389: Frenemies

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Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International.


We had both been dating the same person, and she had been dating him for a while, and then broken it off. And then I had met him, and so he and I were dating. And then he started talking about her.

Oh, Julie, she's just this fantastic artist, and she lives in a trailer in the woods. And I go out there and drink wine with her and listen to fabulous music, and we just have deep intellectual conversations, that kind of stuff. And it turned out that he was seeing both of us at the same time.

Ira Glass

It took a while to figure that out, though. And in the meantime, this guy had the sheer nerve to introduce the two women to each other, Erin and Julie. And they became friends. And things kind of exploded with the guy and they stayed friends, at first with him, and then after that, with each other, in this emotional purgatory that I think most of us would never put up with after our 20s, which is exactly how old they were.


It was just kind of a weird, close friendship because it revolved around us not liking this guy, and that's kind of what it was based on at first. Even though we both knew that we kind of didn't like each other either. Because we both really secretly did like this guy, and wanted him to like us. And we just resented each other for even being in the picture. I don't know.

Ira Glass

That was Erin. Here's Julie.


I believed that we just happened to have a bad beginning, and that if we had met under different circumstances-- and she said the same thing-- if we'd met under different circumstances, we probably wouldn't have created all that bad history, this like push me, pull you kind of relationship.

Ira Glass

And they continued this way, as frenemies, having fun together now and then, but also getting into these huge, horrible fights all the time for four years. Long after they both stopped talking to the guy. And the real question is, when you're in this kind of situation-- and who among us has not been in this situation where you have some friend, where the thought of hanging out with his friend totally stresses you out. And you think, are we really friends then? The question is, why don't you cut it off?

And it turns out this is a question that science has actually looked into. Science done by a psychologist named Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues.

Julianne Holt-lunstad

Well, of course, our guiding question was, well if these relationships are potentially detrimental, why would people keep them?

Ira Glass

Julianne Holt-Lunstad has done a number of studies on ambivalent and frustrating friendships. In one of them, she had people rate their friends and their family members. How supportive they are, how much stress they cause, on and on. And she found that half, half of our relationships, on average, are with people that we care a lot about, we feel positive towards, and we also have real conflicts and negative feelings about as well.

Julianne Holt-lunstad

People talk about friends that are tons of fun, but can be really competitive. A friend that is really great when they're around, but are incredibly unreliable, or can be really insensitive at times.

I recall one person even saying, "I stick around for those few times that she is good to me and is nice. But most of time it's not good."

Ira Glass

When Hold-Lunstad and a colleague began their examination of why we don't just break up with these friends, they had a hypothesis. They thought, there must be external factors that made ditching these friends really, really hard. Like they're friends with all your other friends, or your kids are close, or you're part of the same church.

Julianne Holt-lunstad

Or they're your next door neighbor. What are you going to do, move? You basically run in the same social circles, and so it may be very difficult to avoid this person. And so you've got these barriers to ending that relationship.

Ira Glass

But to their surprise, they found this is not why people stay in these troubling friendships. People stay, they found, for reasons that they impose on themselves. Either they tell themselves things like, I'm not the kind of person who just gives up on somebody. I stay friends. Or they tell themselves that the good times outweigh the bad. Like with these two women, Erin and Julie.

They stayed frenemies for years because they got something from it. They got caught up in this competitive thing where Julie would give Erin advice, and Erin would like the advice, or not like the advice. And somehow neither of them could let that go.


I guess we are both attracted to defending our own honor. And we liked to write, so a lot of the time we would write long emails about-- no, no, no. This is why you suck. This is not actually what happened and let me point out to you this. So her logic in the emails just seemed so flawed, I just wanted to like, no, no. No, that's not how things went down. I just wanted to defend myself to her. And then, I guess we both thought that the other person should be the one to cut it off.

I don't know why I feel like it would be horrible for me to say, OK, we're done with this. And now let's kind of go on our separate ways.

Ira Glass

In another study, Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues wired people up to take their blood pressure every time they interacted with another person for three full days and found that friends that we feel ambivalently about raise our blood pressure more, cause more anxiety and stress than people that we actively dislike. In other words, frenemies are bad for our health. And they're all around us, 50% of our relationships. And today on our radio show, we examine them in all of their nefarious forms. The ones that we can only blame ourselves for having, the ones who simply cause agita without meaning any harm against us, and of course, the very few who actively scheme against us like characters on a TV soap opera. Smiling to our faces and then quietly going off and doing things that we do not like from friends or anybody else.

We hear all these types today, our show in four acts. Act one, Chasing Amy. What do you do when you're not sure but you think maybe your sister is starting to act like your frenemy? Act two, I am Here to Make Frenemies. In which we head into what we believe might be the world capital of frenemy behavior. Act three, Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace. David Rakoff in that act, and an impossible wedding toast, in rhyme. Act four, The Case of the Long Lost Frenemy, in which a childhood friend mysteriously shows up after years for reasons that are revealed over time. Stay with us.

Act One: Chasing Amy

Ira Glass

"Act one, Chasing Amy."

Family members can so easily be frenemies because you're stuck with them and you love them, and they sometimes do things that make you feel very weird. Jeanne Darst tells this story about herself and her sister.

Jeanne Darst

Amy's estrangement went undiagnosed for some time. Because in our family, someone retreating in anger is hardly a bacon cooler. People are always suddenly putting on their coats and requesting a ride to the Metro North Station, and my therapist said no contact for six months, and you can't come if you're drinking, and I won't come if he's there. And I'll come, but don't sit me next to her.

I always picture a sweaty John Madden frantically scribbling our Thanksgiving plays on a blackboard. So it took some time to notice, but maybe estrangement is by definition a matter of time. This is how it went.

Our white Volvo sulks through the traffic up the West Side Highway. My brother-in-law, Henry, is driving and I'm in the back seat behind him. His wife, my sister Liz, is in the passenger seat, and behind her is her four-year-old, Luisa, in her car seat.

We're like two car fractions. Henry and Liz being the numerators, Luisa and I, the denominators. We're on our way to Jersey City to meet our sister, Amy's, new husband, a Muslim from Tunis she met in an Arab chat room, moved in with, and married at the City Hall in Philadelphia in just under six weeks, [? Waleed. ?] My mother called me as soon as she got the news.

Apparently they met in a chat room, she tells me, whatever the hell that means. And he cooked her a lot of Tunisian dishes, and then he whisked her off and married her.

Wow. I wouldn't mind seeing what he's putting in those dishes, I say.

Oh, I think a lot of coriander. Probably cumin, garlic. That would be my guess. Now let me ask you something, Jeanne. Don't you think it's just a little peculiar getting married so fast? We haven't even met this [? Waleed ?] character.

Well, this is the same woman who went on a second date to Chile I point out.

That's right. What was she thinking? She could have been murdered.

The guy went to Dalton, Mom.

That doesn't mean anything, what about the preppy murderer?

Robert Chambers didn't go to Dalton.

Oh, for God's sakes, Jeanne. Be serious. Now, did you ever see the movie Green Card with Andie MacDowell? All right, well she plays an American woman who meets a Frenchman.

Mom, I know what a green card situation is.

Well, all right, [? dolly. ?] I didn't think you knew what these people do. I'm highly upset over here.

My mother has a few stock phrases. Highly upset is a big one. I don't know that she's ever been regular upset. She prefers to head straight to highly. I'm not so much supportive of Amy's hasty act as I am invigorated. Just the idea of having dinner with that kind of recklessness has perked my spirits up.

What is with this traffic, Henry says. Liz has thrown my big, black scarf over Luisa's head to block the sunlight so she can nap. We giggle when we see the effect the scarf creates, which is that of a burqa. Cover her ankles, Liz jokes.

This day doesn't feel unfamiliar. Beginning with Amy's first boyfriend, my parents were "highly upset." J.J. was a mechanic from Tuckahoe, the next town over from ours. He listened to Van Halen, didn't plan on going to college, and reeked of Polo cologne.

I'd be smoking, drinking some stolen warm beers up in my room, chatting on the phone, when a waft of that signature Ralph Lauren scent would hit me. Soon enough, our older sister, Liz, would fly in and shut my door.

Sheesh, the front hall smells like the ground floor of Bloomingdale's. God.

My parents had strategy sessions about J.J., held late at night in their bedroom after they'd both had quite a bit of red wine with dinner and a couple scotches. I'd be coming up from the kitchen and they'd trap me for a night cap interrogation.

Oh, Jeanne, Doris would yell from her bed throne. Come here for a minute my mother would say, casually, as if she were not asking you to make a quick betrayal of your sister before hitting the sack.

We want to talk to you about this J.J. character, Jeanne [? Jo. ?] Even by his fourth child, my dad was still tinkering with his father persona. I sat on the gold satin divan, shut my eyes, and stretched my legs, as if I were merely there to maintain my base tan.

Dammit, Jeanne [? Jo ?], your mother's talking to you.

Is he a thug, my mother repeated.

Well, what's the strict definition of a--

Someone who's having sex with Amy, my mother blurted.

All right, let's all settle down my father said. We're way off track here. Now how well do you know J.J.?

I don't.

He seems a bit wayward. Is that your impression?

I think Amy's smoking pot, my mother added. You can smell it a mile away.

My father paused for a moment. Maybe that's why he wears so much cologne.

Steve, please, my mother yelled, putting out one of the two lit cigarettes she had going in the ashtray.

Can I go to bed? I asked.

Yes, yes. We're not going to solve anything tonight, my dad said.

You just couldn't outlast these two, long distance meddlers. They could go on forever.

Amy and I were the close ones when we were younger. As little kids, when we had no money to go to the movies, we'd get a basket and go up to fancy houses on Egypt Lane, cutting people's flowers out front, putting them in the basket, and then ringing their doorbell and selling them their own flowers. Those people thought we were frigging adorable, and we made some decent money.

We drank, we smoked around the house, we snickered at curfews and poo-pooed the law. Amy took my road test for me when I was 16. But at some point, after college I guess, Amy started to seem less rebellious and fun, and more bitter and suspicious.

I remember more than once being on the subway with her, and her glaring at me to keep it down when I'd been talking about, say, whether we should get pizza or burritos for dinner.

Jesus, Jeanne, keep it down, she'd whisper.

She never cleaned. When I'd visit her place and see the dishes piled up, her sheets sort of half on, half off, I was often tempted to ask, what band is living here with you? When the shower broke in her apartment, instead of having it fixed she told me, I just shower at the gym now. Which was confusing because she didn't work out.

She seemed to still see the world from a teenager's perspective. If you commented on her Don King hair she might snap, everyone in this family is so totally judgmental and superficial. And she was probably right, but by 30 it was a slightly stale pose to strike.

Her relationships, romantic or otherwise, tended to end badly, and it was invariably the other person's fault. One day when I asked how Mark, her filmmaker boyfriend at NYU, was, she said matter-of-factly-- past tense-- he claims I tried to strangle him at the Lion's Head last weekend and now he won't return my calls. Total psycho.

She disliked everyone more and more. And at some point, that included me. One night I was drunk and flirting with the man who was about to take her to Chile for their second date. And I said to him, you should take me to Chile, I'm a lot more fun. Truly jerky thing to say, and I apologized more than once, but apologies have never impressed Amy. I was banished to some otherness, a place where suburban a-holes and parents who didn't approve of blue collar boyfriends went. And there seemed to be no getting back in.

As we drive around looking for Amy's new house, I realize I do know something about [? Waleed. ?] Amy called me a couple weeks after they met and said she was seeing this new guy and that he had a really big-- you know. But when the phone call came on Easter Sunday that Amy had run off and married some Muslim from Tunis no one had met, I didn't think, everybody stay calm, I talked to Amy about this guy two weeks ago, he's got a big penis, would quiet my parents' concerns.

After she first got married, I called Amy and asked how things were going. Fantastic. Marriage is great. I highly recommend it, Jeanne.

Amy, the happily married woman. I like it. It seems like magic.

What time is it, Amy asks.

3 o'clock.

You've got to be kidding me. 3 o'clock, she yells, I'm at the farmer's market waiting for [? Waleed. ?] We're supposed to be buying vegetables for a special Tunisian curry, and I've been here for an hour. An hour. Do you believe this guy? I swear to God, some people have no regard for other people. You ever notice that, she explodes.

A stretch of silence on the line.

Also, he's obsessed with cleanliness. He said my apartment on Sackett Street wasn't clean.

Longer pause.

OK, scratch everything I just said. Things are fantastic. I love being married. [? Waleed ?] and I just have some, you know, cultural differences. He's very, umm, driven. He's always following up with things. Like if I say I'm going to go get my driver's license renewed, he'll ask me later how the DMV was. You know, he assumes if you say you're going to do something, you're actually going to do it. He can be very funny, Jeanne.

That's funny, I say.

How can I stop my sister from blowing this, I think, without actually saying the words, don't blow this Amy? And she doesn't. Instead we've been invited to their new home for dinner. We find her building and ring the buzzer. Amy comes down to the door in a floral apron. They have curtains. Her new apartment is smoke free. Lots of sunlight, and clean bedding on the bed, which boasts a headboard and pillows of all different sizes. Her hair is combed. Apparently, they don't drink. Her bathroom seems to say, hello, I'm here for you. Look, my toilet flushes, and there's plenty of toilet paper. Should your scarf accidentally fall on the floor, there's no need to throw it away when you get home. Simply pick it up and put it back around your neck.

Back in the living room, you're greeted by smells of-- is that salmon in the oven? Excuse me? Oh, Tunisian salmon, with roasted vegetables, fresh tuna croquettes, chopped Tunisian salad. You're then greeted by the chef, your new brother-in-law. He's slightly petite, very handsome with black hair and olive skin, and a smile that makes you hungry. He's [? Waleed. ?] And you, like everyone else, instantly like him.

Our oldest sister, Caroline, who drove in from Connecticut with her husband, Jim, and their two boys, talks of her son's summer plans. He's taking a course at the local nature preserve called CSI: New Canaan. Isn't that cute? They investigate crimes in nature.

[? Waleed ?] smiles a lot, but his English isn't that great, and I can tell he has no idea what she's talking about. Wedding photos go around. Pictures of Amy with scads of swarthy, Tunisian men at the City Hall in Philadelphia. Something about the evening starts to feel less like a beginning and more like an ending. It doesn't feel like, hey everybody, starting tonight we're all off on a North African adventure we'll never forget. Wait until we all hit the Sunday markets in Tunis. It feels like a kiss off. Like [? Waleed ?] chopped and chopped, and diced and broiled his ass off for close to a week because they wanted this night to be perfect. The perfect goodbye. We're getting dumped.

Our sister chose to get married without any of us, and each photo we pass around seems to say, this is my new life. You're not in it, are you?

Amy is now converting to Islam, and this is a little tough to accept. My sister-in-law, Leah, says when I tell her that Amy is becoming a Muslim, it's not a great time to do that, is it? And that is perhaps what Amy's banking on, an international wave of disapproval. Like the whole world is now sitting on my parents' gold satin divan, highly upset, trying to spoil this latest love interest of hers.

My mom still wants someone to ask whether [? Waleed ?] has his green card, but there's just no way anyone is close enough to her now to do that.

When Christmas rolls around and my brother-in-law, Jim, pours the wine, and my father monologues about how Zelda Fitzgerald was, in fact, a better writer than Scottie to Quinn, my sister Caroline's four-year-old son, I deduce that Muslims don't hang stockings and drunk drive to churches at midnight to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Otherwise, Amy and [? Waleed ?] would be here along with everyone else.

When our mother dies of alcoholism, I figure it's one context Amy has to see us in. It turns out they can't enter a church. We know this because once again, they're not there. After Mass they do show up at my sister's house. [? Waleed ?] looks very nice in a lovely navy blue suit with faint pinstripes. Amy has dark hair now.

When my wedding rolls around, I call and ask whether [? Waleed ?] would like to bring some North African dishes to the wedding. He might be able to do that, she writes. Everything is by email now. But don't forget, it's Ramadan, so we can't eat before sundown, and we can't be around drunkenness, so we may have to leave early.

They didn't come to the wedding. I get a short email the next day saying she had a stomach flu and she wishes us the best. There's a sort of nothing now where she once was.

For the first time I realize I may never see my sister again.

A few days later, I get out at the Pacific Street subway station, and as I walk past all the Islamic stores selling body oils, and burqas, and soaps, and hookahs, and incense, I'm aware that I am now a married lady. And I'm eight months pregnant, and my tank top is not modest. Which in Islamic circles, means I'm not honoring my husband. And I am tempting the males of Atlantic Avenue. And in the eyes of some Muslim women, imprisoning myself by involving myself in sexual interactions with men.

My father is the only person in our family Amy will see, a man she has lots of problems with, but I hear that [? Waleed ?] believes it is important that she honor him by seeing him. I want to expose her as a fake Muslim, I suppose. I want to out her as someone who doesn't believe in anything, much less Allah. Someone who's too lazy to pray five times a day, let alone learn Arabic. Someone who will eat off novels before she'll do her own dishes. I can't accept that this new Amy might be real. I guess I want to prove she's the old her, because I had a relationship with that person.

I waddle by the main center of Islamic worship on Atlantic Avenue and whisper, [BLEEP] you.

A friend asked me recently if Amy just has the guts to do something most of us can't, end relationships that just don't mean anything anymore. Maybe that's true. Maybe I should admire her for that, respect her even. But I'd rather have Amy back.

Ira Glass

Jeanne Darst. She's just finishing up her first book, Fiction Ruined My Family. It has no publisher yet.


Act Two: I Am Here To Make Frenemies

Ira Glass

"Act two, I Am Here to Make Frenemies."

And now we head into the natural habitat of frenemies. The ecosystem where they are perfectly adapted, where they thrive, and are rewarded as in no other place. I'm referring to the world of television. Especially those shows where frenemies are just built into the basic DNA of the drama that unfolds.

And let's get past the whole Gossip Girl, The Hills, soap opera type program and go straight to reality television.

Rich Juzwiak is a full-time blogger for VH1. And in his spare time, if that weren't enough, he has his own personal pop culture blog, which means that his days and nights are filled with watching, dissecting, and interviewing the people on reality TV. So he has given it a lot of thought. And last year he noticed something about the frenemy friendships that happen on reality TV.

Rich Juzwiak

Reality TV finds its charm in repetition. Especially the shows where people compete. It's like sports. The game stays the same, and the fun is watching how different people play. And the same phrases pop up, whether it's chefs, models, or Bret Michael's groupies. Thrown under the bus. Not here for the right reasons. We could leave at any time. I want it the most. This isn't the last you've heard of me. This is not a game. We're in an alliance. You broke our alliance. Now I need a new alliance. But there is one oft repeated phrase that stands out above the rest, a battle cry that defines the philosophy underpinning all of competition reality TV.

Woman 1

I'm not here to make friends.

Woman 2

I'm not here to make friends.

Woman 3

I'm not here to make friends.

Woman 4

I'm not here to make friends.

Man 1

I'm not here to make friends.

Woman 5

I mean, I don't want to be a cliche, but I'm not here to make friends.

Rich Juzwiak

Those are clips from, I Know My Kid's a Star, Forever Eden, The Bachelor, Hell's Kitchen, The Pickup Artist, and Top Chef. I made this last year and posted it on Youtube, a super-cut of every iteration of, "I'm not here to make friends," that I could dig up. 55 clips, 3 minutes and 20 seconds of self-centered goodness.

Woman 6

You guys are not my friends. I'm not here to make friends with you.

Man 2

I'm not here to make friends.

Rich Juzwiak

When I'm watching an episode where this phrase pops up, my response is always, now it's on. Now it's a reality show, a place where an aggressive declaration of incivility is not just acceptable, it's inevitable.

Woman 7

I'm not here to make friends.

Rich Juzwiak

And what makes, "I'm not here to make friends" quintessential reality TV is that it's impossible to imagine ever saying it in real life. If you're in a situation where you actually don't want to make friends, sitting for hours next to a stranger on a plane, joining a pickup game of basketball, what would you gain by announcing to everyone--

Woman 8

I'm not here to make friends with you guys. I could care less.

Rich Juzwiak

As far as I can determine, I'm not here to make friends was first said back in the pleistocene era of reality TV, the very first season of Survivor by runner-up Kelly Wiglesworth.

Kelly Wiglesworth

I keep telling myself, oh, I have enough friends. I didn't come here to make friends. You know, da, da, da. And the truth is, I like these people.

Rich Juzwiak

Note that, "I'm not here to make friends" like reality TV itself, was in its infancy back then-- wistful, innocent, sweet even. The fangs came out and the phrase settled into dogma thanks to The Apprentice's Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the godmother of reality supervillains, who justified her ruthlessness with the simple brush off.

Omarosa Manigault-stallworth

I didn't come here to make friends. I said that from day one.

Rich Juzwiak

It snowballed from there, not here to make friends. And let's call it NHTMF for short, became the calling card of what's often the most important character on the show: the one we love to hate. The catalyst for the heaping portion of unpleasantness we're about to enjoy.

Woman 9

I ain't here to make no friends.

Rich Juzwiak

And enjoy it we do. It's particularly funny when the cuddlier types on reality shows are taken to task by the not here to make frienders. As though politeness is what's truly offensive in this reality world. This happened during one season of The Bachelor when one woman spat out with disgust to another contestant--

Woman 10

Are you here to make friends? Because I'm not here to make friends?

Woman 11

No, I'm not here to make friends. I'm not saying that.

Rich Juzwiak

Can you hear how eager the woman she's talking to is to make clear that she is definitely not here to make friends either?

As Jade Cole colorfully reminded us on America's Next Top Model--

Jade Cole

This is a competition. This is not America's Next Top Best Friend.

Rich Juzwiak

See also Pumpkin from Flavor of Love.


This is Flavor of Love, not Flavor of Friendship.

Rich Juzwiak

There are no friends on reality TV, only frenemies you haven't discovered yet.

Woman 12

Maybe we could kind of be buddies?

Woman 13

Girl, no. I'm not here to be friends, girl.

Rich Juzwiak

NHTMF works so well as a plot point, one contestant I know told a journalist she was coached by the show's producers to say it. But plenty of contestants just pull it out on their own. It's as though the savvier ones are saying, if I'm going to be spun or edited to look bad anyway, I'm going to take control of this. Because--

Man 3

I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to win.

Woman 14

I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to win.

Man 4

I didn't come on the show to make friends, I came on to win.

Rich Juzwiak

The thing is, they don't. Most of the people who say this phrase don't go on to win their respective shows. The winner is usually the person who flies under the radar, or whose victory makes the most uplifting story arc. Or in the rarest of instances, the person who's actually the best chef or the best designer.

Man 5

Ain't no friend of mine here. I don't need no friends. I will step on the back of their neck to get to the top any time I feel it's necessary.

Rich Juzwiak

Though of course, there's winning, and then there's winning. If you spend any time talking to your typical reality star, you come to realize that the greatest reward of all is camera time. And the easiest way to achieve that, barring any real skill, is to tap into your id and simply unleash. And it works.

We remember Omarosa, but can you even recall the name of the first winner of The Apprentice, much less a single sentence he uttered?

Woman 15

I'm not here to make friends.

Man 6

Yeah, whatever. I'm not here to make friends.

Man 7

I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to win fights.

Woman 16

I'm not here to make friends with anybody. I'm here for Bret.

Woman 17

I'm not here to make friends. I'm not going to apologize for how I feel. I didn't say nothing bad.

Man 8

I'm not here to make friends, and if I'm not making any enemies.

Ira Glass

Rich Juzwiak. His blog, where you can watch both of his, "I'm not here to make friends" videos is That's four four, write out the word each time. F-O-U-R.

Coming up, David Rakoff and how to make a wedding toast for people that you have never wanted to see married. And what are you doing at their wedding anyway? That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three: The Word Frenemy

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show we chose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Frenemies.

And if the word frenemy just seemed to show up in your life, arrive in your life a couple years ago unannounced, I think that is how pretty much everybody feels. Though, its first appearance in the world that anybody can find is all the way back in 1953. Gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, says in one of his column's, "Howz about calling the Russians our Frienemies?" Didn't catch on.

Lexicographer, Erin McKean agreed to research this a little for us. She used to edit The New Oxford American Dictionary and now runs the online dictionary, Wordnik. She says the next citation of frenemy seems to be 24 years after Winchell, 1977 by the writer, Jessica Mitford.

Erin Mckean

When she was talking about her sister and her sister's frenemy, and said they played together constantly and all the time disliking each other heartily.

Ira Glass

Mitford said that she and her sisters used the words as kids and they thought they made it up. It still doesn't catch on. The next citation is 15 years after that, 1992, in a book of word games. And that author also thinks that she is inventing the word. It's not until the late 1990s that it shows up and the people using the word seem to believe that any other people have ever used it before them. It's in a hit song by the New Radicals, "You Get What You Give" in 1998.

Erin Mckean

And then it was on Sex and the City in 2000, late 2000.

Ira Glass

Is that the turning point?

Erin Mckean

I think so.

Ira Glass

After that, she says, it starts showing up all over the place. You get the executive editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller, declaring that Google is one of those companies The New York Times quote, "refers to as a frenemy," end quote.

In 2008, it's put into the online Oxford English Dictionary.

In 2009-- just two months ago-- it enters Merriam-Webster's dictionary. But Erin McKean found it in one place much, much more than any other: young adult novels, targeted at teen girls, starting at around 2006.

Erin Mckean

But a lot of these words are just forcing their way to the surface of English. They just need to be made. And I think frenemy is a word like that.

Ira Glass


Erin Mckean

Yeah. I mean, well, think about it. So the sounds fit together really well. You know, friend and enemy. They have a matching sound that you can blend together. So it's a blend word. And people love the juxtaposition of two opposites.

Ira Glass

Wait, are there other words like this where they sound alike and then they get smashed together into one word?

Erin Mckean

Oh, it happens like all the time. Like guesstimate. And that's from 1936.

Ira Glass

Do you have another?

Erin Mckean

I love this one, and people say this one all the time with a little thrill of thinking they're the first person ever to say it. You know, that someone is entering their anecdotage.

Ira Glass

Oh, I've never heard that. So it's like you get old and then you start telling your anecdotes, and that's it?

Erin Mckean

Right. And I think the essential part is you start telling the same anecdotes over and over again.

Ira Glass

Right. You got another?

Erin Mckean

Lots of people say that they are the first person to create the word linner.

Ira Glass


Erin Mckean

Linner is that meal you must have between lunch and dinner.

Ira Glass

That just makes me feel mad at somebody hearing that. You're like, oh for God's sake, wipe that look off your face.

Erin Mckean

Right. And a lot of people who come and talk to lexicographers think they're being really clever when they use the word slanguage. So, slang plus language.

Ira Glass

But you do not find that clever?

Erin Mckean

I just don't use it very much myself.

Ira Glass

Does the fact that there's a word for this phenomenon, frenemy, indicate that it's a common thing to happen in the world?

Erin Mckean

Oh, no. Because there are words for all sorts of crazy and unusual things that are fairly rare. I mean there are lots of things that we talk about that we don't have single words for in English. When we don't have a single word for something in English that we think we should have a word for, it's called a lexical gap.

Ira Glass

Well, like what's an example of that?

Erin Mckean

Pretty much the most famous example of a lexical gap is that we have a word for people who've lost their parents. You know, we call them orphans. But we don't have a single word for parents who have lost a child. So there are lots of people who have made suggestions. None of which I can remember right now because none of them have stuck.

Ira Glass

Right. That sounds like some sad contest on public radio on the weekend where they'd have people write in to make up that word.

Erin Mckean


Ira Glass

It's worth noting that while Erin found tons of citations referring to girl frenemies, she only found a couple in which men were each other's frenemies. NASCAR driver, Dale Earnhardt, is described in a book as being frenemies with Michael Waltrip on his team.

And the most random citation? It linked to the word with Hindu scripture from two millennia ago.

Erin Mckean

Someone was trying to refer to the Bhagavad Gita, and there's some line in it that says, "Self is the friend of self. Self is the enemy of self." And then they say, so you can talk about yourself as your frenemy. So there's like this total abrupt shift of tone from self is the friend of self to self is your frenemy.

Ira Glass

Self is your frenemy. That sentence just proves that while we have all come to learn the word frenemy sometime during the last decade, any sentence with the word frenemy is probably not a sentence you want to try to get profound with. Frenemy's here. It's on the scene. It's here to stay as a word. But it is still not ready for the heavy lifting.

Act Four: Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace

Ira Glass

"Act three, Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace."

Being not friend friends can get you into some very confusing situations. Take this example from David Rakoff.

David Rakoff

Nathan at one of the outlying tables, his feet tangled up in the disc jockey's cables, surveyed the room as unseen as a ghost, while he mulled over what he might say for his toast. That the couple had asked him for this benediction seemed at odds with them parking him here by the kitchen. That he'd shown up at all was still a surprise. And not just to him, it was there in the eyes of the guests who had seen a mirage and drew near, and then covered their shock with a, "Nathan, you're here." And then, silence. They had nothing to say beyond that. A few of the braver souls lingered to chat. They all knew it was neither a secret nor a mystery that he and the couple had quite an odd history.

Their bonds were a tangle of friendship and sex. Josh, his best pal once, and Patty, his ex.

For a while he could barely go out in the city without being a punchline or object of pity. Poor Nathan had virtually become his new name, and so he showed up just to show he was game. Though his invite was late, a forgotten addendum. For Nate there could be no more clear referendum that he need but endure through this evening. And then, he would likely not see Josh and Patty again.

Josh's sister was speaking, a princess in peach. Nathan dug in his pocket to study his speech. He had poured over Bartlett's for couplets to filch. He'd stayed up until 3:00, still came up with zilch.

Except for instructions he'd underscored twice. Just two words in length, and those words were, be nice. Too often he thought our emotions betray us and reason departs once were up on the dais. He'd witnessed uncomfortable moments where others had lost their way quickly, where sisters and brothers had gotten too prickly, and peppered their babbling with stories of benders or lesbian dabbling, or spot on impressions of mothers-in-law Which true, Nathan thought, always garnered guffaws. But the price seemed too high, with the laugh seldom cloaking. Hostility masquerading as joking.

No, he'd swallow his rage and he'd bank all his fire. He knew that in his case the bar was set higher. Folks were just waiting for him to erupt. They'd be hungry for blood even though they had supped. They'd want tears, or some other unsightly reaction, and Nathan would not give them that satisfaction. Though Patty a harlot and Josh was a lout, at least Nathan knew what he'd not talk about.

I won't wish them divorce, that they wither and sicken, or tonight that they choke on their salmon or chicken. I won't mention that time when the cottage lost power in that storm on the Cape and they left for an hour. And they thought it was just the cleverest ruse to pretend it took that long to switch out the fuse. Or that time Josh advised me with so much insistence that I should grant Patty a little more distance. That the worst I could do was to hamper and crowd her. That if Patty felt stifled she'd just take a powder. That a plant needs its space just as much as its water.

And I shouldn't give Patty that ring that I'd bought her. Which in retrospect, only elicits a, gosh, I hardly deserved a friend like you, Josh.

No, I won't spill those beans, or make myself foolish, to satisfy appetites venal and ghoulish. I will not be the blot on this hellish affair. And with that, Nathan pushed out and rose from his chair. And just by the tapping of knife against crystal, all eyes turned his way, like he'd fired off a pistol.

Joshua, Patricia, dear family and friends, a few words, if you will, before everything ends.

You've promised to honor, to love and obey. We've quaffed our champagne and been cleansed by sorbet, all in endorsement of your hers-and-his-dom. So now let me add my two cents' worth of wisdom.

I was racking my brain sitting here at this table until I remembered this suitable fable that gets at a truth, though it may well distort us. So here with the tale of the scorpion and tortoise.

The scorpion was hamstrung, his tail all aquiver, just how would he manage to get cross the river? The water's so deep, he observed with a sigh, which pricked at the ears of the tortoise nearby.

Well, why don't you swim, asked the slow-moving fellow. Unless you're afraid, I mean, what are you, yellow?

It isn't a matter of fear or of whim, said the scorpion, but that I don't know how to swim.

Ah, forgive me, I didn't mean to be glib when I said that. I figured you were an amphibian.

No offense taken, the scorpion replied. But how bout you help me to reach the far side? You swim like a dream and you have what I lack. Let's say you take me across on your back.

I'm really not sure that's the best thing to do, said the tortoise, now that I see that it's you. You've a less than ideal reputation preceding. There's talk of your victims all poisoned and bleeding. You're the scorpion, and how can I say this, but well, I just don't feel safe with you riding my shell.

The scorpion replied, what would killing you prove? We'd both drown. So tell me, how would that behoove me to basically die at my very own hand, when all I desire is to be on dry land?

The tortoise considered the scorpion's defense. When he gave it some thought, it made perfect sense. The niggling voice in his mind he ignored, and he swam to the bank and called out, climb aboard.

But just a few moments from when they set sail, the scorpion lashed out with his venomous tail. The tortoise, too late, understood that he'd blundered when he felt his flesh stabbed and his carapace sundered. As he fought for his life he said, tell me why you have done this for now we will surely both die?

I don't know, cried the scorpion. You never should trust a creature like me because poison I must. I'd claim some remorse or at least some compunction, but I just can't help it, my form is my function. You thought I'd behave like my cousin the crab, but unlike him it is but my nature to stab.

The tortoise expired with one final quiver, and then both of them sank, swallowed up by the river.

The tortoise was wrong to ignore all his doubts, because in the end, friends, our natures will out.

Nathan paused, cleared his throat, took a sip of his drink. He needed these extra few seconds to think. The room had gone frosty, the tension was growing. Folks wondered precisely where Nathan was going. The prospects of skirting fiasco seemed dim, but what he said next surprised even him.

So what can we learn from their watery ends? Is there some lesson on how to be friends? I think what it means is that central to living, a life that is good is a life that's forgiving. We're creatures of contact. Regardless of whether we kiss or we wound, still we must come together.

Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more, since it beats staying dry, but so lonely on shore. So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well it's essentially saying, please, come pierce my shell.

Silence doesn't paint the depth of quiet in that room. There was no clinking stemware toasting to the bride or groom. You could have heard a petal as it landed on the floor. And in that stillness Nathan turned and walked right out the door.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff is the author of several books, most recently, Don't Get Too Comfortable.

Act Five: The Case Of The Long Lost Frenemy

Ira Glass

"Act four, The Case of the Long Lost Frenemy."

Did you ever get into one of those situations with somebody where you can't really tell, you actually can't tell, wait, are we friends, are we not friends? What do you want from me exactly?

Elle Smith found herself in that situation with a woman that here on the radio we're calling Jennifer, who Elle Smith knew in high school. And who got in touch with Elle Smith out of the blue by email. And then they slowly began an email correspondence.

Elle Smith

I hadn't heard anything from her in over 35 years. Our parting had been so monumentally final and kind of dramatic.

Ira Glass

And you say monumental, monumental and bad it sounds like?

Elle Smith

Monumental and bad, yeah. Absolutely. We'd had this really, really intense friendship. Very, very tight, told each other everything, at sort of the white hot phase of adolescence. And then it ended when she basically wrote this very formal letter disowning me, saying that our friendship was over, she would have nothing to do further with me. And that was the end.

And so it was just really dissonant to get this chirpy, hey you, kind of email.

Erin Mckean

You forwarded a couple of these emails and the very first one from her, she writes in her email, "Is it too strange to write and catch up? Is that you, [? Elpie?" ?]

Elle Smith


Ira Glass

"Cheers." And then she signs her name.

Elle Smith

Yes. And it was weird and strange. So she called me by my childhood nickname, which I haven't heard or seen in decades. So that was just kind of like one of those things where she was googling around and saw that my name had come up. And this correspondence sort of unfolds over several months. And so I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Ira Glass

Oh, because after this first initial exchange of two emails, nobody brings it up. Nobody brings up, oh, by the way, about that letter you wrote me cutting me off forever. That doesn't come up?

Elle Smith

Not directly. At first I thought, well, she's just pretending not to remember and she just wants us to be all nice nice. And then as things kind of continued I realized, oh, she has absolutely and genuinely no recollection. There's something else going on here.

Ira Glass

And so what happened as you corresponded more?

Elle Smith

So as we correspond, we start talking about our families a little bit. She has daughters, and she talks about what her daughters are doing. And what becomes very striking is that one of her daughters, she's very, very serious about her music, like sort of a talented, obsessive musician. This is exactly where I was when I was at exactly this age. So this daughter is 14 years old. There's this very, very strong parallel between what her daughter's like now and what I was like then. Including, and this is where things started to get kind of crazy, this very, very close relationship between her daughter and her music-- the daughter's music teacher.

Sort of the hair stood up on the back of my neck, kind of when she started talking about it. An older male, very charismatic, and sort of reading between the lines I could tell you that Jennifer was somewhat uneasy with this relationship. But as she expressed it, my daughter's privacy is so very precious to me and I would never dream of interfering.

Ira Glass

Did the daughter have a crush on the teacher?

Elle Smith

Yes. So the daughter seemed to be, in Jennifer's view, almost too close to the music teacher. She was having private lessons with him, and apparently also had a very, very intense internet relationship with him. So they were corresponding over the phone and corresponding over the internet, and then also having private lessons. And I could smell it. I know the sort of the danger signs in that kind of relationship.

Ira Glass

And talk about your own experience when it came to that kind of thing.

Elle Smith

OK, so when I was a kid I had a difficult family situation, and I was, I think, at the same age, really looking for acceptance, and authority figures were very attractive to me. And I respected my teachers and just loved them. And then what happened to me was that right at that point I came into contact with a music teacher who a normal person would not violate that kind of relationship, but this guy was a complete predator. And I was molested and raped at the age of 13 by this guy. Totally traumatized, huge fallout from it. Destroyed my life in certain ways for a long time. Took me a long, long time to kind of put it together from that.

And Jennifer was one of the, I think, two people that I told. On the one hand, we were in this completely parallel situation where we both had crushes on these teachers. And then suddenly--

Ira Glass

Oh, she also at that time when you're in high school, she had a crush on a teacher?

Elle Smith

Yes, huge crush on her teacher. And we would get together and giggle and talk about how wonderful these teachers were, and how fascinating everything that they did was, and all this kind of stuff. And then we got to this moment where, in my instance, this guy just completely took it, and it was like I fell off a cliff with it. Because he was a pedophile. And whereas her teacher was-- it continued on in this kind of storybook teenagery, giggly thing. So I was kind of off on my own in this whole different, horrible world. And Jennifer was still in her childhood in a sense.

Ira Glass

And then eventually did your parents find out and authorities find out, and was action taken against this guy?

Elle Smith

No, no action was ever taken. My family-- I tried approaching my parents about it. And they just weren't that interested. And, in fact, their explicit position was, some things really ought to be private. And so at that point I kind of realized, oh.

Ira Glass

They're not going to be a help?

Elle Smith

They're not going to be a help. And certainly, they're not going to call in any kind of authority.

Ira Glass

So you told Jennifer and one other friend?

Elle Smith

Yeah. And Jennifer's family was extremely loving in this situation. I don't think she ever actually told them what had happened to me, but it was clear that I was really troubled, and really depressed, and completely kind of feral. And so they became like another family to me. So I would go and I would stay with them. And I think it was a way of kind of pretending that my childhood also was continuing. And they really kind of were a refuge for me during the very worst period.

Ira Glass

And you said before that at some point she cut you off. Was that part of this?

Elle Smith

Yeah, so kind of about six to eight months after this guy raped me, Jennifer and this other friend wrote this letter basically saying, you're not one of us anymore. We reject you, and we don't want to have anything to do with you further.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, wait. Was there a problem with you that you somehow seemed different than them now that you had this experience, or were they blaming you for what had happened? Were they saying that you had like bad character that this happened?

Elle Smith

I think a bit of both. Maybe in terms of Jennifer's perspective, this could have been her. So I think on some level what she was doing was saying, I'm not you and you're not me.

But the irony is that-- and this comes out in these emails 35 years later. In fact, she went on to marry her high school teacher.

Ira Glass

Wait, to marry that same teacher?

Elle Smith

Not the same one, a different one. Literally within two years she marries another teacher. And what's interesting is that in the emails she points to that as being a reason why we quote, "lost touch." So she said, oh, I lost touch with so many of my friends as a result of that relationship. And I'm thinking, huh, OK. Well, that's weird.

Then she divorces him and marries-- it sounds like a really, really nice guy. And that's the guy with whom she has the kids.

Ira Glass

And so this is your history with her, and then you find yourself 35 years later emailing with her about her daughter and her daughter's crush on her teacher. And she doesn't seem to remember any of that?

Elle Smith

None of it. Not a single detail. Yeah. And then when it became clear that her daughter was like in this really, really perilous situation, and recognizing that Jennifer wasn't seeing the train coming on the tracks. At that point, I said, look, I know that you respect your daughter's privacy, but this doesn't sound right, and I think you ought to contact the authorities.

Ira Glass

And did she?

Elle Smith

She did. And what was kind of interesting about it was that there was a long kind of lull. So there are about two weeks where there's like complete radio silence between us. And I'm thinking to myself, oh I pushed too hard. Because I thought about it very, very carefully before I suggested that to her. Because I thought, am I pushing somebody to violate their relationship with their child? Am I so blinded by my own personal history that this, in fact, is perfectly fine as a relationship? Blah, blah, blah. And then I get this email from her, and I was totally blown away because she just went in and took care of business in a really impressive way.

So she got in touch with a counselor, the counselor put her in touch with the police. The police moved on this. The daughter's cell phone and computer were seized. This guy was known to the police.

Ira Glass

Known to the police like he had had previous incidents?

Elle Smith

Yeah. I really felt like I had inadvertently participated in this important salvation for this young girl that I didn't know. So it was dramatic and entirely fabulous as an outcome.

Ira Glass

And after all that happened, did she remember or acknowledge any of these things from your past?

Elle Smith

Nothing. Not a single peep. It ended kind of like it began with, gee, everything's great now. I'm so glad I did that. And thanks for pushing me on that. And everything's fine now. And have a good Thanksgiving, basically was how it ended. And never heard from her since. That was it. That was our last contact.

Ira Glass

How do you know that she didn't remember? What convinced you of that?

Elle Smith

I think knowing her family. There was no room in that family for this kind of thing. I remember getting her chirpy emails and thinking, sheesh, she has totally become her mother, the world's most repressed happy person. Yeah, I do think that she genuinely in her conscious mind did not remember. But I also think that the timing speaks to a totally different logic. So I think that some part of her knew it.

In one of the emails she mentions how strange that I should reach out to you at such a critical time. She's very smart. She knew that there was some link between our history and the timing. And I think in some sense she was sort of subconsciously counting on my doing something that she couldn't do.

Ira Glass

God, people do so many things without knowing that they're doing them.

Elle Smith

Yes. There was like one person in the entire universe she knew that she could talk to about it who would get her to do the right thing. And to be able to actually do something about it. I feel like it resolved something for me, no question.

Ira Glass

Well, I understand. It's funny because I feel like it resolves each of the things that had been so disturbing. It resolved the rift between you and her, which seems sort of horrible. And then it lets you fix the situation for a girl who's sort of a stand-in for you at the same age as you were.

Elle Smith

Yeah. At that age, I was really devastated by her action. That was like another watershed during a really ugly period of my life. And so to be able to not need to rub her nose in it as an adult, but to be able to resolve it in the way that we did, which is kind of like, I think, this charming lack of acknowledgment of what was actually going on, on both ends. I mean with hindsight now, I'm kind of putting it together and I feel like, oh, well, that's just completely OK. Neither of us needs to continue this relationship. This relationship is done now, finally, 35 years later.

Ira Glass

Yeah, rest in peace.

Elle Smith



Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Sean Cole, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Aaron Scott. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon is our office manager. Our music consultant is Jessica Hopper.


WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who says that he doesn't care what we say about it him here at the end of the program every week for one important reason--


I'm not here to make friends.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.


PRI, Public Radio International.