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A Single Life Full of People

Briallen Hopper elevates the relationships American culture has overlooked and deflated.

Patricia Boyce/Getty

To love is no easy task. An abundance of literature and pop culture warns us of its trickiness, and often, personal experience emphasizes the point. We love, when people are disagreeable and obnoxious; when our feelings are unrequited; and when our affections are diminished, or worse, scorned as criminal. We love, when doing so drags us to the very edges of ourselves, leaving us ragged and wrung out like old cloth. Loving is hard, and perhaps what makes it hardest is its fundamental paradox: that it is also easy, so easy that we struggle to stop, even when we are desperate to do so, and even when it’s in our best interest.

Bloomsbury Publishing, 336 pp., $27.00

Throughout the course of her debut essay collection, Hard to Love, Briallen Hopper contemplates this thorny and capacious emotion from the position of someone whose love life defies traditional conceptions of the term: It is nourishing, brimming, but wholly untethered to sexual romance. These essays trace the specifically knotted, yet exuberant experience of living in the world as a single woman, whose intellectual passions both brought her into the fold of the Ivy League and then, for years, entangled her within academia’s particular variety of elite financial and professional precarity. She proudly wears the mantle of “spinster”—“It’s the spinsters who made me,” she proclaims—and ushers us, sometimes dreamily, other times with searing attention, into a personal narrative about her life amid a mutually supportive “found family” and intimate friends.

Although Hard to Love covers diverse territory, Hopper’s primary concern is to understand what it means to be a single woman who has built a life, predominantly, through close friendships with other women. Her history and milieu, we learn, is deeply feminine: She was raised among five siblings, four of them sisters, collectively the “formerly homeschooled children of religious hippies.” Although Hopper lovingly sustains these familial bonds, she moves from the Pacific Northwest, where she was raised, to the East Coast, in search of some distance from her snug but fraught home. After breaking up with her graduate school boyfriend, she stopped actively dating and began to seek out other possibilities for mutual care.

You could read Hard to Love as a tender missive to all the relationships American culture has overlooked and deflated. As Hopper contemplates the circumstances of her spinster life—among them fraught cohabitation, seeking out a sperm donor (see the incisive and metaphorically hilarious essay “Moby-Dick”), and assembling a care team for a friend with stage four cancer—she foregrounds a claim that ought to be obvious. Platonic love, and the arrangements that grow from it, are not lesser or more juvenile approximations of romantic love and marriage, nor are they stopovers on the journey toward matrimony. They do not belie failure or lack of fulfillment, and they are not the consolation prizes of a lonely someone making do with the best options available to her.

Hopper’s book is also an argument for a social shift. Friendship is a choice, one that is often adventurous in and of itself and should command the same privileges and respect as any other domestic arrangement. It is enough if we want it to be. By naming and advocating for her own rights as an uncoupled woman, Hopper calls for recognition for relationships that are not institutionally sanctioned. She is not interested in divesting married couples of their bevy of privileges, nor does she believe in diminishing these relationships as less precious or meaningful—after all, as a graduate of divinity school and a preacher, she officiates quite a few weddings. Rather, she envisions elevating all intimate bonds, including those between single people, and allotting protections and services to those who need them, rather than reserving them as benefits for those who possess the proper paperwork. No one is more entitled than others to a safeguarded life merely because of marital status.

Hopper’s book grew out of her widely-read 2015 essay “On Spinsters.” The piece presented her critique of Kate Bolick’s book Spinster, and, more importantly, a defense of the rich lives available to women who remain unpartnered. “I’m glad gay marriage is now legal,” she affirms, writing shortly after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision. “But as a spinster who craves connection and community above all and who has found it outside of the couple form, I’ve come to realize that I owe an immeasurable debt to the intersecting groups of people who have historically been barred from the privileges of marriage by law and demography and have learned to create intimate lives apart from it.”

Over the last century, the U.S. government has promoted marriage as a matter of policy. In the 1960s, the government touted marriage as a saving grace for impoverished black communities: the 1965 Moynihan report insisted on the link between economic precarity and single-parent homes. George W. Bush’s administration touted “the marriage cure,” funneling money into efforts encouraging marriage among impoverished communities to reduce their reliance on welfare. Abstinence-only sex education programs emphasize a view of marriage as the only viable romantic arrangement—and even those that are not so ideologically rigid tend to promote wedlock without acknowledging other potential relationships.

But creating incentives for wedlock does not miraculously make it a practical course of action for all relationships—it merely becomes another method of withholding legal rights from those who cannot or choose not to assimilate. If you don’t marry, you are not eligible for certain tax breaks, nor can you make medical decisions on a loved one’s behalf. If your partner dies, you are precluded from taking official bereavement leave. And if your partner isn’t an American citizen, you can’t guarantee they’ll always be able to live in the same country with you. With the legalization of gay marriage, Hopper notes, many queer couples sought out matrimony as a form of legal protection, not because it imbued their relationships with some previously unattainable gravitas. American society, through its imbrication of romance with legal empowerment, has made it hard to love on our own terms.

I recall, as Hopper does, reading Justice Kennedy’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and cringing at the rhetoric. He concludes, “It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage… Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.” It seemed flagrantly wrong-headed, not to mention acutely demeaning, to claim that unmarried people are by their nature “condemned.” To see the institution of marriage as essential to any partnered life perpetuates a false hierarchy in which unmarried persons, and their intimacies, are disregarded. “This arbitrary conflation of marriage with the commitments and responsibilities of adult life sometimes turns unmarried people into second-class citizens,” she writes, “while devaluing many necessary forms of love.”

So, Hopper introduces us, with utmost tenderness, to the necessary loves of her life. She describes in “Moby-Dick” how, overwhelmed by the dizzying prospect of selecting a sperm donor, she delegated the task to two trusted friends (although she maintained veto power). In “Dear Octopus,” she considers the long and spiny history she shares with her staunchly Christian brother, formerly a co-conspirator and partner in philosophical debate, from whom she has untangled herself because his stringent views are incompatible with her own. In the same essay, she looks at her relationships with her sisters—tight, somatic, and sometimes discordant bonds, so unlike the bonds of mutual encouragement and honest compassion she shares with friends as an adult.

These, according to one of Hopper’s sisters, are her “love circles,” a derisive name for what she considers “the uncritical and frictionless mode of conversation practiced by most of my friends.” Although Hopper plainly states that she cannot dwell among her family of origin, she resists comparing the level of their affection for her to that of her found families. Difficult love, the sort that, in the context of her siblings, Hopper describes as both “consoling and intolerable,” might demand more temperate frequencies; it might even send us reeling, battle scars sketched across our skin. Yet it is not necessarily less important than our more soothing relationships—and we might need it all the same.

For there are many ways to lean and to love, Hopper explains. We grow acquainted with her friend Ashley Makar, whom Hopper met at Yale Divinity School and who, over the years, has become a writerly collaborator and beloved friend. In “Young Adult Cancer Story,” Hopper chronicles the experience of reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars together with Ash and the other members of the “care team” that joined ranks as Ash underwent treatment for stage four esophageal cancer. Young adult literature, Hopper observes, is especially suited to assuage the anguish of an inexorably vigorous illness, one that threatens to whittle away at a body until it yields. “[What] young adult fiction can do when it works [is] open your veins or your tear ducts,” she writes, “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.” It is not curative, but as in the case of so much literature, it extends like a branch, graciously. It’s another place to lean.

And as we learn in “Coasting,” the responsibilities of caring for Ash, though welcome, were demanding, the anxieties strident and recurrent. In fact, Hopper notes that some were perplexed by her utter dedication to Ash. “A few years ago,” she writes, “when I was rearranging my life to care for [Ash], an acquaintance of ours took me to task, telling me that certain kinds of care should be provided only by romantic partners, not by friends.” But Hopper’s worldview does not give credence to these blueprints of romantic convention; she advocates for a life that does not lessen certain attachments in order to uphold the primacy of others. “He may have been trying to protect me,” she remarks of this acquaintance, “but in doing so he was enforcing a norm, and I didn’t see why my friend should be deprived of care and I should be protected from the hard parts of love just because both of us happened to be single.” On the contrary, we ought to love broadly and generously whenever we can, without parceling out our affections according to predetermined cultural rubrics.

Hard to Love’s greatest accomplishment is its insistence upon the equality of platonic and non-matrimonial arrangements, not merely because it urges us to recalibrate our perception of kinship—although this is important—but because it disputes the capitalist logic that the institution of marriage so often serves to buttress. Hopper harpoons the archaic, yet sticky notion that marriage is the gold-standard for mutual reliance, our “only socially sanctioned reprieve from the demand to self-rely.” Why, she asks, shouldn’t we care for a beloved individual who is connected to us not romantically but through friendship? We can grow too cozy in insularity, and can become blind to people around us who are in need.

It’s harder to love this way, to draw once more on Hopper’s title—and to argue against the many poems and movies and novels that bemoan its aches and tortures, love should not always be easy. It should sprawl, and it should nudge us further than we’d maybe prefer to go. We often cannot depend upon on our government and our mightiest institutions to safeguard citizens, and so we need spinster mentorship, and friends who double as cancer patient caretakers, and sperm donation selectors, and boisterous demonstrations outside the gates of the White House. Love must be willing, always willing, because it cannot be anything else.