Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Tuesday, October 18, 2022: Maximum Shelf: B.F.F.

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found by Christine Tate

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found by Christine Tate

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found by Christine Tate

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found by Christine Tate

B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found

by Christie Tate

Christie Tate, who bared it all in her therapy memoir Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Changed My Life, lovingly and movingly turns her attention to the complications and joys of adult friendships in her second memoir, B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found. Her raw, intimate exploration of platonic connections between adults offers readers insights into what it takes to build--and maintain--a true relationship. Through the lens of an unexpected friendship with Meredith, a woman she meets in a recovery group, Tate peels back the layers of her own psyche to offer readers a raw, honest perspective on friendships and the formative role they play in every era of our lives. With Meredith as her "witness-partner-friend-guide," Tate moves from a place of believing she just isn't meant to have close friendships ("Meredith and I both believed that we simply weren't cut out for go-the-distance friendships with women") to a place of embracing the real, messy, joyous work of them.

She shows that work across the pages of B.F.F., writing with a sometimes stunning sense of vulnerability and deep introspection. (In the prologue, Tate writes, "Through [Meredith], I learned to tolerate the vagaries of friendship, address the pain of competition with and envy of other women, and confront the lie of my own unworthiness.") Tate's willingness to look inward and then share with the world that deeply personal thinking couches the emotional story of how two women found each other within the larger context of how doing so allowed them each to ultimately find themselves. The result is a memoir that ruminates on the many ways friendship shows up through the course of a life.

As she unpacks her lifelong issues with jealousy and doubt, recounting episodes of self-harm and addiction, Tate comes ever closer to the discovery that friendship is as complicated as life, and yet can be just as rewarding. She confides in Meredith her struggle with a triangulated friendship, and how it reminds her of other similar dynamics in three-way relationships; Meredith responds with stories of her own. "It was with Meredith's help that I'd learned how to be a friend," she writes. "A bona fide, true-blue, long-term, steady friend." That means accepting that each friendship comes with ups and downs, highs and lows--and that those are not a detractor of true friendships, but rather the making of them. This revelation feels at once so simple yet so complex, so obvious yet so hard to truly know, and Tate leaves the noticing up to readers, with all of the nuance implied within those contradictions.

It's also a recognition that comes crashing to the forefront of Tate's own life when Meredith is diagnosed with cancer several years into their still-nascent friendship. Feeling slightly insecure in the role she plays in Meredith's life (and vice versa), Tate finds herself unexpectedly invited in to Meredith's dying days: "Either I was mistaken to be surprised by my front row seat, or she'd mistakenly offered it to me." Tate does, for her, something different in this moment of pain and hardship in a friendship: she sticks around, owning her place in the chosen company of an impossible transition, accepting her inability to show up perfectly and instead determined to just show up. She sets aside her expectations of and desire for "intimate friendships without complications" and instead holds space for Meredith, for herself, for all of those grieving the end of a too-short life, in the days leading up to it and in the days following.

At some point in this march toward Meredith's death, Tate tells her she'd like to write their story--promising, at Meredith's request, "a happy ending." And while real life may not always mimic a fairy-tale happy ending--particularly as readers cry along with Tate through the stories of Meredith's last days--the growth Tate shows across the pages of this stirring account are the most realistic form of a happy ending: messy, chaotic and beautiful. "Tell them how we changed by holding each other's hand as we looked honestly at ourselves. Tell how one life can alter another." B.F.F. does just that, offering an intimate look at the friendship between these two women and how it shaped them both. And while it is unsurprising that Tate's memoir is focused particularly on friendships between adult women--given that both Tate and Meredith enter into their friendship as adult women--these lessons of personal growth, building community and showing up are applicable across ages and gender identities. B.F.F. is as tender and complex as the friendship stories it contains, a heartfelt exploration of mental health, holding space, and the great beauty to be found within the messy love between true friends. --Kerry McHugh

Avid Reader Press, $28, hardcover, 304p., 9781668009420, February 7, 2023

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found by Christine Tate

Christie Tate: Mining the Mystery of Friendship

(Photo: Mary Rafferty)

Christie Tate is a writer and essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney's and other print and digital platforms. She lives in Chicago with her husband and children. Tate's debut memoir, Group, detailed her transformational participation in group therapy. She brings the same intimacy and vulnerability to B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found (Avid Reader Press, February 7, 2023), in which she explores the role of friendship in her adult life through the lens of a budding friendship with Meredith, who develops a fatal illness.

B.F.F. is about friendships, particularly adult friendships. What prompted you to start writing about this subject?

My whole life, I thought of friendship as this great mystery. I had a lot of shame and strife, unease around the whole concept of friendship. It looked to me like everybody else was having a great time, an ease and flow that I never felt for very long. I really wanted to investigate that. Why did I struggle in friendship? Where did it come from? I had spent a lot of time writing and thinking about romantic relationships, and actually had just as much energy around friendship; I wanted to bring that front and center in this book.

I got married after spending a lot of my 20s agonizing about my loneliness and dying alone. Then when I looked up, I realized I had just as many problems with my female friendships, and I very much got the sense that if I didn't have the right support, I wouldn't be able to stay married. I was going to need a group of girlfriends who knew me intimately if I was going to be able to have a motherhood and wifehood in any sort of sane capacity.

One of the questions you ask over the course of your memoir is about the incompatibility of that kind of intimacy with a sense of ease. Where do you land on that now?

Early on in my adulthood, I understood that I was a person for whom intimacy was extremely uncomfortable. I had tolerance for that with my romantic relationships, but it took me much longer to accept and tolerate that the same part of me that was scared of intimacy with men was also operating in my friendships--so this notion that it was supposed to be easy was just not realistic. Maybe it is for other women, but the way I do intimacy comes with a lot of big feelings in every direction. I tend to gravitate toward and bond with people who also have big feelings, and [that] doesn't always mean Instagrammable, golden-hued moments. They can be painful, but ultimately, those are the kind of relationships that I want with men and women and nonbinary folks. That requires work, and the kind of work that is sometimes gutting and not that fun.

You make that work very apparent throughout B.F.F.

It was actually so much harder to write than Group, which very, very much surprised me. Group had these narrative tropes: I was dating this kind of guy, and I was this kind of girl, and look what I did. When I sat down to write about friendship, it was so different: What kind of a girl was I in fourth grade? What kind of friendship was I available for? How did it look at 18? How did my addiction interfere? I felt so much less stable in the narratives of friendship that I carried, and also I'm still in the mess--and glory--of becoming a friend. It's somehow easier to talk as a woman about men and sex and exploits and dating; it surprised me that it was way more intimate and uncomfortable to talk about love in friendship.

It's really vulnerable to love. It sounds so basic, but it really is. And this is how I love, in these contexts, on the page.

What did it feel like to put not just your own experience of friendship on the page like that, but to include so much of Meredith in the process?

It has kept me so close to her, and when I imagine having conversations about the book, we're going to be talking about Meredith, and that makes me feel so happy. She would get such a kick out of it. There's the great delight that this book keeps her alive for me and for readers, and there's also the anxiety. Have I done right by her? Have I said enough to make her real, without violating her privacy, or giving away more than she would have wanted the world to have?

I take that responsibility seriously, even though she's gone. I want to honor her always, in my memories, and I'm so grateful that I started to write about her while she was still able to read what I wrote. My intention was always to do right by her and her family.

It also feels timely, to be thinking about the journey of friendship and intimacy after these years of social distancing and so much loss.

While I was holed up with my family in the pandemic, I experienced such profound loneliness. I kept thinking, when we're able to roam about the country again, I'm going to put my money where my mouth is, not taking friendship for granted. I'm going to go be with people.

I remember reading somewhere along the way in a study that it takes 200+ hours to become a close friend. It can be so hard to get the time in, but writing about it really helped reinforce my own values around friendship and the effort that I wanted to make to see people who are near and far. Before, friendship was different on the priority scale, and now it's moved way up because I realize I need that part of a social safety network. And my family needs that network, and I want to model for my children how to put together a life full of people who are friends and what that means. You have to put in the time, and I want to live that, now, really urgently.

Any connection I make with a friend now feels like making amends to my past self and past friendships. I did not always have the wherewithal or the bandwidth or the emotional availability to be a good friend, and I have it today. I remember that every day, and the way that I cope with that loss here is to go forward today as a different person.

What advice would you offer to readers who might be trying to find, cultivate, strengthen their own friendships?

I built up friendship as this vast mystery that had nothing to do with me, so it made it hard just to say, hey, do you want to go to coffee? It took me a few years to build up my ability to initiate, but I was always the recipient of people saying to me, "Do you want to join us?" "Would you like to get lunch?" I always thought those weren't real. And they weren't real because I didn't treat them as real, but they could have been.

Start from where you are and keep it simple. At this stage in my life, it's moms at my kid's school, or other writers, or colleagues; there are people right there open and willing. Pick one and start. --Kerry McHugh

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