Aminatou Sow, Ann Friedman And Their 'Big Friendship'
SAM SANDERS, HOST:
All relationships have a backstory, even friendships.
AMINATOU SOW: I'm Aminatou Sow. I am the co-host of the podcast "Call Your Girlfriend" and the co-author of the book "Big Friendship" along with Ann Friedman.
ANN FRIEDMAN: Hi. I'm Ann Friedman. I am the co-everything that Aminatou just mentioned (laughter). It's kind of nice to have the joint bio these days.
SANDERS: Aminatou and Ann's friendship began with a meet-cute.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SOW: We were set up. We showed up at Daya's (ph) house to watch the television show "Gossip Girl." This is the era in which you had to show up in front of a television to watch TV.
FRIEDMAN: The feelings we both felt when we met were like a kind of attraction.
SOW: Every joke that she made, every observation she made, was just 10 out of 10.
FRIEDMAN: You know, like not romantic or sexual, but we both instantly wanted to be in each other's lives.
SOW: Her outfit was flames - big, bold lipstick. Her hair looked cool.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: The rest was history. A big friendship - complex, deep and maybe for life - almost instantly, these two were inseparable. Midnight showings of Beyonce movies, vacations together - they even started a podcast together. Part of why their connection got so deep was because of where they were in their lives when they met - their 20s.
FRIEDMAN: That was a time in life when we had a little bit more free time, a little bit more flexibility, you know, a lot of the people in our orbit did not have the kind of professional or caregiving responsibilities that they have today.
SANDERS: But fast-forward to now, and these two lifelong friends - they haven't actually seen each other in person in a while.
SOW: I flew to LA partly to take our author photo, and it was not a week that people should have been flying. Like, it was before everything shut down. But I'm actually really glad I took that risk and went on that trip because very momentous things happened in those, like, 48 hours.
FRIEDMAN: Including our last restaurant meal. My last restaurant meal was with you. I love that (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. On the show today, we are talking about friendship with Ann and Aminatou. Fun fact - they are out with a new book all about friendship called "Big Friendship." In this book, they write about their friendship story, and they share lessons for all of us about how to keep our own friendships strong. This chat has a lot; the story of Ann and Aminatou going to friend therapy - yes, that exists - and what it's like to have a deep friendship with someone of a different race. All right, let's get to it. Enjoy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: And so this friendship grows. It blossoms. Y'all end up starting this podcast together. Y'all end up going to weddings together, giving gifts together, wearing matchy-matchy (ph) outfits sometimes. Like, it's a beautiful thing. But there is also this moment where you both realize it needs work. There is this scene about a getaway weekend that you both went on together to try to respark the friendship, and it didn't go well. This is, like, early in the book. Set up that scene for our listeners because I - because when I read it, I was like, mmm (ph), I know a lot of folks have felt this.
SOW: Sometime around 2013, 2014. So I would say, like, right, like, midway through our friendship or a little longer, we went away to, you know, on some very sad rekindle-the-romance kind of trip because for...
SOW: ...I would say, like, two years prior to that trip, we had just been really missing each other in conversation. And so at this point, like, we don't live in the same city, you know, but we are working on this podcast together. The podcast is going great. Like, we are...
SOW: We're two people who really genuinely enjoy working with each other. And...
SANDERS: Yeah, it sounded like it. I listened.
SOW: Yeah. I was like...
SANDERS: I heard it all. I was like...
SOW: This is going...
SANDERS: ...This - they're great. Yeah (laughter).
SOW: But the minute that we turned the microphone off, like, the universe of things that we now start having boundaries around talking about - so whether it's, like, our other relationships or even our own - like, oh, do you want to go on a trip with me or not? Just that bucket just starts getting bigger and bigger and bigger. There's so many things that we start just not talking to each other about. But so at one point, we recognize, OK, like, things have finally gone off the rails. How do we fix this? And the only model that came to mind for me was, you know, the, like, go back on the honeymoon (laughter) or figure something...
SANDERS: Couples retreat (laughter).
FRIEDMAN: For me, it was also a real desire of - I just want things to feel how they felt in an earlier stage of our friendship. Like, I want to kind of go back to how things were, in the sense that, like, oh, a time when we really just naturally understood each other, or it wasn't hard to be vulnerable. And I think that part of the logic behind going away together was - all we need is more time, you know? Like, we just need more time. And we can definitively say that, in our case, that was not true. We needed more than that.
SANDERS: Yeah. More than that. Well, and then after all of that, the two of you end up in friend therapy. I mean, I want you to tell me everything about that to the extent you can.
SANDERS: I didn't know you could do that (laughter).
SOW: I remember, like, one of us just being like, well, is there some sort of adult that can hold our hand through this process, you know?
SOW: And I'm like, well, is there a restorative justice model for friendship repair? Or is there a therapy?
SOW: I mostly remember a lot of crying. Like, I cried so much (laughter). It shifted the mirror for me on myself - less on, like, oh, you know, is it that I'm upset at this person, or is it that I am really upset at an inability to understand each other? And when I started to see it as a communication gap issue and not some, like, my-friend-is-a-monster issue - because, of course, she was never a monster - like, you know, it was hard. But there was a lot of crying for me. It was - the therapist, like, handing you the Kleenex is such a cliche.
SOW: But the Kleenex box was for me, you know?
SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.
FRIEDMAN: And I had the opposite problem, which is that I am, like, a very, very slow processor. And so I would be fully in that moment and, like, maybe even feeling very sad in the moment, but, like, I was not like sobbing. And I think that I felt almost, like, an inverse insecurity of, like, how can I make you understand that this is deeply affecting me, too, and I am also feeling very sad about, like, the things that we are having to excavate here, when I am not - like, tears are not running down my face, and that doesn't mean I'm not upset and right here with you?
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. What I love about therapy is that, over time, you start to really kind of crystallize an explanation for why you're feeling this way or why you're doing this thing, and you come to, like, find the story of how you got to there? Like, for me, all of my work the last year or so has been me unpacking the fact that, like, I have issues with attachment and isolation, and they manifest in ways X, Y, Z. Like, was there, like, a topic sentence that y'all came out of friend therapy saying, ah, that explains it?
SANDERS: Like, a quick little, like - that's the thing?
SOW: I cannot tell you, like, in - I wish we had had a camera that day. The look of satisfaction on this woman's face when she did the, like, conspiracy theorist's, like, graph of - she's like, well, here's the cycle that you're caught in (laughter).
SANDERS: Yes. And it's so rewarding. You're like, ah, that's it.
SOW: Oh, it was so deeply unsettling for me. I was like, I cannot believe this lady has my number. This is wild.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.
SOW: And also was the piece of the puzzle that I had been missing, where she essentially just told us that we were caught in this feedback loop of - one of us would miscommunicate to the other, reach out, be hurt and then pull back completely, and then the other person then starts pulling in - you know, like, it was just - I don't even know how to characterize it. Ann, maybe you can do a better job than me.
FRIEDMAN: Well, the way that the direct quote - the direct, unforgettable quote from the therapist was, and that's why it's called a cycle.
SANDERS: Whoo (ph).
FRIEDMAN: Damning, right?
SANDERS: They can read you.
SANDERS: They can read you better than anybody else. Oh, my God.
FRIEDMAN: I'm sweating just recounting it, like, truly.
SOW: And, man, like, therapy is not for the faint of heart. Like, we would go home every day, like, just - you know, like, we would usually drive there together, which was hilarious, and make sure that we had, like, snacks and water...
SOW: ...Like, going to war together, where we were fighting on opposite (laughter)...
SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.
SOW: ...Like, opposite teams...
SOW: ...And then go home together. But it was very - I don't know. I just - the whole thing was very strange and transformative. But I think also just, for me at least, it really forced me to confront a lot of patterns that I have that I think are just accidental, you know, and also just really acknowledging that, in order for a friendship to work, it takes two people, and in order for it to fall apart, that is also true, and it also takes two people to repair it.
SANDERS: Time for a break. Coming up - how to navigate interracial friendships and how they can never be colorblind, even if you really want them to.
FRIEDMAN: That is one of the heartbreaking things about, like, this deeply, deeply racist world that we live in is, like, we don't get to have that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: You know, there are going to be so many people that hear this conversation, that read the book, who just can't afford to take their best friend or their big friends to therapy. For those hearing this wanting to fix a relationship, a friendship and knowing that they're in a friendship with someone to be willing to work on it as well but they can't afford therapy, what do you do instead?
SOW: Man, that's such a good question, Sam, and such a good, like, acknowledgment of, like, privilege and resources, you know? I think that even for us it was tough. Like, I, basically, moved to LA to do therapy with my friend, which, you know, it's...
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.
SOW: ...If we had not gotten the book advance that we got, I would not have been able to afford it at all. That's is where a portion of...
SOW: That is where a portion of my book advance went to, therapy. I really recommend it. But there's just not enough time or space to do that. I think that the thing about...
SOW: ...The takeaway from therapy, really, is that you have to find a way to talk about the things that are hard, you know, and to really...
SANDERS: That's the thing.
SOW: ...Acknowledge to each other that things are hard. And this is what - you know, like, part of why we wrote this book, too, is that we recognized that there is no social support for friendship, you know? Like, it's like even if you think about other relationships - your church, your family, your government - like, everyone is invested in, like, people having, like, healthy families, somehow. But that imagine...
SOW: But that imagination of family does not extend to friends. I don't believe that it should cost, like, the thousands and thousands of dollars that we have spent, you know, on this project. We were lucky that we were able to. But that is not a scalable or a sustainable solution at all.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. So all of this ends up in the book, the story of repairing the friendship, the story of y'all's growth together. But I also love that, like, a good portion of the book is also, like, the actual research on friendship. You spoke with so many smart people who, like, study this stuff for a living to talk about the data and the science on friendship itself. What of those findings, the social science on friendship, most surprised you two putting this book together.
SOW: Oh, man. If there is a baby sociologists listening to this, please - there is, like, an entire area of study that is yours for the taking.
SOW: It was really - I mean, I don't know why I'm surprised just knowing how we don't take friendship seriously in society. But I was genuinely surprised at how little, like, robust scholarship there is about friendship.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah. And when it comes to adults, they're often counted. Like, you know, OK, how many friendships does the average adult have? Or what periods of life are we - you know, are adults likely to have friends? Or how many friends of other races are adults likely to have? Or, you know, questions like that. But when we really started looking for support for the dynamics within friendships - so how do large social groups affect the two people in a friendship who are kind of nestled within this bigger context?
How do friend groups resolve conflict? How do people navigate interracial friendship in a way that is, like, not just how many, but, like, how are you doing friendship with people of other races? Like, those are the kinds of questions I think we found the least answer to, you know? I mean, there's a lot of just kind of, like, duck-duck-goose head counting - you know what I mean? - and often in, like, an elementary school cafeteria, you know, or, like, a college campus.
SANDERS: There is also an entire chapter on navigating an interracial friendship. And I've really enjoyed it. And y'all quote a poem that says, quote, "the first thing you do is forget that I'm Black. Second, you must never forget that I'm Black." And this was advice on a white person trying to be a Black person's friend. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. Unpack that for me because it's a word.
FRIEDMAN: Pat Parker. Yes. Ugh.
SANDERS: That was - I mean, that hit me. That hit me real hard.
SOW: Listen; it hit me. And I...
SOW: ...You know, I'm like, I'm the Black friend in this friendship.
SOW: And, yeah, you know, it's - there's never been a point in my friendship with Ann that I was unclear about her political motivations or, you know, like, what goals she wants it. And it is why we were drawn to each other. And even in a friendship in which we are - we talk about politics in every way, shape and form that it comes in. We had not been talking about how race was playing out inside of our own friendship.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, because I feel like a lot of people entering, you know, interracial friendships or interracial romantic relationships will say to themselves - either out loud or not, they'll say to themselves, well, this space, this relationship, it's colorblind. It's not affected by race.
SOW: (Yelling) Are people saying that?
SANDERS: We are choosing to not do that. No. But, like, they're thinking that, right? You know, like, I've had friends before where I convince myself that in the confines of our friendship, race isn't an issue. But the thing is it is. And, like...
SANDERS: ...You're better off just acknowledging that when - if that's - when that's the case.
FRIEDMAN: I mean, I think that's something I certainly wanted to be true. Like, I don't know what I would have said if you polled me at various points in our friendship and asked me that. But I think that I - on some deep level that I maybe, you know, never even brought up to the surface as words, I wanted it to be true that my friend, Aminatou, can be 100% fully self-expressed with me. And in some ways, I'm like, why wouldn't I want that, right? Like, that's a beautiful thing to want.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.
FRIEDMAN: And also it's - like, that is one of the heartbreaking things about, like, this deeply, deeply racist world that we live in is, like, we don't get to have that.
SANDERS: Yeah. There's this really vivid example in the book - or story in the book that brings all of the issues of race in the friendship to the forefront. It involves a birthday party that didn't have too many Black people. How much of that story can you tell us?
SOW: I mean, I will say that, you know, the story on its face is not dramatic at all. In fact, it's, like, very petty and small. And it's why we...
SOW: It's why we chose it as an example, though, because I think that there is this tendency when it comes to race right now - you know, for all the people who are having their - you know, their first racial awakening, this idea that...
SOW: You know, welcome. Welcome. Some of us have been here before.
SANDERS: Mmm hmm. Grab a chair. Take a seat.
FRIEDMAN: There are no seats left on this Amtrak.
FRIEDMAN: You're standing. Yeah.
SOW: And some of us are just Black. So we don't have a choice about being here. You know, but there's just this - and, especially, I think that it was important to tell because, you know, we're two, like, East-West Coast elites. So I think that it really bears repeating that even people who think that, you know, they're liberal and live in these big cities or whatever, you know, they think that, like, racism happens somewhere in Texas. Like, it's not happening in...
SOW: It's not happening in a Silver Lake backyard. But, you know, there's just this idea that for something to be racist, it has to be big and dramatic, you know? You're like, OK, someone has to use the N-word. Someone - you know, like, or it has to be this, like, after-school special.
SOW: There's just - there is this, like, deep pain that comes with it. And, honestly, like, that's kind of racist, too. It's like, hi (laughter), this is not a - these are not...
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.
SOW: These are - the expectations that you have of how Black people experience racism are garbage.
SOW: But race is playing out in these very, very small moments. I am at a party at Ann's house, and there are a lot of people there, and none of those people are Black. There was a time in our friendship where if that had happened, I wouldn't have noticed or cared because, you know, maybe the day before I had been at Ann's house and there - you know, like, there was a brunch, and there were a lot of Black people there. But in this instance, we'd been living far apart. I - we are not connecting on a emotional level. And I parachute in into this party. And, you know, it's just like, wow, you live in LA? There's...
SOW: You know? There - what? There are no Black people here? This is wild.
SANDERS: Yeah (laughter). Yeah.
SOW: You know? And especially, like, for someone that I knew that well and, you know - and the way that it played out is truly the way that every kind of, you know, low-level racial oops plays out - is that, you know, you say, like, why are there no Black people here? And then the white person gets defensive, and then they give you all of these excuses that are everything except for, oh, we live in a racist society, and of course, I hosted an event at my house that did not take that into account, you know? And I'm like, this is not the racial wound of our relationship, but it is something that's very recognizable in a lot of interracial relationships.
FRIEDMAN: But I want to say where I think it becomes a wound is when, like, thinking about the birthday party story in particular, wherein, like, I was not the person to say, oh, wow, so when you were at my house the other night, like, I noticed that there were no Black people, and, like, really sorry about that experience for you. And if - you know, do you want to talk about it some more?
Like, the initiation factor there of, like, who is paying attention to this and who is - and who gets to stick their head in the sand and say, well, if my friend doesn't bring it up, it must not be an issue. And those are the kinds of things that I really feel, you know, like, talking about in an earlier era of our friendship, when I wanted to believe that, like, race somehow didn't touch us, that's exactly the kind of thing that I was ignoring. And I really - and probably to this day and, I mean, I would say, continue to ignore.
You know, like, there will always be things that I - like, I don't clock. And I think that that example is so relevant because it really - you know, as Aminatou keeps saying, it does kind of seem small, but it points at, like, who gets to not notice this sort of thing in a friendship?
SOW: Also, like, who pays the price for the pain, you know? Like, they're part of why - you know, like, I will only speak for myself, like, someone who has some intimate relationships with white people. Part of why you also don't make a big deal out of it is because you know that opening up the can of worms of the birthday party - you know, it's three sentences till you get to 1619. You're like, here's where we go; here's what this is about.
SOW: And we're like, great. We're just at this party, and here's everything that you don't know. And I think that, you know, this thing that white people get to have when they're - when they know Black people of - they get this, like, depth of knowledge and understanding, this, like, racial aha moment, as we call it.
SOW: And all that you are left with if you are the Black partner is, you know, if you're lucky, just a little bit annoyed, but mostly, like, you are really...
SOW: ...Pained because it reminds you...
SOW: ...All of the other instances that you have to do that. And, you know, I'm like, I live in a world that is, you know, like, governed by whiteness, so there's never any, like, white thing that Ann is going to teach me. Like, that thing already just exists.
FRIEDMAN: With the exception of some Midwestern snacks, that is true (laughter).
SOW: It's true. The cheese ball. Shoutout to the cheese ball...
SANDERS: Or, like, cottage cheese.
SOW: ...And the people of the cheese ball.
SANDERS: Cottage cheese
SOW: I know. But, you know...
FRIEDMAN: Cream cheese-based dips. That's the only thing I have to teach.
SOW: Thank you, Ann. I appreciate you for correcting the record.
SANDERS: All right. Time for one more break. When we come back an army not to discuss whether this kind of big friendship is actually possible for men. BRB.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: I will say, reading this book, I kept saying, that's good. I like that. They're working through it.
SANDERS: Love it. Love it. Love it. And then I had this moment - I had this moment halfway through where I just stopped. And I put the book down. And I said to myself, out oud - I think the dog got scared. I was like, is this for men? Can it ever be for men?
SANDERS: Or is it just for women? I've never seen a male-male friendship - straight, gay, whatever - that has reached the depth that y'all described in the book. I never have.
SOW: Oh, Sam, you're about to make me cry.
SANDERS: And that breaks my heart. And that breaks my heart.
FRIEDMAN: It breaks my heart.
SOW: Sam, you're about to make me cry.
SANDERS: And I want it to be for men. I want it to be for all of us. But I think that our society has told us - has told me, for sure - that, like, guys don't do that.
SOW: But listen; if men did that, it would be so good for all of us, including me and Ann, you know? Like, this is the...
SOW: Like, hearing you - we both have big friends who are men. And it's been really interesting to get their feedback on this because, you know, obviously...
SOW: ...We write the story about both of us. And we are two women. And we do that because you got to get specific in order to tell a good story. But the things that we are describing, like, I refuse to believe that they are the province alone of women's friendships. I do think that, you know, our society has allowed for women to express themselves more fully about this topic than we are allowing men to do. But...
SOW: ...Just anecdotally, hearing from the men in my life - I just refuse to believe that we are going to go through this lifetime and that we are not going to create space for men to be able to have this kind of conversation about their own friendships, because it has been transformative for me. And I cannot even begin to imagine what our world would look like if we allowed every single human being to be able to be expressed about what their friends mean to them.
FRIEDMAN: And your question, too, of like, can this be for men or can have this, I mean, it's such an easy yes to me. And the question of, like, why does that question come up at all, right?
FRIEDMAN: Like, why do we wonder if this is a kind of friendship for women only is something that is, like, you know, like, probably some generational speed-unpacking...
SANDERS: Oh, yeah.
FRIEDMAN: ...Of the ways, you know, gender socialization happens. But, you know, that said, the answer to your question of, like - is it possible for men to have friendships like this? - I mean, the answer is unequivocally yes because we have these friendships with men. And also, like, I, again, just want to go back to, like, communication and intention. I think that, like, if men want it, men can have it (laughter).
SANDERS: There you go. (Laughter) Yes.
SOW: And I love this as your feminist slogan. If men want it, men can have it.
FRIEDMAN: You know, as the words left my mouth, I was like, this is going to get taken out of context. Like, this is a nightmare.
SOW: (Laughter) This is not...
SANDERS: You know, this is, like, the tease promo clip for the episode...
FRIEDMAN: Oh. I mean...
SANDERS: ...Ann saying, if men want it, men can have it (laughter).
SOW: Can have it - I'm making you a T-shirt...
SANDERS: Oh, my God.
SOW: ...That says that. I can't wait.
SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.
FRIEDMAN: I'm fully ducking into my turtleneck right now.
FRIEDMAN: Like, you can't even see.
SANDERS: No, no, we got you.
SANDERS: Gosh, I appreciate you both for just doing the work and sharing it with us. I really admire your candor.
FRIEDMAN: Thank you. We could truly do this all day. Like, I think we could just sit here and talk to you about this all day.
SANDERS: I love it. Come on back anytime. Come on back.
SOW: Thank you so much, Sam.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: Thanks again to Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. Their book, "Big Friendship," is out right now. You can also catch the podcast. It's called "Call Your Girlfriend." Get it wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was produced and edited by Anjuli Sastry and Jordana Hochman. All right. That's a wrap for today. I am Sam Sanders. We're back in your feeds Friday. Until then, be good to yourself and to your friends. We'll talk soon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.