It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart

The older we get, the more we need our friends—and the harder it is to keep them

two "Best Friend" necklaces, each with half a heart, hanging side by side with all text except "End" crossed out

It is an insolent cliché, almost, to note that our culture lacks the proper script for ending friendships. We have no rituals to observe, no paperwork to do, no boilerplate dialogue to crib from.

Yet when Elisa Albert and Rebecca Wolff were in the final throes of their friendship, they managed, entirely by accident, to leave behind just such a script. The problem was that it read like an Edward Albee play—tart, unsparing, fluorescent with rage.

I met Elisa one evening in 2008, after an old friend’s book reading. She was such mesmerizing company that I rushed out to buy her debut novel, The Book of Dahlia, which had been published a few months earlier. I was instantly struck by how unafraid of darkness and emotional chaos she was. The same articulate fury suffused After Birth, her follow-up; her next book, Human Blues (her “monster,” as she likes to say), comes out in July.

Rebecca is someone I knew only by reputation until recently. She’s the founding editor of the literary magazine Fence, a haven for genre-resistant writing and writers that’s now almost 25 years old. She’s also the author of a novel and four poetry collections, including Manderley, selected by the National Poetry Series; she has a fifth coming out in the fall.

The two women became close more than a decade ago, spotting in each other the same traits that dazzled outsiders: talent, charisma, saber-tooth smarts. To Rebecca, Elisa was “impossibly vibrant” in a way that only a 30-year-old can be to someone who is 41. To Elisa, Rebecca was a glamorous and reassuring role model, a woman who through some miracle of alchemy had successfully combined motherhood, marriage, and a creative life.

It would be hard to overstate how much that mattered to Elisa. She was a new mother, all alone in a new city, Albany, where her husband was a tenured professor. (Albany! How does one find friends in Albany?) Yet here was Rebecca—the center of a lush social network, a pollinating bee—showing up on campus at Fence’s office every day.

The two entered an intense loop of contact. They took a class in New York City together. They sometimes joked about running away together. And, eventually, they decided to write a book together, a collection of their email and text correspondence about a topic with undeniably broad appeal: how to live in the world and be okay. They called this project The Wellness Letters.

I read the manuscript in one gulp. Their exchanges have real swing to them, a screwball quality with a punk twist. On page 1:

R: Anything you haven’t done?

E: Affair. Acid. Shrooms. Second child. Death. Ayahuasca.

R: “Bucket List.”

E: “Efforts at Wellness.”

R: I just started writing something called Trying to Stay Off My Meds …

E: U R A STRONG WOMAN.

But over time, resentments flicker into view. Deep fissures in their belief systems begin to show. They start writing past each other, not hearing each other at all. By the end, the two women have taken every difficult truth they’ve ever learned about the other and fashioned it into a club. The final paragraphs are a mess of blood and bone and gray guts.

In real time, Elisa and Rebecca enact on the page something that almost all of us have gone through: the painful dissolution of a friendship.

The specifics of their disagreements may be unique to them, but the broad outlines have the ring and shape of the familiar; The Wellness Letters are almost impossible to read without seeing the corpse of one of your own doomed friendships floating by.

Elisa complains about failures in reciprocity.

Rebecca implies that Elisa is being insensitive, too quick to judge others.

Elisa implies that Rebecca is being too self-involved, too needy.

Rebecca implies: Now you’re too quick to judge me.

Elisa ultimately suggests that Rebecca’s unhappiness is at least partly of her own unlovely making.

To which Rebecca more or less replies: Who on earth would choose to be this unhappy?

To which Elisa basically says: Well, should that be an excuse for being a myopic and inconsiderate friend?

E: The truth is that I am wary of you …

R: When you say that you are wary of me, it reminds me of something … oh yes, it’s when I told you that I was wary of you … wary of your clear pattern of forming mutually idolatrous relationships with women who you cast in a particular role in your life only to later castigate.

Their feelings were too hot to contain. What started as a deliberate, thoughtful meditation about wellness ended as an inadvertent chronicle of a friendship gone terribly awry.

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