The official biographer of the late author Iris Murdoch observed that penfriendship offered Murdoch cost free intimacy, a point of entry into the worlds of others. Murdoch wrote thousands of letters, many with a fountain pen, along with dozens of novels, plays, essays, and philosophical tracts. For the price of a stamp, an envelope, and some ink, Murdoch got a view of the thoughts and feelings, fears and lusts of her correspondents, feeding both her fiction and her life. And all that without the awkwardness and inconvenience of real world contact.
I have a test I apply when I’m thinking about friends. I imagine myself in acute need of a ride- to the airport, to a doctor’s office, whatever- and for some reason I can neither drive myself nor ask a family member nor call a cab or an Uber. Who might I ask? The answer, at least recently, and at least for me, is nobody. I suppose that, were I actually in this unlikely circumstance, I would probably figure out someone who can do it, but I don’t have an obvious answer, the way, it seems to me, I should. An almost 40 year old woman should have at least one friend. Am I that unlovable?
Murdoch called love “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” I’ve certainly known that other people are real for a long time. Yet outside of my penpals, I don’t know anyone all that well. It is hard for adults to express intimacy to other adults, and the more that I think about it, I think I use my penpals to replace what “real” friends offer to most people. And I think I get the better end of the deal.