciate that this letter writer is aware of. There are a lot of, you know, ongoing implications that have to do with disability justice with a proximity to eugenics. With this question of are we being asked to decide like what the good life is for all possible future children? And so I’m also just really aware that this letter writer is asking a question that kind of reverberates on every possible scale. And so I want to be, you know, it feels so like sort of cheesy to say like, I want to be mindful of that, but I do. I would like to be mindful of that. That’s that’s sort of where I’m planning on starting today.
S3: Yeah, we could totally start there. And and then I’m not even it even is too tricky. Again, I think I’ve just bad at this, but I’m trying to actually go with this cue from your last podcast with the amazing grace Bonnie that was on. Yeah. And there was this incredible thing she said about talking to 90 year olds and that they’ve learned not to judge, not to solve the problem and just to listen. And so I’m going to try to be there for a second and listening to this letter writer and what I hear. I’m saying is that they really want this child. They were planning to have this child. They have problems with now suddenly deciding not to have this child. And at the same time, their husband really does feel strongly the other way. And it was something it seems something of a time sensitive predicament they’re in.
S1: Yeah, I think one of the places that it feels important to me to start with is, you know, the letter writer raises this question of like, I feel uncomfortable that this feels adjacent to eugenics to not. It seems like maybe that my husband wants to not, you know, quote unquote push our luck doesn’t want to have further conversation about it, wants to think of health and like non-health as a sort of binary prospect, that one is demonstrably better than the other and that that should be the end of it. We should be happy with what we have. I want to have a child. I want to have a third child, and I want to talk about our options and our our possible choices that we might make. And I think that that is is worth discussing. Letter writer. I think that it’s good to know your own mind to say, I want this. I don’t know if we’re going to find the right compromise right away, but to simply be aware of what do you want and what do you feel prepared for? That’s a good thing to know. And I wonder, letter writer, you don’t mention whether you or your husband have either had any people with disabilities in your life, whether you’ve ever read anything by people within the disability justice movement, or whether this is sort of your first encounter with the prospect of like disability justice. And so I wonder if that’s the case, whether this might not be a good time to do a little engagement with this movement. This is a movement with like a pretty robust history, especially in the United States in the last 50 years, by which I don’t recommend, you know, getting in touch with someone you don’t know who you know happens to have a disability and say, Make this decision for me. But when it comes to reading work and thoughts by people who live with disabilities, I would encourage you perhaps to look at some of the work of Harriet McBride Johnson. She’s an American author and attorney, a disability rights activist. She died in 2008. She might be sort of best known for a series of debates that she did with Peter Singer. I don’t necessarily want to recommend those, in part because I think it’s rather painful to listen to someone justify their own existence in a sort of theoretical context. But I would recommend reading her memoir Too Late to Die Young. She also wrote a number of articles for The New York Times. She wrote Stairway to Justice. She wrote, Not dead at all. She also wrote something that was like, you know, thoughtful and charming and funny. Called, alas, for Tiny Tim, he became a Christmas cliche. I would really encourage you to seek out her work and potentially also to seek out the work of other, you know, people who work within the disability justice movement. What have been some of their thoughts about the limits of the conversation around genetic counseling when it is led by, you know, non-disabled people? Not so that you can necessarily like hand a stack of books to your husband and say, You know, these are my arguments. Let’s do what I want. But so that you can have a frame of reference that is broader simply than what people who are, you know, not or not yet disabled. I think, you know, one of the things about disability justice that I’m familiar with is is this idea that many, many people at some point in their lives will develop a disability or could benefit from the disability justice movement. So often it is sort of like false idea of, you know, I am a healthy person. I will. I do not have a disability. I will never have a disability. This won’t affect me. And that can really limit obviously some of your thoughts, some of your desires, some of your beliefs in what is possible. So that would be I think my first suggestion is to read more and learn more from people who have lived with disabilities that you might in the abstract think of as severe and to let that sort of expand your ideas around what is possible. I think that’s a good place to begin.
S3: I think that’s great, Danny. And also it changes the framework from this letter, which is like, OK, it’s a 50 50 chance. We lucked out so far with my husband and my one of our sons. And with the third child, we could be lucky or unlucky. You’re trying to suggest the letter writer if you learned what it actually what people say, what they report with their experiences, how people are thinking about what it is like to be, have a disability, so-called or live with care for, have so-called disabled people and or families that would expand or change the framework. And maybe that would be useful for the husband as well as the letter writer.
S1: Yeah, I think the sort of last thing that I would recommend is there’s a study published in Actually, this is a little silly. I don’t quite know how to pronounce it. I think it’s Jenny Medical Journal, but it’s by Paul, Stephen Miller and Rebecca Leah Levine. And it’s called Avoiding Genetic Genocide, understanding good intentions and eugenics in the dialogue between medical and disability communities. And I don’t mean to, like, recommend it in the sense that like I think you must or ought to agree with every claim that is presented there. But again, I think it is very true that within like the eugenicist policy context of the United States and elsewhere, good intentions is is is up there. There are lots of people who talk about like what is best in the interest of eugenicist projects and in deciding whether or not somebody else’s life or the possibility of somebody else’s life is worth living on their behalf. And so again, I think that will be really useful in terms of investigating any parts of yourself or, you know, your your partner or self that might wish to do that. And I say all of that letter writer because I think that is useful and valuable work and will enable you to be, you know, a better citizen of a society that needs to do more for people with disabilities. I don’t mean it in the sense of you need to read all of this material so that you and your husband can become better people and then decide to have a third child. A really, really at this point want to flip over to. These are important and useful questions. And it is also true that you are not making a decision about a third child in the abstract. You two are also talking about what you are prepared to do, whether or not you think you would be good, excited, you know, enthusiastically consenting parents to a third child. If you have these conversations and your husband says, I don’t want to, I would not be prepared to handle that. You know, again, then at that point, the question is, if you don’t think you can adequately parent a child if they have circumstances that you can’t control, then that is a good reason not to have that child. So again, like it’s not about if you don’t decide to have this child, then you are bad people. And if you do decide to have this child, you are good people and want you to have more tools at your disposal when you have these conversations and don’t immediately discount the prospect of like excitedly and joyfully preparing for a child who may very well experience any number of complications from this particular diagnosis. But you know, the investment there is not. Only good people would say yes, and only bad people would say no on that level, it does really need to be about honest frank assessment of like, what is your husband afraid of? What are his fears? Can he get specific with them? If you share with him, I share that fear. But I also would feel like really prepared to, like, dedicate time and attention to our child care. Does he have a response to that? You know, that’s those are really important conversations to have.
S3: Yeah. And I would add on to that. And I’m sorry before I misspoke by saying Your son doesn’t have serious symptoms. I think you just the letter writer just a first to other children, but it it’s your whole family. So I think Danny was totally right in saying it’s important that you know that you feel strongly that you want to have this child, that you have reservations about not trying at the same time, it’s your whole, it’s your whole family. So not just your husband, but your other two children. That would be affected by introducing, you know, any any other person into the family. And so it’s it’s really not just about can you take care of this other child that you stay at home full time and so you could do it. But it really changes the whole of the family dynamic to introduce another member of the family, and it seems to be a group decision in the end.
S1: Yeah, I mean, I really do just feel a strong sense of what’s most important to me is that this letter writer feels empowered to have this conversation more than once with her husband, even if ultimately the answer is just my husband is not prepared. And that makes me sad. But, you know, this is a decision we would need to make as a consensus rather than you need to get to one answer or the other. I think mostly my strongest sense here is you to, it sounds like, have only recently learned about this diagnosis and have only had perhaps one or two conversations about it. And I think perhaps some further research, as well as reading up on some perspectives that you may not have come into contact with a lot before, will make it such that, you know, you might not get the decision that you want between you and your husband. But I believe that you can get clarity that you can reinvestigate perhaps old, reflexive ideas about what a life with potential disabilities might look like from people with, you know, actual stake holding. You know, I think one of the things that I thought was sort of interesting was, you know, towards the beginning, the letter writer talked about being blindsided, and I don’t bring that up to like, scold the letter writer. But like, right there, that’s like language about blindness as like a limitation, as an inability to move with new information in a way that feels like integrated and prepared. And so I think again, without saying like, Oh, this is a sign that you are, you know, bad and have not thought about disability sufficiently. I just think it’s interesting that that word is present in that moment. I don’t think it’s an accident because I think there’s this sort of question of perhaps my only engagement with questions of disability have had to do with sort of just like reflexive language around limitation, weakness, inability. And this might be an opportunity to investigate how thoroughly like hostility towards people with disabilities and like the sort of like ambient eugenics that floats around in our society might be informing this moment of I don’t want to push our luck. I want to believe that we can control the like ongoing and predictable, healthy status of our children and that anything less than that would be unacceptable. Again, I just I hope that does not come across as like trying to slap the letter writers wrist. It’s a common expression, but I think that there’s a reason that it came up in that moment, and I think that that’s worth further investigation. Any other thoughts or words of wisdom? I also acknowledge you are a parent, and I very much am not. So you have actually also at one point in your life, decided to bring a child into the world and then did it. And then have, you know, taken on the project of raising a child? So you have some real expertise here?
S3: Well, I mean, we are all of us children and have some kind of feelings about parents, even if we have complicated relationships or figures in our lives. But I remember somebody saying that you should treat your own child as if they were an alien. That that’s the most ethical way to see them as just however you have a child, a parent may expect that the child. It’s like or unlike them or that they’ll be intelligible in certain ways. And I think this parent was saying actually the best thing to do is to accept that you have no idea who this human being is. And it’s every child is terra incognita. And I wonder if you know just that that baseline that in your child there is a different person in some ways intersects with this conversation that you’re initiating so wisely about what disability is.
S1: Yeah. I really appreciate that. Thank you. I think that’s so useful. I can also really appreciate how the prospect of becoming a parent is an exercise in ambiguity, powerlessness and vulnerability, and that there are a number of things about having a child that are frightening and daunting for anyone because it just means, you know, my love is now incredibly vulnerable and external to me and, you know, requires around the clock attention and and care, and that many people fear not being able to predict or control that child’s experience of safety in the world. But yeah, it just really, I suppose I bring all that up merely to say that loving your children or wanting the best for them is not incompatible with hostility to people with disabilities or eugenics. And neither does it necessarily mean that you are either of those things, just that this is a really separate question. This is not a question of whether or not either of you love your children or would love a future child that this has to do with, you know, attempting to reorganize the way that you see the world in a society that by and large is not set up to think of people with disabilities, as you know, full of human beings in their own right and that that is good to reassess and good to re-engage. I hope you have these conversations. I hope you’re able to, even if all you do is learn more about why your husband feels unprepared so that you can move beyond simply know it’s scary into what would be my specific fears. What might we do to counter those fears? What would we like to do with this new emotional information? And I think that’s the last thing that I have to say on the subject. I would really welcome, by the way, if anybody who is either like working within the disability justice movement or is living with any kind of a disability who has thoughts of their own that they would like to share on the story, please feel free to write in with love to either have you on the show to discuss this more in depth or just to read some of your thoughts and feedback aloud. So just a blanket call on that front. I think with that, I will move us into our second letter. The subject is sad or stalking. Last January, my longtime best friend left the group chat for our mutual friends from college. I asked her why via text, and she said they no longer gave a damn about her as she listed all the ways they had supposedly wronged her. I lost my patience, said, This makes me wonder what you say about me, but never mind. I can guess this was uncalled for and pissy. I realize that now she accused me of using her depression against her and demanded an apology. I felt unable to give her one because at the time it felt like I was making a valid criticism. I reached out months later and again she asked for an apology, but I could only apologize for the way I said it, which she said was an insulting non-apology. The argument escalated, and she said she didn’t want to talk to me until I saw someone to quote work out my issues. I wish I could. She has since blocked me on social media, but I confess I still regularly check her accounts and I think about her every day. I don’t make friends easily, and this was a deep, life defining friendship. I was co made of honor at her wedding. I still care about her, and I want to believe that this all happened because of pandemic induced frayed nerves. But it’s possible that she now considers me a toxic person she’s well rid of. Am I seeking tough love or consolation? I don’t know, but I welcome any advice.
S3: Oh, God, I don’t know.
S1: I really felt that last bit about like, I don’t know if I want tough love or consolation, I really relate to that letter writer and I also think, gosh, I imagine that the pandemic really took a toll on a number of group chats. Do you have many experiences, by the way, with group chats? I don’t know if you’re in many, if you’ve been in many, if you’ve ever left any, how they generally strike you as as, you know, reorienting a friendship,
S3: you have to fill me in. I am so like I have a couple of groups, but how does it work? This is I feel like this letter is very generation specific and I want to learn. I mean, because my initial reaction is. It’s get out of it, get I saw it sounds terrible. Yeah, so,
S1: you know, in my understanding, a group chat is either in like just your texting client or in something like Slack or WhatsApp or other like platforms that are like a way to text with multiple people at once. And so it’s basically just like sometimes it’s a group of relatives, sometimes it’s a group of friends. Sometimes everybody decides, let’s make one together. Sometimes one person will create one to invite a number of their friends to join, but it’s basically like it essentially functions as like a contact form for a group of people so that you text everybody at once. And it is an ongoing conversation and people can text that group chat whenever they like. They can also text people separately. And that doesn’t show up in the group chat, but it’s sort of like a indefinite group conversation that takes place over text.
S3: I wonder how many people this is friends from college, because I’m just trying to break it down. If it’s initiated by leaving, so is that’s visible to everybody like this person has left the group and it’s like a thing.
S1: Yeah, yeah. And I think, you know, all I know is it’s from college. And then the letter writer says I was code maid of honor her wedding. So presumably unless she got married like senior year of college, which is possible but seems slightly unlikely. This could be anywhere from, you know, the graduated college two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago. 15 I couldn’t swear to you when group chats sort of like became popular. I don’t remember being in a lot of group chats like five years ago, so at least for me, they seem to have popped up more and more since, like, I don’t know, 2015 2016.
S3: Do you think would happen here, where the friend thinks this group does not give a damn about me? Like what’s going on in that chat? Where she gets that sense instead of say, I don’t give a damn about this chap. You know what I mean? It’s very specific. They don’t care about me. And then it gets weirder. They don’t they’ve wronged me this way, this way, this way. Then the letter writer evidently says. Well, I wonder what you say about me, then the best friend says you’re using my depression against me. You better apologize than the letter writer feels unable to apologize. It just seems so involved.
S1: Yeah. One thing that I think is important to distinguish is the particular group chat that your friend left is not the same thing as this group of friends. Right. This is a single like medium for one conversation with these people. And I think one of the things that can be difficult about a group chat is sometimes, especially during the pandemic or when, like a group of friends isn’t able to get in touch with one another very often because they maybe live all over the country or all over the world. Is it can start to feel like a substitute for the relationship itself, rather than one type of conversation. And so it can feel like this group chat is more work than I would like to do, or it feels like we’re just peppering it with a lot of updates. This isn’t how I would like to keep in touch with everyone. But since we’re now collectively mostly keeping up with one another through this, I feel like if I leave, it’s a sign of not liking everybody sort of like I think it can sometimes feel like a phone call. You’re never really allowed to hang up fully on like you can only ever say, I’m stepping away for a little bit. I’m worried that if I hang up, it’s rude and I do want to sort of flag just that. I think it’s really, really OK for someone to say, I love you guys, but this group chat is like too much or stressful or not the way I want to keep up with you all. And for that to be like something people can receive is like, Yes, of course, that makes sense. Not everyone always wants to have like a screen going with the same group of people in a group format all of the time, and that doesn’t mean you don’t care about them or don’t want to stay in touch. I just think it’s one of those things where, like, it’s more and more difficult to opt out of and it should be easier to opt out of, I think.
S3: Definitely. I wonder whether the letter writer could just give her friend some space to retreat in general? And then I’m wondering, well, because she has this line about letter writer, you still think about your best friend every day. And frankly, you needed and still need her friendship. And I’m wondering, Danny, do you think you would advise the letter writer just give your best friend some space and time to withdraw? Maybe it’s the pandemic. Who knows? Or do you think the letter writers should actually let her friend know like, I need you? Like, I don’t need this group or you to be in this group, but I still need you and I want you to know that I need you. And you may have to be, you know, not talk to me for a while. But it’s important for me to let you know that. I think that’s
S1: a really good question. You know, I think this this sort of kicked off back in January, and then they had that initial fight. And then the letter writer says, I reached out again months later. So it’s we’re actually coming up on a year. And the two times that you’ve attempted to have the conversation, she has been pretty consistent on. I don’t want to discuss this in greater detail until you apologize and you have, on both of those occasions felt like that is not something that I’m prepared to give you. So, yeah, I do think at least right now, if the letter writer were to share any of that about, you know, I value our friendship, I miss you, I need you. My concern is they would have a repeat of the fight they’ve already had twice.
S1: And if your interest is some kind of reconciliation a little further down the line, I think that would I think that would be counterproductive. So I think maybe, you know, right now the letter writers like, I feel really stuck and I can’t let this go. And I would love to maybe work our way backwards and try to investigate a little bit about what might have happened differently at the time. Not so. The letter writer can then endlessly ruminate about how they could have done something differently, but because it might potentially unlock a question of Is there something else that I do want to offer an apology for? Or even if it’s just, nope, I think I handle it well, and I think she was really wrong, in which case you’ll at least have more information about what not to do. So, you know, your friend left the group chat and you asked her why via text. And I think that itself, right there was maybe the beginning of, you know, knocking down a domino that eventually led to a big fight. And I don’t say that to say, like letter writer, this is all your fault. Your friend must not have done anything wrong. We don’t know a lot of the specifics here, so I want to leave a lot of room for the possibility that the friend in question might have some pretty legitimate complaints. Possibly might also have had some unfair assumptions that she may have made about other people, possibly didn’t ask any of them about it, and then continued to make assumptions and then behaved a little unfairly. Anything in between those two things could definitely be in place here. I just don’t know. But I think if somebody leaves a group chat and he would like to ask them a little bit more about why they did it, I think it’s usually at that point that is a good time to move. Mediums like clearly something about the group text was bringing up a lot for her, and she’s feeling overwhelmed. I think what I would have advised this letter writer to do in that moment is maybe text and say, I thought you left the group. I hope everything’s OK. If there’s anything that you want to talk about, maybe let’s try to have a phone call later this week. Not because I think that necessarily would have made everything perfect. But at least you would have had the chance to hear a little bit more about what was clearly going on underneath the surface for her for quite some time that she hadn’t yet shared with you. And unfortunately, when you’re trying to catch up with somebody emotional narrative over text, you’re just getting the highlights, the bullet points and then you there’s this sort of inducement to react immediately. And that does not lend itself well to like a fruitful, complicated discussion about long standing relationships. Does that make sense?
S3: I think that’s great advice. I mean, two things. It’s clear that there are lots of things going on. There are a lot of gaps here. Like, what is this part where the best friend says to the letter writer, You’re using my depression against me. And then you need to work out your issues. And the letter writer says, I wish I could. There’s a lot going on emotionally here. And I think that you’re right. You’re right. It’s it’s not the best. A phone call would be way better and maybe letter writer, it could help you to to stop sort of channeling that resolution through social media or checking, you know, just the online, the way that the internet can enable neurotic thinking about relations that’s not healthy for you. Maybe just a phone call or just in a voicemail saying, You know, I’m here for you. I feel like you’re going through a lot. I don’t care about the chat, but I just want to let you know that I’m here for you. Yeah.
S1: To be clear, I wouldn’t advise the letter writer to leave a voicemail right now because the friend in question has, like, set up a pretty firm boundary. This is something that I would have suggested at the time, and that’s not to say I think you should never, ever, ever in your whole life, ever attempt to contact her. But I would. I would caution that a lot of care and restraint first and I would. There are a lot of situations where I would face the letter writer not to reach out. So I think what I would say in terms of right now, because we’ve gone a little bit over like where I think this went off the rails at the time. But yes, we are trying to think about like, what can she do now? I think letter writer, you know, you are looking at her social media accounts pretty regularly and you think about her every day. And you also say that like what she shared with you, you know, it’s clear that at least on some level, you thought that maybe her objections or complaints were potentially unfair or exaggerated. I don’t know if you still feel that way now. I don’t know how much of that you think was defensiveness. I truly don’t know. But I think one thing that’s clear here is that you’re you’re hungry for more information. You wish she had not kept so many of these frustrations to herself, and because you also felt defensive, you you wanted to kind of, I think, skip that part where you listened with a curious and open mind because you wanted to just really quickly say, Look, I think you’re wrong. And that’s not to say that you don’t get to have an opinion about her feelings, but I think that you did that too quickly and that made her feel kind of like, look, you’d let her twist in the wind or you’d sort of set her up to fail, like, tell me what’s bothering you? And then almost right away, you know, that shouldn’t have bothered you. And I think this means that you talk shit about me. And again, it may be that the complaints that she had you really disagreed with. But I do think when you ask someone a question like that and they start to share it with you, the first thing you must do is listen and let them tell the story all the way through and then kind of check in and say, I have some thoughts about this. I think I might see this from a slightly different angle. Can we talk about that? And again, I know that that can kind of sound like highly therapist speech in a way that might sound a little robotic, so you don’t have to frame it in exactly that way. But, you know, I think oftentimes if we disagree with a friend and we don’t have a robust history of like disagreeing carefully and lovingly, it can feel really like we need to shut this down. This isn’t OK. We need to get back on the same page where we see everything in the same way. And I think sue a lot of group chats, even with like lovely people, there can sometimes be this collective demand for uniformity of response that can be very alienating. And I think that’s just a function of the way a group chat is. I don’t mean that everyone who joins a group chat does so because they want to demand camas. That’s like, you know, uniformity of experience and opinion. I don’t think that it’s something that people are necessarily intentionally bringing to that project. But I think a group chat is usually about fostering a certain type of agreement of unanimity that can occur with like the best of intentions feel pretty alienating or off-putting to somebody.
S3: I think that’s excellent advice for everybody right now in this wherever we are in this, are we? Is it back to normal? Are we not back to normal relations that to give each other really a wide berth for dysphoria and all kinds of, you know, negative to positive feelings? It’s hugely important for all of us.
S1: Yeah. So I think that in terms of like really concretely, what can this letter writer do? Letter writer, I would suggest that you write some of this down. I would first ask yourself the question, do I think that my friend had a right to leave the group chat? And again, the goal is not say the answer that you think is the right one. Like, I really want to know, like, you know, ask yourself, what’s your gut reaction? Did you feel like that? She should have asked, Do you feel like she should have gotten everybody else’s vote? Do you feel like leaving the group chat meant she didn’t like any of you as friends anymore? That’s useful information to have. And you know, I will admit my biases. I absolutely think that she should have been able to leave the group chat without checking in first, without making sure everybody else agreed with her reasons for so doing without first hearing. What did she think everyone else had done to wrong her? And then I’ll make a ruling on whether or not she was right. If she was frustrated and irritated by this group chat, she, I think, did a good thing in leaving it. But again, those are questions for you to answer. You know my bias. You’re not writing this to send to me for my evaluation. This is for your own knowledge. And then, you know, when you think about your immediate reaction, do you still feel like her sharing the things that have been hurting her was necessarily a reflection on the things that she says about you? What did you want from her in that moment? What were you afraid you were going to lose? Can you imagine putting yourself in her shoes and thinking about how it might have felt daunting to share her frustrations with her friends? If you had been in her position, what would you have done? Would you have shared that with everyone? And what might have been an impediment to sharing it? If at some point you did feel frustrated with more than one of your friends, how would you want them to react when you told them what might you want, even if they didn’t agree with you right away? What might they do or say that would make you feel like even if we don’t immediately see eye to eye on this, they care about my experience and they want to know what I’m feeling, and they will listen before responding. I realize all this kind of sounds like I’m pushing in the direction of She was right and you were wrong. If she were writing to me, I would be giving her advice from her perspective about thinking a little bit about your perspective. But it is, I think, hard, especially if you have this group of close friends who maybe don’t have much of a history of working through conflict or disagreement or resentment or grievance. It’s hard to do for the first time. So, you know, think through some of those questions. Ask yourself, are there other ways that I could have listened and then asked questions or shared? Some of this makes me anxious because it makes me worry that you’ve been angry with me and not sharing it. Are there other ways that you could have said it that you think would have given her a little more time and space to hash things out? And that wouldn’t have been quite so connected to her decision to leave this group? And as you look at any of that, you know, I think again, ask yourself that question, is there anything about the initial apology that she demanded of me that I think is fair? Is there a way that I could potentially apologize to her? That would not feel like the same thing as saying you were perfectly right and I was perfectly wrong? And could I offer her an apology that was not then immediately followed up by? And now let’s argue the point again. And I think if your answer there is no. I couldn’t give her the apology that I think she would find substantive without trying to argue the point again, then I think your answer needs to go back to. We are not ready to reconnect and I don’t see any of that to suggest. You can only reach out. Her if you’re prepared to say you were 100 percent right, I was 100 percent wrong, I was bad, you were good, which I really, really understand as as a fear. And it may be that as you look at this, you feel like not only did I find her objections really, really wrong. I feel like the kind of apology that she would want from me would mean not having any further conversation at all. And that’s part of why I don’t want to reach out again. So you may also just decide she doesn’t want to have the conversation that I want to have, but I think it will help a little bit to think of this, not in terms of how do we resolve this argument once and for all so we can go back to our old friendship? And simply, can I imagine a time where I am less invested in proving that I behaved rightly and not wrongly versus learning more about somebody else’s like frustrations? And then beyond that, whether or not you to ever have a good conversation again, whether or not you’re ever able to like. Reconnect. I want to also just give you permission to think about this is a loss, this is a breakup. This makes you sad and you should be allowed to feel sad about it. You might decide that you need to like share with maybe a partner or a close friend who didn’t necessarily know her. Like, I have this friends. I still feel really raw about this friend breakup we had a while ago. I check her social media account all the time. I don’t really tell anyone about it. It doesn’t make me feel better. I’m not looking to you to like, stop me from doing this. I just want somebody else to know so that I’m not holding this all by myself, and that that may go a long way towards making you feel less like you’re just carrying around this like love token that you pull out and look at all the time like you’re a character in a Victorian novel. It’s hard, it’s really hard, and the very least we have now. I mean, I realize that Jane Austen is not a Victorian novelist, but we are on love tokens and like constantly revisiting a primal wound. And so I do feel like that’s a natural Segway or as close as we’re going to get to talking about your own project right now about Jane, Austen and the end of life, which I would love to hear more about.
S3: Oh my gosh. Thank you. Now my mind is still in sad or stalking.
S1: We can also, you know, keep that question at the forefront of our mind and simply talk more generally about how do you live with rumination?
S3: I mean, because I write about and think about philosophies of emotions and narrative. It’s of a piece with this, these these letter writers and and what they’re going through. And in this last case, you know, your advice just there to recognize this as a loss. And and in my mind, I was thinking with friendships. Ideally, they’re elastic, you know, they can pant. You don’t have to break up with a friend. They can handle the vicissitudes. But I do think there’s something about the pandemic and coming back to friendships that’s making people reassess, you know, the relationships they really want to commit to in the time that we have. And let’s see if that’s a segue way for me. I mean, I’m thinking about it with the Jane ites, who are not just people who reread Jane Austen regularly, almost like people would read the Bible, but for whom fellowship through the love of Austin’s words is really important as well. And what was interesting to me was that at the end of their lives, it’s a very sad and scary thing to lose this kind of communion. With words, with these words and with this kind of, you know, world of fellowship and sympathy through these words. And so I was thinking a lot about sort of how one looks at things at the very end, what the relationship to language was and especially this weird phenomenon of Jane Austen language, these six narrative worlds and what it means when you’re on the verge of letting that go. And it seemed to me that it kind of allows you to let it go because you can see that these novels have captured. What you could think, what you could feel, and that because these people have been reading them and rereading them throughout the vicissitudes of their lives, that the fact that the texts will persist and are still there allows them to let it go at the end. So pretty existential. I’m working it out in different keys, but that’s kind of what it’s that’s probably the heart of it.
S1: I just think that’s so, you know, like, exciting and fruitful. And, you know, especially when I think about it in the context of, you know, your your your earlier book like failures of feeling and like specifically like, you know, Bartleby and I would prefer not to and like moments of in sensibility and being unable. And I think, you know, especially in light of like, there’s been so much conversation this last year, especially on social media about like the idea of quote unquote para social relationships or that question of like, what do you do with like a superfluous amount of feeling towards someone who is not in a relationship back with you? And especially about that question of like Jane Knights, which for all that like there are also intense like fan clubs around Dickens. No one calls themselves a dick and it maybe there is a word for that, actually, but that question of like whether or not that particular attachment can get in the way of like a scholarly engagement or whether or not it is itself like an important type of relation that has been like, unfairly discounted as I think such a fascinating one. And I imagine especially, you know, in your in your own work, I don’t know if you think of the figure of the Jane eight as something to be like overcome or something to be held at arm’s length or something to be incorporated, or maybe all of the above.
S3: Oh well, first of all this, this episode should be called Danny explains the internet to Wendy like so Paris Social is that the phenomenon of a non reciprocal affective relationship that exists online or.
S1: Yeah. So I mean, I’m not familiar with the like formal development of the term. So, you know, I have a general sense of it being like a psychologically interpreted relationship. I couldn’t swear to you like if it came up mostly through like social media studies or if it came up through psychology research. But like the general idea is like, it’s the kind of, you know, psychological relationship that you know, an audience or a fan might have in like mediated experiences with celebrity. And so like, you know, the development of persona, the relationship of the celebrity persona is especially the one that gets discussed and the one that I’ve seen most regularly. I know there are many, many others, but the sort of like primary example I can think of from this last year is the comedian John Mulaney, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. He’s a popular comedian who who wears suits and sort of perhaps unexpectedly developed this really like robust response from from his audience about what type of a person he might be because of his up. And then earlier this year, he and his first wife divorced. He went to rehab. He began dating the actress, Olivia Munn, and they announced they were expecting a child together. And this was in a lot of ways, both fairly consistent with some of the persona that he had developed in his work. And it was also in other ways, challenging to the persona that he had developed in his work. And it was sort of leaving his audiences with this really like fruitful opportunity to read a lot of different types of like character or choice or types into like the sort of like bear stations of the cross of like, does comedy wear suit got a divorce, has new girlfriend, goes to rehab, and so like questions about like what people thought about, like whether or not a person who goes to rehab ought to also make life changing decisions, or whether or not a person who you know, once discussed loving their spouse is is somehow negating that by later getting a divorce. And so then there’s just this kind of like ongoing conversation about like, is this shocking? Is this a problem for my enjoyment of the celebrity persona of John Mulaney? And then this sort of ongoing question from from other parts of people that I also understand as being in Paris social relationships with this figure of sort of like you people who are being very upset about this. You have a Paris social relationship with the celebrity, and that’s bad. So the idea was sort of like, we don’t have one, you do, and it’s bad and you must tell yourself of it. And then there’s sort of. Like reaction to that, which was we all have our social relationships to celebrity. Ours is, as you know, legitimate as yours. And then that sort of further complication of yes, we might all have pair social relationships to various celebrities, but you know, perhaps yours could use more grounding or more distance or reconfiguring the way you see it. So it was just, yeah, it was this real like magic seeing a puzzle like Lady or the tiger, kind of a moment of like, what do you see when you look at this comedian in a suit getting divorced from his first wife, which is, of course, itself an incredibly common thing for comedians to do? Sorry, that was like a very long ago I catching you up on like a sort of fascinating conversation that was going on. Definitely. And I say fascinating and also like, gosh, that must be very strange for the celebrity in question.
S3: Well, I love the idea that Jane, it’s the phenomenon of Jane night is a very positive, buoyant iteration of para social love or attachment. And to your earlier question. Yes, the history and phenomenology of Jane, it’s really important to literary history and literary study, and I use my my two muses here that I would direct listeners if they’re interested in the work of Claudia Johnson at Princeton and Audrey Lynch at Harvard, both wonderful scholars on Jane, IITs and so many other Australians. Also think about Jane. It’s very carefully and historically used to be mostly men, by the way, the people who truly love Jane Austen.
S1: Do you have a sense, by the way, who coined the term for Luke who first used it?
S3: Yes. With the water supply. Oh, no, but he did write an important review of Emma and know it was Sainsbury, I think, in 1894, 1893, and then it gets probably more traction with the story called the Jane. It’s by Kipling to which is appended a strange poem called James Marriage, in which Kipling imagines Jane Austen ascending into heaven and all of the literary greats there, saying, What can we do for you? And then she says, Love the Angel’s run around to find out who love Jane Austen, and they find the guy that is her divine reward. And it’s her own character, Captain Wentworth. That’s Jane. It’s in a nutshell.
S1: That’s fascinating. I don’t know how I missed that, but I had no idea that Kipling wrote a poem about Jane Austen going to heaven and finding a boyfriend that she had made for herself on Earth by imagining him.
S3: Yes, and it caps off a story about shell-shocked or soldiers of the First World War coming back and remembering their brotherhood. Secret brotherhood of being Jane fights in the trenches, and they have a debate about the fact that Jane Austen had no children. And one of the soldier, Jane, I’d says. But she did have one son and his name was Henry James. Or, as he says and James,
S1: this is remarkable. All right, this is my new standard for intense parish social attraction. So unless you have written a poem about your particular celebrity going to heaven and finding one of their own fictional creations waiting there to marry them as a present for the angels, you have not yet reached the sort of pinnacle of power of social attachment. Thank you so much for that. That is fascinating.
S3: So, John Mulaney, eat your heart out Wendy. It was a
S1: delight to talk to you today. I am so excited for your next book, and I’m just so grateful to you for spending some time talking about John Mulaney and group texts with me.
S3: I am excited for all of your things, and I have enjoyed this so much. Thank you so much.
S4: Thank you for joining us on big mood, a little mood with me. Danny Lavery, our producer, is Phil Surkis, who also composed our theme music. Don’t miss an episode of the show. Head to Slate.com slash mood to sign up to subscribe or hit the Subscribe button on whatever platform you’re using right now. Thanks. Also, if you can, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. We’d love to know what you think. If you want more big mood, little mood, you should join Slate Plus Slate’s membership program members get an extra episode of Big Mood A Little Mood every Friday, and you’ll get to hear more advice and conversations with the guest. And as a Slate Plus member, you’ll also be supporting the show. Go to Slate.com Forward Slash Mood Plus to sign up. It’s just $1 for your first month. If you’d like me to read your letter on the show, maybe need a little advice, maybe some vague advice. Head to Slate.com slash mood to find our big mood, a little mood listener question form or find a link in the description on the platform you’re using right now. Thanks for listening!
S1: And here’s a preview of our Slate Plus episode coming this Friday. I have learned my threshold for a fight is often anything less than perfect unanimity, anything less than I love you. So our hearts are one, our minds are one. Our will is one. We are Brother Dawn, Brother Day and Brother Dusk from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. And we want the same thing at all times in every directions. A perfect, infinite crystal refracting on and on before us and behind us. And they have different perspectives, which is horrible to listen to. The rest of that conversation joined Slate Plus, now at Slate.com forward slash mood.