Nonfiction — print. William Morrow, 1999. 240 pgs. Library copy.
This collection of essays by bell hooks analyzes the many facets of love — self-love, romantic love, parental love, greedy love — and how the lack of love (or, too much of “bad” love) can spread from the public sphere to the private sphere. She defines love as “as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. And hooks’ central thesis is that individual lives can be better by fostering love within oneself for the individual, finding non-romantic love for their community, and upending a social structure in with patriarchy and male-domination are the established order.
Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience. In our society we make much of love and say little about fear. Yet we are all terribly afraid most of the time. As a culture we are obsessed with the notion of safety. Yet we do not question why we live in states of extreme anxiety and dread. Fear the primary force upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire not to be known. When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then differences, of any kind, will appear as a threat. When we choose to love we choose to move against fear — against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect — to find ourselves in the other. (pg. 93)
On that last point, hooks draws on her own personal history and the revelation during second-wave feminism of just how widespread domestic and sexual abuse were (are?) within American families. Her father’s domination of their family unit, including his insistence on elevating the voice of his son over his daughters and wife, meant that hooks would go on to engage in romantic relationships with men who were not really men and were unwilling to support her with the kind of love she desires and deserves.
The first man adopted strict gendered-expectations for their relationship when hooks pushed him to grow up; the second did the same as people began to assume their age differences meant she dominated him. And the love she experienced as a child ended up becoming her defining foundation of love as an adult so that she was unable to find the kind of affirming or uplifting love that enhances a person’s life, that recharges their soul.
She does spend some time on how marital love is different from the passionate love that Hollywood says women should aspire to, but her primary solution to this lack of love is to encourage a more community-based version of love. For people to put more stock into the friendships they form, to accept that single parent homes are often supported by friends who take on godmother roles, to renew the ties with their larger family structures.
To that point, although she considers her nuclear family to be dysfunctional, hooks credits her extended family with supporting her through her childhood and demonstrating how love should be manifested within the family. I think this credit has a tendency to cloud her judgement — at one point, she encouraged her lesbian sister to maintain ties with their hateful and homophobic family simply because their had to be some sane ones in the lot somewhere.
It’s been my experience that people don’t tend to cut off their families unless things have reached nuclear wasteland levels of toxicity, and pushing someone to stay while preaching about self-love and affirming communities is quite hypocritical. Particularly since hooks devotes an entire essay on how society has equated parents caring for their children with love. A child who is presented to the world with clean clothes and a full belly may be utterly deprived of love and affection at home; a child who goes to bed hungry could be surrounding with love every moment of their lives.
To hooks, this false equivocation perpetrates a cycle where parents who grew up without love go on to have children who grow up without love in their lives. It also contributes to what she calls a “love of greed” where a capitalist society’s obsession with material goods drives a wedge between communities and leaves people in a constant desire for more, more, more. I agreed with the premise of this chapter, but it found her constant “slut shamming” towards Monica Lewinsky to be completely off-putting.
Could the greed hooks says motivated Lewinsky to tell her story not also have been a realization that she deserved a better kind of love than Bill Clinton was offering her? Or, a conflation on Lewinsky’s part of physical, male-dominated love with the kind of love that hooks’ admonishes our society for upholding as real and fulfilling?
And there’s the evidence that I took something from hooks’ essays. That her thinking turned my thoughts inside out and made me pause and contemplate. I ended up flagging several passages in this book, including hooks’ daily mantra that she repeats to herself each morning:
I am breaking with old patterns and moving forward with my life. (pg. 70)
But, like her, I think our personal experiences colors how we each view and approach love. I have not yet experienced romantic love, although I’ve had a tendency over the years to fall into fairly one-sided friendship that take me some time to walk away from. But I have experienced familial love far above and beyond the kind that marked hooks’ life. Yes, my parents care(d) for me in all the ways she’s listed, but I also know in the depths of my soul that they love me. That they would challenge their own thinking in order to accept me as I am; that I would be a lucky person if I was to follow the old adage about girls marrying men like their fathers.
So while I agree with some of her essays, there are others that I could not reconcile with my own definition of love. I certainly don’t feel that need to seek out the spiritual-based love she expounds upon in the end in her essays on religion and angels as a solution to society’s lack of love. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s wrong — after all, I agree that a growing obsession with consumerism and immediate gratification means people end up experiencing bursts of love rather than a sustaining love.
Yet there was also so much that I didn’t agree with, including the gendered assumptions she makes about men and women and how each of them approaches relationships. (She has a whole chapter on how men will use lying to control and subordinate their partners, but the “best” liars I know are women.) Which made the authoritarian tone hooks adopts throughout the book hard to tolerate at times and led to me skimming some essays rather than taking the time to stop and unpack each one.
That said, this is very likely my longest “review” to date so there certainly is a lot of food for thought crammed into these essays. And despite my negative reactions to some of her assertions, there is a large part of me that wants to put this book into many different hands in the hopes that each of one could scoop out the gems within these pages and discuss. I imagine each person I gave the book to would find different aspects as gems, though, given our varying experiences with love.