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Photo by Bill Cramer

A Place at the Table

In her widely praised first book,
A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1998, Beth Kephart C’82 told the story of her son Jeremy and his gradual emergence from “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified,” a condition related to autism. Jeremy, now an active 11-year old, also figures in Kephart’s new book, published by Houghton-Mifflin in September, Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things that Matter. Watching her son form his first friendships was one of several sparks for the book, a moving, clear-eyed and inspiring meditation on what it means to be a friend and to have, lose and keep the friendship of others.

    Kephart’s prose, at once lyrical and thoughtful, emotional and intelligent, illuminates a subject often relegated to greeting-card sentimentality. She interweaves observations of Jeremy and his friend James with her own reunion with a lost “best” friend of her youth; her husband’s timeless, sustaining bond with his boyhood friends, despite vastly divergent adult lives; the deep, trusting friendship between husband and wife. (“We have little in common … but who would I be without him?” she writes.) Other, darker threads include Kephart’s description of her comfortless yet profoundly necessary vigil with a friend whose husband is dying, and the cautionary tale of a caring woman ultimately overwhelmed by the burden of one-sided friendships. In early reviews, The Baltimore Sun praised the book’s “grace and quiet wisdom” and called it “invigorating and odd, earnest and endearing.” According to The New York Times Book Review, Kephart “neatly evokes friendship’s delicate balancing act.”
    Kephart has written for the Gazette before [“Haunted by an Heiress,” May/June], and our first thought, on learning about the book, was to publish an excerpt—preferably, one with a Penn connection. However, while “there are so many Penn friendships and people who will always have an important place in my heart,” Kephart says, the book does not deal directly with that phase of her life. “Thematically and emotionally, [those] relationships did not help me tell the more universal story about friendship that the book sets out to tell,” she explains. “The truths divined from my college experience in many ways were redundant to those learned in high school and during the early stages of my career. For the reader’s sake, I winnowed the stories about me down so as to make room for a larger discussion of friendship.”
    But there was a Penn story that Kephart did want to share, on a closely related subject, and we are happy to present it in the accompanying original essay. “Coming Home” tells how she managed to find her own niche at the University through an apparently—but only apparently—unlikely choice of major. Among other things, the essay is an eloquent response to the perennial question: “What do you do with that after graduation?”
    “Friendship is, at the end of the day, about the way we make room for others, and about how others make room for us,” Kephart says. “People listening, people caring, people remembering—these are the essential prerequisites to friendship. In the History and Sociology of Science Department, under Dr. Kohler’s care, I felt as if someone had pulled an empty chair up to a table and said, ‘This is your place. You belong here.’” —Ed.

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