Sonderman found it hard to translate her grief to others. “Most people don’t understand. They’ll just be like, ‘Oh yeah, I had a friend from high school who died’ or something and try to relate. But it doesn’t really resonate with me.” In other cases, people would impose a salacious and story that is inaccurate onto their relationship to try to make sense of it. Because Hebner was bisexual, Sonderman said, some people believed that they were secretly lovers, and that Sonderman was closeted.
With no legal benefits or social norms working in her favor, Sonderman has felt most understood by other people who’ve had an intimate friendship. Sonderman described one such friend who was an especially attentive listener. For two hours, he and Sonderman sat in a car, engine off, in a grocery-store parking lot. She talked with him about Hebner, cried about Hebner. Her friend said, “It sounds like she broke your heart.” Sonderman told me, “That was the time that is first anybody really got it.”
Intimate friendships have not always generated confusion and judgment. The period spanning the 18th to early 20th centuries was the heyday of passionate, devoted same-sex friendships, called “romantic friendships.” Without self-consciousness, American and European women addressed effusive letters to love that is“my or “my queen.” Women circulated friendship albums and filled their pages with affectionate verse. In Amy Matilda Cassey’s friendship album, the abolitionist Margaretta Forten inscribed an excerpt of a poem that concludes with the lines “Fair friendship binds the whole celestial frame / For love in Heaven and Friendship are the same.” Authors devised plot that is literary around the adventures and trials of romantic friends. In the 1897 novel Diana Victrix, the character Enid rejects a man’s proposal because her female friend already occupies the space in her life that her suitor covets. In words prefiguring Kami West’s, Enid tells the man that if they married, “you would have to come first. And you could not, for she is first.”
Two well-known women who put each other, rather than a husband, first were the reformer that is social Addams and the philanthropist Mary Rozet Smith. In Addams’s bedroom, now an exhibit at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, in Chicago, an enormous portrait of Smith hangs above the mantle. After meeting in 1890 at the pioneering settlement house that Addams co-founded, the women spent the next 40 years entwined, trudging through moments they spent apart. During one separation, Addams wrote to Smith, “You must know, dear, how I long for you all the right time, and especially during the last three weeks. There is reason in the habit of married folks keeping together.” When Addams traveled without Smith, she would sometimes haul the painting with her. When the two women journeyed together, Addams wired ahead to request a double bed. No scandal erupted in the newspaper. These women weren’t pressed, directly or implicitly, about their sex lives, nor did they feel compelled to invent a label to make sense of their relationship to onlookers, as West and Tillotson would about a century later. Same-sex intimacy like theirs was condoned.
These friendships weren’t the exclusive province of women. Daniel Webster, who would go on to become secretary of state in the mid-1800s, described his friend that is closest as “the friend of my heart, the partner of my joys, griefs, and affections, the only participator of my most secret thoughts.” When the two men left Dartmouth College to practice law in different towns, Webster had trouble adjusting to the distance. He wrote that he felt like “the dove that has lost its mate.” Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist that is eminent intellectual, details his deep love for his friends in his autobiography. Douglass writes that when he contemplated his escape from slavery, “the thought of leaving my friends was decidedly the most painful thought with which I had to contend. The love of them was my tender point, and shook my decision more than all plain things else.”
One question these friendships raise for people today is: Did they have sex? Writings from this time, even those about romantic relationships, typically lack descriptions of sexual encounters. Perhaps some people used romantic friendship as a cover for an erotic bond. Some scholars in fact suspect that certain pairs had sex, but in most cases, historians—whose research on the topic is largely confined to white, middle-class friends—can’t make definitive claims about what transpired in these friends’ bedrooms. It’s clear that this period’s considerably different norms around intimacy allowed for possibilities in friendship that are unusual today though we will never know the exact nature of every relationship.
Beliefs about sexual behavior also played a role. The historian Richard Godbeer notes that Americans at the time did not assume—as they do now—that “people who are in love with one another must want to have sex.” Many scholars argue that the now-familiar categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality, which consider sexual attraction to be part of a person’s identity, didn’t exist before the turn of the 20th century. While sexual acts between people of the gender that is same condemned, passion and affection between people of the same gender were not. The author E. Anthony Rotundo argues that, in some ways, attitudes about love and sex, left men “freer to express their feelings than they would have been in the 20th century.” Men’s liberty to be physically demonstrative surfaces in photos of friends and in their writings. Describing one night that is apparently ordinary his dear friend, the young engineer James Blake wrote, “We retired early and in each others arms,” and fell “peacefully to sleep.”