On empathy.

On empathy.

Mark Salzman wrote a beautiful memoir about growing up as a nerdy, well-off, suburban white kid.  Lost in Place is charming, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who likes memoirs and to parents raising children in the suburbs.

Salzman loves to write, and he was lucky enough to make a career out of it.  But, as a well-off white male, he does not have the lived experience to know intimately every sort of character who might populate his books.  Even while writing Lost in Place, he was forced to imagine the experiences of an other – Salzman the adult was writing the book, but he was attempting to recreate the world of Salzman the child.  He was forced to empathize with the (occasionally foolish) thoughts and experiences of the youth he once was; I’d argue, based on the emotional impact of the book, that he succeeded.

The experiential distance between Salzman the adult author and Salzman the youthful protagonist is probably much smaller than the distance between, say, Salzman and an epileptic female nun, or the distance between Salzman and a troubled Latino teen.

Salzman’s Lying Awake, a book about faith and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to maintain it, includes both such characters.  But when he sent a first draft to his editor, she was less than thrilled.  In Salzman’s words (from his memoir True Notebooks):

Carlos was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness.  Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor.  She thought he needed a personality.  And “please please please,” she urged in one of her notes, “give him a different name.”

Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured [my friend] Duane, [who writes for the Los Angeles Times,] must have had to write about them at some point.  I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research.  He thought about it, then answered, “Not really.”

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week.  I teach a writing class there.  If you’d like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”

Salzman knew that he was too ignorant to properly empathize with the perceptions of his character, and so he opened himself to the world in order to learn more.  He visited the juvenile detention center.  Soon, he began to teach his own writing class there.  He became friends with several students; hoping to provide moral support, he attended every court date of a young black male who’d shot and killed another kid during a violent altercation in a movie theater.

All writing draws upon empathy.  Even to create nonfiction, a writer must empathize with the reader, puzzling out which words will best allow others to understand whatever it is that the writer hopes to convey.  And with fiction, unless we expect authors to populate each and every novel with clones of themselves, a writer must ponder the ways that a character – and people similar to that character – would perceive the world.

And then, after learning to empathize with characters, a writer must find ways to share that growth.  When it’s done well, understanding spills from the page, which is presumably why reading literary fiction has been experimentally shown to increase empathy.

The world benefits, for example, when the neurodiverse among us write about their lives, giving us firsthand insight into their experience of the world.  But we as a people also benefit when people without autism are allowed, or even encouraged, to consider what the world feels like for others

Imagining what it would be like to inhabit the hearts and minds of others compels us to fight injustice; without these experiences of empathy, we might be complacent to focus only on our own circumstances.

Obviously, there are times when a apparent attempts at empathy fall short.

But there’s a difference between recognizing that some artists don’t empathize enough, and the idea that artists shouldn’t attempt to empathize with others at all.  In the New York Times editorial “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” author Kenan Malik writes that:

In 1955, Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin.  Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality.  It was from those photos that Ms. Schutz began her painting.

To suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam.  In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”

Image by LA2 on Wikimedia Commons.

In order to convincingly include a troubled youth in his novel, Mark Salzman immersed himself in several young people’s lives.  He allowed his heart to grow.  And he, as a person, was changed.  When he first began teaching, he saw those kids as the sort of bullies who’d harassed him when he was growing up.  After a few years, he saw them as friends, many (if not all) of whom had been forced to endure more trauma as children than other people weather in a lifetime.

They weren’t monsters, they were people.  And he found a way to write about them such that readers, too, would recognize their shared humanity.

And perhaps, perhaps, feel outraged enough by his characters’ circumstances that readers, too, would work toward changing the world.  Because the world is clearly in need of change.  And empathy is the only force powerful enough to compel us to do it.

Header image from a letter sent to me by a former student, as featured in the essay “Asymmetry and the Hatred of Poetry.