Their solution, the Oneida Community, undertook to de-couple love and spread it out, to break open the closed circle of the nuclear family and radiate love outward to form a giant, all-inclusive globe — a “glowing sphere of love,” as founding father John Humphrey Noyes prophesied. They abolished monogamy and instituted, in its place, “complex marriage” (a regulated system of free love) and collective child-rearing. In order to organize “family communism” on a cosmic scale, Noyes reasoned, it was necessary to “give up the old one-horse wagon […] and go by the great railroad train that carries a meeting-house full.” Their definition of family was nothing if not expansive. One Community child, when asked to identify the baby in a painting of the Madonna and child, responded artlessly, “That’s little cousin Jesus.”
Their methods of spreading the love were unorthodox, to say the least. But when I recently sat down to read Briallen Hopper’s new essay collection, Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, I was put in mind of the Oneida Community’s utopian strivings, of their instinctive resistance to the twin American mantras of self-reliance and the marriage plot. “Sometimes it seems there are two American creeds, self-reliance and marriage,” Hopper announces in her introductory essay, and “neither of them is mine.” Her essays are an attempt to formulate a new creed, to sketch out what a life held aloft by love and what she calls “leaning” might look like stripped of its traditionally coupled, home-sweet-home cultural supports.
Hopper was raised, one of six siblings, by parents whose fairy-tale ’70s hippie romance (“it was love at first sight,” in her father’s sunny rendition) doubled as a bedtime story. Her parents’ fierce commitment to one another through thick and thin became the stuff of family lore. That she would grow up to have children of her own — a passel of them — was assumed. “I was balancing babies on my hips before I had hips,” Hopper confesses in one of several essays devoted to motherhood and her complicated relationship to it. By high school, she had already begun collecting parenting books in view of her future brood (“I was certain I wanted at least three kids”). Obedient to script, she spent most of her twenties as a serial monogamist in search of a life partner. But her last boyfriend, a self-reliant Emersonian scholar, broke her heart and sent her reeling.
Thus, it was that, somewhere near the middle of the journey of her life, Hopper found herself with neither the husband nor the covey of children she had once imagined. For Hopper, being unexpectedly un-coupled forced her to question her longstanding assumption that she had to funnel love into a single person (boyfriend) or a single narrative (marriage plot). “Is this relationship going somewhere?” runs the anxious refrain of marriage-fixated thirtysomethings. Liberated from plot-driven love — clocks both nuptial and biological — Hopper learned to let herself float in the immediacy and plotlessness of her friendships. “[L]eaning on friends is never going anywhere, it is not proof of anything, and there are no mandatory standards for it to meet or fail to meet,” she observes in her opening essay-cum-manifesto, “Lean On.” “You just find yourself together, side by side, and then one day you are depending on each other, bearing each other’s burdens, basking in each other’s warmth, for decades or only for a moment.” Over time, the forms of love that Hopper had once deemed “ancillary and supplemental” became, “collectively, everything.”
The 20 essays following this opening salvo are meditations on Hopper’s decade-long process of spreading herself out, learning how to practice “mutual, broadly distributed leaning.” We learn about her lifelong navigation of difficult sibling relationships: a brother who breaks with her and a bevy of sisters who squabble and part ways and come together again. We read about her friendship with Ash, a divinity school classmate diagnosed with stage-four esophageal cancer. Hopper and a circle of friends join together to see her through the ordeal: chemo and radiation and bad scans and then, against all odds, a miracle cure. We read about her quest to have a baby with a sperm donor, and the sturdy network of friends who support her on the journey. Along the way, we are treated to Hopper’s keen-eyed cultural criticism: readings of cultural objects from Cheers to Bette Davis, the Women’s March to Shirley Jackson. All provide lenses through which she sees refracted the sustaining power of love outside the vortex of the couple.
Part of what Hopper does so artfully in her work is to disrupt the foregone narrative conclusions imposed on American women by 21st-century late capitalism. Love, marriage, and baby carriage — coupled, where possible, with a steady climb up a professional ladder and enough economic success to secure a mortgage — are the twin drumbeats to which those aspiring to white middle-class womanhood must march. Hopper, nearing 40, has met none of these benchmarks — and resists the suggestion that this somehow marks her as stalled in her progress, a failed adult. She combs the cultural landscape, picking up objects that showcase alternative paths to fulfillment.
In her essay “The Stars,” for instance, she luxuriates in Bette Davis’s iconic spinster performance in the 1942 film Now, Voyager. Charlotte Vale, single and shackled to a domineering mother, has a nervous breakdown followed by a restorative South American cruise during which she casts off her past and invents a new life from scratch. She ends up with the unconventional — and decidedly un-Hollywood — combo of a mariage blanc and a step-daughter. Unlike other Hollywood vehicles of the period, providing fantasy fulfillment for “a thirty- or fortyish woman’s need for a second act after marriage and children have somehow failed to satisfy,” Now, Voyager explores “what can happen when that first act never materializes”: when a woman improvises with the connections that fate and choice cast her way — and is satisfied with the results.
Similarly, in “Everything You’ve Got,” Hopper attributes her fondness for the long-running sitcom Cheers to the way it consistently deflates the “straight happy ending.” Instead, the show offers answers to the “plot puzzle of one’s thirties and forties,” the in-between space after youth but before mid-life when one begins to sense a thinning out of possibilities, the chill air of anti-climax. Hopper cherishes Cheers for its frank recognition that, for most of us, “life doesn’t end with youth and hope,” and the daring with which it lays this truth bare. She admires the show’s loving attention to mundane, undervalued forms of togetherness: the “irreplaceable intimacy that comes with low-quality, high-quantity time” spent together with friends, and the precious “weight of duration.”
Hopper is a careful analyst, and in her essay “Dear Octopus,” she dissects the qualitative differences between family love and friend love. “[T]o my siblings the love I have with my friends is not always recognizable as love,” she observes. “It seems too milquetoast; too lukewarm bubble bath.” On the flipside, “my conversations with my siblings don’t always look like love to my friends.” But both, she affirms, are valid ways of loving, and she challenges those who reserve ultimate sacrifices — caring for the sick, for example, or lending financial help — to the biological (or matrimonial) family circle. “[A]ll families are invented, even biological ones,” she asserts. “A family is not reducible to legal status or DNA; it is also a provisional hypothesis constructed from the surviving documents.”
While she and her brother were close growing up — a “dyad amidst a horde” of siblings, as she recounts it — he broke with her when she started dating an atheist in college. The few times she has engaged with him since then have been both “consoling and intolerable” — a description that crisply sums up the peculiar mixture of pain and comfort that so often marks family dynamics. She acknowledges the “visceral centripetal force” of origin-family love, and gives it its due: “I don’t believe that the sibling soul-mingling of youth can ever be undone.” “But,” she goes on to note with dry-eyed realism, “that doesn’t mean it can be sustained.” Hopper submits that all love — whether inherited or found — is work in progress.
What threads Hopper’s essays together, ultimately, is the repeated recognition that love is hard, and love is all we have, and there we are. The night before the 2017 Women’s March, Hopper watches the film Pride, which is about an unlikely coalition of LGBTQ Londoners and striking Welsh miners in the 1980s. Tears stream down her face as the orchestral accompaniment to the anthem “Bread and Roses” swells in the background: “The story and the song offer me a wave of feeling based on the hope that entrenched divisions can be overcome by people marching and lifting their voices. And I cry partly because I don’t actually believe in this hope, even as I can’t help coming back to it.” Similarly, her attachment to the postwar film The Best Years of Our Lives stems from its gimlet-eyed view of love as “hopeful wreckage” — a vision that, Hopper avows, has always helped her “summon the strength to keep on loving when love is increasingly hard.”
Her definition of love as the unreliable x upon which, nevertheless, we rely again and again could double as a definition of faith.
There is an earthy everydayness, a colloquial comfort, to Hopper’s style. The essays vary widely in length and format: a listicle on “How to Be Single”; a telegraphic, two-page meditation on grief; a 25-page love letter to Cheers. The motley nature of the collection lends it the haphazard, uneven texture of real life — like tree sap that, as it slides down a tree on its way to becoming amber, sweeps along with it whatever bits and pieces of organic life it happens to encounter: flies; bark; air bubbles. Friends pop in and out of the essays on a first-name basis (Samira; Ash; Cathy; Xiao). In “Tending My Oven,” Hopper closes a meditation on love, resilience, and baking with real-life, pound-of-butter recipes for cupcakes and shortbread. Between the covers of Hard to Love, Job and Abraham and Emily Dickinson rub shoulders with The Fault in Our Stars and sperm banks and Ted Danson, a surprising jumble.
But the jumble is, in and of itself, part of the collection’s strategy. In one of my favorite essays, “Hoarding,” Hopper documents her family’s legacy of emotional entanglement with material objects, gladly copping to the label and admitting that she, her mother and aunts, and her grandmother before them all fall somewhere on “the hoarding spectrum.” Hopper explicitly defines the essay writer’s practice as a species of collecting: there is first the “gathering” of material, then the “moment of critical mass,” followed by “the laborious grouping of like with like, and the time-consuming selection and arrangement of each arbitrarily precious mental object.” Hopper not only tackles what she calls the “love language” of hoarding as theme; she also performs it on the page the reader holds in her hands.
At other times, her sentences blaze with a kind of simple — resolutely uncluttered — wisdom that stops the reader in her tracks. At one moment in the collection, Hopper argues for the political uses of sentimental art. Sappy songs, “three-Kleenex films,” YA literature: these weepy aesthetic experiences, she contends, draw forth your tears “and then staunch the flow with something in between what you want and what you have: more drama but no answers; more love but no miracles.” Throughout the book, Hopper evinces a marked fondness for parallelism as rhetorical form (in between x and y; rarely x and often y; more x, no y), and the most beautiful of her sentences mimic the deliberate, resigned cadence of biblical wisdom literature: proverb or psalm. That Hopper spent her evangelical youth steeped in the prose of the Bible, and went on as an adult to train as a minister at Yale Divinity School, comes as no surprise.
My ancestors spun an entire cosmos out of what they believed to be the restorative — literally, resurrection-fueling — power of love. As a result of my odd philosophical heritage, I tend to read any attempt to parse, define, or close in on “love” in the abstract as a fundamentally theological undertaking. Even as an agnostic — borderline non-believer today — I can’t help but view love in all its multifaceted, fragmented forms as through-a-glass-darkly versions of the one perfect love of God, the illumination of a world redeemed.
The tradition of the shevirat ha-kelim in Jewish mysticism recounts the creation this way: on the first day, God contracted himself to make room for the world. He poured his light into 10 vessels, which then shattered, scattering the divine ray into fragments. This fragmentation is the fallenness of earth, and our task is to gather the scattered sparks in order to restore (tiqqun) the world. “[W]hen the task of gathering the sparks nears completion,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov glossed, “God will hasten the arrival of the final redemption by Himself collecting what remains of the holy sparks that went astray.”
Hopper’s book performs something akin to this gathering work: “The very randomness of fragments seems to call forth a satisfying answer, a ‘general rescue.’” Hopper writes of her penchant for collecting by way of explaining the magical pull material objects have on her: a cracked butter dish once belonging to her great-grandmother; a broken comb; a storage unit stuffed with the dog-eared odds-and-ends of childhood. For Hopper, the collecting impulse is akin to an ethical imperative, the duty to construct “[c]onsoling narratives […] from the shards of loss.” Hard to Love offers 21 meditations on the theme, 21 sparks of light that, gathered up, give the reader a glimpse — never certain, always hopeful — of what a life devoted to love as restoration looks like.
Ellen Wayland-Smith is the author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Signature Reads, Catapult, The Millions, and Longreads.