Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life

Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life

by bell hooks

San Francisco Chronicle best-seller.

Wounds of Passion is a memoir about writing, love, and sexuality. With her customary boldness and insight, Bell Hooks critically reflects on the impact of birth control and the women's movement on our lives. Resisting the notion that love and writing don't mix, she begins a fifteen-year relationship with a gifted poet and


San Francisco Chronicle best-seller.

Wounds of Passion is a memoir about writing, love, and sexuality. With her customary boldness and insight, Bell Hooks critically reflects on the impact of birth control and the women's movement on our lives. Resisting the notion that love and writing don't mix, she begins a fifteen-year relationship with a gifted poet and scholar, who inspires and encourages her. Writing the acclaimed book Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism at the age of nineteen, she begins to emerge as a brilliant social critic and public intellectual. Wounds of Passion describes a woman's struggle to devote herself to writing, sharing the difficulties, the triumphs, the pleasures, and the dangers. Eloquent and powerful, this book lets us see the ways one woman writer works to find her own voice while creating a love relationship based on feminist thinking. With courage and wisdom she reveals intimate details and provocative ideas, offering an illuminating vision of a writer's life.

bell hooks is the author of several books, including Killing Rage, Bone Black, and Wounds of Passion. She is Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York and lives in New York City.

Wounds of Passion is a memoir about writing, love, and sexuality. With her customary boldness and insight, bell hooks critically reflects on the foundations of her writing life—the triumphs she enjoyed, the suffering she endured, the pleasures she experienced, the setbacks she overcame, and the dangers she faced.

Writing the acclaimed book Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism at the age of nineteen, hooks emerged earlyas a brilliant social critic and public intellectual. Wounds of Passion describes her subsequent struggle to devote herself to a life of writing. Eloquent and powerful, this book shows how one woman writer works to find her own voice while creating relationships based on feminist thinking.

With ample courage and wisdom, hooks reveals intimate details and provocative ideas, offering an illuminating vision of a writer's life.

"I love this book. Each offering from bell hooks is a major event, as she has so much to give us."—Dr. Maya Angelou

"A carefully rendered portrait of difficult love."—Time Out New York

"Wounds of Passion is bell hook's brave memoir of struggling to find her own work, love, and independence."—Gloria Steinem

"Wounds of Passion wraps us in a bountiful blanket of finely textured, artfully woven memories that surround our hearts, warm our souls, and comfort our minds."—Julia A. Boyd, author of In the Company of My Sisters

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a consistently fresh and bravely honest voice, hooks relates her early development as a feminist writer and scholar and examines the struggle to practice in her private life what she supports in theory. On the more personal level, the book centers on her liaison with a man seven years her senior named Mack, whom she credits with encouraging her to write and publish her first book, Ain't I a Woman. With remarkable evenhandedness she examines the 15-year-long life and then death of their relationship, experiences that are testament to the power of the past: even as she leaves Mack, she laments, "Inside me I am still the country girl who never goes anywhere." But hooks traces other influences on her early intellectual and literary development, and particularly her shock at discovering that while gender and class were considered to be important elements in academia, race was virtually ignored. The present-tense, first-person narrative is occasionally interrupted by italicized passages in the third person. These shifts are initially jarring, but their purpose soon becomes clear: they relate painful information. Perhaps that detachment is what allows hooks to cover difficult memories without a trace of bitterness. Hooks straddles two worlds admirably, writing with great insight about both academia and the world beyond. But her greatest achievement here is the open-ended question of whether it is possible to live what we believe. "No one really says how it will be. When we try to leave behind all the limits of race and gender and class, to transcend them, to get to the heart of the matter."
Library Journal
In this sequel to Bone Black (LJ 9/15/96), hooks (English, CUNY) reveals her passion for poetry, feminism, and the man with whom she spent 15 bittersweet years of her life. She returns to her painful childhood, to the oppressive South, to her abusive father, and then moves on to a relationship with someone who shares her intense desire for writing and sexual enjoyment. She continues her quest for love and acceptance, finding some semblance of peace and stability with this constant companion, but whom she eventually leaves. As in her previous book, hooks moves from first to third person, allowing the reader to eavesdrop on her innermost thoughts, hear of her bisexuality, and witness her fling with white men. An exceptionally written memoir; strongly recommended for poetry aficionados and feminist collections. --Ann Burns, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
In her 15th book, hooks continues the memoir she began in Bone Black (1996). The little southern black girl who dreamed of being a writer from the age of ten is now a young woman entering Stanford University, away from home, from the South and Jim Crow laws, for the first time in her life. At 19 she takes a lover, Mack, an older black intellectual and poet, and begins work on the book that, 11 years later, would be her first published work, Ain't I a Woman? The relationship with Mack is at the center of this book, which is otherwise a review of all of hooks's usual concerns—race, gender, sexuality and desire, money and its uses and abuses, aesthetics, poetry. Her affair with Mack is turbulent, with an occasional undercurrent of violence that hearkens back to the relationship between her mother and father delineated in the previous book. hooks eschews conventional chronological structure to tell the story of her young adulthood and coming of age as a writer. Instead, she repeatedly moves back and forth in time, in chapters that are often organized thematically, shifting from third-person reflections on her young self to first-person recollections that move uneasily between past and present tenses. The result is an ungainly and repetitive hodgepodge of tones that's most effective when it's most conventional. At its best, the book contains flashes of insight that serve as a vivid reminder of how astute and downright brilliant a social critic and thinker the author is (as in a passing observation about the corrosive effects of "quiet drinking" in a family). But too much of this volume is either self-congratulatory gush (no author should write about how "daring anddifficult" the book at hand is), or painfully misjudged efforts at poetic effect. Only a writer as good and determinedly idiosyncratic as hooks could have produced a book as misguided as this.

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt


Not everyone goes to poetry readings to find love. She did. Growing up, poetry had been the sanctuary, that space in words where longing could be spoken. Nobody in her world understood. Poems came in another language. Nobody could find or hurt you there. She spent many a night sitting in a freezing kitchen before a plate of cold food held together by congealed fat reciting softly to herself sweet words--Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth. Poems were the way to leave pain behind--to forget. They were a kind of suicide, a death. Her real self could drown in them. They were water to her thirst, cooling the burning sensation, soothing the red welts on her skin left by lashes from fresh young branches still green. Poetry made childhood bearable.

We had not been sleeping together for weeks. He leaves our bed and sleeps in my study. I lie awake in the night, the smell of another man's sweat on my body--the scent of memory. I want to tell you what my life with him was like. I want there to be a witness. I want to begin my story here in this place of lack--this place where I am seeking the fulfillment of desire--elsewhere in another man's house--an island man who smells of strong drink, smoke, and sweet cologne, a man who tastes of sand and water. Ocean is our meeting place, our watery bed, the breaking point. We meet at the water, lie together sprawled on huge wet rocks. Everywhere there is an open place we seek one another. We fuck where the waves come strong enough to carry us away, to carry us into infinity. We are too full of longing to remember death as danger. Death is desire--the place where there is no time, no present, no past. Our need for danger is no secret. Everywhere there is an open place we seek one another. I come home late at night refusing to say where I have been, refusing his touch, not wanting to go near enough to him for fear he will smell me and know that I am leaving him forever.

The intersection of poetry and punishment, a mind/body split, dominated her childhood. In every way her body was the enemy. Food did not interest her. She was too thin. She was desperate to erase all possibility of growing to be a woman. Her dream was to be a poet. Her earliest understanding of what that might mean all came from Emily Dickinson, her secret mentor and friend. She too was writing letters to the world, dreaming in isolation, reading and writing poems, trying to forget her body, trying to leave it behind.

* * *

The night before I leave he enters me. He helps me fold clothes, pack the car. He helps me the way we have always helped each other. This is what we believe in only it is not keeping us together. I lie beside him, sensing a stranger in our bed--a stranger entering me, taking me in the night to a secret place--a cave in the mountains where we will live forever. This stranger kidnaps me, captures my heart. He enters me, takes me to this place of no return, a secret place. We call it the heartbreak church. This is where I am left standing in the gap, abandoned at the altar. My gift from god abandons me, leaves me stranded at the heartbreak church, with no way to come home.

Morning comes and I drive away. Inside me I am still the country girl who never goes anywhere, the girl who will never be a woman--a girl who knows that to become woman is to leave the space of power. I go on without you. I go on without you--play the tape over and over again in my head. The song says But tell me how can I forget you when there is always something there to remind me. I am a woman leaving behind the man I have lived with for more than twelve years--a man who has lied, cheated, and hurt, a man who has fucked with my soul, ravished me.

I leave on a sunny day--the sky that strange particular California shade of bright blue--light piercing blue--a sky that like air in intense biting cold takes my breath away. Just as I am about to leave he hands me a mango--says "When you reach wherever you are going eat this mango and think of me--remember our life together." I don't forget the taste of that mango. Its juices linger like sweat dripping from the body of a man I have always loved and have to leave behind--a man who fucks me in a fever, who wets me with desire through and through--a man who in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost takes me in the heartbreak church. He holds me underwater. The choir sings "Who's that yonder dressed in white" and the preacher's voice shatters the dark stillness with light--speaks in hushed tones "I baptize this my sister in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost." The taste of mango on my tongue. Wet rocks pierce my flesh. I am standing in the gap--covered in the blood of the lamb. The gift he gave me to remember him by--the taste of mango on my tongue like raw flesh.

She was nineteen when she met him. They met at a Gary Snyder poetry reading. She was wearing a bright pink dress over blue jeans. Coming straight from her job at the local day care she smelled of wiping the bottoms of two-year-olds, with chocolate stains and bits of candy sticking to her hair. She smelled of underarm odor and earth. She was in love with two-year-olds--ten of them to be exact--her class. She had read all of Gary Snyder's poems. He had led her to Buddhism--to Zen. This scrawny looking white man with skin like rawhide and a voice like twine made her think of chewing tobacco, of the loosening floor, of the braided leaves twisted by her grandmother's hands, of tobacco stains, of her brown skin--of home. To her this mountain poet was someone familiar--plain--and able to speak his mind. He could easily have come from the hills of her childhood. When everyone gathered around, she was too tired to speak, too worried that everyone was smelling her funk--the sweat--the earth--the scent of a long hard working day.

Being a child of god, I naturally believed no man would ever taste my flesh. My body was god's place, the fountain where the divine alone would drink, the temple only the divine would enter. I will not have sex but I will have poetry. I will not have sex but I will have words that make me wet--that enter me, that like hands searching the secret places deep inside a woman's pussy will take me to higher ground. Words do this to me. I am young. My flesh is still raw. My body virginal. They mark my flesh with switches, cut fresh from the branches of old trees. The freshly cut green stings my flesh, leaves marks--the imprint of roots and branches.

Mama's mother uses a strap of black leather with holes made from hammering nails in a neat row. The strap leaves its imprint on the flesh--tells a story I cannot hide. I confess at the heartbreak church. I tell all in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost. Confession One: When whipped as a little girl shut away in a dark room, I calm myself with words. I learn poems and say them over and over again. I learn to enter these words as though they are flesh, a body of burning desire that can take me higher--take me through the pain and beyond.


When you are a kid you ask yourself the big questions about love. When you see somebody with a scar across their face and hear grown folks snicker and say It was that if-I-can't-have-you-nobody-will kinda love. I was always deeply puzzled: How could you really love someone and hurt them. Or what about First Corinthians and all that poetic way of telling us love is kind and gentle. Nobody says anything about love that can lead to hurt.

As a teenager, she watched as girls at school would fight over a boy. She liked boys. And she liked other girls' boyfriends but not enough to be fightin' over them. In her house fightin' was not allowed. No one fought, punishments were allowed and they were meted out with great drama and show of force but fighting--never. That's why when her folks finally had one of them knock down drag out, shoot out at the OK Corral kinda fights, it rocked her world and broke her heart.

The fight started on a summer night. It was hot and her mama was on the porch. They were sitting in the living room watching television, when suddenly she could hear the angry voice of their father, yelling at their mother. They had never heard him yell at her--at them, but never her. And when he raised his voice at them it was never for long. But this time he was talking to their mama and she came running into the house with him close behind yelling and hitting. It was like they--the children--were forgotten. And this grown-up bedroom drama was taking place as though there were no witnesses, as though this man and this wife were all alone. Only they were not alone. The children heard the accusations; he was confronting her about sleeping with another man. And as he yelled, and hit, he kept screaming I will kill you. It was not the yelling, not even the hitting that hurt them, it was the pleading voice of their mama telling him that she did not know what he was talking about, it was the sound of her crying. They had never seen her crying. It was this sound that momentarily broke their hearts. And as with all things she seemed to take it harder than everybody else.

That night it was as though she and mama were one. Every hurt she suffered wounded me. When she wiped away the small trickle of bright red blood from her cheek, I searched for a tissue. When her heart broke, I felt mine was breaking. Only unlike her I could not cry, I felt one of us had to be strong. Everybody else had left the room. Even in the midst of her pain, mama remembered her children. She asked him if we could be sent to bed, that it was past our bedtime. And momentarily her voice was just free of all that was happening. Suddenly he remembered us. And turned his rage our way screaming at us to get our asses upstairs.

Let us not forget I am child of the backwoods, of wilderness, and renegade horses running free. I am already becoming a woman of my word. I know the meaning of loyalty. I know to follow my heart. I have to stay with my mother--to be her witness, to stand by her side, and if necessary to die for her. I stay. And not even the intensity of his rage can move me. Not even when he stops for a minute his persecution of her to say in that hating voice: Do you want some of this. I told you to get your ass upstairs. I was already somewhere else. In a world of the backwoods where the law of the father had no meaning and no power. I would not even look his way. When mama pleaded with me, in her best sugar and honey babycake voice to go upstairs, telling me everything would be all right, I was willing to walk away. Yet I found a place on the stairs in the shadows where I could see and hear and come to her if she needed me.

That was the night when he made her pack her belongings, every little precious thing, and leave. He kept telling her he was not gonna have it--she was gonna have to leave his house before he killed her. He went to the other room looking for his gun, for one of his guns. And her mama called her brother, the uncle we all loved best, to come for her. As she packed, his rage entered that space of terrifying stillness. The silence was broken only by her weeping.

I hated daddy that night. He forced me to make a choice. He forced me to choose between life and death, between him and mama. I knew I would have tried my best to slaughter him had he not left her alone. Of course that would not have been a wise action. It would be a wild gesture of heart-wrenching anguish. But I knew that there was only one life in that room that I felt like saving--not my life or his life, but the life of this woman, our mother, his wife who had been the one to sacrifice always for us. I knew we should lay our all on the altar of sacrifice and let her know that in the loneliness of this summer night, when her heart has just been broken, and the lights in her eyes are going out forever, at least she will know love. If she dies on this summer night she will know that no wrong, no transgression, whether real or imagined--nothing could ever change that love.

When all her precious little things were loaded in the car, he stood like a guard at the door waiting as she passed. Before she crossed the threshold to leave, he told her to take me with her. And mama still sacrificing gave me a choice to stay or go, letting me know it was all right if I wanted to stay, that everything would be all right. I left with her. Later in the dark at my grandmother's house, later after mama had cried in the arms of her mother, had been comforted by her sisters, I finally fell asleep and dreamed. In my dream I reached inside my body and touched my heart and it was all shattered. When I pulled out my hand all the tiny cuts were bleeding. All I could do was watch my body bleed to death.

Later when they went back home, there was some talk about that night but it was soon forgotten. Mama assured the other children, her sisters and brother they had done the right thing by following orders. She, the crazy one, had behaved foolishly. And worse, mama assured them, she was hard-hearted because she would not forgive and forget.

I wanted to forget. I wanted to pretend that that night had never happened, yet my dreams were always returning me there. Sometimes in the dreams daddy was killing her and I was watching. Sometimes in the dreams he was killing me and she was watching. Sometimes in the dreams I was killing him. It was hard for me to believe that they could think I would not want to forget. I could not forget even though I wanted to, even though I tried. My dreams would not let me forget.

That night changed her forever, changed everything about her capacity to trust in the universe. Her bond with the world of the everyday and the concrete was already a tenuous bond. On this night it snapped. Nothing could ever be the same. She could never trust that everything would not fall apart--it was then that she decided it was better not to try to hold on to things, just to let them go. Somehow in her child mind she linked grasping, trying to hold on, to her world shattering. After that night, and in the wake of that night, there was no room in her heart for jealousy or possession. She wanted no part of a world where hearts could be broken, and bodies could fall in the name of love. She had been a witness. And this she knew--on that night when hearts were broken, when lives were momentarily shattered, there was no love, save the love she gave but could not see. She was the only witness. And she did not see any glimpse of love's face.

I know that there is a way to love that frees. I know that there is a way to love that gives life. I know this even though I have not witnessed such love.

When we talk about living together, I try to explain things the way I see them. I try to tell my lover that there is a way to love that opens doors and doesn't close them, that I want to love him in a way that lets him follow where his heart leads. I assure him I will follow my heart, but never in a way that violates the trust between us. The trust is not that we will always be monogamous but that we will always be faithful to the bonds of love between us, that we will protect and cherish those bonds.

All she saw and suffered in her girlhood made her think these weird thoughts about free love and listening to your heart. Even as a girl she had seen the way the perversion of love could mutilate and destroy. It was to resist the onslaught of this destruction in her life and the lives of others that led her to think philosophically about love, to see the difference between love and power. To possess someone is to want to have power over them. It is antithetical to a love that need not coerce or bind. She was wholeheartedly convinced that if two people were open and honest with each other, committed, that their love would empower them to be just and caring under any circumstance.

I knew that he did not think about love the way I did. Still I believed I could convince him that it was important to let jealousy and other such nonsense go--to have faith in each other no matter the circumstance. After much persuasion, he agrees with me that we should have an "open" relationship. If our hearts are truly open to love we can't act as though we can control love's body.

To her a commitment to non-monogamy was not about a license to fuck around. It was a principled recognition that desire to be in the company, and yes, even in the arms of someone else, was not a negation of their bonds. Starting from love, the issue then was not whether or not to act on desire for someone else but first and foremost the meaning of that desire in relationship to one's primary bond. Would acting on that desire diminish the primary bond. Would it enhance the individual's growth and therefore impact positively on this bond or would it lead to trouble and conflict. She was concerned with ethics and the meaning of love. While he could believe that she could accept him fucking other women (after all she was so strange in her ways), he was not sure how he would feel if she was with someone else. Both of them believed in the importance of individual autonomy. Her vision of their love was one of mutuality and partnership. Although he tried, he never really shared that vision. From the beginning in his heart he believed it would never work. He believed there was no such thing as "free love," everything had its price.

Meet the Author

bell hooks is the author of several books, including Killing Rage, Bone Black, and Wounds of Passion. She is Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York and lives in New York City.

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