At first, they were just names to me.
Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny.
Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana.
They arrived, unheralded, in my email inbox one morning in June 2003. The email came from Jenny, who offered three understated paragraphs about her relationship with these women. She explained that they grew up together in Ames, Iowa, where as little girls their friendship flourished. Though all have since moved away — to Minnesota, California, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Massachusetts, Montana "“ they remain a powerful, loving presence in each other's lives. Now entering their forties, Jenny wrote, they're bonded by a lifetime of shared laughs, and by more than a few heartbreaking memories.
After I read Jenny's email, I sent her a quick reply, thanking her for writing. Then I printed out her message to me, bundled it up with a couple hundred other emails I received that day, and put it in the bottom of a filing cabinet, where it remained untouched for three years.
Jenny had contacted me because I write a column for The Wall Street Journal called "Moving On." The column focuses on life transitions, everything from a child's first crush to a dying husband's last words to his wife. Though the Journal covers the heart of the financial world, my editors have embraced the idea that we must also tend to the hearts of our readers. And so they've given me freedom to do just that. There are a thousand emotionally charged transitions that we all face in our lives, and most come without a roadmap. That's the territory of my column.
Jenny decided to tell me about the girls from Ames (and yes, they still call themselves "girls") after reading a column I'd written about the turning points in women's friendships. The column focused on why women, more than men, have great urges to hold on tightly to old friends. Sociologists now have data showing that women who can maintain friendships through the decades are healthier and happier, with stronger marriages. Not all women are able to sustain those friendships, however. It's true that countless grade-school girls arrange themselves in pairs, duos, threesomes and foursomes, vowing to be best friends forever. But as they reach adulthood, everything gets harder. Between ages 25 and 40, women's friendships are most at risk, because those are the years when women are often consumed with marrying, raising children and establishing careers.
For that column, I spoke to women who had nurtured decades-long friendships. They said they felt like traveling companions, sharing the same point on the timeline, hitting the same milestones together "“ 30, 40, 50, 80. They believed their friendships thrived because they had raised some expectations and lowered others. They had come to expect loyalty and good wishes from each other, but not constant attention. If a friend didn't return an email or phone call, they realized, it didn't mean she was angry or backing away from the friendship; she was likely just exhausted from her day. Researchers who study friendship say that if women are still friends at age 40, there's a strong likelihood they'll be lifelong friends. "Female friends show us a mirror of ourselves," one researcher told me.
That column ran in The Wall Street Journal on a Thursday, and by 5 a.m. that morning, emails from readers began filling my inbox. Every few minutes, well into the weekend, I'd get an email from yet another woman proudly telling me about her group of friends:
"We've gotten together twice a year ever since we graduated high school in 1939"¦"
"We met in Phoenix and call ourselves Phriends Phorever"¦"
"We've had lunch together every Wednesday since 1973"¦"
"My girlfriends and I joke that when the time comes, we'll all just check into the same nursing home"¦"
"I'm only 23, but your article gives me hope that I will hold on to my friends for life"¦"
One reader told me about her grandmother's eight friends, all from the class of '89 "“ that's 1889! They stayed remarkably close for 65 years, and even when they reached their eighties, they still called themselves "The Girls."
And then there was the letter from Jennifer Benson Litchman, an assistant dean at the University Of Maryland School Of Medicine. Jenny from Ames.
In some ways, Jenny's story was like so many of the others. She shared a few details about how the 11 Ames girls met, some as early as infanthood in the church nursery, and how they feel bonded forever. But her short, tossed-off note didn't fully reveal how extraordinary those bonds have become — I'd learn all that later "“and she didn't even tell any of her friends she had written to me. Jenny ended her email by saying that she appreciated my take on female friendship. She also paid me a compliment: "You really seem to understand women. Your wife is very lucky indeed."
My wife would have to speak to how lucky she is or isn't, but I can say this: I do feel an almost urgent need to understand women. That's mostly because I am the father of three teenagers, all daughters.
I have seen my girls pout and fret and cry over friendships in turmoil, and I have seen how their friends have buoyed them at their lowest moments. At times, their sweetest friends have turned into stereotypical mean girls. At other times, former mean girls turn into friends. As a parent witnessing it all, I often feel helpless and exasperated.
Having observed how my mother, sister and wife built lovely friendships over the years, I naturally hope that my daughters can be as fortunate. When I think about their futures, I want them to feel enveloped by people who love them, and I know they'll need close, loving friends at their sides. (I'm also aware that men's friendships are completely different. I've been playing poker with a group of friends every Thursday night for many years. About 80% of our conversations are focused specifically on the cards, the betting, the bluffing. Most of the rest of the chatter is about sports, or sometimes our jobs. For weeks on end, our personal lives "“ or our feelings about anything — never even come up.)
There have been many self-help books designed to help women find and navigate friendships. Scholarly books have been written, too. And, of course, best-selling novels have won huge audiences by focusing on the sisterhood among fictional women.
But as a journalist, I know there's great power in honest stories about real people. So, over time, I found myself intrigued by the idea of asking one articulate group of longstanding friends to open their hearts and scrapbooks, to tell the complete inside story of their friendship. I had a real sense that a nonfiction narrative "“ the biography of a friendship, meticulously reported — could be a meaningful document for female readers. Perhaps it would also help me understand my daughters, my wife, and the other women in my life.
And so in the summer of 2006, I returned to that filing cabinet, and went through all the emails from women describing their friendships. I read them again, building a short stack of possibilities. I contacted many of the letter-writers, and they were all very eager to share their thoughts.
They told me that when women think about their friends, they find themselves pondering every part of their lives: their sense of themselves, their choice of men, their dependence on other women, their need for validation, their relationships with their mothers, their dreams for their daughters"¦everything.
Many of these women shared beautiful anecdotes with me. They all said their friends could certainly fill a book. But once I called Jenny and spoke to her for a while, I had a sense that she and the 10 other girls from Ames had a sweeping and very moving story to tell. That was confirmed when I eventually met each of them. Born at the end of the baby boom, their memories are evocative of their times. Born in the middle of the country, they now live everywhere else, but carry Ames with them. Their story is universal, even common, and on that level it can't help but resonate with any woman who has ever had a friend. And yet some of their experiences together are so completely one-of-a-kind — haunting and touching and exhilarating "“ that I found myself feeling spellbound as they talked to me.
The Ames girls were intrigued by the idea of a book about them, but understandably, several were hesitant at first. It is not an easy decision to reveal your life to a journalist (and eventually to the world), and I tried to move slowly and respectfully with them. Turning their lives into an open book, I said, would be a journey for them and for me. I wanted to know vital details of their interactions, the good and the bad. I'd ask them about the times they showed each other great care and compassion. But I also wanted them to reflect on the times they disappointed each other, or were purposely unkind. How did they overcome those moments and remain so close for so long?
A few of them feared that my reporting for the book might bring up old ghosts, or highlight long-ago misdeeds, or challenge their assumptions about themselves. I asked them to take that risk with me. Yes, I hoped that the finished book would honor and strengthen their friendships. But I couldn't guarantee that everything would go smoothly, and that no one would get hurt.
We began with tentative steps. One by one, often in long phone conversations after they tucked their kids into bed, they talked to me about their loving feelings for each other, the rougher times between them, and about how their story, if told well, could benefit other women of all ages. I decided to take a year-long leave from my job at the Journal, so I could travel around the country spending time with them. I immersed myself in their lives, asking them to think back, to think hard, to force themselves to remember everything as clearly and honestly as they could. Why did they choose each other? Who were they then and who are they now? They all turned out to be so articulate, so able to find perspective and broader truths. Because of that, compiling their story became a remarkable experience for me as a journalist.
As we got to know each other, the Ames girls became more comfortable with me. In time, they let me read hundreds of pages of secrets locked in their old diaries. They shared stacks of letters and emails they had exchanged. They introduced me to their parents, children, siblings, husbands and old boyfriends. They even pointed me toward women outside their group who saw them as a clique and didn't much like them.
Born in 1962 and 1963, they spoke vividly about what it was like to be girls in the sixties and seventies, young women in the eighties, and new mothers in the nineties. They offered up countless examples of how close female friendships can shape every aspect of women's lives.
Almost all of the Ames girls are scrupulous savers, chronicling their lives together in scrapbooks and photo albums, holding on to whatever memorabilia marked their friendship. That was a huge help in piecing together their story. Because I had their diaries, letters, concert-ticket stubs and notes passed in homeroom, I was able to track many of their interactions to the exact day and even the exact hour. I felt like an archeologist, sifting through crumbling prom corsages, looking for meaning.
Of course, there were plenty of challenges. When I'd tell people about this project, some wondered whether it was an appropriate task for a man. Could a man ever really understand women's friendships? It was a fair point. And I admit that I sometimes asked the Ames girls questions that were silly, obvious or naÃ¯ve. I'd catch them trading glances, and I knew that they were thinking: "This guy doesn't get it, does he?" And yet, I also think that being a man gave me a wider canvas. I was often inquisitive in ways a female interviewer would not have been. I made no assumptions. I asked. I rephrased. I tried to comprehend. On some fronts, my outsider's curiosity helped enrich the story you're about to read.
In the end, the girls and I agreed that to make the project work, it had to be based on a great deal of trust between all of us. We worked to build that trust, interview by interview, recollection by recollection, sometimes with tears, sometimes with great laughter.
Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny, Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana, Sheila.
Theirs is the story of 11 little girls and the women they became. I feel privileged to have this opportunity to tell it.