Academic EmpathyCategory: General   May 18th 2014  11:44AM   0

I'm reading a book of essays about empathy, written by a young, female, writing instructor (at an Ivy league college), published by an arty/intellectual small press.*

There's a glaring typo on page 55—a spelling error, of all things, making me wonder if her copyeditor has Spell Check (seriously, my dear, enable that shit). She also uses the word "nebulous" at least three times in a single chapter, and again in an interview tagged to the end of the book. A bigger issue, in my opinion, is writing an entire book on empathy that could be summed up in one sentence from the last chapter. 

"But I recognized a certain tendency in myself—a desire to compel men by describing things that had been hard for me—and wanted to punish this tendency."

I get that impulse; it's not uncommon in women. I also suspect that many manuscripts are partially motivated by an author's desire to be absolved for the "sin" of craving empathy. I actually don't see anything wrong with writing to elicit empathy. Wanting to be understood is so incredibly, beautifully human.

The problem is that I have no empathy for this author. Not for her (painless) "traumatic" abortion (of an unwanted pregnancy) resulting from irresponsible/unprotected sex (with a thoughtful & understanding boyfriend). Not for a (superficial flesh wound) injury incurred by getting wasted, as in (literally) falling down drunk. Not for a "broken heart" over the end of a simple summer fling. Not for getting mugged while strolling alone through a Mexican ghetto for absolutely no good reason. Her writing isn't bad but her petty, self-inflicted grievances are as embarrassing and amateurish as misspelling "obfuscate."

Her work is no different than that of many young, earnest MFA grads—all style, no self-awareness. Having spent most of her short life as a college student and tourist-voyeur, her minimal personal experience renders meaningless what little substance can be found here (sifting through rampant polysyllabic grandiosity and self-indulgent esotericism (sorry, I haz meta), not to mention ubiquitous peppering of Sontag and Didion).

This youthful ignorance doesn't stop her from smugly disparaging a (brilliant and important) show about addiction and recovery (a subject methinks this particular writer should take closer to heart ... just saying). Apparently, the use of actual storylines to depict the true nature of that (very real and devastating) disease offended the author, the one currently hawking stories of (her woefully limited) insight on the nature of emotional pain. Here's a polysyllabic descriptor for her: disingenuous

But why blog about it? I mean, what does this topic have to do with companionship?

Quality companionship and personal essays are both rooted in authentic emotional resonance, and women like her—especially authors and academics, considering their influence—give empathy a bad name. Not just because her pain is self-inflicted (because from a holistic point of view, all pain is), but because it's unhealthy and damaging to cast such a wide net. Such indiscriminate and shallow expressions of empathy do nothing more than perpetuate self-pity and dilute the more deserving empathetic moments. 

She should've written a book on discernment; there is nothing very obfuscatory about that. Then again, what a privileged, upper class, white American twenty-something knows about empathy or discernment is nebulous, at best.

 

*GrayWolf Press, you're better than this; you gave us Stephen Elliott. Please, for the love of god, write him another check.


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