This post has been a long time coming, and in it I will tell you about the most damaging group of ‘friends’ I have ever been a part of. I say ‘friends’ because, as you will read, these were the kind of people who didn’t stuck around when the sh*t hit the fan, so how can I say they were ever really friends?
It all began in May 2010 in the suburb of Mount Hawthorn, Perth. I was eighteen, a recent home-leaver, city-mover, uni-student and all-round vulnerable waif, liable to be sucked into something terrible. I know that I couldn’t be who I am now without the brutal episodes that I am about to relate, but even now it still irks to think of.
Someone I knew at uni invited me to a party which turned out to be fancy dress, possibly the only good kind of party. When we arrived it turned out it was a birthday party for someone I’d never met, and the friend I was with hadn’t asked if they could bring me – not a great start. But it soon turned out that fresh young meat was most welcome amongst this tribe. The group of white, home-living, middle-class-ites consisted of the following characters: Jack (whose birthday it was), Mara (his high school girlfriend, now wife – I’ll get to that later), Romantic Lead #1 (the fateful romantic who ‘got’ me), Bill (ugh, how do I even explain), Ed, Kane, Colin, Reece, Neil, Len (let’s call them supporting characters). They were all 23-24, had been friends since high school and, you’ll notice, almost all guys. There was some attraction between myself and Romantic Lead #1 and the following weekend we ‘got together’. It was very end-of-a-teen-movie-high-school-romance and I couldn’t help but feel that ‘it was meant to be’, blah blah blah. I hadn’t made many friends since moving to the city, I was interminably lonely, and the tribe, all older and, I thought, wiser than I, liked me and wanted me to be a part of their… network. I was not destined to be a part of the tribe, as it turned out, just made to hover on the outer circle. How could I say no? I really needed a community and here was one ready-made and attached to a seemingly good boyfriend. Ah, but that’s the trick. You see, Andrew and I weren’t in a relationship together; I was in a relationship with him, and he and his Brothers (no, I’m not joking) were an inseparable unit.
Things were good enough for the first year or so, but in hindsight there were cracks from the beginning. It’s hard to describe what this tribe of friends was like that adequately conveys the brutal shallowness, selfishness, entitlement and privilege that they embodied. They were a unit; they were ‘the guys’. ‘The guys’ had girlfriends who came and went, some staying longer than others, but these women weren’t really a part of the tribe because they were unfortunate enough to be born sans penii. I say this because, after dating Simon since they were fourteen, Mara wasn’t really part of the tribe until they were married in 2013, and even then there was something that held her out of the core tribe. Glynn, by contrast, rocked up one Saturday afternoon in early 2011, invited by Bill, and has been fairly integral ever since. What chance did I stand after three and a half years as a mere girlfriend? I tried everything I could think of to fit in and be accepted by them, from knitting everyone beanies for their birthdays (there were twelve core tribe members whose birthdays were throughout the year, so this was not an easy task. Odd, you may say, but everyone loves a beanie), to being the group photo-taker, to organising group holidays at Christmas and Easter, to counselling them individually when they came to me with personal disasters. I did everything a ‘good’ girlfriend and a ‘good’ friend can do but it was never enough. I guess that was part of the problem; they couldn’t accept me because I willingly performed the role and duties expected of a soft, empathetic, comforting female. I also committed the middle-class sin of being too poor and not living at home with my parents paying for everything, cooking, cleaning and washing up after me. I irked them by actively discouraging their racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry. I was interested in art, history and reading, I studied things I was passionately interested in instead of striving for status, money and power; I was a free, creative spirit full of life, and I just didn’t fit with them and the things they valued.
I understand, now that I’ve had a few years of healthy relationships and time to reflect, that there were a lot of unspoken but unbreakable guidelines within the tribe, and more than once I toed that line dangerously. My final and ultimate act of betrayal was to break up with the member of the tribe who was destroying my life. Like, how dare I?
The guidelines, in summary, were as follows:
- I, and any girlfriend generously admitted to the outer circle of the tribe, was a curiosity, a thing to be looked at and interested in when it suited the viewer, otherwise I was of little consequence or importance. I was there to act as a comfort, a companion, a confidante, and to expect the same in return was to have thoughts above my status as a girlfriend/female. Reflecting upon this aspect of tribe socialisation is why I now understand the destructive force of the male-gaze
- My company in group activities was generally tolerated rather than enjoyed and I had to tread the careful line between being a ‘good’ girlfriend and being a needy pain-in-the-ass (no one likes a clingy chick!). At any time the core-tribe-member boyfriend could complain about his outer-circle girlfriend as being anything from sexually unsatisfactory, to not committed enough, to not earning enough, to not being pretty/hot enough, to not submitting to the core tribe’s social demands. It was hard to come back from that, kind of like sexually shaming women in Catholic societies. Or Christian societies. Or any male-dominated virgin-centric society
- I could not change anything between or among any of them, nor should I presume that I had the ability to do so. This in particular was reinforced in the brief time I was still in contact with some of the tribe between The Big Break Up and Jack and Mara’s wedding, which was several weeks later. In this time several tribe members gave me the following inadvertently prompted speech: “These guys are my Brothers, I would die for them. They mean everything to me. Loyalty is the most important thing, because they’re my Brothers.”
Loyalty was the highest law among the tribe, although it was only loyalty to each other that was at stake. Because, without each other, they would have been completely alone, adrift in a world of adults they couldn’t relate to or understand, unable socially and intellectually to handle or even begin new friendships.
Being with that person and that group of people was the closest I have ever come to witnessing what brainwashed people are like, and the run-on effect of poor relationships and not valuing people for themselves. This tribe did things a certain way and that was the way they were done; anything different was threatening and wrong. It was like the people of Labrador in The Chrysalids. They were born, they went to school, they went to uni, they got a job, they saved money their whole life, they bought a house as close to their parent’s house as possible, they didn’t make new friends, girlfriends conformed to their way of doing things, the person with the biggest house/most impressive job won, and they went through their whole lives without ever really changing or growing. This was so alien to my own life and upbringing that at first I didn’t understand what was so wrong about it.
It took me three and a half years to realise that, first of all, being with someone who didn’t care about me was not only incredibly unhealthy, but that there was no cosmic reward, no sacred martyr prize that would make it all worthwhile, and that the best and only thing I could do about it was to break up with him. Secondly, and this was partly why it took me so long to end things despite being utterly miserable, was that it didn’t matter how long I’d been around, how many conversations and activities I’d participated in, how many individual friendships I’d forged with the members of the tribe; they were a tribe and I was not part of it. This was made aggressively clear to me by the Loyalty speech I received so many times in the weeks between our break up and Jack and Mara’s wedding, at which Romantic Lead #1 was best man and I was a bridesmaid. This stuff could’ve been on TV: making exes stand opposite each other at an altar as their friends get married. The tribe made up most of the wedding and they were nice enough to me, but something wasn’t there anymore. Or maybe it was the same thing that had never been there, but now I knew for absolute certain that it wasn’t there. They were a tribe and I was just me.
Perhaps I have written strongly of this group of people, but that is because it affected me greatly at the time, and it has taken years to shake off the after-effects. Battling a mental illness while surrounded by people who didn’t really care about me was very damaging, particularly when one of those people had promised to love and care for me but everything he did was in direct contradiction to this. The last and most bitter kick to the teeth was when, several months later, I caught up with Mara and told her my fear that one or some of the ‘the guys’ were going to show up at my house and want some kind of confrontation because I committed the ultimate sin of breaking up with a member of the tribe. I had been warned at the beginning of our relationship (jokingly, but scarily) that there would be retribution ‘if you ever hurt him’. The fact that I was worried at all shows the strength of the Loyalty among the tribe and how much I thought things had devolved. But she told me that I shouldn’t worry because ‘nobody cares any more’. And I think that pretty much summed things up. I had been betrayed, ignored, neglected, refused and humiliated for putting my heart and soul into a relationship and friend group that couldn’t care less about me, and when I finally stood up for myself, took control and was in the middle of rebuilding my life, all previous plans obliterated, they just ‘didn’t care any more’. I guess it’s easy to leave someone broken and alone when you have your tribe around you. I wouldn’t know.