A few years ago, lovers of the written word woke to an exciting headline: Studies show readers of literary fiction are more empathetic than other people! The lifelong reader in me cheered. But the memoirist in me thought: Wait! What about nonfiction? Empathy lies at the heart of what we do. The headline got me thinking: How can we foster empathy even more deliberately in our work?
Let’s start here: Empathy is complex. It’s not pity, not kindness, not mercy, not even necessarily compassion but a deep understanding, and in the best memoirs, I’ve come to realize, it moves in many different directions. There’s empathy that you, the narrator, show for other characters, even distasteful ones, and vice versa, empathy others show for you, the character, even when you are behaving badly. Finally, there’s empathy you, the author, show for your younger self, and crucially, for your readers.
Before we dive in, let’s define some basic terms.
You, the character, is the person dramatized on the page, often in the past, acting in-scene, interacting with others.
You, the narrator, is the voice telling the story, reflecting on the page, making sense of what’s going on and directing the reader’s attention.
You, the author, is off-stage entirely, making choices about what to include, what not to include, and how ultimately to craft all these memories into art.
1. Empathy you show for other characters
There’s nothing more moving, disarming, challenging, and arguably obligatory in memoir than showing empathy for other characters, even those who have hurt you. The hurt can be minor or major, but almost always it’s complex, the result of interactions that have built over years. Your job is twofold: first, to choose a representative scene, one that dramatizes the hurt, and, secondly, – crucially – to include a line or two of empathetic reflection universal enough to ring true. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Jesmyn Ward’s 2013 National Book Award-winning memoir, Men We Reaped, contends with the deaths of five young men close to her, including her brother. The book hinges on the empathy the narrator shows these men on the page, but it’s never overstated, never maudlin. Consider the following passage, so ostensibly simple, where Ward stands at the kitchen sink doing chores while her brother, Joshua, looks on.
Joshua looked through the screen and it was as if he saw me clearly with my soapy hands, my wrinkled fingers, my jaw grinding with frustration and self-abasement, and he hated me. Both of us on the cusp of adulthood, and this is how my brother and I understood what it meant to be a woman: working, dour, full of worry.
Note how quickly the tension builds. Joshua did not just watch Ward; in the very same sentence, he also “hated her.” Earlier in the chapter, we’ve learned that Joshua, as the boy in the family, avoids chores but endures fierce beatings from their father, so we know that on one level he hates his sister because she gets out of beatings. But the narrator’s understanding of the situation is more nuanced. He hates her because he’s angry at the way she’s humiliated. He hates her the way she hates herself. And all of it stems from something larger than them both, something more universal, which Ward sums up in one tidy phrase: “this is how my brother and I understood what it meant to be a woman.” From there, she returns to the action. With empathy as the foundation.
Often, though, the hurt explored in a memoir runs deeper, the damage is worse, harder to justify. Especially in cases of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, this spurs the inevitable question: Really? Do we have to show kindness to the perpetrators? Do we have to overlook the cruelty, the outright despicableness?
Of course not. That would be disingenuous. Maybe I lack the gene for sainthood (most of us do), but I do not believe we owe monsters kindness. Remember: empathy is not kindness, not even civility, only understanding. You don’t have to forgive or justify heinous behavior, but the story is richer if you can access a character’s less-sinister motivations. No one is better at this than Mary Karr.
In the following climactic passage from The Liars’ Club, Karr makes a daring decision. Smack in the middle of the most horrific scene in the book, one in which her mother comes after 7-year-old Mary and her younger sister with a butcher knife, Karr inserts an achingly tender reflection.
No sooner do I choke down that scream than a miracle happens… Mother’s figure starts to alter and fade. In fact, the thin, spidery female form in black stretch pants and turtleneck wielding a knife in one upraised arm is only a stick figure of my mother, like the picture I drew in Magic Marker on the Mother’s Day card I gave her last Sunday. I wrote underneath it in pink block letter that I decorated with crayon drawings of lace, “You are a nice Mom. I love you. It has been nice with you. Love from Mary Marlene.” That Sunday morning when she’d opened that card up and read it, she cried racking sobs and hugged me hard so her tears streamed down in my ears…
Mary, the character, desperately wants her mother to be a good mother, wants it enough to tell a bald-faced lie in Magic Marker: “You are a nice Mom.” But Karr, the narrator, also understands that her mother wants to be a good mother, wants it so much she broke down in sobs. When Karr asks us to consider both perspectives in the middle of attempted murder, it represents the high bar of empathy, one we can all aim for.