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.

On reading Natalie Diaz’s “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs” with a room full of men in jail for drugs.

On reading Natalie Diaz’s “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs” with a room full of men in jail for drugs.

It seemed like our class would bomb last week.  The jail has been over capacity for months, so the blocks are being shuffled around.  Many of the guards seem stressed.  As do the inmates.  And so, although nine people came to class, six ensconced themselves at the far end of the table and wanted to talk amongst themselves.  Only three sat close, intending to discuss poetry with me.

aztecBut I’d brought excerpts from Natalie Diaz’s excellent collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec. I read her long, brutal poem “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs.”  Everyone was rapt.

Wait for him in the living room

of your parents’ home-turned-misery-museum.

ten, twenty, forty dismantled phones dissected

on the dining table: glinting snarls of copper,

sheets of numbered buttons, small magnets

Your parents’ home will look like an al-Qaeda

yard sale. It will look like a bomb factory,

which might give you hope, if there were

such a thing. You are not so lucky –

there is no fuse here for you to find.

The guys laughed in recognition.  These lines come early in the poem, before the swerve to darkest hurt.

One guy told me that, if you needed to keep a friend safely occupied after he’d had too much meth, “best thing to do, tell him, hey, can you fix this radio for me?  There’s one piece in there that’s broken, but I’m not quite sure which one.

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Image by Clio CJS on Flickr.

“Aw, man,” said a dude who’s been studying the programming language Python during his time inside, “at my gramma’s place, there must be, like, eight dismantled computers I was working on.”

The programmer said it was getting harder and harder to keep clean each time he got out.  “Because it’s showing up everywhere, now.  It used to be, you could stay away from all that by just hanging with different people.  But now, like, middle class people, crowds that used to be all pot and psychedelics, now you go over, they’ve got meth, or they’ve got H … ”

I shook my head.

A man who wrote a jarring poem about the nightmare of his kid shaking him awake after an overdose (“I hear the sound of his little feet running / down the hall, I look to make sure the door / is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear / his joy as he yells, I’m superman. / I do the shot”) agreed.  They could keep sober if the stuff wasn’t there, he said.

“Last time I got out, I’d been three years clean.  I didn’t want it!  Wasn’t even thinking about it.  But I’d made it two blocks, and right there in the Taco Bell parking lot, somebody handed me a loaded rig and said, like, hey, dude, wanna hit this?”

(“I was so terrified of being like my stepdad,” this guy told me once. “He beat me all the time.  But all I managed … I mean … it’s like, I just turned into my real dad.  Never there.”)

“Taco bell … ” I said.

“It’s like right there,” he said, pointing.  Indeed, I walk past that place each week on my way in.

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Jail (gray building, far left) and Taco Bell.

“But it’s not like your time here is gonna make you want it less,” said the programmer.  “First time I got busted, they sent me to this juvenile facility.  That’s honestly the most horrible place I’ve ever been.  You’re by yourself, you have to just sit on a stool in this classroom kinda space all day.  The only book you’re allowed in there is a Bible, but for my first three days, they didn’t give one to me.  So I just had to sit there with nothing on that stool.  And you’re not allowed to sleep during the day.  They try to catch you sleeping.  Like a guard might come to check on you, then open and close the door so you think he’s left, but then come sneaking back.”

A lot of his anecdotes involved sleeping.  It must be awful trying to re-establish a regular sleep cycle after months on methamphetamine.  Living inside a jail or prison  – with schizophrenics in solitary kicking their doors and hollering through the night, minimal access to natural light, overhead fluorescents turned off for only four and a half hours each day – probably makes it harder.  He once told me that a particular state prison wasn’t so bad – everyone felt pretty safe there – except that there were so many little rules that you were constantly worried about being written up and docked good time for an infraction.

“My job there, they had me delivering ice in the middle of the night.  Either you’d load the cart too heavy and struggle to push it around, or else it took hours to finish … and they still expected us to wake up at the regular time.  So I’d practice hiding, like rumple my blankets or whatever so I could still be in my bunk sleeping but the guards wouldn’t see me.”

These men cycle in and out of jail.  Sometimes people outside offer them drugs at the Taco Bell, sending them spiraling right back in.  Sometimes, people outside try to help instead.  But the help often falls short.

Diaz writes,

                                                you have come

to take him to dinner – because he is your brother,

because you heard he was cleaning up,

because dinner is a thing with a clear beginning

and end, a measured amount of time,

a ritual everyone knows, even your brother.

Sit down. Eat. Get up. Go home.

She will try to help him, and she will fail.  And he will also fail himself.  The drugs will make Judas of them all – safe only when locked up, “happy” only when fucked up (the guys told me, “When you’re on meth, it can feel like ecstasy.  But, man, coming down … ”  Another finished his thought: “That’s why you gotta have more, to make sure you don’t come down.”), her brother can only be betrayed.

You will pour your thirty pieces of silver

onto the table and ask, What can I get for this?