To be saved by bell hooks
In this personal essay, the author reflects on how bell hooks' book "All About Love" transformed their perspective on love and healed their fear of heartbreak
It’s 1pm on a Sunday in the suburbs of Chennai, and I’m at home, nestled within the sounds that mid-afternoon brings with it: warbling parakeets in search of a place to rest, whizzing rice cookers, and casual neighborhood balcony chatter. Heartbreak couldn’t possibly exist in a place like this. But, of course, it does. I swallowed grief like it was my salvation, like staying broken-hearted was the only way to know myself. I stayed safe by being perceived as unlovable. This romantic asceticism was how I earned my goodness, my right to take up space in the world. I always thought I had no choice but to let this heaviness cut right through my life.
bell hooks wrote and cared deeply about life and about love. In the foreword to All About Love: New Visions, she addresses someone called Anthony: “the first love letter i ever wrote was sent to you. just as this book was written to talk to you. anthony - you have been my most intimate listener. i will love you always.”
If someone asks me how I know when I’m in love, I would say that I’d know if everything I said out loud into the world, all that I wrote was an attempt to be heard by them, which is, in some sense, what hooks mirrors in her note to Anthony. Even before I got to the part of her book where hooks breaks down her theories on loving and caring, this note to Anthony was all I needed. At that moment, I had to sit and listen to her, let her words envelope me as I cried on her shoulder, and continue to let her save me each time I was in need of saving.
I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment when I started thinking about love as a weakness, and heartbreak as an embarrassment. I’m certain it was a process of slow resocialization. bell hooks’ theory on resocialization was that patriarchy fools one into craving the so-called “upper hand” in human relationships, and hence, the search for this domination overrules any fundamentals of caring and loving. This search manifested itself in so many forms: I suddenly began to struggle with telling people closest to me that I loved them; I would it difficult to ask for help and care; I couldn’t bring myself to even contemplate expressing romantic interest towards anyone. All of this, because I began to think of loving and being loved as a weakness, and as something that would come back and hurt me in the future. And so, I stopped writing, reading and even talking about love for a good while.
As I read the book, I realized that hooks was telling me what I always knew but needed to be reminded of: It is clear the work one does, the work that any of us do, must be rooted in community and care or it is more likely to be harmful than helpful. For the world as a whole, bell hooks was less a friend and more a revelatory sensation. For me, and I suspect a lot of others too, she led the individual to introspect on their habits of loving and being loved within the larger scope of the patriarchy we inhabit. Considering love unnecessary was harmful, not just to my own growth and well-being, but also to the networks I am a part of.
The love ethic is an idea that bell hooks refers to as she introduces a school of thought which considers loving and caring as concepts that hinge closely on interpersonal ethics. The nature of this theorisation is such that fixing any status quo requires a complete, cultural embrace of love as an ethic, rather than just a practice. hooks essentially asks you, me, and everybody else reading her work to have faith in love and its magic, not only in an individual capacity, but also collectively, in our relationships with others, and to move past our fears and trust that ultimately, love will save us.
Today, September 25th, is bell hooks’ birthday. I often wonder what she’d have said about me, the people I’ve loved, and the decisions I’ve made. I grew up in a household that moulded me to unapologetically display a desire to be loved, even in the face of inscrutability. Everything I grew up knowing about love, I know from my parents, and the ways in which they love me and each other. Although many of the lessons I learnt during childhood have been undone is some ways as I grew older, I still derive a sense of hope and possibility from them.
I associated shame with simply feeling too many things, and I fooled myself into thinking I’d be a burden if I chose to be emotional. I hated my inability to be rational, like I believed a man would be if he were in my place. I drowned in the humiliation of everyone else knowing that all of this stemmed from hurt and heartbreak — that they’d look at me and think, “Oh, she can’t function without love. She needs this to survive.” But who doesn’t? All of hooks’ work on love shows that asking for love, or expecting it is not wrong, and is, in fact, a prerequisite to our collective survival. I say bell hooks saved me, but what I really mean is that she transformed me — she holds my fears in her palms, and gives me kindness through her gentle words even a year-and-a-half after her passing.
Rega Jha, who considers herself a reader of bell hooks first, and a writer second, wrote that “Redemption is earned by finding the right words and ordering them correctly.” This essay is an attempt to find the right words, and an ode to bell hooks, but it is also a striving at redemption: for the version of me right now taking all the love I can get, and for the one that needed to hear that love isn’t a weakness.
Neeraja Srinivasan is a student of Literature and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. She enjoys good books and comfort food.