This book kinda sorta unexpectedly rocked my world. It has such an innocent title. Gah! I had never before read bell hooks. Her name hung around the edges of my consciousness as someone I need to read. I will certainly be reading a lot more of her now. Her writing is so unassuming and seemingly simple, it comes up on you from behind and grabs you by your secrets. I was left many nights with a lump in my throat trying to digest the emotion her words had evoked in me the previous day.
Reading Communion, I felt heard in places I had never been heard and seen in ways I had never been seen. In this book, hooks exposes shadows I have encountered and struggled with, alone. Those shadowy places were difficult to articulate. It was also hard to find an ear to listen and someone to talk it out with. So much guardedness has built up around feminism and feminist thought and between feminists themselves, therefore— between friends. It has become difficult to speak our truths to and with one another without one feeling misunderstood and the other feeling attacked. But bell hooks does it in this book and she does so with compassion, radical self-exposure and an openness that finally brings the conversation forward. Bless her.
Communion is really a book about how women feel unloved, how we still feel and believe on a deep level that we have to earn love by looking, acting or fucking a certain way. This leaves women confused, disappointed and yearning for something that seems unattainable—truly loving relationships.
“Socialized in the false assumption that we will find love in the place where femaleness is deemed unworthy and consistently devalued, we learn early to pretend that love matters more than anything, when in actuality we know that what matters most, even in the wake of feminist movement, is patriarchal approval. From birth on, most females live in fear that we will be abandoned, that if we step outside the approved circle, we will not be loved”(Communion xv).
But the book doesn’t stop there. On no. It also takes on the fact that women have believed the lie that we are the more loving gender. We have believed this to the degree that we have not been able to hold each other or ourselves accountable when we are actually and often less than loving. In some ways understanding that we are no more loving than any other gender is freeing —(Ugh. Thank you! To not have to always appear loving and nurturing. Yay.)—but on another level it’s damning because it forces us to own our culpability around abuse and also asks us to check our own capacities for cruelty. Ouch. I think it is absolutely time for that.
“When females are taught to believe we are more capable of giving love than our male counterparts, we are embracing patriarchal assumptions. Those assumptions shape the way we think and act in intimate relationships…the tragic irony here is that patriarchal thinking has socialized males to believe that their manhood is affirmed when they are emotionally withholding”(Communion 97).
Each chapter of Communion builds on the previous one, therefore, each chapter needs to be ruminated upon and fully digested before moving on to the next. It requires radical self-confrontation to read this book. But do take the time to read this book and allow yourself to have your own responses. What you are getting here are mine.
Learning to love ourselves
Communion is ultimately about self-love and all the ways we are not loving ourselves and then—the heartbreak—all the reasons why we are not loving ourselves. Some we, as a collective, know so well but can’t seem to break out of, others hurt so bad to look at, exposing how we are not liberated, not at all. Humans of all genders need to make the move to learn how to love ourselves and each other. And to take that very seriously.
To stop trading love for approval, or money, or security. But to do that we must all be free.
“If feminists had continued to talk about love, then we would have needed to speak about the extreme lovelessness that is at the heart of domination. We would not have been able to go forward with our newly acquired equal rights, jobs, money, and power without telling everyone that we had discovered that patriarchy, like any colonizing system, does not create the context for women and men to love one another. We would have needed to remind everyone repeatedly that genuine love between females and males could emerge only in a context where the sexes would come together to challenge and change patriarchal thought. To continue to speak of love, we would have had to break through the wall of denial that seduces us all to accept subordination and domination as natural facts of everyday life”(Communion 71).
Part of the problem seems to be that we liberated women INTO the white supremacist patriarchy. So it’s a half done job.We cannot be free while still living in the white supremacist patriarchy and there are some hard sticking points we must deal with: The economy of women, the politics of the bedroom, a persistent lack of sisterhood, the persistence of racism and letting go of the belief that one gender is better at loving and nurturing. hooks notes that women grabbed onto that myth even while abandoning others because there was so little value attributed to the female gender outside of that. It was often the only thing people identified as female could grasp at for self-validation and affirmation. So we grabbed to it as a badge of honor and weapon to use against the other. But it was to our peril. And we need to change that now. We all need to learn how to love.
“The insistence that there is a naturally biologically based world of sex differences is at the heart of patriarchal thinking. Liberal women and men cannot embrace this thinking and perpetuate it without maintaining an allegiance to patriarchy.
Antipatriarchal thinking acknowledges the reality of biological differences between genders but recognizes that cultural conditioning has shown itself to be stronger than anatomy—and that anatomy is not destiny. Most feminist thinkers would agree that an individual female is more likely to be socialized to be a nurturer than is her male counterpart”(Communion 83).
hooks begins the chapter titled “choosing and learning love” with this:
“Before I reached the age of forty, I never even considered that my relationships did not last because I did not know enough about love….it never occurred to me to interrogate myself about whether I had been loving” (Communion 90).
She describes how once single and older, she was able to untangle and deconstruct her patterns, beliefs and choices around what she believed love to be. She realizes she may have chosen men who were afraid of intimacy in order to “get out of” being loving because she had internalized the belief that being loving meant giving away parts of herself. In order to not do this, she chose (unconsciously) partners who would not demand closeness and therefore, let her do what she wanted to do. At the same time she was denying herself love.
The equation she held in her mind and believed was either love or the life she wanted, the work she wanted, the psychic and even physical space she wanted. This is important. Many of our actions, though we may think they are authentic, are actually coping mechanisms or maladjusted notions based on what we have witnessed and what have been our lived experiences in the patriarchy. We, men, women, non-binary, hetero, gay, queer, white, black, brown and more, would be well served to examine our behaviors and make sure they are indeed authentic to us and not just responses, reactions and coping mechanisms to the trauma of patriarchy.
How we love and are we loving is one place that has been overlooked by many people identified as female.
“Positioned to be primary caregivers, women are often arrogant when it comes to matters of the heart. Believing the mystification of our sexist social conditioning, which encourages us to assume we know how to love—as though desire and action were one and the same—we may suffer countless relational failures before we begin to think critically about the nature of love”(Communion 95).
I really had to take a long, hard look at myself with regard to this issue as I was reading this book. And I am doing it again while writing this piece. I notice that now, having had time and distance I feel less vulnerable when I admit to myself that I am often less than loving, that I often retract from relationships because I feel pieces of myself will be syphoned off by them, or need to be in order to be considered truly loving and remain in the relationship. Often the bargain is too big. I refuse. My work will be primary. Do I need to compromise myself, my dreams, my ambitions to be in relationship or can I find relationships where I can bring all of myself?
Or, can I admit that my husband is often kinder and more accepting of me than I am of him? And when I do, can I allow that to be ok? Does that free me in some way? If so then I don’t have to hide from that truth. I always knew it or suspected it but I would not let myself admit it because it made me feel deficient in some way. But why? Why can’t he be more loving than me? That it is simply the truth and I can be thankful I found him. Maybe I don’t have to try to prove myself to be more loving than I am. Maybe I am enough?
Can I try to be more truthful with my women friends, all the time? To break the pattern of not telling the truth in order to be loved?
As stated previously, on having a bit of distance between reading and writing about this book, I notice there is less vulnerability within me when I ask myself these questions and more courage and desire to confront these issues. There is hope and bravery where there was previously a small quivering fear. But on the initial read, there were lots of times where I could barely breathe for what was being called out within me by this book and bell hooks.
And that is only the tip of the iceberg. Brace yourself!
But I reiterate: What we all need to do first is learn to love ourselves. It makes me sad every time I write that because I feel the deficiency of it. And I feel so sad for all of us. Why are we buying this load of crap that we are somehow fundamentally unlovable? I was once told that this is done so that marketers can sell us things. Make them feel unlovable and then sell them things that will make them feel lovable. Oh gawd. I tend to believe this began long before marketing, but I do believe marketing capitalizes on it. Why not? It’s a freaking bonanza. As bell hooks points out, creating a reality where most of us feel unlovable and unloved came with domination, the need for subservience, the need for slaves and servants, the need for control and dehumanization.
bell hooks is a teacher, mentor, literary critic, feminist scholar, activist, leader, visionary and author of twenty-one books. Her given name is Gloria Watkins. Born in Kentucky in 1952, she has a B.A. from Stanford University, an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D from UC Santa Cruz. She currently lives in New York City.
In 2014, she founded the bell hooks institute whose mission is to “promote the cause of ending domination through understanding the ways systems of exploitation and oppression intersect through critical thinking, teaching, events, and conversation”(http://www.bellhooksinstitute.com/#/aboutthebhi).
May it be so.
bell hooks is a #NastyWomanWriter
©Theresa C. Dintino 2021
bell hooks institute, bellhooksinstitute.com
hooks, bell: Communion: the female search for love. HarperCollins Publishers, 2002.