Cutting dead

A personal essay that explores the sometimes sudden and painful end of a long friendship

You hesitate to stab me with a word, and know not – silence is the sharper sword.

Samuel Johnson


A married couple I have known for three decades cut me dead a few weeks ago. It was the crudest of social killings, and it got me thinking about friendship – what it is, and what it isn’t. And why some friendships don’t last the distance.

Caroline and her partner Ed (let us call them that) had been my friends for thirty years. Then, gradually, over the past few years, there was less and less contact. No rift, no face-to-face unpleasantness. No misunderstanding – nothing. The good together-times were no longer happening. Just the slow fade-out. Initially friends of my ex, maybe the two of them had made their choice, as so often happens in a break-up. Perhaps they felt uncomfortable with me, blamed me. I don’t know. I can only tell my truth.

Clearly, I failed to decode the message in that fade-out. Eventually, Caroline and Ed didn’t return my text messages, or respond to my calls suggesting that we catch up. The Christmas cards no longer arrived. Naively, I reasoned that they were busy, they were travelling overseas, or their phone message system must be malfunctioning. I tend to make large allowances for other people’s messy, over-committed lives. I was busy too, not least with a new long-distance relationship (doomed, as it turned out, as several friends predicted), and trying to re-make my own life.

And maybe, just maybe, I am thick as a plank when it comes to other people’s Terminator-behaviour.

My ex had continued to socialise with them, but I was not included. And recently, it became clear to me that her shelf-life with them had been nudging its expiry date, too.

Looking back over the thirty years of friendship, I realised that other friends of theirs had been dropped. There was a pattern, in fact, just like in one of those iconic 3d images of the Eiffel Tower or an American eagle that use mathematical formulae and computer-generated images to take the viewer on a voyage of discovery. Only I couldn’t decipher the hidden object in front of my eyes – no Opera House in that blue-patterned swirl of abstract colours, no Venetian gondola. No matter how much I doubled my vision, tried to hoodwink it into seeing an image at a greater depth, there was no voyage for me, no pleasure in discovery. I didn’t even leave the dock. Apparently, you have to learn to see those patterns.

Clearly, I was no longer on the list. I had been electronically, telephonically erased. Made persona non grata. I had been deemed unknowable, with no redress possible. No forgiveness, either – the usual responses of the individual to the pain of social exclusion, like an apology or reparation, were impossible since, like the ancient Greek form of ostracism, there had been no charge.

Yes, I should have seen it coming. Quite possibly I lacked an effective early detection system that would have alerted me to being excluded by others, like a set of feelers to gauge social interactions.

I’ll never know precisely why they gave me the cold shoulder, in public, although the most likely reason, I think, is their insecurity and anxiety about some perceived threat to the marriage from outsiders. Caroline and Ed had enacted the kind of punitive ostracism that stretches back into ancient history. No, I didn’t fancy the husband – or the wife. I thought they were my friends.

Was the snub a classic reaction to that perceived threat, something hotwired into our primate DNA? There are certainly parallels to human ostracism in the animal world, where a threat to the group often leads to death or an evolutionary dead end for the excluded individual. Jane Goodall, who did such amazing work with chimpanzees, found that this species, like people in social groups, often exclude conspecifics or fellow members, such as out-group strangers, because they may compete for food, mates or territory. Similarly, they exclude those who look or behave oddly, as they may be unpredictable, diseased or threatening.

For Caroline and Ed, operating as a unit, and apparently joined at the hip in their response to the out-group stranger – me – I seem to have become all three.

My experience as a newly-single woman has taught me that co-dependent couples often protect themselves from the threat posed by an unattached friend. It’s frequently carried out by both partners in a social setting. A kind of defensive circling the wagons. When that friend is bisexual, it may be completely unsettling. A known quantity changes, is suddenly dangerous. Many people expect other individuals to be stable gendered entities, and not to be subject to mystifying fluctuations in sexual identity.

This situation seems ludicrous, however, when the individuals concerned are in their mature years. No femmes-fatales or God’s gift to women here – just ordinary people getting older, greyer, frailer, becoming the sum total of their aches and pains. You’d think that ensuring the primacy of your DNA would be a fairly low priority by now. Is it the case, with many older couples, that their defensiveness has more to do with the threat of losing mutually tied-up property if one partner should stray? Or is it the ‘double-headed monster’ syndrome, when a tightly-bonded couple begin to lose their individuality? Staying together, rusted on, even when there is dislike, criticism or outright hostility. Maybe they need to manufacture a perceived threat from outside every now and then to bind them more tightly.

Instead of doing some renovation work on their own relationship, Caroline and Ed project their insecurities and unhappiness onto others. But to judge all single individuals as marauders howling at the gates, and to assume they might set their sights on your (let’s be frank) no longer delectable-to-all partner, is laughable. Even delusional.

Whether the threat is real or imagined, it doesn’t matter – I had ‘jumped the fence’, as the saying goes, was now viewed as a threat to property because naturally, as a single woman, I would compete for my former friend’s mate. (I think their food source was safe.) A social death ensues, the only known antidote. And however much you think you have enough self-esteem to deal with the anxiety that can result from being wiped, even when you know they are projecting some sort of anxiety onto you, it still leaves its mark.

So I am cut dead. Twice on the same afternoon. First by the couple in unison, then later, the wife. Given the frozen shoulder, rejected.

Interestingly, there are a myriad synonyms for the punitive ostracism of another human being. Snub, for instance, from snubba, O.N. for curse, scold or reprove. To snub is to make your nose shorter – to turn up your nose at someone. The word is a testament to the practice of a much more intense rejection of others among our ancestors, with tragic consequences for the individual, though its meaning later weakened to “treat coldly”.

Snubbing someone is about exercising control – and depriving another of power, of the right to exist. The middle and upper classes in 19th century England habitually used it to freeze out undesirables like the novelist George Eliot, aka Mary Ann Evans. She was ostracized as a “fallen woman” when she began to live openly with George Lewes, a married man with three children by a wife with whom he had a consensual open marriage. Being dead to members of a hypocritical English society didn’t seem to get in the way of Eliot’s happy and productive Bohemian existence, however, both in England and on the continent. Her literary fame, in fact, eventually led to her being mobbed, not snubbed, with avid admirers flocking to her home as though she were a Sybil.

Clearly, other people’s perceptions of us need not become our reality, need not define who we are. If you feel bad about yourself, you’ll be hurt when others seem to confirm that view. For those who feel firmly anchored in the world, reasonably secure about who we are, and moderately happy with ourselves, it is water off a duck’s back. We just have to remain convinced of that.

Being part of what my journalist son calls a ‘friend-cull’ does not have to lead to an evolutionary dead end – whatever it meant for our ancestors.   It could actually be the start of something much better, a deeper perception of what friendship means. The Persian poet Rumi said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” The light I am interested in here is the understanding we can develop of ourselves and others in the world, despite negative experiences. If W. B. Yeats was hurt into poetry by mad Ireland, the hurt occasioned by troubled people passing on their problems can also be transformative.

As long as we know we haven’t offended a friend wilfully, done actual harm or been treacherous, as long as we’re not in denial of treating others badly, all we can do is shrug and get on with it. If it’s beyond the power of an apology to heal the rift, forget it. Real friends don’t treat you like that, anyway. And there are far better friends out there – wonderful people who are in there, like you, for the long haul. Here is Rumi again: “Don't grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”

For the vulnerable, however, or those with painful memories of other rejections, being cut dead can be destructive, extremely so, as intended.

It’s different when friends stop being friends because of distance, or because they or their families move away, or take different paths in life. It doesn’t feel like rejection, just the tyranny of distance that divides you, no matter how much you try to keep in touch, whether it is a continent away, or a suburb. When I was a young girl of 11 in my last year of primary school, and a Romantic at heart (at least before reality set in) I believed everything good should last for eternity. On the verge of teenager-hood, I had maybe two close friends, and I thought these friendships would last forever.

At the time, I was reading my grandmother’s leather-bound copy of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat by the Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam. He was one of her melancholy favourites, and was soon mine. His quatrains, a version of Khayyam’s verse, celebrated the consolations of wine and companionship (thou beside me in the wilderness), always acknowledging the fleeting quality of time.

Already writing poetry, I was too young for the wine, except for being allowed to have a small glass of sherry at Christmas, but for me, friendship was a matter of the spirit. Friendship, like love, was meant to persist beyond the grave. Wasn’t my grandmother still pining for my grandfather, her beloved Bill, her own handsome second cousin, the ex-soldier turned real-estate agent, dead at 38 over three decades before? Anything short of that was not real, or worthy, I thought. I remained convinced of that up to my early twenties.

But I lost my two best friends at the end of primary school. They moved away, disappeared out of my life to distant suburbs. There was Noelene, who introduced me to the novel idea that a family could be happy. And there was Bonnie from Hong Kong, whose parents worked in the Chinese gardens near the airport and gave me bunches of spinach to take home to my mother. With great generosity, they fed me when I turned up at their house in my weekend wanderings. I felt the loss, yes, but I learned about the importance of companionship from both of them. It isn’t how long a friendship lasts that matters so much, I saw, but what you get out of it, and what you give in return, however fleeting the contact.

Deliberately unfriending someone online is a different order of loss from the circumstance of friends moving on to other lives. It’s a studied act of erasure, of someone wiping the slate clean (with you on it). Some people argue that this is about exercising the right of consent to the people who inhabit your life. They reason that if you no longer need people, for whatever reason, you should excise them, and they don’t even have to know.

Perhaps, secretly, you’ve been feeling like giving someone the chop for a long time, but you couldn’t find the right words, or the right time. Maybe you’ve chosen the gradual ignore, and the person hasn’t noticed. Perhaps he or she is politically a polar opposite from you, or obtuse and intolerant of disagreement. Maybe you can’t stand having to bite your tongue when an acquaintance starts in on how Moslems are a threat to world peace as we know it, or how Donald Trump’s political incorrectness is truly admirable.   It’s not worth the argument – you won’t change each other’s views, or habits. Much simpler to make a quick stab at the keyboard, sever the connection, rather than prolong the slow drift in real time.

I’ve done it myself, though not online – cut loose from an acquaintance who has continually offended me, from the kind of brash, braying individuals who lack empathy for anyone but themselves. Now I’m wondering if it was cowardly of me at the time, and if there’s a better way.

Sally, an acquaintance from when I taught at university, would carp me about trivial things every time we met, and often patronised me, despite my kindness to her. I couldn’t seem to find the words to say, “This isn’t worth it – you’re unpleasant and destructive.” Eventually I wanted to shed her the way a snake sloughs off its skin, and just slither away. But I felt sorry for her, and kept making excuses to myself for not breaking off the connection, then realised all over again she was just impossible. Her habit of criticising others was ingrained, her tantrums and particular brand of craziness were exhausting.

Eventually, she slid into my ‘lame duck’ category, the one reserved for people you tolerate only because, you tell yourself grimly, they’re human beings. You put up with a lot for the cause of humanity. Astonishingly, I’ve found that such people don’t seem to have any inhibitions at all about letting you know what’s wrong with you.

However lame or sociopathic, such people are predators. Irritatingly, they think you are their natural victim. They continue to offend you, displaying no self-awareness of their impact on you. By the end, you feel like slipping a vial of poison into their sauvignon blanc.

Since the beginning of human tribes, humans have used exile, shunning, ex-communication and other forms of exclusion to underline that some individuals do not belong, whether they have broken laws or taboos or are merely non-conformist in their views or lifestyle. Sending someone to Coventry is another form of social killing, and quite common in the workplace. It is a favourite tool of the military, for instance, even today, whatever its stated values about equality and loyalty. In the 19th century, for instance, Henry Flipper, a former slave and the first African-American to graduate from West Point military academy, was ostracised for four years by white cadets. At the same academy in 1976, MAJ Lillian Pfluke and the other female cadets were ostracised by male cadets and faculty alike.

Even today, well after the end of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the US army, gay marines are still given the silent treatment or harassed by those who don’t believe that supposedly “effeminate” men, like women, fit the masculine warrior model. Being ‘out or a woman in the military is still an invitation to be sexually harassed or mistreated. My excommunication by ex-friends acting badly is nothing compared to the pain of extended silent treatment on the basis of race, gender or choice of partner, although I’ve had plenty of experience of discrimination in the last two categories.

We don’t know the exact origin of the expression ‘to send to Coventry’, because even the experts can’t agree. Is it derived from the Lady Godiva story, where Peeping Tom got his cheapies by perving on the Lady as she rode naked through the streets to protest against unfair taxes, and then was ostracized by the townspeople of Coventry? Or was it a reference to the town’s disapproval of Royalist soldiers billeted there in the 17th century, or some other more obscure event? One thing is clear: its message is ‘Conform or die’. Its sub-text is ‘You are dead to me.’

So, there were Caroline and Ed, once-dear friends with whom my ex and I had shared many laughs, dinners, and Christmases, and they had turned their backs on us. We were to be collectively punished.   Made to feel we did not matter.

The scenario plays itself over in my head, and still retains the power to shock, even though it was only two people acting in concert, and not the assembled citizens of Athens voting with their ostrakos or shards of broken pottery to send us out of town for 10 years. As my ex and I walked towards them, they physically turned away, studiously looked down, frowning and hunched over, pointedly excluding us from their personal space. Crude, rude, poorly acted, but effective. And unlike ostracism, Athenian democracy style, it was meant to be permanent, a banishment for life. There would be no review of our status, no reversal of the edict. We didn’t even have 10 days to pack up and high-tail it out of town. Later, their gesture made me think of those lines of Thomas Wyatt’s poem, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek.” I think the poet had faithless lovers in mind, but it still seems apt.

My ex had waved a casual hand in their direction, not wanting to be uncivil.   They ignored the gesture. A sign of peace, a restrained and casual overture, the way dogs passing each other will sometimes assess the other from a distance, with a slight tremor of the tail, unsure of their reception. Waiting for a sign of mutual recognition. Friend, or foe? Some dogs, of course, bite first, going on the offensive right away without any preliminaries.

Or, to use a different metaphor, the gesture was like opening a door a tiny chink, and having someone slam it in your face.

Fascinating, said one part of my brain. The one with the pulled-back, bird’s eye view of things, or the watcher frozen out by an arctic silence and uber-protective body-language. Eyes wide open and observing.

Very sad, said another voice. You can only feel sorry that anyone is in that space. Sad that people unkindly disposed towards you need to make a public display in front of strangers. Because a public space is like a stage, and cutting dead is a performance, the singling out of an individual to exclude him or her from the herd. (“Unkindly disposed towards” – what a 19th century expression. You imagine someone leaning back in a languid fashion on a green velvet chaise-longue, eyeing you malevolently through a monocle.)

Yet another voice was angry, insulted. So when Caroline, standing alone on the footpath afterwards, refused to make eye-contact for the second time that afternoon, I said in a louder than natural voice, “Hi Caroline, lovely to see you again.”  I preferred to meet the snub head-on with irony (okay, blunt-edged sarcasm) before walking away and not looking back. If anyone was going to be caught blinking in the oncoming headlights, it was not going to be me.

But of course, the silent treatment permits no response, not even eye-contact. Mine was a passive-aggressive response, like the silent treatment itself. Ineffectual and immature, you might say. Perhaps you’re a master or mistress of the dignified silence, and no way would you even register the snub, let alone probe the wound.

But I had to voice my reaction to that act of exclusion, draw attention to the drama unfolding, assert that I wasn’t silenced. That I knew what they were doing. Heads turned, eyes goggled, and a woman nearby scrutinized Caroline closely, as she stood there afterwards giving us THE BIG IGNORE. Quite a performance.

My ex and I discussed it as we walked away – it’s not every day that you’re wiped so definitively from someone’s orbit, and in tandem. As I have gradually realised, still processing that snub, it’s more than a bit painful: it felt like I was back in the primary school playground again, where name-calling, exclusion and the silent treatment were rife.

Mission accomplished, for Caroline and Ed. The act of punitive exclusion is not called ‘cutting dead’ for nothing. It’s intended to wound. It’s an extreme reaction, a survival mechanism in the presence of a perceived threat. A psychological knee-capping. We had been consigned to the bottom of the harbour, feet immobilised in chunks of concrete.

I have known toxic people, and if they don’t respond to friendly, fence-mending overtures, if their toxicity is part of a pattern of projected self-loathing, or an inflexible judgmental attitude, or if they’re just too damn damaged, I don’t seek them out. There’s no dramatic bust-up – I just don’t go out of my way to contact them. That’s life. We feel we have the right to exercise choice. Indeed, many people sever contact with their own relations when they don’t measure up, or when they actively offend, or when they are perceived as breaking some code of behaviour. Or simply for who they are.

Sometimes it persists for a lifetime. Many others would dearly like to administer the coup de grace, and move on unencumbered, but they keep up a façade of friendship. Some cut off their own parents or siblings. I know at least five people whose offspring have cast them out of their lives, depriving them of any contact with their grandchildren. One fundamentalist daughter refuses to know her mother, now in her seventies, unless she repents her past lesbian relationships. A friend who lives with her de facto in the same small coastal town as her only daughter is only able to talk to her grandchildren when she meets them by chance in the street. Whatever heinous crime this mother has committed, the daughter shows no sign of relenting. Forgiveness doesn’t seem to be an option.

Social media comments proliferate about whether or not we should exclude people considered toxic others from our lives – and the general view is that if they are damaging people, or sociopaths, if they are doing you harm on a regular basis, you owe it to yourself to remove them from your life, to ensure your own survival and well-being. That’s one reason why ‘unfriending’ people is rife on social media. You can simply block people’s access to your online self.

Not surprisingly, revenge for unfriending by flaming, stalking, vilification and worse is widespread. Being ostracised by someone is painful, and the individual often needs to respond in a way that will remove the pain, that will re-assert his or her right to exist. In this case, I’m not going to ignore the pain, or pretend that I don’t feel uncomfortable and even sad. To not respond would seem to me to condone the actions of Caroline and Ed.

For me, the best response is to write about it. It’s a way of thinking things through, of doing therapy on myself, not a matter of wanting revenge. It’s about bearing witness, putting it in another form so that the experience won’t keep coming back like traumatic events tend to do, to plague you with doubts and fears, and undo you all over again.

As a case in point, for some years I was tormented by the memory of the night when I was almost strangled to death in the street by a serial killer. I was 20 at the time, and it was only when I fictionalised the incident some years later that I began to put those terrible images to rest. Turning the attack into fiction made it manageable, the way beta-blockers are said to cancel out the emotional impact of past traumatic experiences. My brother, who has PTSD, has sometimes been reduced to tears at the thought of what might have happened to me that night. He still finds it hard to deal with the memory, though he has plenty of his own demons: as a former police officer he’s had far more than the regulation number of deaths to report to loved ones, and more than his share of on-the-job and after-the-job trauma.

But that particular experience no longer has the power to hurt me, disturb me, or bring me down. I do think that one of the reasons why I responded with anxiety to being cut dead is that it seemed like one more attempt to erase me. To silence me.

And for now, at least, I won’t be erased.


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