Monday, April 4, 2016

Response: Communion, by bell hooks

Communion: The Female Search for Love
Every now and then, you come across a book that rocks your world. For me most recently, that book has been Communion by bell hooks. Maybe it’s been the turning of 40, or maybe there have been other triggers: but for whatever reason, over the last year I have spent hours wrestling with what it means to be a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, and employed. In other words, I’ve been wondering about and wrestling with pretty much everything that forms my identity.

After the most recent late night state of the union conversation with my husband, I felt an impulse to go finish Communion. I had started it in early January, yawning my way through the first few chapters. At that stage, I felt that it was a book I probably should read, rather than would read; and so I stopped, too lazy to continue. But the night I felt the impulse I went back, picked up where I left off, and was soon riveted. hooks has nailed my life; and Communion gives my semi-articulated observations and frustrations recognition and a framework, placing them into a coherent whole.
I found it uncanny to have so many of my private fears and desires there on the page. I could write pages about the ways hooks’s observations resonate with my life, whether about mother-daughter relationships, or about my need for friendships in which Eros is present, or about the circle of loving friends without which my marriage would collapse. But I will focus on the particular insights she brings to bear on typical heterosexual relationships.
Over the last few months, I have been wondering with my husband what it is to love, and why our attempts at loving each other are so often frustrated and frustrating. In my wondering, I came to realise, first, that I don’t know anything much about love; and, second, that I want my husband to treat me as an equal, except when I want him to be a benevolent patriarch and make all the decisions and protect me. Of course, no man can do both. When he treats me as an equal, I feel powerful, yet scared and strangely betrayed. When he operates as a benevolent patriarch, I feel safe, yet resentful and childish. I was fumbling to name all this conflicted weirdness to my husband, but then the next day I read all about it in Communion: the way so many women, like me, are afraid of growing up, and so seek men who will look after them. In hooks’s understanding, these women are enacting the infantile role granted them by the patriarchy. Thus they seek patriarchal men who are kind, not violent, despite the inherent contradiction that the power of patriarchy cannot refrain from violence, whether physical or emotional.
Yet when there is such a power imbalance in the relationship, it is impossible for either party to be truly vulnerable, and therefore impossible to truly love. For one thing, the man is not allowed to express weakness. When he does so, he is not being the strong man required by the woman seeking a benevolent patriarch; worse, his emotions are rarely what the woman would want them to be and so she shies away from them. And yet paradoxically the woman wants connection, and wants him to be more open—clearly an impossible bind. Moreover, because women are so strongly encouraged to do the emotional work of relationships, when a man does express emotions, his partner can become angry because he is encroaching on what little territory she has. In such a situation, it is no wonder that we struggle to love. I want mutually exclusive things from my husband—to be strong yet vulnerable, caring yet not any good at caring—and he is constantly stymied by my mixed messages and hurt by my unwillingness to take an interest in his emotional life.
In a similar vein, hooks observes that women can become angry or resentful when their partners care well for children. In a patriarchal world, women are ‘naturally’ nurturing; this is another small territory ceded to their supposed expertise. And again, I am conflicted. I was the one who stayed home with young children. My husband had a big career, and I thought maybe raising kids was what I was supposed to do. But my husband is a more natural nurturer. He always got up for the crying babies; only last week, he heard the call in the middle of the night, climbed out of bed, and cleaned up an unexpected off-the-loft-bed midnight vomit splattered across the floor. I slept through the lot, only stirring to grumble when, as he climbed back into bed, he accidentally jerked the doona. Nurture and kindness do not come easily to me; they are learned skills.
I should be delighted that one of us is a gentle, capable parent yet I often felt angry and conflicted when it was my husband who got up night after night, or gently rocked a crying child, or bandaged a bleeding knee. Even now, I would infinitely prefer to work than to cook or chat with one of my children, yet I still feel anxious and guilty when it is my husband who stays home from work to care for a sick child. hooks’s insights resonate strongly with my conflicted feelings around motherhood and sharing the parenting role.
Communion is full of these and other rich insights into human relationships, and hooks writes without the bitterness or rage that I have sometimes associated with feminist writers. Instead, she brings a clear eye and kind heart to bear on all our relationships, seeking healing—and that means, seeking love. As such, it is an extraordinarily liberating read. By placing my conflicts and my relationships in a patriarchal framework, I begin to see that I’m not completely neurotic. Or, rather, I am completely neurotic and conflicted, but it’s a product of living in a society which makes neurotic and conflicted demands of both women and men.
Seeing my primary relationship as a typical reflection of a society-wide sickness has been freeing. It has shifted the blame away from my husband and me as individuals, even as it lays the responsibility for change squarely at our feet. Communion challenges us to find new ways of relating. We both need to continue questioning assumed gender roles and expectations, and recognising the ingrained patterns we are unconsciously enacting, even as we slowly learn to be adults in an ever-shifting, constantly renegotiated relationship. It will take a long time—maybe the rest of our lives together—but it is good work to be getting on with. And as we do it, I have no doubt that we will both learn a lot about love. So thank you, bell hooks.

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