Tag Archives: empathy

My Absolute Darling: Why Reading is Tougher (and better) Than Watching a Movie

Gabriel Tallent might be a sadist. For the pain inflicted on the characters in My Absolute Darling and the attendant pain for the reader. Geeze but it is an intense read. Our protagonist, Turtle, is physically and sexually abused by her father: a survivalist/prepper who has isolated the two of them in the coastal forest of California.

For all the pain the novel describes, it does so with exquisite beauty. Like this reader felt uncomfortable for how frequently I stopped to admire the writing in scenes that are violent and disturbing.

I’d say the book is as much a character study as anything. Turtle is one of the most evocative and fully realized characters I’ve read in ages. It took me some time to adjust to the pain and disturbance of her inner world, but the third person limited narration was pitch perfect. It allowed for the reader to experience with Turtle the subtle and significant moments of character change, all while holding a necessary distance that (for me anyway) made the reading possible.

It’s also a book obsessed with setting. There aren’t many books that manage to make setting exciting. Sure lots of books make setting vivid, or integral to the plot, or thematically appropriate, but here the setting contributes to the violence: in its oceanic power, in its isolation, in the threat of (coming) fecundity.

Every so often I had to remind myself that Tallent imagined this story (I hope). Sat somewhere and thought okay, now Turtle is driving the truck and [this] happens. I had to remind myself because there are so many scenes that combine surprise and inevitability (what is the word for something that is both a surprise and inevitable?), so many moments of creative juxtaposition.

It was also a novel that reminded me how painful reading can be (especially compared to watching a film). In many of the scenes I wanted to close my eyes, but of course the only way to get through the scene was to read it and so to experience it. Sometimes I’d skip ahead, or skim, but felt I was cheating Turtle and so would go back and read properly, if with intense discomfort.

So while it’s an extraordinarily well written novel, I’d be remiss if I didn’t underscore (again) how difficult it was to read. And how it’s okay if you’d rather watch the news. Because that’s less distressing. Oh wait.


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Filed under American literature, Fiction

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life: What Happens When a Nun Quits Religion

I’ve started going to *church. Don’t panic. I’m still an atheist: it’s a Unitarian church, so my minister is an atheist, too. If you thought all us athesists were just running around eating babies you might not have realized that I (certainly don’t want to speak for all athesists) do believe in things – I just don’t believe in God, an afterlife, divine-whatever. Instead I believe in community, in our collective and individual need to make meaning. Anyway, this year the congregation has been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and many of the sermons have picked up on themes from the book. Wanting to be the best at church (and earn a gold star at the optional book group discussion) I overcame my instinctual resistance to non-fiction and to a book that appeared – at first – dangerously self-helpy (a post for another day on my objections to self-help books) and gave it a go.

The twelve steps can be neatly summarized (and are by Armstrong) in “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” What makes it an interesting read from a religious studies perspective is the lengths at which Armstrong goes to include a diversity of religious perspectives (though no Unitarians?) on the “Golden Rule”. Her attempt to illustrate the similiarities among not just religions, but a sort of common humanity that has, as part of its nature (she argues), compassion, empathy and care, leads her to close readings of a range of religious, political and literary texts. Each chapter offers a “step” on the path to a more compassionate life. Steps like “empathy,” “self compassion,” or “understanding the limits of our knowledge” and “learning more about others.” With each step she offers daily exercises for extending compassion (indeed she makes a repeated comparison between training for a race or a ballet, and training compassion – that is, she suggests compassion is both an inherent quality and one that needs to be cultivated) like meditating on an enemy and extending to that enemy care and empathy. Of all the steps I found the chapter on ’empathy’ most resonant, and probably because it urges reading literature as a possible means to grow empathetic understanding (a repeated argument I’ve made here on the purpose of reading).

So what did I think of the book? Would I recommend it? I think Armstrong’s belief that we can learn to be individually – and collectively – better at caring for one another is a powerful, if only partially persuasive one. I found the first chapter that provides an overview of how Confusianism, Buddihism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism have understood and practiced ‘compassion’ a potent reminder (and a flashback to first year religious studies) of the similarities among these faith groups, the consistency in their fundamental belief in communal care. I did find that many of the later chapters – five or six pages in length – slipped into something of pat directives to be kinder to other people, to not assume you know everything. I would say that as a non-believer the book was both accessible and non-preachy. I don’t know. Read it if you find yourself frequently overcome with frustration at work: when you can’t stand another meeting, or your boss has just finished explaining the difference between a word document and a pdf for five minutes. You might find then that some of the calls to compassion are helpful, even healing. You may also find lobbing the book at the wall an equally restorative exercise. You be the judge.

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Filed under Non-fiction, Prize Winner

The Empathy Exams: On reading (essays)


My bff S. and I have a long standing joke that we have an “ET” connection. Having never seen the movie (I know, I know) I’m not entirely sure what the alien does to form the connection, but the way we understand it there are moments that we just ‘get’ one another, or ‘get’ what the other is going through.

The idea that we can ‘get’ one another, or the idea that there are – and should be – limits to what we imagine we can ‘get’ about one another, or the idea that we can only ever reach towards this kind of understanding, are ideas explored in Leslie Jamison’s excellent collection of essays, The Empathy Exams. [I admit I don’t read many essay collections – though with M.’s prodding and with this experience I suspect I’ll seek out more – and so my commentary will be a welcome counterpoint to the last post on historical fiction.]

One of the threads running through the collection is that of the writer-as-observor or witness, and the parallel role we all take in our connections and interactions with one another. That much as we might like to imagine that we can ‘get’ the other and those we love, we are – in the end – witnesses to and for one another. That we could be witness for one another is one of the ideas I found most engaging in the text. Until reading I had sort of thought of empathy as somehow selfish: let me share my pain or joy with you – selfish for both giver and receiver. But what the opening essay opens up is the notion that in asking questions, in witnessing and listening, we can reveal parts or feelings of the other to herself that she didn’t know she had or felt. The collection weaves this idea – and many others on the theme – through a range of places and people in ways that brought fresh perspective and nuance. Each felt focused on a particular story, but threaded to the wider theme and question. With the exception of the last essay, which I found a bit wearing, each gave, shared, asked and offered.

If my idea of reading has been this sort of sharing of experience, broadening of perspective, temporary adoption of identity and history that changes and shapes the reader, what Jamison’s collection did for me was to nuance my idea that reading is just about expanding and deepening my capacity for care and might equally be a call for conversation – with the author and others – about what and how the reading (re: the experience, the sharing) has changed or is changing.

There’s good evidence – if we believe Science – that reading literary fiction strengthens the readers ability to empathize. Even more so than popular fiction or non-fiction. And so while I might want to take this evidence as vindication of my reading habits, I do think reading this essay collection has affirmed that I need to read more non-fiction for the lens it brings and the questions it explicitly asks.

And so S., I’ve sent you a copy of The Empathy Exams as your late Christmas present. And as a tether across the world to know just how close we are.

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Filed under Book Club, Non-fiction, Prize Winner