Try growing up

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Today, one of my favourite Martha Gellhorn letters, written in 1983 to her dear but selfish friend, the Hollywood actress Betsy Drake. For the uninitiated, Gellhorn spent much of her adult life travelling the world as a celebrated war correspondent and is best known for her reporting during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. She also knew how to write a letter, hundreds of which have been published in excellent collections such as Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn (edited by Caroline Moorehead), from which this letter comes, and Yours, for Probably Always (edited by Janet Somerville). Both are highly recommended.

January 17 1983

Dear Betsy;

You are sensitive to your own feelings; you indulge yourself in feelings which are always and exhaustingly about your reactions to people and events. You haven’t the faintest idea about other people’s feelings—how you affect them. You invent complications, you analyse without reason or need very simple occurrences, and you analyse with very little true knowledge of people. It does not occur to you that this is an outrageous burden on others; not friendship but emotional tyranny.

Emotional tyranny, Betsy. The rule, your rule, is: tread softly, by God, or you will disturb my feelings. It’s an enormous stupid tedious bore. You can have all the feelings you want, but the only practical way you can handle this is: cut out the people who distress your feelings and take the rest of the world at face value, the face the world presents, because everyone has enough real problems without getting bogged down in the problems you manufacture.

You have no idea why I won’t travel with you again. Because, with all your feelings, you have never stopped to look at yourself: a woman who sulks when events don’t work out as desired, who has innumerable absolute needs which are not life and death matters but your absolutes, who has to be kept happy or else by golly it’s miseryville all round.

Friendship is fun and a loose mutual aid society. It isn’t soul-picking (your soul, note) and you’ve made me as furious as I’ve ever been. I won’t have this nonsense and this tyranny. I have never had it from anyone else and I’m not having it any more from you. Try growing up.



From Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, edited by Caroline Moorehead. With thanks to Sandy Matthews.

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