Letter to an Ex-Friend

Letter to an Ex-Friend


Hey Amelia,

Do you think things would have been different if we were dudes? Weird thing to ask you considering we haven’t spoken in over a year, I know, but the answer seems so obvious to me: yes. The type of passive-aggressive tension and jealousy that ended (but also maybe fueled) our friendship seems to me to be an almost exclusively feminine experience. Now I’m not trying to psychoanalyze you (OK, I am a little), but your actions weren’t particularly difficult to read at times (although other times they were nearly impossible). From friendships with other people to romantic relationships, you somehow always seemed to feel like you were losing me to someone else. 

Remember when you apologized to Alex for “all of seventh grade”? Do you think a thirteen-year-old boy has ever done that? I’m not even convinced they can feel guilt! You spent all year lightly bullying Alex for the crime of occupying a similar role in my life to you. But it’s not like I was perfect; I let it happen. I’ve never been good at defining just one person as my best friend but I always wanted others to define me as theirs. You always made it clear that I was yours and your refusal to accept Alex into our friend group evidenced that, so I didn’t interfere. Jealousy can, and has, destroyed friendships, but in this sense it can also solidify them.

Jealousy exists in multiple forms within female friendships. The jealousy described above I’d categorize as external jealousy. This type I was able to see more clearly in our relationship because it was, well, externalized. External jealousy is focused on someone external to the friendship. Someone who you feel is taking your friend away in one capacity or another. Internal jealousy, however, exists within the confines of the friendship. It’s often not expressed as blatantly as external jealousy; in fact, it’s rarely acknowledged at all because of the shame associated with having negative feelings towards a friend. Internal jealousy, while seemingly unavoidable from all accounts I’ve been privy to, is looked down upon by society and thus harder to study in others. 

Which brings me to my next question for you, Amelia: have you read My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante? If not, I think you should. Ferrante breaks through the social conventions of “appropriate” emotions and allows for internal jealousy to be on full display throughout the novel. I wonder if you would relate more to Elena or Lila. When I read it, I felt like you were the Elena to my Lila. Is that rude? I’m not sure. Maybe don’t read the book now that I’ve told you that.

Anyway, yes, told from the perspective of Elena, the book revolves almost entirely around her complicated friendship with Lila. From jealousy over Lila’s intelligence, to jealousy over Lila’s other friendships, to jealousy over the male attention Lila receives, to, you guessed it, jealousy over Lila’s romantic partner. Sound familiar? Sorry, that feels a little mean maybe, but c’mon, you were there just as well as I was. You know how poorly you reacted to my incorporation of Alex into our friend group. You remember what you said to me when I started dating Felix. The external jealousy lines up. As for the internal jealousy, only you really know your experience of that, but I would love to know if it lined up with Elena’s. From my end, I will not deny my desire to be the best at school. To receive the most male attention. To want that jealous response, if I’m being completely honest.

So, what overarching structure connects Elena and Lila’s friendship set in post-war Naples to our friendship in Stow, Massachusetts during the 2010s? Why is it that sixty years later and an ocean apart girls are still fighting over the same things with their friends and having the same jealous insecurities about these friendships? Is jealousy truly built-in to female friendships?

To suggest that female friendships are predicated on jealousy feels like a betrayal of my gender, but it’s hard to deny. Jealousy is often written off as a bad trait found in insecure people, but Ferrante’s honest recount of a long lasting female friendship fueled by jealousy encourages the reader to consider the bigger picture. It asks the reader to question why jealousy is the chosen outlet for platonic love amongst women and why two friends would feel as if they are in constant competition if they truly care for one another. The narration often expresses Elena’s own confusion surrounding her thoughts and feelings towards Lila, suggesting that there is an aspect of emotion that is entirely out of our control as individuals. Something external must fuel these feelings. 

To reinstate my status as a feminist after the above betrayal, I will now blame this phenomenon entirely on the patriarchy. I said at the beginning of this letter (note? email to never be sent?) that it felt like you always thought you were losing me to someone else. As if every new friend or partner owned a part of me and therefore you lost that part. And I think that’s it: ownership. Female friendships can’t help but be affected by the mindset embedded into patriarchal society of women as property, as objects.

External jealousy as a result of the objectification of women is somewhat straightforward: if all relationships women are part of take on the owner-object dynamic, then each new owner diminishes the hold that previous owners have. They now own a part of her that others can’t have. This dynamic is particularly apparent when the woman enters into a romantic relationship (especially a heterosexual one) or when a friend suspects a relationship of this nature is forming. That being said, external jealousy can also be directed towards a friend’s other female friends. For example, when Elena first notices Lila spending time with Carmela Peluso she admits, “I felt that Lila no longer wanted to be my friend, and that idea brought on a weary exhaustion.”1 Despite having made a new friend herself in Gigliola Spagnuolo, and even confessing that she “was glad to be [at school] with [Gigliola] rather than with Lila,”2 Elena still feels as though she is losing her friend to someone else. This form of cognitive dissonance, in which Elena can understand that she is capable of having more than one friendship but not that Lila is similarly capable, is a byproduct of the contradictions of the patriarchy. Telling women that they are objects to be owned conflicts with their first-hand knowledge of their own agency, creating an understanding of oneself as a non-object. An innate understanding of one’s own autonomy is hard to deny, extending this understanding to all other women, however, proves more difficult. While it would be logically consistent to generalize the awareness of agency in oneself to the existence of agency in all women (and therefore the impossibility of a woman to be property akin to an object), a leap of logic is not as inherently convincing as one’s personal experience, especially when such a leap would flagrantly oppose the dominant culture. Elena believes that another person has the power to take Lila away from her. Such a belief takes root in Elena’s subconscious treatment of Lila as property; a belief instilled in her by the patriarchy.

I know how threatened you felt by my other relationships, Amelia. I mean, you weren’t exactly subtle. How subtle was I? Could you tell I felt the same way? I’m not sure that I even recognized what I was doing when I pushed people away that I sensed you may grow close to (sorry Mary!). To this day, I constantly feel threatened by my female friends forming new bonds with other people. An awareness of it is one thing, but overcoming it is a much different thing entirely.

More jealousy-inducing than friendships, though, is the threat of romantic relationships. When a woman enters into a relationship with a man, she is perceived by society as his property. Why do you think the most foolproof line to get a guy to leave you alone is “I have a boyfriend”? Men are more likely to respect a woman’s unavailability if she is already another man’s property than to just respect her own agency. As dominant culture is shaped by men, this view of relationships has wormed its way into all of our minds. Bathing Lila before her wedding, Elena is overcome by a whirlwind of complex and contradicting emotions but “in the end there was only one hostile thought that [she] was washing [Lila], from her hair to the soles of her feet, early in the morning, just so that Stefano could sully her in the course of the night.”3 Despite seeing all of Lila in that moment, Elena still feels as though Stefano owns parts of Lila that she never will. That she is secondary to him, as he is becoming her primary owner. Sex as a consecration of ownership is integral to the patriarchy. The ultimate declaration of ownership is to “sully” a woman for others. In this way, romantic relationships with the existence of, or potential for, sex are a strong source of jealousy within female friendships. You would know this better than anyone, Amelia, I have to say. Your jealousy over the potential intimacy of my romantic relationships was not exactly hidden. I wonder if you still feel in the right about that situation? I don’t think I want to know the answer.

As for internal jealousy, the role of objectification is slightly less obvious. This type of jealousy seems to revolve around one of two things: escaping one’s fate as an object or having the most value as an object. As I’ve mentioned, Amelia, your experience of internal jealousy is a bit more of a mystery to me. I never knew the extent of what was going on in your head but I know some things. I know you guiltily craved male validation just as I did and just as Elena did (and I would hazard a guess that Lila did as well).

It’s all supply and demand. Market value (within a capitalist society) is defined by a) rarity and b) desirability. When you are socialized to view yourself as an object, as someone’s potential property, you are keenly aware of your own market value at all times. Male validation is our own fucked-up measure of desirability, of our market value (a value inextricably connected to beauty standards out of our control). This form of internal jealousy revolves around the constant analysis of the quantity (in addition to, but explicitly not subsidiary to, the quality) of male validation you receive compared to that of your friends as well as a constant comparison of traits in hopes of unique beauty.

Elena is beginning to discover the drug of male attention at the same time that she begins attending dances at a friend’s house. She notices that the men at these dances are entranced with Lila, commenting that “they kept their eyes on her as if we others had disappeared.”4 To feel as if you have disappeared in the eyes of men (the consumer) is the greatest possible blow to your value as a woman (the object). In her inability to understand Lila’s allure, Elena begins to cite qualities in her and her friends that set them apart from one another, and particularly from Lila. Qualities that, due to their uniqueness amongst their group of friends, add to their appeal. “And yet I had bigger breasts,” Elena says. “And yet Gigliola was a dazzling blonde, with regular features and nice legs. And yet Carmela had beautiful eyes and, especially, provocative movements.”5

I remember how the two of us would go back-and-forth pointing out the rarity of our hair and eye color combinations. You with your light red hair (which I always envied) and blue eyes, and me with the same blue eyes but dark brown, almost black hair. You touted the fact that you supposedly had the rarest combination of phenotypes. I was jealous of you. I now realize that you were likely compensating for feeling as though your value (as it relates to beauty) was diminished compared to others. We could state as much as we liked how rare our features were (I was all too proud to be a Jew with a small nose), but explaining why you should be worthy of male attention never held a candle to receiving it. Receiving it was proof, everything else was just compensation. Lila had the proof that Elena so wanted and thus Elena understood that “there was nothing to be done: something had begun to emanate from Lila’s mobile body that the males sensed, an energy that dazed them.6 ” To know that your value in the eyes of society is less than that of your friend is bound to put a strain on your friendship and to fuel internal jealousy. In this way, regardless of one’s academic or theoretical objection to patriarchal ideals, the effect of these views on the psyche in real life is impossible to avoid, particularly during adolescence. Jealousy is ingrained in us from years of socialization, and our relationship, Amelia, as well as Elena and Lila’s relationship exists as proof of that conditioning. 

Regarding the other form of internal jealousy (the seemingly more “feminist” form tied to escaping the patriarchy), the concept of ownership still reigns supreme in the creation of jealousy. A main point of tension between Elena and Lila is education. Elena is jealous of Lila’s natural intelligence while Lila envies Elena’s opportunities to learn. Both view what the other has— intelligence, opportunity— as a potential escape from their traditional community and presupposed life path of marriage to the (metaphorical) highest bidder.

Elena and Lila’s escape fantasy is based on their shared desire to become authors. Coming from a poor community with a few comparatively wealthy members, they witness first hand how wealth is directly correlated with autonomy. The wealthier members of the community are reliant on no one and seemingly do whatever they want. On the surface, they fantasize about wealth, but truly they desire autonomy: “we said, when we’re rich we’ll do this, we’ll do that.”7

As young children, wealth was a vague, mythical concept, imagined as “treasure chests that, when opened, would be gleaming with gold”8 that one just needed to stumble upon. As they grew older, though, they “began to link school to wealth.”9 According to Elena, they “thought that if [they] studied hard [they] would be able to write books and that the books would make [them] rich.”10 A joint escape plan was formulated on the basis of their co-authorship. 

What differs between the two, however, is what they feel they lack to achieve this goal. Lila feels as though, without the educational opportunities Elena is receiving, it’s foolish to believe that she could become a successful author. When Elena asks Lila to read and edit a short piece of writing she had done for a newspaper, Lila initially refuses. Finally, convinced by Elena to take a look, she makes a few changes. Once finished, though, she tells Elena “I don’t want to read anything else that you write.”11 When asked why she simply says “because it hurts me.”12 In this moment, her wasted potential is on full display. Elena is writing a piece to be published while she is mere weeks away from getting married at sixteen. Elena has the opportunity to complete their escape plan while Lila’s position as property of a man is about to be solidified. 

But Elena also feels lacking. Entering middle school without Lila, Elena “looked forward to a school where [Lila] would never enter, where, in [Lila’s] absence, [she] would be the best student.”13 Quickly, middle school proved difficult for Elena and “the idea began to quietly form that without Lila [she] would never feel the pleasure of belonging to that exclusive group of the best.”14 Even with a much higher level of education than Lila, Elena feels as though her academic abilities pale in comparison to Lila’s. This insecurity is put on display after Elena receives a letter from Lila. She is struck by the quality of prose and immediately begins comparing her own abilities: “Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote… even though she had stopped going to school.”15 Elena recognizes that Lila has not had the same educational opportunities as her but still views Lila as the superior writer and thus better able to achieve their shared dream than she is. She goes so far as to describe herself as a “fraud” and assert that “school, with [her], had made a mistake and proof was there, in Lila’s letter.”16 School was their route to wealth, to freedom from ownership, but in comparison to Lila, Elena felt as though she could not take that route successfully. It seemed to Elena that Lila possessed a quality that Elena did not which was necessary to the completion of the dream that school had inspired in them.

Lila tries to channel her intelligence into shoemaking and business for some time but realizes that honest, self-made success within her neighborhood is likely impossible. Her way out of the neighborhood was education and she missed that opportunity. Lila’s decision to marry Stefano marks her abandonment of the escape fantasy entirely. Once she feels that she cannot escape her fate as property through education (or any other means), she surrenders to the institution of marriage. Directly before her wedding, Lila, referring to the wedding shoes that she had designed, states “look: the mind’s dreams have ended up under the feet.”17 This poignant observation is, unfortunately, thematic to her life story. She recognizes her wasted potential and though we do not get Lila’s inner monologue, based on her actions, I find it impossible to believe that it doesn’t fuel some type of quiet, internal jealousy towards Elena. Remarkably, she channels this jealousy into pushing Elena to pursue higher education, to make the most of the opportunities that she was not afforded.

I wish we had been able to do that, Amelia. I think that’s what our friendship lacked. It’s impossible to escape the trappings of the patriarchy but the negative emotions created by patriarchal ideals outside our control can be channeled into positive actions. We weren’t so good at that part. We let jealousy take over. I wonder where we would be today if you had expressed your jealousy over my other relationships by trying to spend more one-on-one time with me rather than pulling away and lashing out. If, instead of basking in my superiority or wallowing in my inferiority, I could offer or accept help when relevant so that we both could benefit. Maybe our friendship was doomed to fail for other reasons. Maybe we just weren’t compatible people for each other’s lives. But, after reading My Brilliant Friend, I can’t help but appreciate the minefield of confusing and contradictory emotions we (somewhat unsuccessfully) navigated together. I don’t regret our friendship and I hope you don’t either.

Tell Eleanor I say hi!




  1. Ferrante, Elena. My Brilliant Friend. (Europa Editions: 2011), 93.
  2. Ibid., 92.
  3. Ibid., 313.
  4. Ibid., 143.
  5. Ibid., 143.
  6. Ibid., 143.
  7. Ibid., 70.
  8. Ibid., 70.
  9. Ibid., 70.
  10. Ibid., 70.
  11. Ibid., 300.
  12. Ibid., 301.
  13. Ibid., 227.
  14. Ibid., 227.
  15. Ibid., 227.
  16. Ibid., 227.
  17. Ibid., 314.
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