At the end of September 2017, I was feeling broken-hearted and worthless. The discovery that Exponent II’s treasurer had been engaging in systematic theft for years had caused the board to meet to discuss whether the organization had to shut its doors. The complicated deceit had left a wake of invoices and no money to pay them. After donating over 3,000 hours of my time over the previous eight years, I was staring failure in the face. As hard as I had tried, I had not done enough to keep Exponent II alive. In addition, I was grieving the death of an important friendship. This woman had been to my house many times. She had shared vulnerable moments with me. We had worked together on big projects and she had told me many times how much she loved and admired me. I felt like I could never trust my own feelings or intuition ever again.
At one of my darkest moments, I got a call from my sister-in-law, a woman whose wisdom has often set me right. Although it was late at night, she felt inspired to call me at that moment. “I know you’re feeling like you’re stupid and naive for not seeing the red flags,” she said, “But you weren’t.” When I protested, she reminded me of her own experience of betrayal: her husband had had an affair and walked away from their marriage and children after using her money to pay off his debts. She told me that she had spent many hours wondering how she ever could have trusted him, how she could have been dumb enough to put her faith in someone who was capable of such deceit. She wondered whether their marriage had ever been real, how he could have loved her and then chosen to hurt her so terribly. Such a breach of trust made her suspicious of everyone and doubting whether she had any ability of discernment whatsoever.
I have asked all of those questions in the past year. Showing up to continue to edit Exponent II when I was processing so many feelings of regret and rage was one of the hardest slogs of my life. The geographical distance of the board members and the silence we had to maintain for legal reasons meant that I felt alone in my grief, a grief that didn’t merit a casserole. But along with the burden of the organizational work, I was regularly reviewing all of my interactions with my former friend in my mind. Had our friendship been real? Did she care about me at all or was it all a sham, designed to get as much money as possible? What about the spiritual experiences we had shared together? Were those real?
As is often the case for me, the answer isn’t clear or easy. It has been about simultaneously holding conflicting truths in my head at one time. Luckily, my lifetime as a Mormon feminist heavily prepared me for that kind of work. Complexity, ambiguity, unanswered questions, sitting with discomfort–I’m really good at all of that! Years of experience! I am basically a professional at living with cognitive dissonance, so bring it on.
My resting place for these difficult questions, at least for today, is both/and. I believe that she cared about me in some way, even if that doesn’t in any way resemble the way I understand caring about people. I also believe that she deliberately manipulated intimacy to get what she wanted. I believe that we were friends who shared a serious commitment to a community. I simultaneously believe that community was purely functional for her–a vehicle to help in criminal behavior. I am ambivalent. I used to think of ambivalence as feeling in between two points, stuck somewhere in between. It was actually at an Exponent II retreat that someone told me that ambivalence means feeling two contradictory things at the same time–not a space in the middle, but in two different places at once. As has been the case again and again in my faith journey, there are many truths and I don’t have to pick just one.
For right now, I’m walking away from the questions of Did she love me? and Was our friendship real? They’re not helpful questions to me. The question I’m asking now is What do I want to do? And the answer is: I want to trust people. I want to practice self care. I want to have healthy boundaries. I want to work for a community that will continue to thrive for generations.
If any of that makes it sounds like I’ve forgiven her, I want to make clear that I haven’t. I believe forgiveness will come someday, but I’m not rushing myself. The effects of a betrayal of someone close are much greater than whatever material loss is on the surface. Even the most basic of boundary maintenance and self care means that I will never have a relationship with her again. But for this moment, I want to give myself the gift of accepting ambivalence. The relationship we had was real. It was also not real. She was who I thought she was and she also was not. For today, I can sit with that.