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?