Our Hearts Were Young and Gay: On Weakness, Strength, and Friendship -The Toast

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bookcoverFelix Kent’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

Between the ages of 18 and 24 I went through a phase of thinking I was good at engaging with other women. Actually becoming friends was mysterious and unpredictable. Love is. Still I believed in courting the possibility; I thought I was good at courting the possibility.

There is a (nonfiction) book called Our Hearts Were Young and Gay which I read over and over again when I was a child. It came out in 1942, more than thirty years before I was born, and it has the failures of a book of that era, although they are hard for me to judge because the book grafted onto my nervous system early. My parents had a copy and each set of my grandparents had a copy, and I think of it as being everywhere, although I have never talked to anyone unrelated to me who has read it.

In case you are one of those that haven’t: Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, age 22, take a trip to Europe, meaning England and France (mostly France) sometime in the 1920s.

Cornelia and Emily buy dogs that pee on the seats of the Ritz Hotel. They accidentally spend the night in a bordello. They are in desperate need of a box of matches and when Emily finds one in her pocket it turns out they’ve all been used. Cornelia and Emily learn about sex from a picture of Leda and the Swan in the Cluny Museum. It sounds, and perhaps is, a little trivial. Cornelia’s parents hover in the background, taking the girls out to dinner, introducing them around (H.G. Wells!). Cornelia’s mother is charming, doting, and a little dotty, her father eccentric and amused. They backstop Cornelia and Emily so that even incidents that carry real danger (the boat sinks; Cornelia gets measles) float like soap bubbles through the book.

I re-read the book recently for the first time in years. It had sat in a corner of my mind as a book I had loved for no real reason. When I entered my teens I put it aside on charges of sentimentality, lack of literary merit, having nothing to do with my life. Re-reading it, I roared and roared and roared. I still have a hard time explaining why I love it so, or why exactly the scene in which they purchase identical capes of white fur and wear them out to dinner brings me to tears of joy. But there is something at the very heart of the book, something about extending yourself to the outside world and allowing yourself to be permeated by it, that matters a lot to me. Also just these two women, doing things, being friends, screwing up — together.


During the time when I thought I was good at engaging with other women, I thought that weakness was a good way to reach them. I believed that most people, men and women alike, desperately wanted the opportunity to be more human in their interactions. The world forced us to be strong in dealing with the outside world; showing each other our weaknesses defied that world. But men, faced with that sort of invitation from a stranger, were mostly too scared to respond, whereas women could slip into and out of sharing their secret selves. At corporate cocktail parties, I caught the eyes of women. “This,” I said to them, “is really really weird. I suck at this.” They looked at me, smiled, nodded. There we were, two people together.

Things that had only a few years before burned me with shame were funny stories, were anecdotes. The lice I carted through Europe the summer after my senior year. The bad poetry I wrote in high school. The time my mother took me to get my hair cut at the expensive place, when I, baffled by the short robe that was to sub in for my shirt, emerged with my pants off as well, much to my mother’s horror. These were the stories I told. This was how I made friends.

In my late twenties, I fell apart. Everything burned, and nothing was funny. I drank too much and didn’t eat and I chased the wrong men and I couldn’t seem to do my job and I locked myself out of my apartment twice in a three-day period and I walked home from work alone across the city at 2:00 a.m.

I had brunch with my one of my closest friends when things were at their worst. She had watched me slide for a while. One of the ways I knew I was sliding was seeing it in her eyes. Now I had quit my job and I was lost. I picked at my French toast with caramelized bananas. She looked at all that I hadn’t eaten. She asked a question. I don’t remember what it was. It hurt me; it made me feel doubly lost.

I said, “I don’t question your values — I don’t question your life.” This seemed an adequate response; I’m not sure why. I remember feeling as though I was on fire. My friend told me that I was being manipulative. I wasn’t sure what she meant by it. I burst into tears. We sat on a concrete wall in the gray Los Angeles sunlight. I cried. She said, “That’s better.” She patted my shoulder. From the outside it must have looked like a happy ending, like a rapprochement.

I was crying with fury. I was enraged that she had dared to judge me. I went back to my house, and I chain-smoked and stormed. I don’t think I said, “Of all the nerve!” but that would have been the intertitle.

I never talked to my friend about it afterwards; I didn’t see the point. We are still friends, and the scene doesn’t look to me now the way it did then. Even at the time, I expected that. I expected more than that, having learned how things shift in my mind. I expected to wake one day and find myself purely grateful for my friend’s concern, rueful at my own defiance of my obvious wounds.

But as many things as I have changed my mind about in the intervening years, I have never gotten to a point of disavowing that anger. I don’t feel bad about my inner conviction that I was, basically, fine, or my sense of betrayal that she could not see it. My anger was my strength. It was my determination to find my own way through — to measure the world by my own standards.

When I picked up Our Hearts Were Young and Gay this time, I was looking for a particular thread. Cornelia and Emily wrote the book together, but it is told entirely in the voice of Cornelia. And when I read the book as a kid, it seemed to me there was a shadow story, underneath the pratfalls, in which Cornelia is genuinely less than Emily. Emily dresses simply but smartly. Emily has stylish luggage. Emily moves with grace. Emily (period detail alert!) has a broken engagement.

It is hard for me now to say if this shadow story is real or if I projected it onto the page out of my own fears. I was obsessed as a child with the idea of myself as less than others. I believed this to be factually correct and, at the same time, spent a lot of energy trying to convince myself that it was not true. When I read Our Hearts Were Young and Gay it made me think there was something to it. It bothered me so much that I talked to my mother. She said, “Well, remember that Cornelia’s the one they’re using as the narrator.” Cornelia was the narrator, and so Cornelia needed to be presented as larger, clumsier, less suave. The woman telling her own story operated from a position of strength and was therefore obligated to disavow her strength — that was a convention of this sort of book.

It is a convention, in fact, of the way some women present themselves to each other; it was a convention that I tapped into in my ideas about making friends. And yet. There is comic vulnerability and there is real vulnerability. There is the vulnerability that says, I am so bad at keeping my house clean, and there is the vulnerability that says, I believe myself to be lovable but wonder if I am correct. I am most truly vulnerable not in my weaknesses, but in my strengths. My family comes to visit and I cook dinner. As I serve it to them, I am saying, implicitly, This is good. And I lay myself open to negation. My assertions are more precarious than my deprecations.

For this reason, I have great regard for women who have no truck with this kind of thing. I once presented a set of facts to a woman I consider a mentor, tacking on the caveat that I could be wrong, because I am wrong, more than sometimes. She looked me dead in the eyes. She has very large beautiful eyes — she is also more than six feet tall. She is magnificent. “Not about anything important, I hope.” I was both rebuked and unregenerate. Because I am wrong about all kinds of things. Even important ones.

familycircleThe deprecations and fears come from real hurts. Six years after Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cornelia published a memoir called The Family Circle. It starts with Cornelia’s mother, a toddler at the time, being savagely beaten by Cornelia’s grandfather. So you know that this is going to be a very different kind of book. The Family Circle takes the pieces of Cornelia’s family that we are shown in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and reflects them back with real pain. In that book, Cornelia describes her mother as having the capacity to “take the heart out of [her] as neatly as an apple cutter tunnels out the core of a Jonathan.” I think of the way Cornelia’s wounds are both heavy and light. I think of the ways my own heart has been tunneled out of me from time to time.

In Leslie Jamison’s (brilliant) essay on wounded women, she writes, “There is a way of representing female consciousness that can witness pain but also witness a larger self around that pain — a self who grows larger than its scars without disowning them, who is neither wound-dwelling nor jaded, who is actually healing.” What I have found with my own scars is that they neither heal nor fail to heal. They come and they go. They pain me more or they pain me less. It depends on my emotional weather. The small humiliations and triumphs and sentiments out of which Cornelia and Emily cobble together their adulthood are also deep pains and joys. A perfectly normal life is also always a forge for the human soul.

I get older and less sure every year about how to navigate my way around the world with kindness and respect. I don’t think I’m good at making friends. I do think I’m lucky. I do think that we are all desperate for a chance to be human with each other. I do think (reductive though it no doubt is) that in general women are better at taking that chance than men, having been better trained to do so.

And I am more aware than ever of the defects of weakness as a mode of self-presentation. For one thing, it is fake. All ingratiation is fake, but this one has more layers of fake-ness than most. False modesty conceals real pride which in turn covers up real wounds, a kind of cotton-candy conversation in a Henry James novel. It plays up a stereotyped version of womanhood with roots in inequality and contempt. And perhaps its biggest defect is that for it to work, the woman you are talking to must consider you basically an equal. Meaning that whatever its virtues, it will not in itself act as an antidote to the racism, classism, homophobia, and transmisogyny that poison our groundwater, that it can in fact be used to replicate those same poisons. (It’s not exactly an accident that Cornelia and Emily are white, nor that they met at Bryn Mawr.)

And yet I continue to depend on this way of speaking, continue, even, to prize it, because it expresses a truth that most ways of talking to strangers do not. Namely, we are all, men and women alike, shivering small creatures in a world specializing in not giving us what we want. And those things that make us strong and keep us alive in body and spirit are, often, not the things that the world acknowledges as virtues. Sometimes it is nice to have a way of speaking that says, however glibly, that the surface of the world is a strange and hostile place for which we are ill-suited. Sometimes it opens the door for love.

In one of my high school classes we had to write a letter to ourselves in ten years. Mercifully, I immediately lost the letter. I remember the main thrust of it, though. Which was, I hope you are better off than me. I hope you are better loved, more content, better looking. But you had damn well better remember that you are me. Don’t go thinking that I’m a fool, my past self warned my future self. I know you’ll want to put me down, but don’t. I am you. I am just as real and human as you.

I have thought of it and found it funny, that hectoring tone; I have thought of it and ached for my high-school self. But the letter did what I wanted it to when I wrote it — its flaunting of weakness proclaimed my full humanity. It kept me from forgetting myself.

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