The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships

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9780345520517: The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships

You know all about so-called "mean girls" and competitive, judgmental women. Maybe you had a cruel high school experience straight out of the movie Carrie. Maybe you find yourself anxious because your daughter's peers are excluding her. Maybe you've been harassed or marginalized by other females for being something they were not: fat, acne-prone, too pretty, not pretty enough, brainy, religious, anxious, overconfident, a different kind of mother. Maybe you have a difficult female boss or co-workers who are wreaking havoc on your ability to thrive or trust them in the workplace. Maybe you've shrugged it all off and figured: That's just the way human beings sometimes operate, or I'm not going to feed the cultural or media stereotypes by whining about other women. But have you ever considered what all this negativity is doing to our gender? The stories differ, and the consequences of our incivility range in severity, but one thing seems almost universal: women carry powerful impressions and memories of their female-inflicted wounds. The hurt lingers.In The Twisted Sisterhood, Kelly Valen picks up where her arresting New York Times essay about a painful sorority encounter left off. Praised by the likes of Oprah magazine, Good Morning America, the Washington Post, Associated Press, Marie Claire and More magazines, among many others, TTS pulls back the curtain on the darker aspects of female relationships, revealing the troubling findings from her unique survey of more than three thousand women from all walks of life. Leaving males out of the equation for purposes of this book only, Valen reveals the demoralizing fallout of our shenanigans and shines a light on the paradox of women supporting -- and, often gratuitously -- sabotaging one another. Her interviews and research show that although women are often each other's best, most life-sustaining sources of support, there is a dark underbelly to female relationships worth exploring. The vast majority of women in Valen's survey, for example, report that although they have at least one girl-friendship they wouldn't want to live without, well over half still approach female camaraderie with a wariness or flat-out distrust and admit that they are unable--or unwilling--to extend themselves to certain types or groups of women. An overwhelming majority have endured serious knocks from other girls or women to explain this wariness. A staggering 97% of those polled believe it is crucial that we work to improve the female culture.Laying bare the legacy of the belittled "girl wars" across a woman's life, The Twisted Sisterhood offers up groundbreaking research and anecdotal findings about the hidden, long-term effects of our manipulations, competitions, judgments, and outright bullying. Capturing the true attitudes of contemporary women, TTS gives voice to the lingering memories, ambivalence, and struggles so many of us quietly experience, and considers the net effect of our darker inclinations: an increasingly inhospitable and dysfunctional society of women. Valen also looks to the future, offering hope and practical ideas for how girls and their mothers, women, and "sisters" can come together and improve their profoundly needed female connections. No matter how content or supported you feel with your current circle of girlfriends or colleagues, and no matter how placid a daughter's navigation of GirlWorld might appeaer, Valen explains, each of us holds a stake in listening to other's experiences and helping foster a more mindful civility within the gender. 

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About the Author:

Kelly Valen earned her J.D. from the University of California, Davis, where she was executive editor of the Law Review. A daughter, sister, wife, and mother of four (three of them daughters), she practiced law with a Chicago-based firm for more than a decade before moving abroad to Thailand, British Columbia, and France. Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian (UK), Marie Claire, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Huffington Post, and other publications.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1

WE ARE SO WORTH IT

There is a kind of quilt called a friendship quilt, but I imagine all of mine, no matter what their pattern, are emblems of female friendship, that essential thread that has so often kept the pieces of my own life together, and from time to time kept me from falling apart.

—Anna Quindlen

Before we sully ourselves with the darker aspects of our relationships, I want to make sure we’re keeping our eye on the prize by underscoring a fundamental but critical point: Most of us appear to value and adore our women like nothing else.

And that would include me. By far, the most unsettling bits of criticism hurled my way have stemmed from accusations that I must hate women or hate myself, probably suffered an intimacy-starved childhood, or never experienced females at their best. None of that is true. The joys of female intimacy swaddled me straight out of the gate, actually, and have always remained apparent. Amazing men have touched my life, and I often have an easier initial rapport with guys, but my most compelling ties, notwithstanding the struggles, have been with women.

Take my grandmothers, two of whom lived in the house next door to me throughout my entire Minnesota childhood. For a developing girl to have enjoyed such supportive, generous, and low-drama role models—well, we should all be so lucky. These were women of strength, authenticity, and grace, the real McCoys. Part of their gift to me growing up was about blood ties, sure, but much of it was plain old gender. They lifted, pushed, and pulled all the girls and women in their orbit up, maybe because it’s just what women did back then. Through years of nothing more extraordinary than random chitchat, heated games of gin rummy and hide the thimble, intense baking and jam-making sessions, and quiet reading side by side, they drew me in and showed me that, ultimately, we could count on our women. They were my safety zone, my go-to counsel, my Giving Trees, always available with a patient ear and unilateral no questions asked, no strings attached, no guilt involved brand of support—the kind a lot of developing girls out there could use. I had loving parents, four siblings, an attention-starved dog on a chain, a true saint for a grandpa, and plenty of kids in the neighborhood to draw on, but as anyone from that era can attest, you could usually find me next door with the ladies.

It wasn’t just my grandmothers, though. Looking back, I couldn’t possibly have remained sane through the travails of dating, schooling, marriage, child rearing, hard-core lawyering, pulling up stakes at forty-three for a nomadic life abroad, or hormonal madness without my mother, sisters, long-suffering pal Teri, and, eventually, other girlfriends to turn to. It’s that simple. What a relief to have finally found a few gals with whom I can be my unfettered self, to feel safe again, and to swap banter on everything from work and politics to food and hair to books, kids, and stain remover. How lucky to have stumbled upon my Diane Keaton–esque friend, Mary Kay, so consistently good and wise and accessible to me despite everything she balances in her own life. I still have my issues, as the women close to me know. But having lacked a baseline trust with female peers for so long, I am acutely aware of how much lighter life can feel with a posse of supportive women at my back.

Most of you know all this for yourselves. And, indeed, when all is said and done, the most heartening thing about this project has been this: Even as it’s focused chiefly on the fallout from our shadowy tendencies, women haven’t been at all bashful about sharing a bounty of heartfelt reverence for the women in their lives. As Julie, an actress from Los Angeles who wrote to me two years ago, emphasized, “There’s nothing on this planet like a bright, warm, open, loving woman. Believe it.”

The fundamental findings of my survey, in fact, echo that very sentiment. Of the 90 percent who say they’re enjoying at least one satisfying and fulfilling girlfriendship, nearly three-quarters call those relationships authentic, intimate, and reliable; 77 percent of them call those bonds very to extremely important, with the words sacred, essential, and life-sustaining popping up over and over. Hundreds gush that they can’t imagine life without their girlfriends, and don’t want to. These women appreciate that their healthy female connections keep them grounded and nourish their minds, bodies, and spirits. They know they’re garnering strength and support from one another and living richer lives as a result. They recognize that, often enough, their friends are the very safety nets and security blankets critical to their well-being. As Anna Quindlen so elegantly put it:

In our constantly shifting lives, our female friends may be the greatest constant and the touchstone not only of who we are but who we once were, the people who, taken together, know us whole, from girlfriend to wife and mother and even to widow. Children grow and go; even beloved men sometimes seem to be beaming their perceptions and responses in from a different planet. But our female friends are forever.

Or, as Jennifer Aniston said succinctly: “Girlfriends—Nothin’ like ’em, man.”

Sometimes It’s the Small Things

It isn’t always about the grand gestures, though, like the “rocks” who drop everything to feed your family, walk your dog, and hold your hand when the cancer goblin comes knocking or the affair is exposed. It isn’t just the old-time pals who are familiar with your every little secret and know instinctively whether to ask the hard questions or just be still and make casseroles. We find the everyday modest and mundane movements crucial as well—the colleagues, neighbors, and lunch pals who check in from time to time or suggest a run or a cocktail at the precise nanosecond of need, the ones who patiently indulge our love, work, and ethical quandaries de jour, or gift us with tiny windows of release through seemingly “nothing” coffee breaks, strolls, or two-minute phone chats.

I think of my sister Stacy in this light. Some of us poke fun at poor Stace because she literally calls our mother, me, and her legions of friends around the country up to two or three times a day while carpooling in her minivan. (My other sister, Tricia, escapes this attention by pretty much avoiding the phone altogether.) I really don’t know how Stacy does it. Oftentimes, I’m sure I can’t take the few minutes in my busyness, so I cut her off with a Maybe later. Other times I scold her for chitchatting on her cell while driving or ordering coffee. It’s dangerous! It’s rude! Your politics are crazy! And sometimes, yes, I ignore the call because I know I can take her for granted; she’ll still be there for me. But you know what? Those calls—actually, the mere fact that she even thinks of me—really do leaven the day with a blast of comfort and familiarity that each of us on the receiving end would be devastated to lose. In the final analysis, women in our lives so often grant us the validation we crave by simply reaching out and showing up. I can’t put it less tritely or more lyrically than that. Women like Stacy are our winking, blinking, beckoning lighthouses, ready and waiting for us in the shit storms and the calm.

Of course, nothing worthwhile, as they say, comes easy. A number of women in my survey emphasized how even the best of their friendships have proven high maintenance and weathered (or not weathered) some appreciable ups and downs; we’re human, after all. Take my old friend Teri and me. We couldn’t be more different. We’ve definitely ridden out the roller coasters (like, say, ditching each other in New York on our way to see Madonna in ’88 over something trivial that neither of us can now recall). We’ve moved around so many times it’s nothing short of a miracle that we remain tight. Yet, we can live thousands of miles apart, go for weeks or months without talking, and still finish each other’s sentences or be struck by the same obscure cultural absurdity, confident that there’s only one other person out there who’d truly get it. The woman knows all my quirks and secrets and hasn’t bailed on me yet, not even when I’ve held out on her emotionally (which is most of the past twenty-five years), not even when I nearly killed her in a hideous motor scooter accident, not even when I’ve proven a lame godmother. At this point, we’ve become such a Beaches cliche, it’s ridiculous. And I take none of it for granted.

Some women insist that while all of this lady love is nice, gender really isn’t the point; it’s about respecting and making meaningful connections with any person, regardless of sex. We aren’t bound to one another beneath the umbrella of sisterhood, the arguments go. We don’t owe anything to one another because of our shared female status. We can enjoy superintimate friendships with men too, yada yada. And while I appreciate the intellectual appeal of those sentiments, I also think Come on. Men step up to the plate too, but most of us agree it’s a different brand of camaraderie. We don’t even have to get into testosterone and estrogen or Mars and Venus—I think it’s disingenuous to deny the variances in complexity, depth, and tone that seem to characterize most female relationships.

How do I know? My own experience tells me so, for one thing. I have some really wonderful friendships with men, but it’s just different. For another, all of this research I’ve done underscores, loudly and clearly, both the critical importance and the distinct nature of female camaraderie. If my more than three thousand survey respondents are at all representative of the contemporary American Everywoman—and I believ...

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