On reading and empathy

Here is the epilogue to my unfinished novel, The Fetishist, which I stumbled upon just now as I was cleaning up my office:

A murderer might be counted on for a fancy prose style, as the exiled lepidopterist, Mr. N. once observed, but his H.H. was also a lover, a dreamer, a madman, a sad man, a fabulist, and, most decidedly, a fetishist. And if any of us in the literary realm know anything about anything, (which, of course, we don’t), it is that it is to the likes of H.H., E. Bovary, and Anna K., that we turn, when we ourselves, most of us living more moderate and savory lives, feel the blood-pulse of unbalanced passion rising up in our veins. And it is, in turn, through language, through the tremor and tumult, the torrent, the shock, the shill, and the shiver, of words on the page, that we are brought along, following the bouncing ball to something like an understanding of what it means to stand, naked and wobbling, in another person’s buskins. Thus, when the alchemy is complete, you cannot separate you from them, cannot distinguish the tragedy of fiction from the tragedy of your own life, from the tragedy of the world—and schadenfreude is no longer possible.


Reading it over, I am both proud and embarrassed. Proud, because I still like the list-y, tripping rhythm of the sentences, the mouth-feel of words like madman, sad man, or shock, shill, and shiver, and because, like H.H., or that show-off Mr. N., I groove on the wink-wink omniscience, the aristocratic control and authority, of the distant third-person perspective. Embarrassed, because it’s so self-consciously literary, with its reference to buskins—buskins!—its use of words like alchemy and schadenfreude, and its invocation of famous literary characters. Pretentious? Certainly. Arch? A bit.

But, reading it now, with several years’ distance, knowing that the book was abandoned, and that my life has taken this grave turn, I am inclined to feel tender toward my younger self. She was serious-minded, anyway, and ambitious, and there is something in her voice, with its grand declarations, its holding forth, that I recognize as a precursor to the essayist’s voice. But, more than this, what she is talking about here, when you strip away all the fancy-pants constructions, is empathy. The kind of empathy that good books can engender, whether fiction or non-. Because that is what it all goes back to, doesn’t it? to the time we were small and first connected with a character in a book, caring about her as deeply as we cared about ourselves, completely investing in his outcome.

For me, it was fairy tales. Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood—all the grim, Grimm stories of cruelty, abandonment, trickery, and betrayal. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes, and, above all, The Snow Queen. I felt, along with the boy Kay, the splinter of glass that pierced his heart and eye, felt the hard, sharp point of pain in my own chest, saw laid out before me the glittering coldness of the world—desert of ice and snow. 

I was attracted to the darker stories, the more gruesome details: the stepsisters cutting off their toes to fit the slipper; the woodcutter cleaving the wolf in two; the Queen demanding the huntsman return with Snow White’s lungs and liver. I identified with the stepsisters, who were ugly, awkward, and peevish; with the bad fairy who was not invited to the christening; with the funny little man who was promised a baby in return for spinning straw into gold. I held an early affinity for outliers, for the doleful, aggrieved creatures that bellowed with longing and loss. There was something thrilling in their wickedness, their transgression against the good, the pretty, and the powerful. It was the revenge of the not-chosen, those without fortune or favor, and, even from the youngest age, I felt myself among them.

Most writers I know are lonely people. In order to observe the world, you need to remain slightly separate from it, and, for most writers, this feeling of separateness comes from early trauma—a childhood illness, an unstable family life, the death of a parent—and the talent for watchfulness, for gauging the emotional temperature, and offering up explanations for others’ behavior, is developed out of necessity. In my case, it was my brother’s death, when I was four. My parents’ grief was a thorny labyrinth in which they hid, and in which I wandered for four years, until my other brother was born. My childhood then was suspended between two boys—one a giggling baby, then a ghost; the other a substitute, a redemption—and me, the girl child, left to her own devices, seeking solace in books.

The precocious young reader soon encounters a strange paradox. Without much real life experience of your own, you are exposed to a host of experiences in literature, many of them extreme in nature—cruelty, violence, sexual desire, ambition, abject poverty; you fall in love with Heathcliff; you murder Alyona Ivanova; you run away from Mr. Rochester—but, in reality, you are an eighth grader, living in a suburb of Albany, New York. You are learning about life from books, extrapolating from the situations you read about, looking for clues on how to negotiate the real world.

This can be a dangerous proposition. No thirteen-year-old girl should try to derive life lessons from Henry Miller. But, as much as reading helps to cultivate empathy for other people, it is vital in developing compassion for one’s self. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world,” James Baldwin said, “but then you read.” It makes for a richness of experience, exploring the range of human emotion and behavior, encountering things you don’t understand, expanding your worldview, and recognizing, within all the vast array, your own strange and familiar self.

Accordingly, I realized that what I loved most about the books I read were what I call “moments of amplification,” those passages that seemed to lift off the page, to declare higher truths that—strange, beautiful, resonant, alarming—both resounded with universal significance, and seemed to speak to me alone. I have been collecting these passages for decades—underlining lines in the texts themselves, drawing stars and exclamation points in the margins, copying them out longhand into Moleskin notebooks, and cutting and pasting them into Word documents.

Here are a few: From Lolita: “This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies. At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe.” To the Lighthouse: “What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark…” Revolutionary Road: “People did change, and a change could be a bloom as well as a withering…” Another Country: “Her face would now be, forever, more mysterious and impenetrable than the face of any stranger. Strangers’ faces hold no secrets because the imagination does not invest them with any. But the face of a lover is an unknown precisely because it is invested with so much of oneself.” The Feast of Love: “The crazy ones are mostly crazy because love made them that way.”

In my own writing, I was always striving for these moments, (often at the detriment of plot). Here’s one I found from early in The Fetishist:

When someone dies, our impulse is to flatten her out, to press her between wax paper like a leaf, or to fix her in amber like a bug. Death as capture, death as collected works. But death is a false terminus, one moment only. It seems more significant because it is the last moment, the most recent, when really it is the smallest and least telling. Life is the plumpness of all-directions, of surprises and contradictions, of impulses, mistakes, duplicities, and redemptions. While the vanishing point on the horizon line is a dot, a blip, the same for us all.


Strange that what was a theoretical observation back then, should read so poignantly now. For it is precisely the “plumpness of all-directions” that I seek to memorialize, not the common vanishing point. If reading as a young girl opened me to the possibilities of life, allowing me to cloak myself in the experience and wisdom of others, then writing as a 57-year-old woman with Stage 4 cancer, my own life possibilities dwindling, allows me to inhabit my own experience and wisdom. And if reading as a young girl expanded my ability to feel empathy for others, then writing for me, now, is an attempt to extend that compassion to myself, starting with the lonely kid who identified with Rumplestiltskin. I want to wobble around in her buskins for a while.