“Love,” “Family,” and Other Homonyms: A Conversation with Briallen Hopper




LAST MONTH, Briallen Hopper, one of LARB’s favorite contributors, released Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, a collection that, in the words of Leslie Jamison, “is full of heart and wisdom and humor and surprise.” In the following interview, which was conducted over several days in March, she speaks about the difficulties and pleasures of love, family, and other forms of connection. 

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JACQUI SHINE: How many tabs do you have open right now? 

BRIALLEN HOPPER: One tab, two windows. Closing the other window! Okay, you have my undivided attention!

Oh, no, I was just wondering what they were!! I never close them, so I have like 23 open and the first one I saw was the Wikipedia entry for “Familicide” and I thought that was very funny.

A great essay title. You have first dibs.

If you and I both wrote essays called “Familicide,” they would be very different. And I was also thinking yesterday that if I wrote a book called Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, it would also be very different.

Which is why it makes sense for us to talk, I think.

Yes! One thing I like and find very challenging about your work is that so many of the things you take as subjects — family, love, friendship — are like homophones. Everyone means something different, even if it sounds the same.

And sometimes we have multiple meanings for them ourselves, depending on the year or the month or the time of day or who we’re with, or who we’re talking to.

Since we’re both academics, I want to say something about “the grammars of intimacy,” but I will also resist for the exact same reason! But tell me about how you see the inflections in the book’s title.

What I like about Hard to Love is its focus on difficulty — from these difficulties of definition (the impossibility of “defining the relationship”) to the difficulties of loving and loved, and the existential fact of being hard to love. I wanted to write a book about underrepresented forms of love and connection — between friends, roommates, siblings, caregivers and care receivers (just realized how weird it is that caregiver and caretaker mean sort of the same thing!) — that was not about making easy claims about how these relationships are harder or easier or better or worse than, e.g., dating or marriage. I wanted to honor them in their own right.

Yeah, you don’t say all that much about dating or marriage in direct ways once you’ve sort of dealt with them in early sections about your relationship with the Emersonian in khakis and about Kate Bolick’s peculiar read on the concept of the spinster. But surely your feelings about those things have been changed by the other kinds of love and connection you’ve invested yourself in with what I keep thinking of as “exuberant diligence,” right? You are committed to love and connection in really explicit ways, as projects — which is partly because that’s how one navigates the world when romantic love and marriage are not the keystones of one’s life. But it also seems like a disposition. So I wonder about the relationship between those things. How those feelings have changed.

“Exuberant diligence” actually made me laugh out loud! Yes, my feelings about dating and marriage have changed a lot.

One thing that has emerged for me, both personally and politically, is that in many ways the “single versus partnered” divide has come to seem less and less important as a way of thinking about love and connection. Obviously it matters for huge things like taxes, health care, immigration, custody. But when I think about my life, and my friends’ lives, more and more of these questions — [about] how to seek and find emotional and material support, how to move from youth to midlife, how to make meaning and keep going — are common, regardless of relationship status. All of us, regardless of whether we are chronic spinsters or confirmed bachelors or messily divorcing or blissfully or miserably married or whatever, are having to do the work of figuring out how to find and sustain love and connection beyond the marriage plot.

Here is the question I always have but don’t ask: how much do you think that has to do with the fact that you also have a family of origin? (Which is a phrase I don’t like! Usually I say “family family.”) In broad strokes, you and I have similar adult lives: single academics-turned-writers, white women who grew up in working-class families and are navigating a kind of privileged precarity. (“Privileged” means something about our tastes and affectations, but also something in excess of those things. I’m definitely not making more money than my mom was making at my age, but I definitely have a richer and more whole emotional life than she did at any age, which seems like a different kind of generational mobility.) 

[At the same time], we come from very different places. Your parents are living and so are most of your siblings, and you have mostly active, if complicated, relationships with them. You have a place to go, even if it’s noisy, chaotic, and pressured. You write that for years you didn’t want to go back, and even now you don’t stay very long. But my parents are dead. So I approach the Love and Connection Project with a lot less enthusiasm and a lot more fear [than you do], or at least than your narrator self [does]. I wouldn’t say I feel skeptical of the fictive kinships that you write about here, because they make my life, too. But I wonder if that’s why I’m not inclined to lean, and you like few things more.

Yes, this is a conversation I’ve been wanting to have with you for a while! And that we’ve been having in less formal, less sustained ways for a while! You were one of the readers I had in mind as I was writing this book, partly because of the ways that we have shared experience, but even more because of the ways that we don’t. I appreciate the formulation “family family.” Family is so fraught, especially since there is so much pressure to think about family as an inherently positive term, which can be suffocating.

I teach a Writing about Family class, and on the first day I bring in a lot of picture books, from vintage Little Golden Books to Last Stop on Market Street, from the universalizing 1950s MOMA exhibit The Family of Man to beautifully posed idealized portraits of LGBT families from the 1990s, and I ask students: What about this representation resonates with you? What about this representation do you resist? People come to the project of “chosen family” or “found family” (my preferred term) from all sorts of places, either trying to recreate their family of origin or current “nuclear family,” or to replace it, or compensate for it, or supplement it, or all of the above.

I grew up in a very close, very loving family with a lot of mental illness and not very many boundaries. For my entire childhood, we were enmeshed in a repressive, cult-like, controlling religious community that provided a sense of belonging to many of its members, but made me and my family of origin feel like failures and outsiders. A close, committed family was something that I had to escape, something that I had to flee thousands of miles from, as well as something that I needed and pined for and didn’t want to have to live without.

In friendships and familial arrangements that I’ve formed in adulthood, I’ve needed to understand my friends’ experiences of intimacy and family and dependence and how different they are from mine. The way they might have guardedness, wariness, and fierce resistance to certain forms of intimacy that seem like first or second nature to me, and vice versa. The first essay in the book, “Lean On: A Declaration of Dependence,” is very much me leaning into my love of leaning, and defending dependence as a personal and political project. But that essay got so much better in revisions when I listened to friends who told me about their resistance to leaning, and how dependence can be, to some people, existentially threatening, or an unaffordable luxury, for reasons that sometimes have to do with race, class, ethnicity, national origin, et cetera, and sometimes have to do with families of origin, and the patterns of attachment and detachment that are built into you as you are formed.

I want to read the book you would write called Hard to Love!

If I wrote a book called Hard to Love, it would be a book about grief and about the failure of … stories [to sustain us] and about the terrible difficulty of having to figure out how to live with what’s shattered and beyond repair. In the same way that you had to learn to think about all the ways people might fear love, I have had to learn to accept the stories of people for whom love has been, from childhood, something very different. But I think another part of it might be (would have to be) what it has meant to nonetheless discover that I am also an extravagantly well-loved person.

It is so, so wonderful to hear not only that you are extravagantly loved but that you are able to recognize it. And I think this work of trying to understand people whose experience of “love” and “family” is different from our own is, itself, a form of love and connection. And, for me at least, it is also the work of revision. My first drafts are usually dominated by my own experience. Trying to empathize with and represent others’ experiences usually happens more slowly over the course of many subsequent drafts.

“Dear Octopus” is about my broken relationship with my brother — and about J. D. Salinger and George Eliot. Insofar as it’s about Salinger, it’s about writing as family myth-making, with Franny and Zooey as a central sacred text. Insofar as it’s about Eliot, it’s about writing an as an attempt to (as I say) “mend the rift with ink” — to rewrite a family rupture so that siblings can die reconciled, as Eliot does in The Mill on the Floss. That’s a lot of weight to put on writing. I don’t think an essay or a novel or a series of short stories can do that. But it turns out that writing can sometimes make conversations and empathy possible, which is astonishing and miraculous in its way.

So many essays in the book, like “Dear Octopus” and like “Hoarding,” which is about the Gothic/comic horror of the year I lived with my beloved friend Cathy, were hard to write because they required me to imagine (far more than I wanted to, or easily could) someone else’s emotional experience. And the process of trying to understand my brother and friend in order to write about them actually shifted those relationships in ways that felt astonishing.

After I wrote “Dear Octopus,” I was able to have a real conversation with my brother for the first time in years. Nothing was resolved, and we are still not close. But it turns out we have not completely lost the ability to communicate with each other.

“Nothing was resolved” — no, of course not, because mending is repair, and a mended thing is never the same.

About mending: After The Election, the only two things that made me feel better were sleeping in front of the fake fire DVD, and mending my then-roommate’s clothes. Stitching together a tear in his bathrobe was truly consoling to me. I also salvaged a vintage label from an old coat that said “Wear In Good Health” and sewed it into the bathrobe. In that terrible post-election fall and winter I could have mended a whole wardrobe full of clothes.

The book seemed secular in a way that surprised me, because the spiritual and the religious are explicit subjects for you in lots of other contexts. The time in your life when you were in divinity school and training for ministry, a time in which I’d guess love and connection were also very persistent subjects and practices — there’s not much about it here, or about relationships with the Divine (lol) and I wondered why.

It’s funny you should say that there was less God than you expected, because several times lately, including in an interview with Kali Handelman in The Revealer, I’ve been asked about why and how the book was so religious! As I was writing I definitely wanted to keep religion in the book. Perhaps the most explicitly religious chapter in the book is “Dear Flannery,” co-written with my friend Ashley Makar, an epistolary essay that is a review of Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, and that is written partly in the form of prayers.

At first my editor wasn’t sure how it fit, but I felt that among other things it does such a good job about how relationships with God are mediated by friends and books, and all the other reciprocal variations of that — relationships with friends mediated by God and books, relationships with books mediated by friends and God … Most of my friends are not religious, but many of them are, and especially for my divinity school friends, prayer with and for each other, and sitting next to each other in church (leaning against each other in church), is an essential form of intimacy.

That said, if I had to say the main way that my religious faith has affected the book, it might be that I was raised Calvinist, and Calvinists believe that God predestines everything, and people are not actually in control of their lives. And I think that bedrock Calvinist sense of my own limitations, my utter dependence on external grace, is part of where I get my skepticism about self-reliance and my love of leaning. And it’s also where I resist the dominant white middle-class assumption that people can or should choose or control things like their relationship status or their parental status, when so much of our lives, our loves, our fertility journeys!, are determined by factors beyond our control.

I’m interested in the thread in the book that considers how whiteness has shaped your experiences of how people make connections and build loving relationships — both in and out of the academy.

My sense of love and family was absolutely formed by my whiteness and straightness and aspiring middle-classness. The norm of a nuclear family in a two-generation household, with a husband and wife and kids and a good-investment mortgage, is unattainable and irrelevant for so many people, even as we are all told to want it. It is a kind of shibboleth that is used to demarcate belonging and exclusion and capacities for citizenship. I’m obviously the hundred millionth person to have pointed this out, but even when we’re aware of its perniciousness, it’s still an ideology that can continue to dominate us and determine our desires.

But even though I was shaped by the desire for a conventional paired-off middle-class life, I had a sense early on that it was not enough, that I needed to look beyond it, which is part of why I gravitated toward African-American literature and queer literature classes in college, because for centuries African-American people and queer people have had to make lives outside of these legal and social and economic frameworks. I still remember the time I made a glib comment in class that implied that single people were alone, and the queer professor snapped at me, like, Why would you say that? It was one of those moments that made me experience, in my moment of shame and confusion, the value of higher education! I think we were discussing Henry James!

And in “Spinsters,” you write about how much you learned from African-American women who mentored you. 

Yes. I write about how my experience of having grad school and church mentors during my 20s who were unmarried black women taught me to imagine and aspire to completely different models for intimacy, love, and caregiving. They taught me not just how to make a life according to different models of love and dependence, but also how to be skeptical and critical of the structures and assumptions of dominant culture that equate singleness with aloneness.

Because, as I discovered, that never-married, childless, middle-aged woman might not be alone. She might be the sole caregiver for an aging parent who lives with her. Or she might have a crew of close friends she shares season tickets with, and celebrates holidays with, and vacations with every summer. Or she might be in the midst of a long-term, hard-to-define romance with someone she prefers not to be legally or publicly partnered with. Or all of the above! And all of these invisible relationships matter as much as the ones that the law sees.

The most important thing I learned in grad school was how to see and value the relationships that law and society refuse to see.

And here I think it’s worth mentioning that your path to academia was by no means foreordained: even though you ended up at Princeton and Yale, you began your education at Tacoma Community College and then transferred to the University of Puget Sound, right? So this wasn’t some rarefied Ivy League atmosphere, and your interest in these subjects was probably unfamiliar to some of the people around you. How did your academic trajectory start to change your relationships with your family?

I’ve come so far from where I started from!

My mom left school in ninth grade and starting having kids at 20. She had six kids by the time was in her mid-30s, and she finally got her GED when she was around 50, about the same time I was doing my general exams at Princeton. I have vast admiration for my mom’s brilliance and curiosity; she is a proud autodidact, and she raised us to respect autodidacts, and I’m grateful for that. And I’m in awe of the sheer amount of work she did and does to make us all and keep us going. But I think my mom and I look at each other’s lives with wonder and anxiety and maybe some wistfulness. We’re each other’s roads not taken. We’ve done such different things with our years. She has six children, and I have three degrees and one book and no children. There’s mutual respect and incomprehension.

One of the most difficult aspects of love I write about in the book is the way that love that is stretched and strained — and sometimes miraculously sustained — across chasms of class and education. I write about this in “On Sisters” (I included samples of all four of my sisters’ voices in that essay, which was a logistical nightmare but also a delight) and also in “Everything You’ve Got,” my essay on Cheers, which I see as a show about, among other things, a passionate love affair that’s sparked and doomed by class difference, in a bar that’s a kind of class-diverse utopia.

Really the Cheers chapter is an expression of the fundamental yearning of the book, which is where I end up at on the last page as well: What are the ways we can connect, and stay connected, despite everything? What are the stories we can tell to help us imagine a future together?

Something I admire about your work is that there’s a very elegant balance between cultural criticism and memoir — each sort of insists on the interrogation of the other. I’m thinking specifically of “Young Adult Cancer Story” here. But I am also thinking of “Coming Home to the Best Years of Our Lives.” That essay is a more straightforward review that touches on, but doesn’t engage deeply with, the role the film has played in how you confront grief in your own life. That, too, seems like a deliberate choice.

I rarely write memoir without cultural criticism! I pretty much always need a book or movie or TV show to write about life in relation to. Sometimes the text comes first, sometimes the experience, but I need both.

“Young Adult Cancer Story” was the result of being given the right text at the right time. My friend Ash, co-author of the Flannery essay, had Stage 4 cancer, and she wanted her close friends to read The Fault in Our Stars to understand more of what she was going through, and so we did. I wrote about our book club and YA novels and “real life” as a way of making sense of a confusing, demanding, heartbreaking time.

The essay about the 1940s film The Best Years of Our Lives is one of five “in memoriam” essays in the book, honoring the memory of a friend; a friend’s sister; my grandmother; my grandfather; my older brother who died on the day he was born. None of these essays are about the lost people in any direct way. Instead they are haunted by them around the edges. The Best Years essay is about a movie I’d loved for years, and watched and discussed with so many people, including someone who later died. The movie becomes, in the end, an elegy for her. Its dialogue supplies the words I read at her scattering of ashes ceremony. When my words weren’t enough, the movie’s were.

On that subject, I thought the penultimate essay, “Moby-Dick,” might have been the most intimately revealing, and it’s also the most formally inventive, mixing up Melville’s text with a sort of absurdist fill-in-the-blank framework. In this essay, you say, “I’m deeply dependent on narratives, sometimes far too much for my own and others’ good,” which is certainly clear elsewhere in the book, but here your anxiety about that comes into particular focus. How is form working there? How does it create space for vulnerability?

The Moby-Dick essay is about my obsessive Captain Ahab–like quest to find a sperm donor — a process that almost broke me. I did eventually end up with eight embryos on ice, but along the way I had to confront a million mind-bending questions — sexual, social, financial, bio-ethical — and for some reason the sheer silliness of conceptualizing my quest as a series of multiple choice questions with answers drawn from Moby-Dick helped to buoy me throughout the process. Later, after I found a donor and started trying to get pregnant, I was overwhelmed by what was happening to my body — insemination, pregnancy, pregnancy loss, multiple rounds of IVF — and imagining myself on a long voyage with trusty shipmates (my friends and roommates) helped me to more or less keep it together.

That essay is also the funnest to read aloud, I’ve discovered. There’s nothing like wrapping your mouth around white curdling cream, perilous fluid, tons of tumultuous white curds, creamy foam, the milk of queens, tubs of sperm, hogsheads of sperm, spermy heaps, and the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti.

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Jacqui Shine is a writer and historian. She lives in Chicago.


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