My Feminist Friends

January 30, 2019

In a new book, Distinguished Professor Nancy K. Miller explores how her extraordinary friendships with the scholars Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook shaped her work and her life.

Distinguished Professor Nancy K. Miler (right) with scholar Naomi Schor, one of three close friends she memorializes in her new book, My Brilliant Friends. 

Over seven years near the beginning of the 21st century, Distinguished Professor Nancy K. Miller (English, Comparative Literature, and French) lost three dear friends. She’d met and fashioned friendships with the scholars Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook at varying points in her academic career. They had in many ways helped her identify and pursue her passion for writing, but also helped her navigate the fraught nature of academia in the 1970s, when women were fighting for recognition as well as a seat at the table. Without them, Miller not only felt bereft, but unsure of who she was.
Inspired in part by Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Miller’s new book My Brilliant Friends, weaves together memoir, biography, and a philosophical inquiry on the nature of friendship. The resulting book honestly snapshots how extraordinary friendships, with all their peaks and valleys, help us better know ourselves.
Graduate Center: These friendships are intertwined with work: Carolyn served as a kind of mentor and Naomi as a member of your cohort. How did that interplay function?
Miller: I came late to the Ph.D. In the 1950s, I had zero ambition for myself. I went to live in France for several years, and I taught English. When I finally came back to the States, I thought, ‘Well, what can I do?’ I taught French in a high school for one year, and I thought I would go out of my mind. Do you have any idea how much people hate the French teacher? I thought, ‘I cannot do this; there must be a better way.’ So I decided to go to grad school, but again, ambitionless. I was very good in graduate school, better than I’d been in any context. I met this woman [Naomi] who was already an assistant professor and had already done the dissertation, and wasn’t so different from me.
GC: And close in age.
Miller: Yes! She was younger than I was. She was very ambitious. She took her work really seriously; I had never known a man or woman who worked that way. When I saw that she was passionate about these subjects, it was a kind of intensity I had never encountered. This was also at the very beginning of feminism as it emerged in the academy. There was a whole sense of change in the world in the early ’70s. The first course I taught, French Women Writers, was in 1977, and we thought it was so radical that we were afraid to hold the class in the classroom space. We went to someone’s apartment.


GC: Academics need a community around them to help challenge and bolster that work, but at the same time there’s this sense of competition. How did you find that balance in these friendships?
Miller: On the one hand, the passion for work was new, and because it was so new, we didn’t understand how that worked with everything else. There was a strain about whether or not you could have a relationship and also get your work done. We were constantly struggling with that. We felt a lot of tension trying to do it all. And you see nothing ahead of you. You see one tenured professor ahead of you, so you’re thinking, ‘What kind of a horizon is this?’
GC: I can see how in that environment, it’s not about competition within work, but about having someone to go along this journey with.
Miller: Yes! Because Naomi and I [studied] different centuries, that was a protective factor. This is an important thing: There was the need for recognition. That’s kind of how Carolyn came into the picture. My mentor was a fairly evil character; I was chosen without being protected. He accepted my work, he liked my work, but there was no sense he was going to help me. Carolyn had already had her struggle, and she was very lonely in her struggle. She welcomed feminism as it started to emerge in the late’70s. In a way, that was a second person saying, ‘You can do this,’ but in a completely different way. 
GC: Memory, memoir, memorialization, how did you see that all at work in this project?
Miller: Suddenly, these people I completely relied for my sense as a writer and an academic were gone. I felt an emptiness. It was an emotional realization that I was lacking the important emotional world I was living in. I had been teaching memoir, I had been reading memoir, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is my life, but these are also stories.’ I thought, ‘I want to tell the story of friendship.’ You’d be surprised, there’s not that much literature on friendship, even within feminism. It’s about the emotional attachment: the witnessing, the recognition, the support. It’s odd not having more of an obvious life shape, and I realized that this was going to be a mixed genre between memory and biography, that in fact they were linked.
GC: And even your meditations on friendship add a third thread to that.
Miller: Right. I don’t know that I have an answer. One of the things that Carolyn always thought was a problem for women was wanting closure, and learning to live without the obvious closure. For women, we live in so much anxiety and conflict and struggle, it’s hard to embrace the idea that we don’t actually know how the story’s going to turn out.
Miller will be speaking about her book at the launch event for The Graduate Center’s new M.A. in Biography and Memoir on March 6. Learn more about the event.