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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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10/07/2004 Archived Entry: "Book Review: Secrets and Confidences"

Secrets and Confidences
The complicated truth about women's friendships
Edited by Karen Eng
Publisher: Seal Press

Review by Ginger Mayerson

In 2000 Dr. SE Taylor at UCLA published a paper on the biobehavioral responses to stress in females (see quote). Somehow this paper got distilled down in the zeitgeist as incontrovertible proof that women are as capable of genuine friendship as men. Well, of course. But, as usual, it's not that simple and Secrets and Confidences takes up where science leaves off.

But, first, let's have some science!

"Keverne et al. (1999) suggested that female-to-female bonding may have piggybacked onto maternal/infant bonding attachment processes. Consistent with Keverne et al.'s (1999) hypothesis, research has reported that animals prefer to spend time with animals in whose presence they have experienced high brain oxytocin and endogenous opioid activities in the past (Panksepp, 1998), suggesting that friendships may be mediated by the same neurochemical systems that mediate maternal urges. As is true of the maternal-infant caregiving system, contact with a friend or a supportive other person during stressful events downregulates sympathetic and neuroendocrine responses to stress and facilitates recovery from the physiological effects of acute stress (Christenfeld, Gerin, Lindon, Sanders, Mathur, Deich, and Pickering, 1997; Fontana, Diegnan, Villeneuve, and Lepore, 1999; Gerin, Milner, Chawla, et al., 1995; Gerin, Piper, Levy, and Pickering, 1992; Glynn, Christenfeld, and Gerin, 1999; Kamark, Manuck, and Jennings, 1990; Kirschbaum, Klauer, Filipp, and Hellhammer,1995; Kors, Linden and Gerin, 1997; Lepore, Allen, and Evans, 1993; Roy, Steptoe, and Kirschbaum, 1998; Sheffield, and Carroll, 1994; Thorsteinsson, James, and Gregg, 1998). Both men and women experience these stress regulatory benefits of social support, but women disproportionately seek such contact, and the stress-reducing benefits are more consistent when the support provider is female rather than male (e.g. Gerin et al, 1995). The enhanced desire for social contact that females demonstrate under conditions of stress, relative to males, may also be modulated by endogenous opioid mechanisms. Endogenous opioid peptides are released during stress, and are believed to influence social interaction (Benton, 1988; Jalowiec, Calcagnetti, and Fanselow, 1989). Animal studies suggest that higher levels of endogenous opioids are associated with higher levels of social interaction and maternal behavior. For example, Martel et al. (1993) found that administration of naloxone (an opioid antagonist) in female rhesus monkeys reduced both maternal behavior as well as social grooming of other females. Further support for this hypothesis and for its possible differential relevance for females is provided by an experimental investigation of the effects of opioids on affiliative behavior in humans. Jamner, Alberts, Leigh, and Klein (1998) found that administration of naltrexone (a long-acting opioid antagonist) increased the amount of time women spent alone, reduced the amount of time that they spent with friends, and reduced the pleasantness of women's social interactions, as compared with men; in addition, women given naltrexone initiated fewer social interactions than when they received a placebo. Thus, endogenous opioids appear to play a role in regulating social interactions, especially for women. Endogenous opioids also moderate the release of other peptides in the limbic system (e.g., oxytocin, vasopressin), as well as other 'stress-related' neurohormones, such as norepinephrine (Keverne et al., 1999), and cortisol (Klein et al., 1998), which may contribute to the sex differences observed in social behavior under conditions of stress."
Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, not Fight-or-Flight (Taylor et al., 2000) (PDF or HTML)

At our most fundamental, physical level, it really is all about keeping the species going. However, due to civilization as we know it, women can not only choose not to have children, but can also indulge in friendships that are not related to having and raising offspring.

The essays in Secrets and Confidences explore certain aspects of female friendship in language ranging from elegant memoir to blunt confession. Cartoonists who happen to be women - Molly Kiely, Ariel Schrag, Arial Bordeaux (two sequential artists named Ariel in one book has got to be statistically significant), Ellen Forney - are among the essays as well.

What was lacking for me (and maybe this is another book) is how women over forty relate to each other. Some of the essays touch on work and art in female friendships, but I feel there could be another anthology just on that subject. Making art (and writing book reviews) requires more alone time than one might imagine the tend-and-befriend kind of women is capable of. So, how do women get such things done and how do their friends, peers and colleagues fit into all that? These are my questions and if you don't like them, well, I have others. I mean, I know how I and my friends do it, but what about the rest of the female world?

To their credit, the essayists in Secrets and Confidences manage to keep their writing on a personal level without ever ending up in treacle. They are heartfelt, politics-free reminiscences that are enjoyable to read in the way travelogues of places one never wants to go or go back to are enjoyable to read.

Women bond for myriad reasons - survival, inspiration, prosperity, comfort, joy - and as we change over the course of our lives so do our friendships. What Secrets and Confidences captures very nicely are snapshots of women at various stages of their lives. And, though I found much of it alien and some of it annoying, I did enjoy reading it.

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