Friends & Benefits

Briallen Hopper’s ‘Hard to Love’
August Macke, Four Girls (Museum Kunstpalast / Google Art Project)

I agree with Briallen Hopper about a lot of things. Let’s start there. Her new essay collection, Hard to Love—which includes personal essays, as well as criticism—is against self-sufficiency and for dependency. I’m into that. In one of my favorite lines, Hopper writes, “My sisters know I’m bossy and my friends know I’m kind, and when I’m alone I’m neither, but really I’m both. My identity is not an independent state.” Our livelihoods, ambitions, and tastes are largely determined by others—providers of food and clothing, creators of books and films, those who love and judge us. We are fashioned by weather, history, genes, and stipends. “Independence, to me, is nothing but a dangerous delusion,” proclaims Hopper in the collection’s first essay, “Lean On.” She positions herself against American “bootstraps” independence, insisting that there is no “solitary self.”

No surprise that Hopper attended Yale Divinity School, and gave sermons at the University Church. Her rallying cry—that we owe our lives to others—is the humble sentiment that keeps me at church when I am frustrated by it: the admission that there but for the grace of God goes nothing.

Church should expand our notions of family, create commitments in the absence of contracts or blood. Hopper’s other big idea is that, in our culture, co-dependence is allowed only in marriage. “Romantic partnership,” she writes, “can sometimes seem like the only socially sanctioned reprieve from the demand to self-rely.” Hopper sets up an alternative paradigm: robust friendships that take on the expectations and privileges of marriages. These friends, mostly female, accompany each other to chemo appointments, offer one another spare rooms in their homes, lend money, take vacations, serve meals, pray. They give “care that [is] neither compulsory nor conditional...lavish, unrationed, unanticipated kindness.”

“Lean On” is followed by a series of essays that deal with these two interconnected ideas: that we are dependent people, and that we can depend on people other than romantic partners. Hopper writes about the bar crowd in Cheers; her search for a sperm donor; the object-love of hoarding; the enemy-love of siblings; and, most powerfully, the years she and three other women cared for a mutual friend with cancer. Hopper’s sharp literary criticism treats women who eschew romantic definition: Bette Davis, the author in the photograph “Pandora in Blue Jeans,” Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor.

Hard to Love emerges from a world I’m familiar with. Briallen Hopper and I are both from the Pacific Northwest, and both recently moved between New York and Connecticut. We both love to bake. We both go to church. We both studied English; she now teaches creative writing at Queens College, CUNY. We even share mutual friends. I recognize the commitment Hopper champions in my own group of friends. I agree with her premises (sacrifice and care), and try to live by them. Often, I find her writing tenacious and lovely. So why did her book leave me not quite satisfied?

 

It’s enjoyable to find ourselves in agreement, and easy to excuse the clichés and logical shortcuts.

Hard to Love repeats the right things about race, gender, sexuality, Trump. Better the right things than the wrong things, of course. But sometimes, liberal pieties seem to stand in for argument, description, complexity.

In an essay “On Spinsters,” Hopper writes that she’s much more “defined and governed by race, class, gender, and the changing climate” than her relationship status, even though more of these essays are about her relationship status than about any of these other things. The aside feels unduly defensive. In “Girls of a Golden Age,” Hopper reasons that home ownership isn’t easy: “roofs leak, basements flood, snow must be shoveled and taxes must be paid, neighborhood watch lists can be casually racist.” But don’t renters have to deal with watchlists, too? Does that problem belong in this list, or is it placed there to signal virtue?

It’s not that racist watch lists and climate change aren’t important. By questioning Hopper’s passing references, I don’t mean to belittle the issues, or Hopper’s commitment to them. The problem is that the expression of these commitments sometimes seems too passing, loosely pegged on and unconnected to an essay’s themes.

This pegging-on at times affects Hopper’s argumentation. In the opening essay “Lean On,” Hopper criticizes Joan Didion for certain sentences in her essay “On Self Respect.” Didion, Hopper writes, “require[s] you to see self-respect in cowboys and not Indians; in Rhett and not Mammy; in Jordan Baker and not the residents of the valley of ashes.” But Didion’s argument can’t be dismissed as a symptom of racism or classism—nowhere does she write that Indians or poor people can’t possess pride. She’s offering (imperfect) examples of people who stay calm under pressure. Hopper criticizes Didion for suggesting that the solitary self is the true self: but this isn’t quite right. Didion recognizes how deeply the self is made by others; over-reliance on one’s public persona, she insists, makes us sad and shaky. It’s not that we’re most ourselves when we’re alone; it’s that we must be comfortable alone. This is cold libertarianism, claims Hopper: Didion was a “Goldwater Girl in the making” when the essay was written. Whatever one thinks of Didion’s essay, its nuances aren’t reducible to her early politics.

In “On Spinsters,” Hopper acknowledges that marriage has been forbidden to some—slaves, mixed-race couples, gay people—and thus made a tool of oppression. She writes that our culture sometimes “turns unmarried people into second-class citizens.” This makes sense. But the example that follows doesn’t: Hopper was assigned last place in a grad-school housing lottery. Couples, who need more living space, were prioritized. This seems logical. Hopper calls it a “structural injustice” that honors the commitments of “couples and married people but fails to recognize the validity of other forms of family and the immense caregiving work done by daughters, sisters, aunts, and friends.” But the law does recognize familial bonds and obligations. As for friends, I’m interested. Should we legally codify the commitments of pals? How? Hopper doesn’t really say. She is content with easy denunciation—“second-class citizens” and “structural injustice”—when what the reader really wants is some kind of proposal.

It’s not hard to see why all this made its way into Hard to Love. This is the language of the academy, the publishing community, Hopper’s readers. It’s enjoyable to find ourselves in agreement, and easy to excuse the clichés and logical shortcuts.

Some of Hopper’s rhetoric could also be trepidation. As a white woman from elite institutions, she must anticipate critiques: too educated, privileged, ivory-tower. She must prove her wokeness. Of course, you can still find chinks in the armor. She laments her teaching salary, but also owns spices for each letter of the alphabet, bakes with a red Kitchenaid mixer. Privilege! Her friends are writers: they have time for each other. Privilege! She lights candles and binges TV. Leisure, and lifestyle, and privilege! Points awarded for being a woman, liberal, from a working-class family. Points docked for being white, in the Ivy League, a Christian.

But these critiques are reductive. The pact made by personal essayists and their readers requires mutual trust. On the part of the reader, the assumption that an essayist’s prerogatives, passions, and politics extend outside the self, even when that’s mostly what she’s writing about. On the writer’s part, the assumption that a reader will be generous and smart, and doesn’t need to be flattered or appeased.

 

This is her life she’s describing, not just a set of abstract arguments. Arguments, like life, are works in progress.

Hopper’s assumption seems to be that networks of friends are the preferred social arrangement. But if that’s the case, then I wished she would address the benefits—financial, legal, familial, social, even spiritual—of coupled partnership. Acknowledge them, or tear them down. Or suggest a way that those benefits, especially codified legal ones, might be extended to friendships.

This tension seeps into the essay “Moby-Dick.” Its subject is compelling: Hopper, in her late thirties, wants to have a child. Adoption is fraught and expensive, and so she seeks a sperm donor, first among her male friends. They turn down her request; Hopper says they didn’t want “entanglement.” Perhaps. But Hopper hopes her donor will be in her life not as a co-parent, but as a godparent, presenting a confusing set of financial and emotional obligations. Perhaps her possible donors wanted to avoid commitment. Or perhaps they did not want to be responsible for the creation of a child on whom they would have limited influence. Hopper calls their refusals an “unambiguous rejection.” She writes that “the process of trying to get pregnant, which I’d hoped could be kept in the family of my pre-existing friendships, was forcing me to venture outside of them. Instead of validating their sufficiency, it demonstrated their limits.” But if it’s a mistake to reduce personal intimacy and interdependence to marriage, perhaps it’s also a mistake to expect friendship to serve every emotional and practical need. Having a child with someone (I’d imagine) is different than being someone’s friend. It demands permanent co-responsibility. It creates an obligation to a person outside the pair. It introduces philosophical questions about fatherhood, practical questions about who watches the baby while you shower.

In “Hoarding,” Hopper explores the restraint friendships might require. She describes a long-term stay with her friend Cathy, who’s married and has a young child. Cathy offers a guest room to Hopper in a time of financial strain. Hopper keeps the room filthy (she says she doesn’t have time to clean it) while Cathy quietly fumes. Meanwhile, Hopper complains that the house is too cold at night; Cathy and her husband are oblivious, because they can snuggle. Tension builds. Years later, Hopper and Cathy heal over a weepy heart-to-heart; Hopper acknowledges that her friend “saved her.” She wonders about the “limits of friendship,” whether it is “based on responsibilities and rights or on affection and love.” What did Cathy owe Briallen? And what did Briallen owe Cathy, even in the midst of her own misery?

Hopper’s writing about her biological family is affectionate if complicated. In a gorgeous essay about her brother, a conservative Evangelical, Hopper pays tribute to their youthful closeness while also chronicling their falling out. At the same time, she uses the essay as an opportunity to praise “found family” rather than biological family—a gift given when you are “old enough to appreciate it, a commitment continuously made.” Still, found family can’t know you from childhood; they don’t have “involuntary intimacy.” Biological families, she writes, are “consoling and intolerable.” There’s a beauty there—the “visceral centripetal force” of families of “blood and law.” It is that very sense of involuntariness, of inescapability, that I’m not sure we can, or should, reproduce in friendships. In this essay at least, Hopper appears to share that ambivalence.

 

An answer to some of my objections might be found in the essays Hopper writes about Ash, a friend who has cancer. In “Young Adult Cancer Story,” Hopper mediates on the young-adult book and film The Fault in Our Stars. She and three other women caretakers read and watch together. Hopper writes about the decadent release of a “three-tissue film,” but also acknowledges the need to “keep it together”—“pain sometimes makes demands not to be felt” when supporting a friend through illness. In another essay, “Dear Flannery,” Hopper and Ash write letters by candlelight. Hopper may demand much from her friends, but she gives a lot in return.

“Coasting” puts more teeth on this care. It’s not a perfect essay. The women of the caregiving team are ambiguous: we don’t know much about where they live, what they look like, how they talk. The language can be sappy (“angel baby”) and too reliant on shared memories and inside jokes. But the love among these women is rare and astounding: friends taking notes at appointments, tracking medications, booking spontaneous flights. Radical sacrifices of time, money, and heart chasten and inspire. These friends, once bound by dire purpose, now live apart from each other. Some have found partners; some have moved closer to parents. What role are they playing in each other’s lives now? Is their intimacy still real and sustaining?

Hopper doesn’t say. I’m sure she would have answers to at least some of my questions and doubts. And if she doesn’t yet have answers for all of them, that’s to be expected. She’s still working things out; her recognition of that fact is one of the strengths of this collection. This is, after all, her life she’s describing, not just a set of abstract arguments. Arguments, like life, are works in progress.

Hard to Love
Essays and Confessions

Briallen Hopper
Bloomsbury Publishing, $27, 336 pp.

Published in the July 5, 2019 issue: 

Katherine Lucky is the Managing Editor of Commonweal. Follow her on Twitter @katherinejlucky.

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