Fiction and Empathy

I specifically want this blog to be about writing and creative process, but I also feel like I have to talk about the Kavanaugh nomination and especially Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve thought this much about a single national political issue since Trump became president.

In face-to-face conversations with friends and family, I’ve now heard the case that Blasey Ford’s allegations are part of an eleventh-hour Democratic plot to sabotage Kavanaugh’s nomination. I’ve also heard that it’s sad and a mess for the Kavanaugh family that Judge Kavanaugh will always have these allegations hanging over him whatever the outcome, and this will affect him as a husband, father, coach, and community member.

I get it. I really do. But it also feels like a lack of empathy to not engage with how this testimony process has affected Dr. Blasey Ford. That she has received death threats. That she needs security guards. That her family will have to be uprooted and moved from the place where they live and work. That being sexually assault has literally changed the way she wanted her house laid out. That as a woman she has to keep her voice even and calm simply to have a chance at having her claims taken seriously. That she probably went into her testimony well aware that only one percent of sexual assaults actually end in prosecution.

It’s tough to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. To think through, How does that actually feel? What does this look like from their perspective? How would I see the world differently with that set of beliefs or expectations or experiences? And even when you’re trying to be empathetic, sometimes you just can’t know what it feels like. For instance, I’m white, male, middle class, straight, Christian, college educated. A friend can tell me what it feels like to experience racial trauma, or how it felt growing up without stable housing or three meals a day. I can listen and understand intellectually, but it’s not the same as living it.

A writer friend was recently reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. She told me that Pinker notes a clear decline in violence around the turn of the eighteenth century—and he specifically ties it to the rise of the novel. Something about reading about other people—who they are, how they think, how they live—makes us more empathetic and less likely to hurt other people.

This resonated with me. I’ve noticed this in my own life, both as a reader and as a writer. As a reader, I think of the way Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems or Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony opened my eyes to people and ways of life I knew nothing about.

Getting coffee at a Barnes & Noble, my sister once asked me if there’s any one theme that connects all my novels. I had to think about it, but I realized all my books are about loss and trauma, most often through war but sometimes through personal betrayal. As a writer, I’m trying to understand different experiences of loss that are recognizable to me but not my own experience.

I think fiction at its best is all about creating that kind of empathetic connection between people.

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