What Empathy Is

I was a visiting professor at the University of Alabama last week, teaching a group of students about how to write difference into our fiction. I thought about how we teach many things in the creative writing workshop—how to read and think like a writer, how to bring discipline to the wilder of our creative tendencies, how to use the various principles of good fiction or poetry or nonfiction to create work that is resonant and lasting. What we often forget to teach though is empathy or at least the notion that empathy should be a consideration when we set about writing and communicating our viewpoints to the world.

Can empathy be taught? I’m not sure but so many people seem to lack empathy when they need it the most that I hope it can be taught.

I have been thinking about empathy because Republican senator Rob Portman recently declared that he can no longer oppose gay marriage; his son is gay. While many people who support marriage equality where cheered by Portman’s change of stance, others were quick to condemn him for a lack of empathy, for not being able to support marriage equality until it affected him. That had never crossed my mind. I was just glad to see someone able to change his mind.

For a moment, I felt a bit of hope because the only way we’re going to make any progress on so many of these critical issues is by people being willing to change their mind. Does it really matter how people get to a better place?

Or perhaps I thought of my own parents, who are wonderful people, conservative, but have come a long way in the past twenty or so years in being more accepting of things they would have once condemned. They are not lacking in empathy. They, like all of us, like Rob Portman, are human.

CNN reporters Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow had a lot of empathy for two young men, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richardson, who were convicted of rape on Sunday, March 17, in Steubenville, OH. Harlow said watching the young men receive the news of their conviction was “incredibly difficult.” Crowley went on to speculate about these young men and the “lasting effect” their convictions would have.

Those poor, poor boys. It’s always about those poor, poor boys. Or, the poor, poor town. We’ve been here before.

My first instinct is to rage, to lash out, because those boys did something terribly wrong. I am outraged and I am exhausted. I wish I could understand why this keeps happening. But. I want to feel empathy for them, for young men growing up in a culture that warps right and wrong, that warps masculinity and what we expect of men, that devalues women, that puts athletes on a pedestal at any cost (see: Notre Dame, Penn State, etc), and that allows them to make the most wrong decisions when they see a young woman, drunk, and helpless. I want to empathize for how they got there and because they are surrounded by adults who enabled and protected them.

There should not be a finite amount of empathy in the world when there is clearly such a dearth of it but I am not sure I can empathize with these boys. I’m not sure I should. I hope they receive counseling. I hope they never violate a woman again. I hope they are not subjected to sexual violence while they are incarcerated. I hope they learn something.


I wonder why there wasn’t nearly enough empathy for the young woman who was raped, who was so inebriated that a group of young men took advantage of her, who has to live in a place where so many people have turned against her and openly support the “upstanding” young men who violated her. I wonder why when those young men were partying and having a good time, they didn’t have enough empathy for another human being to get her home safely, or leave her with friends or do any of the rational and reasonable choices they could have made before choosing rape. Then they didn’t have enough empathy to think they shouldn’t document their misdeeds and splay her victimization across the Internet. The horror only magnifies.

Every time I see a new news story about rape, anywhere in the world, I tell myself, “I am not going to think about this.” I tell myself, “I am not going to get upset about this.” I am not going to get angry. I am not going to care. I say these things as if I have any control whatsoever over where my mind will go. I force myself to separate my past from my present. Then I have a hard time sleeping because if I close my eyes, the past will be all over me again—a young girl, alone in the deep woods with good, upstanding boys. It’s the same old story.

Maybe we are past outrage. We must be. We’ve been outraged. We have marched. We have taken back the night. We’ve shouted no means no. We’ve learned how to carry our keys in a dark parking lot, like a blade between our fingers. We’ve learned to protect our drinks so we don’t get drugged. We’ve learned how the rules are different, that if we wear a short skirt or a revealing blouse or a high heel, or if we drink, or if we flirt,  if we just exist, we’re asking for it. We’ve been in those awkward situations where it’s easier to just fuck a guy and avoid being raped than to get into a whole discussion of why you’d rather not have sex. As a last resort, we’ve said to those who might rape, “Don’t rape.”

And still, nothing changes. We have this pervasive phrase, “rape culture” we carry. We have come up with a vocabulary for rape—date rape, gray rape, acquaintance rape, stranger rape, gang rape—these gradations that might help us make sense of the insensible. What the hell do we do now? 

On last week’s episode of GIRLS, Adam and his girlfriend Natalia had sex and she didn’t particularly care for it. As with every episode of GIRLS, there was a flurry of discussion in all the usual places, exploring if Adam was a rapist and if the uncomfortable scene between Adam and Natalia was rape, as if this is the best way we can deal with rape, confusing bad sex for sexual violation—in tidy intellectual discussions by tidy intellectual people about tidy intellectual people.

In the film version of A Time to Kill, a young black girl in the deep South is raped by two white men. Her father, Carl Lee Hailey, avenges his child by gunning them down in a courthouse. A contentious trial ensues. During closing arguments, the father’s lawyer, Jake, asks the jury to close their eyes. He shares a chilling narrative about the horrors that befell the young black girl. At the end of his summation, he says, “Now imagine she’s white.”

The lawyer was, I suppose, using any means necessary to bring about the empathy of the jury and he succeeds. Carl Lee Hailey is found not guilty by reason of mental defect. But it’s also repulsive because it shows how some lives are valued more than others. It shows that in order to empathize, we must imagine horror close to home.

That is, I understand, why so many people are frustrated with Rob Portman—how his recent declaration gives the sense that he cannot feel beyond those things that affect his life.

Or we could imagine someone, sixteen, at a party. They drink at least four shots of vodka, two beers, and some of a slushy mixed with vodka. They become incapacitated. They are stripped naked, photographed, digitally penetrated, and photographed some more. They are treated like a toy. They are dragged around town and mocked and otherwise molested.

I try to imagine what would happen, if that someone, sixteen, at a party, were a boy.  And then I hate myself, because that’s not empathy, not at all. We can’t use clever word play to empathize our way out of this mess. We cannot wish something terrible onto anyone to try and even the score. I am not sure what empathy is or how we wield it properly but I am certain it’s not that way.