All About Love: Reading bell hooks in the Trump Era
I write to you today from an Airbnb in Los Angeles; a white plaster room with a blistering blue sky outside my window. When I got here, the window had been covered with industrial-grade blinds, and waking up in the heat every morning I now understand why. However, in this city of smog warnings and covered-up windows, I think it’s important to keep sight of sunshine.
On my plane ride here, the transition from New York to LA was echoed in my transition from one book to another: from Song of Solomon, by Toni Morison, to All About Love, by bell hooks. As hooks described in the preface how her childhood trauma put her in a kind of “trance” of lovelessness for most of her adulthood, my plane was touching down in Chicago, my hometown. I couldn’t see any of the landmarks of my own childhood from Midway Airport, but just exiting a gate there was enough to make my reading of hooks’s youth vibrate unpleasantly with recollections of my own.
Since I had started packing to move, I had been balancing my own stress with the stressful energy my parents had been sending me, one text at a time (actually, usually several at once). It’s always been like that. Whenever anything stressful is happening in my life, it’s best for my sanity to keep them at arm’s length as much as possible. Whether their attentions are positive or negative, they never help.
They may act like they’re helping, but what they’re doing in reality is making me responsible for their anxiety. They try to manage my life by telling me how to do things and making me listen to them explain, and then they demand updates (and sometimes documentation) to confirm I’m following their instructions. This isn’t so I can manage everything better, it’s so they can be sure I am, relieving their worries by adding to mine. The pressure of taking care of myself despite this has been the cause of my worst mental breakdowns.
It’s almost worse when every now and then, after a long period of criticisms and meddling, they decide they want to show me affection. In between the nagging, I’ve also been getting texts like “send us a selfie!!” and “have a good time on the plane! [emojis]” This kind of interaction may seem better, but in reality they take just as much emotional labor to respond to. That’s because these texts aren’t about me.
When my parents show me affection, it’s not about what affection I want or need to receive. I don’t have a choice about whether or how they communicate with me. When they do these performances of affection, I have to perform receptivity and gratitude back, which is more exhausting to me than receiving no affection at all. When I don’t have the time or energy to respond to them, they get angry and swing back the other way into criticism. Astrology-literate readers might not be surprised to learn that both my parents are Geminis.
My parents use me as a mirror that they look into to talk to themselves. They could replace me with an inflatable sex doll and probably get a similar result, because this affection is fundamentally masturbatory. When I experience it I get the same feeling as when I am being catcalled on the street—the feeling of someone else demanding my time, because they have the power to threaten me if I don’t meet their demands. When asked, catcallers usually claim vehemently that they love women.
As bell hooks explains about her own parents: my parents love me—or, they believe they love me. They have a lot of affection for me, are emotionally invested in my life, and would cry if I died. But the fact remains that they are narcissistic, emotionally immature, and demanding—they are two black holes of need, and they’ve been making me and my sister fill them up for almost 24 years. I ignore their texts, and their affection that they think is love, because I can’t let them empty me out any more than I have to.
On my connecting flight, which would land at LAX in five hours, I turned off my phone, with its string of unanswered texts, and read hooks’ first chapter, “Clarity,” where she stresses the importance of knowing what love is before we can seek it. She comes to a definition of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth,” a definition that stresses self-love, as well as mutual support, while de-centering affection and sexual desire.
Under this definition, affection is seen as only the motivation for us to express love, specifically to express love in a way that nourishes the other person. Conceiving of love as an action and not a feeling is an old idea now, 17 years after hooks first published All About Love. But while it’s an overstated fact, it’s a fact nonetheless, and worth re-affirming—because I, like many of us, did not receive love like that as a child.
“Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination. What we cannot imagine cannot come into being. A good definition marks our starting point and lets us know where we want to end up. As we move toward our desired destination we chart the journey, creating a map. We need a map to guide us on our journey to love—starting with the place where we know what we mean when we speak of love.” hooks needs this definition, this map, and this journey, as much as any reader, and All About Love makes you feel like you and she are working on this project together.
As I settle into LA, stubbornly taking public transit (which is easier than you might think) and learning to see the ominous, alien beauty in palm trees at night, we’re approaching the anniversary of a trauma that touched all of us. Since the election of 2016, psychologists report that many of their patients have been suffering relapses, or worsening mental health in general—especially survivors of sexual assault, and minorities who are now most threatened under this presidency. When bell hooks says “there can be no love without justice,” I think about the past year, and wonder if our country will ever feel like a place meant for love.
When I turn 24 on November 10th this year, I’ll be inescapably reminded of turning 23 two days after the election. And the procession of anniversaries won’t stop with Election Day, of course, because there’ll be Inauguration Day on January 20th, and the anniversaries of the “Muslim ban,” Jim Comey’s testimony, Paul Manafort’s indictment, and on and on, even as more days of their ilk keep happening. There will also be Thanksgiving, which in my family is hosted by an uncle of mine who voted for Donald Trump.
Last year, one of the prevailing winds of discourse said that we shouldn’t alienate Trump voters by treating them with hostility, because that would make changing their minds impossible. This belief quickly became most of my family’s party line on how we should treat my uncle. Anyone who speaks out against him, even behind his back, is told they are unable to compromise, unable to entertain beliefs other than their own, and most paradoxically, against free speech. Funny—they would never accuse him of any of those things.
Apparently, the best way to change someone’s mind is to ignore your differences completely. The few times they come up in conversation, no matter what appalling statements he makes, be sure to back down quickly. Never suggest that his beliefs are bad—or that he is bad. When your children tell you how appalled they are, at him and now at you, treat them like they’re on a witch hunt. Defend Donald Trump’s policies to your children. Justify it to yourself as open-mindedness. Do not be open-minded to the idea that you might be too open-minded. Buy a subscription to the New York Times and never stop talking about how your support is defending democracy.
Don’t think too hard about any of the contradictions in your behavior. If you do, you’ll have to confront the fact that your centrist liberalism doesn’t have the moral superiority you think it does.
“The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be. In recent years sociologist and psychologists have documented the fact that we live in a nation where people are lying more and more each day.” After 17 years, hooks is all too relevant in the “Honesty” chapter. She goes on: “Much of the lying people do in everyday life is done either to avoid conflict or to spare someone’s feelings.”
In avoiding conflict with my uncle, my affluent, straight, white parents have put the false harmony in our family over their children’s need to bring acknowledgement and accountability to someone whose vote was a statement of aggression toward them. They pushed their daughter’s humanity aside to allow my uncle to feel emotionally safe in his misogyny. They pushed their queer child’s identity aside to affirm his refusal to acknowledge the identities of others.
“How many of us can vividly recall childhood moments where we courageously practiced the honesty we had been taught to value by our parents, only to find that they did not really mean for us to tell the truth all the time.” My mother, who taught me to be a feminist, now defends my uncle when he tells my sister that women shouldn’t get tattoos.
This family dynamic has been echoed in national politics—when college students are chastised for protesting the presence of Nazis on their campuses, or when minorities are scolded for not engaging those who deny their humanity in debate for their personhoods, we know that we live in a society whose discourse functions through lies, and whose justice serves the liars.
All About Love offers a path toward healing that we all could use after a year of feeling constantly threatened and invalidated, constantly lied to and gaslighted. Even if we aren’t in situations where we can create a life where only love is allowed into our emotional space, it still affirms to us what we deserve, and what we can have in the future.
This review of All About Love has been highly personal, because as with all works, my relationship to it is highly personal. The thing about writing a review of something is that, if you’re doing it right, you’re saying something much larger than “if you like this genre/ author/ trope, you will like this book.” When I think about my favorite stories, among feelings like the nerd’s pure enjoyment, and the storyteller’s detached appreciation of craft, is always a sense of gratitude. Our favorite stories are the ones that save us.
Perhaps Avatar: The Last Airbender showed us powerful women so we could start wanting to become powerful ourselves. Perhaps the Game of Thrones books were a shield against our depressing college experiences. Or perhaps we happened to impulse-buy a book about what it means to love during our last visit to our favorite New York bookstore, and end up reading it at a time when we’re ready to start a new chapter in our own personal healing experience.
I once heard the advice that things don’t happen to you, they happen for you. The person meant bad things—the election in fact—but I think this applies to good things as well. The universe gives you what you need, when you need it—not through some kind of destiny, but because humans are resourceful. We take what’s around us, and use it to get where we need to go. All About Love could be the vehicle that takes you where you need to go, or you could ride another book there. But I recommend this one.