Jo Whitehead identifies with the pain and pleasure that female relationships can offer in Kerry Cohen’s Girl Trouble: An Illustrated Memoir and wonders if we all have a Mean Girl lurking within
Girl Trouble: An Illustrated Memoir by Kerry Cohen explores complicated female friendships and the impact these can have on a person’s life. Female friendships have always been a major source of joy and pain, for me, and hugely influential on my sense of wellbeing, so I was keen to find out more. Relationships between women are often trivialised or ridiculed so, from a feminist perspective, I was pleased that someone had judged this a subject worth writing about.
Cohen begins the book by talking about her sister, Tyler. In just two and a half pages, Cohen expertly describes forty years of history between the pair, much of which seems full of anguish and misunderstanding. As the years go by, however, the sisters “found their way back”. Cohen labels Tyler her “first female friend” and her “first trouble with a friend”. It’s poignant, therefore, that Cohen asked Tyler to collaborate on Girl Trouble, resulting in Tyler producing the illustrations that appear throughout the book, with each friend immortalised in ink. While I’m not hugely fond of the illustrations, it’s good to get a vague sense of each character
Cohen starts her friendship chronology from a young age, continuing through to the current day. Lisa is Cohen’s third-grade best friend. The pair are inseparable, until Lisa’s older brother, his friends – who were twins – and their mother all die in a car crash. This irreparably impacts the young girls’ friendship: “… I remember sitting at my desk in class, aware of her, my best friend, now gone and replaced by this person I didn’t know, who didn’t seem to want to know me anymore. And friendships would never be easy again.”
Cohen peppers these profiles with insights into her family life, which act as a backdrop to the friendships. As a child, she discloses that she is often unsure of what she will return home to: brawling parents, infidelity, disharmony and a father with a substance misuse problem. Cohen recalls: “Sometimes my mother screamed at him, so out of control you couldn’t understand what she was saying. Sometimes she spat out things I knew I shouldn’t have heard, things about another woman and fucking and pain.” If this book tells us anything, it’s that childhood relationships can be tough and complex, intense and devastating. It reminds us that navigating these friendships whilst family life is falling apart can be one of the hardest things to get through.
The story of Nina sounds like something from a film script. Cohen adores Nina and begs her parents to let her go away to summer camp with her, even though Nina’s other friend, Anastasia, will be there. Upon arrival, Nina dumps Cohen for Anastasia, who mocks and humiliates her. Distraught, Cohen arranges for her mother to collect her early and never sees Nina again, until the age of eighteen when she is visiting a lover in New York:
Above his desk was a picture of a woman. I moved to get a closer look. Of course I did. To see who he would love, if not me. In the picture, a woman lay supine on a couch, her eyes soft and sad. With shock I saw that it was Nina, grown up now, still unbearably lovely. I brought my hand to my throat, the jealousy and hatred rising as thick and black and unmovable as it had that summer so many years ago.
At one point, Cohen describes going on an orientation trip, aged 11, with a group of other kids. Cohen doesn’t know any of them and describes the excruciating awkwardness and self-consciousness that starts to develop at this age:
Everything mattered: which bed I chose, where I dropped my bag, whether I sat on my bed or started unpacking. The other girls seemed fine. They talked and giggled and did whatever they did without thought. Surely, this was my childish perception, that I was the only one feeling awkward, that I was the only one under a microscope, the only one not right.
That sense of being conspicuous, if not unique to girls at this early stage, becomes very much so as time goes on and we become women. The hyper vigilance and awareness is something that many women can relate to. Girls? That only gets worse. The good news is that by 36 years old, you don’t tend to be studied with the same kind of scrutiny. A curse for some, a blessing for me. Neither do you give as much of a fuck.
It seems impossible to write about girls’ relationships with one another without mentioning the bullying that can sometimes characterise these relationships. So much has been written about the, apparently, different ways girls and boys bully each other. As much as I’m keen to reject binary thinking around gender, my own experiences tally with much of this thinking, namely, that boys tend to physically harm, whereas girls take a more psychological approach. This doesn’t mean that girls are never physically violent or that boys aren’t psychologically violent. I also wonder to what extent this is changing, as our ideas around gender progress. Is violence in girls still taboo, whilst violence in boys continues to be seen as inevitable and expected?
Cohen, like so many of us, is not immune from the bullies:
This friend I’d forgotten is the one, in fact, who brought back into my memory this year that began with this trip into the woods, a year that I still call the worst year of my life, a year when my home life spun out of my control, when I was bullied extensively by a few kids, one girl in particular, when my understanding of girls and their power formed, and a year that I somehow pushed from my memory so that I could not fully recover it.
Cohen then progresses to high school, where she is surrounded by rich kids:
The kids around me had LeSportsac bags. They wore Guess jeans and Polo. Their hair was curled and sprayed, their skin scrubbed and pimple free. These kids were ridiculously rich. Their fathers were the CEOs of Merrill Lynch and the Gap, corporate lawyers, and neurosurgeons. My family was rich, too, but not like that. Not filthy rich. I had to wear my sister’s hand-me-downs, and my mother only bought us our designer clothes on sale.
She then goes on to recall what she wore for her first day of school: “a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt with matching pants.” Whilst part of me balks at her admission that she and her sister were “only” bought designer clothes when they were in the sale (my heart bleeds), another part of me recognises that desperate desire not to stand out; to be the same as everyone else – not to be conspicuous. Despite this, it doesn’t stop her from applying the same judgement to other kids, in much the same way as the bullying she suffers: “These were the sorts of kids who only showered once a week, on whom puberty looked like a bad mistake, their faces greasy and pimpled, their feet too big for their lanky bodies.”
A universal condition? Perhaps.
Cohen details the inevitable bullying that follows. The pushing, the crank calls, the cruel notes, the perpetual exclusion: “I didn’t speak. So many didn’ts. All the negative space, the shrinking away, the disappearing that happens to girls at this age.”
Cohen then goes on to talk about checking out Tiffany’s Facebook page, the girl who bullied her. If my discussions with friends are anything to go by, checking out old bullies, friends and acquaintances on social media is something many of us can relate to. It’s as if that curiosity, that desire to understand the incomprehensible, still endures, pains and puzzles us:
I go to her Facebook page and see her. Still her. The broad face and nose. The thin, curly blond hair. I think she’s a therapist or runs a nonprofit or something. I don’t see any partners or children. In truth, she looks a little sad and lonely. But that could just be something I need to believe about her. A few times I think about contacting her, asking her why she treated me the way she did. I can see she’s just a woman, just a person. But I’m too scared.
Whoever said that you spend the rest of your life recovering from school wasn’t wrong.
The hypocritical approach continues, when Cohen and her sister are both allowed to take a friend away for the Christmas holidays with their mother and her new boyfriend. Cohen’s friend lets her down, so she goes alone, only to end up spending all her time with Laura, Tyler’s friend, after she and Tyler have an argument. Her sister is left alone and sad and Cohen doesn’t care. When they return to school, Cohen doesn’t want to know Laura any more and ignores her when she calls her name.
Cohen moves to another school, where another girl picks up where Tiffany left off: “I started a process of burying myself that I’d continue for a long, long time. I started a process of denying and shape shifting, eager for the approval of others.”
She begs her father to let her move schools, which he agrees to, and in her desperation for acceptance, she changes her image, which has the adverse effect of alienating her only friend, Elisabeth. Years later, when the pair reconnect and Cohen mentions how hurt she was about the breakdown of their relationship, Elisabeth is shocked: “‘Don’t you remember?’ she said. ‘You dropped me. You stopped talking to me, and I was heartbroken.’”
Cohen starts a new school in eight grade (around 12 or 13-years-old) and meets Chrissy, someone she describes as a “placeholder” – a substitute until someone better comes along: “I wanted to make friends, but she wasn’t who I would have chosen. I knew, even then, how unfair and selfish that was, but I wanted so much to be taken in by the right group. I wanted to be made worthwhile by them.”
Maureen is a “slut”. After Cohen invites a strange boy back to her house and refuses to go into the bedroom with him, he gets angry with her, pushes her and calls her a “fucking tease”, adding to Maureen on his way out that he, “should have hooked up with you instead. You would have followed through.” As a consequence of this encounter, Cohen makes the follow observations:
This was the day I learned two things: that I was utterly replaceable, that I could disappear just like that, like I did for my mother; and that if I wanted to be worth attention, if I wanted to matter to anyone, I had better give them something in return.
I wonder how many girls the world over felt like that, still feel like this?
The double standards that exist around men and women’s sexual activity show no sign of abating. On the contrary, girls today face new challenges with the widespread increase in and availability of social media and apps, such as the demand for naked pics that many teenage girls report. You’re still a slut if you do and a prude if you don’t.
Cohen perfectly articulates the heartbreak and pain that (platonic?) relationships between women can generate. This is amplified when you’re a teenager and everything is new and scary and you’re trying to navigate an unfamiliar path.
Cohen is sent to another school for “getting in trouble with boys”. She becomes friends with Amy and the pair drive into Manhattan every weekend to go to bars, drinking alcohol, hooking up with guys and doing cocaine. Her Dad is barely around and leaves stacks of hundred-dollar bills for her to buy groceries. They steal his weed.
It was later that year that I lost my virginity to a kind boy I wasn’t attracted to but whom I could trust. I didn’t dare tell Amy. But from then on I slept with every boy who offered. I tried to fill myself with their bodies, with their desire for me, even though they disappeared as soon as they were done.
Now is a pretty good time to mention that Cohen has written a book called Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, in which she explores her own promiscuity as a girl/young woman. You can watch a short film about this here. I’m really keen to read this. It’s also interesting and relevant, I feel, to note that Cohen is now a psychotherapist specialising in sex and relationships.
Cohen befriends Jennifer and they do a lot of cocaine together. Cohen ends up sleeping with the guy Jennifer was previously sleeping with and their friendship breaks down as a result.
Cohen makes reference to this experience with Jennifer in Loose Girl and says the following about it:
A year after my memoir that told this story came out, Jennifer got in touch with me. We made a phone date and talked for two hours about all of it, about Will, about the issues I had with boys, about how I’d betrayed her and hated myself at the time. She cried, recounting those days. I did too. Amazing how all those years later you can feel just the same. All the old feelings come rushing in: please like me, please don’t hate me, please be my friend. [my emphasis]
Just when I’m warming to Cohen, her short summary of Kelly is devastating: “Kelly wasn’t an attractive girl. She had frizzy black hair and a stout body.”
Uh? Isn’t ‘attractiveness’ subjective? Maybe not at high school. Cohen goes on to further describe her friendship with Kelly:
She introduced me to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. We listened to it daily, lying head to feet on her bed in the dorm, and we spoke of our own heartaches, the rivers and planes and cases of you. I don’t remember losing her. But years later I heard she killed herself, which was both a surprise and not a surprise.
As far as epitaph’s go, this is pretty piss poor. I just hope none of Kelly’s friends or family ever had to read this.
Alison is an older friend who she meets in grad school. Their relationship makes me sad, not least because the age gap seems to be a factor in the deterioration of their relationship and the subsequent hurt that follows. As someone whose closest friends are younger than me, this is something that I’ve had to navigate, with difficulty, over the years. Being in different places, with new interests or friends that don’t necessarily resonate with you anymore, different values … it can be a challenge.
As their lives gradually move in different directions, Alison turns off from Cohen, refusing to return her calls and slowly withdrawing from her life, without explanation. Cohen describes an occasion where the two bump into each other and how Alison remains steadfastly elusive, to the extent that Cohen subsequently avoids her. This rejection hurts:
The last time I saw her I was prepared. She walked into a literary event where I knew many people and she knew only the woman with whom she arrived. She saw me and started to smile, and this time I met her eyes but looked away. I ignored her the entire night and I stayed busy chatting with people who hadn’t done something that led to wasting so much time wondering if I was unlovable.
Despite feeling like Alison’s possible frustration or irritation with Cohen may have been justified, I couldn’t help doing a mini fist-pump upon reading this. This is strange because while I could understand Alison’s reluctance to talk to Cohen about why she had withdrawn, I could still relate to the pain and hurt Cohen felt, to the extent that it felt good to claw back a little control.
Cohen’s book is a bittersweet testimony of childhood, adolescence and beyond that I defy any [cis] woman not to identity with. I feel like I’ve run the gamut of emotions throughout this book – from sadness, anger, outrage, bitterness, nostalgia, melancholy and, finally, hilarity. The defining and residual feeling, however, is recognition. We can all relate to being dumped, disappointed and screwed over by people who we think care about us and we are all, hopefully, familiar with the excitement, anxiety and anticipation a burgeoning friendship brings. Girl Trouble makes you feel less alone. This is a book I want to buy for all my friends.
“I miss all of my ex-friends. They are stamped onto my heart like old romances, lost loves. They are part of me in ways no one warned me they would be”
Girl Trouble reminds me that we all have the potential to be both the bully and the bullied, but that if you’re bullied, that shit burns and sticks with you. That people are rarely ‘bad’ and that there’s good and bad in us all. That school is totally fucking brutal. Much like any relationship – romantic, sexual or platonic – why do we keep doing it, time and again; putting ourselves through the emotional wringer, risking our pride and dignity, making ourselves vulnerable? Annie Hall spoiler ahead: Because we need the eggs.
Girl Trouble: An Illustrated Memoir is published by Hawthorne Books and available now.
The image is the cover of the book and is used with permission. It shows an illustration of a person standing with their hands in their pockets. They have mid-length brown hair and they are wearing a denim jacket, black T-shirt, jeans and green trainers. The title ‘Girl Trouble’ appears in front of the illustration in yellow ‘bubble’ writing. The words ‘an illustrated memoir’ and the author’s name, Kerry Cohen, appear above and to the right of the title. The author’s name is in pink bubble writing. Beneath the title it reads: ‘illustrated by Kerry Cohen’. Kerry’s name also appears in pink bubble writing.