Why do we often view romantic relationships as more important than friendships?
This is a question that author Katie Heaney, a longtime personal friend, has helped me consider more deeply. And now she’s helping others do the same with her hilarious and insightful new book, Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date.
Hailed by Salon as “the most compelling dating memoir of the last few years” and called “a strikingly profound and brilliant memoir that presents on-point observations about growing up, friendship and the confusing world of dating” by RT Book Reviews, Heaney’s book has been making major waves.
This Sunday, Heaney—a writer and editor at BuzzFeed—will bring these observations to the Humanist Community at Harvard, where I’ll ask her about her beliefs, her book, the value of friendship, feminism among atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious, and what she’s learned from being single her entire life (so far). I spoke with her in advance of this event; our interview appears below.
Chris Stedman: You identify as an agnostic. What are your beliefs, and how have they changed over the years?
Katie Heaney: I was raised Catholic, if somewhat loosely. My family went to church regularly and I was confirmed, but I don’t remember it being a large or formal part of my upbringing otherwise. It was just what we did.
I think that part—having familiar traditions and special days for things—that’s something that still appeals to me in ways. But I don’t identify as a Christian anymore. I think everything is a mystery and I kind of like that.
CS: Your book champions friendship. In an interview with Salon, you said something that feels very humanistic: “I think there is a weird idea that if it’s meant to be with a friend that you shouldn’t have to work at it. But I don’t think that’s almost ever the case… There is not enough value placed on learning how to be a good friend in our culture.” Can you say more about the importance of friendship and working at it?
KH: This is something that I feel so strongly about that I also sometimes have a hard time explaining, because I think my fondness for my friends—and, on top of that, just the idea of friendship, particularly friendships between women—overwhelms me. It’s everything to me. And I feel lucky in some respects, because I met them through complete coincidence—but it’s also something that gives me a lot of pride, because I think my core group of friends and I have worked tremendously hard to be as close as we are. And that’s something that surprises people sometimes.
My best friend and I argue a lot—and our friends know that, and sometimes I think they’re like, “Why are you guys even friends?” They think that any conflict or challenge means this isn’t worth it. But I can’t imagine not arguing with her, or any close friend. To me that would indicate we’re not really that close, or challenging each other sufficiently. And I think that’s skimmed over a lot in our culture.
We talk all the time about working at our romantic relationships, but not enough—almost not at all—about doing the same for our platonic friends. It takes time, and dedication, and so much patience. But it’s been the most worth-it thing I’ve ever put that much work into.
CS: You’ve talked about the pressure society puts on women to be in relationships; how young single men are often lauded as “bachelors” while young single women are often pitied as “spinsters.” Why do you think this is?
KH: Sexism, plain and simple. Young single men are considered full people already, fully capable of deciding their own priorities and goals and how they spend their free time. Young single women are presumed to have a central mission that they’re focused on, or that they should be focused on—and that’s finding a husband. We can have good lives without him, but we’re not complete until we have the guy.
For young single men, a girlfriend or wife is a supplement; for young single women, a boyfriend or husband is a prerequisite. And should there be a woman who doesn’t ever marry or want to marry, it’s the most tragic thing we can think of. Because she never, like, did her job. She never finished doing what she was supposed to be doing.
CS: You regularly write about feminism. Over the last few years, discussions about sexism in the atheist movement have increased—and have frequently been quite volatile. Why do you think conversations around sexism can be so difficult?
KH: We’re in a weird period where discussions of feminism are more visible than ever, but also incredibly contentious. I think people in long-held positions of power feel defensive, because they’re being challenged more than ever. Even people with good intentions are capable of feeling defensive, and people who want to be allies are capable of feeling defensive and of acting defensively. I’m sure that happens in the atheist community just like it does everywhere else.
What the atheist community and all others can and should do is self-evaluate, constantly, who is speaking loudest and who is being heard. What kinds of people are being given leadership positions? Is enough being done to make these discussions and organizations representative of their larger memberships? It’s something everyone can do better at.
CS: Your book hilariously lampoons online dating and, in particular, the messages people send on OkCupid. OkCupid made headlines after claiming that users who mentioned their atheism were more likely to get replies, with the cofounder writing: “Mentioning your religion helps you, but, paradoxically, it helps you most if you have no religion.” What advice would you give to people looking for relationships online, whether they’re atheist or not?
KH: First of all I pretty much never put much stock in “statistical” studies of online dating practices, because there are so many spurious correlations being drawn in them. All my policy professors over the years would just die if they read that stuff.
So that’s part of my advice: ignore studies that say this kind of person who likes this kind of activity is who gets the most messages, not least because you do not want 90% of those messages, trust me. Absolutely you can manipulate your profile to be more appealing, but what good does that serve anyone in the long run? It pays to be honest, and concise, and not take yourself—or the process—too seriously.
CS: What are you looking forward to about your event this weekend with the Humanist Community at Harvard?
KH: I am looking forward to talking about my crushes and my embarrassing youth with you! My high school classmate and friend of… 10 years now? 12?! It’s hard to pinpoint exactly but the point is I’m screaming because we’ve known each other so long somehow. But yes, that, and I’m excited to meet this crowd of smart people and hope they find my little book of crushes interesting.