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The Use of Empathy in a Women's Writing Workshop

January 3, 2016

An Instructor’s Perspective
by Erika Duncan


This article appeared in Dimensions of Empathic Therapy, edited by Peter R. Breggin, Ginger Breggin and Fred Bemak, Springer Publishing Company, 2001


©Used by permission of Springer Publishing Company, Inc., New York 10012


I had been teaching fiction and autobiographical writing for more than twenty-five years. Certain admonitions had become almost rote, for example: "You cannot allow a character to die or make love on page two. There is no way a reader can care enough at that point to either experience loss or to enjoy the happiness of a stranger, even if the stranger is, in the case of autobiography, the writer's own self."

This was a hard lesson in humility, always, for the beginning writer who felt that whatever was most important to herself, in her own life, should somehow immediately translate into a story that would be of interest to anyone encountering it.


"Being told stories that are too personal before you know the cast of characters is like looking at photographs of someone else's grandchildren, which is something you can only do if you already care about the grandparents. Caring about someone else's joys and pains in their details can only come gradually.


"And yet," I would continue, "if you cannot find a way to create an immediate illusion of empathy on page one, the reader will not find the impetus to continue." We would speak of the necessity of helping a reader to enter into the experience of another as if she or he were already inside that other, even though in the beginning of any written text, the reader knows nothing at all about the one who is wrestling for attention.

The more that my students were able to grasp certain basic principles in the creation of empathy, the more easily I found they were able to solve fairly complicated problems of narrative structure and voice.

I wasn't prepared for the richness and complexity of the reactions to the mandate not to take reader-involvement for granted, when I found myself leading a memoir writing group for women who were victims of extreme trauma, who for the most part hadn't yet developed much sense of self worth. .

It was a time when memoirs by unknown men and women were just beginning to be taken seriously by the reading public and suddenly there was a roomful of women, many of whom were uneducated, coming from backgrounds of poverty, sexual abuse, and war, wanting to write book-length projects about their own lives. Most of them were mothers who were deeply concerned about telling their stories so that the cycle of patterns passed down through generations might stop.


In response to the need that these women expressed, the town of Southampton had offered us space in their Cultural Center. The New York State Council on the Arts and the Long Island Fund for Women and Girls offered us support. I didn't realize, back in March of 1996 when this started, that this was to be a project that would change my life.


As I think back over the first week of our meetings, when I still didn't know what to expect, the first person I picture is Dorothy. She takes out the pictures of herself and her two sisters, to show to each newcomer, whoever will look, calling herself "poor little Dorothy." "It is time for me to tell little Dorothy's story," she says over and over.


The photographs are nearly fifty years old, and date from the time when Dorothy discovered her father in bed with her two sisters. When she reported this to another family member, the four children were sent to an orphanage where they spent their growing up years. She tells us how in her own search for love she had lived with a man who had abused her children. When the story had come out, she had even gone to court against her children, to try to save the man.. But so much has changed since then. Writing from the inside about what made her repeat such a terrible pattern might help other mothers and daughters, she says.


Next to Dorothy sits Pat, but unlike Dorothy, she tells nothing about her own childhood. She seems a bit out of place in the group. She says she wants to write about home schooling and home birthing, and why she made those choices in the mothering of her own two children. She writes even less than she speaks, but only every once in a while there is a hint of something beneath the surface, as easily, almost too easily, whenever she comes to a line, poorly rendered because it is so incomplete, evoking experiences in nature, she will burst into tears.


Then Hazel comes. Time is a funny master, when it comes to memory. In this case two events a year apart are fused, because their consequences were eventually so intertwined. It is a dangerously icy night when we first hear what is to become the familiar sound of Hazel's metal crutches as she makes her way pantingly, but without halting through the double sets of heavy doors, her face expectant and beautiful, and her whole being full of words.


As the details of her story come back, as she first told them without even looking around to see who her audience was, everything about her seems to ask for our empathy: the fact that she was the "well child" in a family where three of the children died of sickle cell anemia, and that therefore a serious birth injury which caused severe back pain was never looked into in childhood, when she might have been saved the paralysis that afflicts her now; the fact that she out of the family's surviving six children (out of nine) is the one who, wheel-chair bound, has returned to Southampton to take care of her eighty-year-old mother, rushing around in her wheel chair baking eight cocoanut custard pies for her mother's birthday; that even paralyzed she raised her own child and the child of the sister who died of sickle cell anemia, sending them both through college.


This whole list, which we received rapid-fire in our first ten minutes with Hazel-- as similarly we had received Dorothy's "list"-- of course inspired tremendous compassion along with an almost unbounded admiration.


Yet I found, simultaneously, even as Hazel was still speaking, I was becoming increasingly worn out, and almost counter-intuitively a distance was developing between us. I could see, as I looked around the room, that the other women were beginning to have a similar experience.

What had happened? Everything being told was ordering me to know that I cared, but I found that in another part of me I was warding the caring away. I was turning the woman in front of me into a stranger, a case history.


I think it is important for me to say here that as the child of a therapist there were things I had absorbed, both life-giving and intrusive, that ran in my blood and deeply colored my way of working with other people.


For me the teaching of writing provided an important way of reaching into the recesses of parts of the self that had been silenced, while providing the boundaries- the sense of aiming for a product that was separate from the self- that I never was allowed to know in childhood.


I have carried inside me, ever since I was old enough to have my own knowledge of the psychoanalytic process, a deep respect for the delaying of insights, until the patient is ready to properly feel them. I would come to realize, very profoundly, as I worked with Hazel and the other women in the group, that the joint mission of delaying of empathy, and striving for it even before it can properly occur, was one of the most precious things that the writing of autobiography could offer to people who had grown up feeling wounded and alone.


Hazel had been right in the middle of giving the goriest imaginable description of her birth, told in the Black "Church English" of her preacher father, when I stopped her. I will never forget her words as she described the way her father had been told that because of her position in her mother's womb there was no way for both the mother and the baby to survive, so with seven children already at home, they had no choice but to dismember this new one.


It was a quite conscious decision I made at that moment not to ask why they didn't attempt a Cesarean, nor to probe into that Biblical rendition of the "beginning of the dismemberment with forceps," that scarred her forehead and permanently maimed her spine, "before my mother suddenly cried out God Bless and I was born!!"-- and then suddenly, when I felt that should have been listening most intently, I felt caught in a nightmare so private that instead of feeling anything more, I was warding it all away into the area of another person's fantasy, perhaps not true, and even if true, not having anything to do with me.

"We must back-track," I said to Hazel. "While once we have known you a while, we will care about this very profoundly, for right now there is no way a reader can enter into this with the depth of feeling that you deserve."


In the course of her rhythmically galloping crescendos and diminuendos, equal only to the sermons I later was to hear in her church, she had mentioned that when her younger sister Cathy became pregnant at the age of seventeen, she had asked Hazel, then twenty-two, if she were to die from sickle cell anemia after giving birth, would Hazel agree to raise her baby.


The doctors had told Cathy never to get pregnant, Hazel said, for that would hasten her death. And even as Hazel said those words, I knew that this was where her written story must begin. It was a place where even a stranger might feel empathy: a mid-way point where caring would be inevitable, yet we would have time to get to know the characters as slowly as we realistically must. I could tell, also, by looking at Hazel's face, that this was a place where she was able to let her own feelings give way to respect for the listeners' separateness, until she found her proper way and voice. It was neither too close nor too distant from caring.


I cannot describe what it meant to help Hazel to "stay in the room" with her sister long enough, for what turned out to be over a hundred pages and many months of work, so that we were all able to feel the story in its full impact.


Every woman in the room helped Hazel to stay there, caring for every detail, even before Hazel could dare to know how much she herself cared. Every woman helped her to slow down, until the scene with the sisters in the room took on all of their childhoods and all of their hopes and fears.


It took a great deal for Hazel to be able to write of how furious she was that she who was ostracized by the family for having a child out of wed-lock, who had not wanted to have a child, must accept the fact that her "baby sister" had gotten pregnant very deliberately, in absolute defiance of the doctor's orders, so strong was the mandate inside Cathy-- as Hazel would finally be able to depict it-- to make life.


I will never forget Pat's and Dorothy's tears when Hazel arrived at that moment, deliberately delayed until the reader could feel the full impact, when Cathy finally says: "If I die, will you promise to raise my baby."

Although it had been this very line, when Hazel spoke it on that very first night, that had been my beacon to know where Hazel was going, it was important that she take ever so many pages and months of writing time to get there, in order for true empathy to develop.


As I worked with the women in the group, I was very careful not to get into areas that I felt untrained to handle, minding that admonition from psychoanalysis, not to stir up premature insights. The fact that we were writing with the deliberate goal of creating finished products for others to read made it relatively easy to separate what was needed for a reader-- i.e. a narrative structure where not too much was learned to soon-- from what the writer herself might otherwise have been seduced into revealing too quickly, had "self expression" rather than formal production been the intent.


I had long ago observed that when not enough play space (in Winnicott's sense) existed between writer and product, the reader would be forced to over-identify, in a counter-productive merger. Or else she would detach herself entirely, in the kind of effort to break free that I had experienced when Hazel first began to tell her tale.


Hazel's writing was moving forward at a rate that was leaving most of the other women in the group behind. Part of it was a natural narrative gift, taken from her childhood of listening to religious story telling, but as I thought of the wonderful lilting Irish story telling voices that Pat had grown up with as well as the immigrant languages that many of the other women had heard, I knew that something else was at play.


What aided me in not attempting to tamper with bringing up insights that might be detrimentally premature was the fact that material that a writer wasn't ready to deal with was invariably so poorly written or so badly misplaced in the text, there was every reason to implore the writer to save it for later, without going into the psychological reasons why.


I will never forget the time when Hazel tried to deal with her memories of incest too soon. It was in the middle of a section she had been writing when she first began to take seriously the fact that her newly pregnant "baby sister" might die, and for many reasons this was a very difficult section to write. Suddenly she broke with her voice and inserted a story in the voice of a previously absent older sister whom she clearly disliked, a story so obviously out of place in the text and of such an intrusive quality, it so broke the emotion occurring between the two sisters and so violated my listener's trust, I found myself escaping into wondering what I would be having for dinner, always, for me, a sure sign that a writer has "gone off."

Deliberately I had trained myself not to listen too carefully, when I found my mind naturally wandering, that way I could replicate what would probably happen to a reader. I had found it was helpful to the writers in the group when I shared these mental wanderings, so that they too could begin to experience their own lapses in attention, and know where their writing had begun to fail.


Because I knew that Hazel wrote well and wanted to be pushed, and also that she had a good sense of humor, I was able to tease her about the moment when I started to wonder quite specifically about whether I wanted fish or vegetables. Usually the group members enjoyed my sharing of those mental meandering, which so echoed what happened to the reader once the tension of being inside the head and the heart of another had been broken. But this night the others in the group, who were not yet relaxed enough to listen as selectively as I did, were positively furious at me. How could I talk about wanting to eat dinner when Hazel was writing about her uncle's brutal sexual attack on her when she was eight years old, they had asked.


For a moment I too felt embarrassed and ashamed. Then I drew a deep breath. I began to explain that this was too important a memory to give to a false voice, that of the disliked sister, where it was sure to be diminished and lost, and that it did a disservice to Hazel, who clearly was all there talking to her hurt pregnant other sister, to break into such a moving moment in that way.


It was the first time in all of Hazel's writing that I'd heard her express so little empathy for herself, and I had reacted by not even hearing the content. While for the other women in the group my "not hearing" had a momentarily jarring effect, for Hazel herself it would occasion a major break-through.


Meanwhile Dorothy, whose telling of her story evoked such instant empathy, had stopped writing almost entirely, still coming to the group but mostly putting herself in the role of the one who would be deeply moved by the writings of others, continually showing the "sweet" pictures of her sisters and herself to every new comer and saying: AI was the one who was punished for speaking when I was a child. When I told people what I had seen, all four of us children were taken away from our mother and put in an orphanage.


"Now it is time for little Dorothy to try once again to speak."


But once she had said this, it was as if she had no other words. She could neither find "little Dorothy" in a true sense, with the more three dimensional rounding of adult retrospect, nor be with her in replicating scenes that would bring back the confusion by not trying to protect all the players from the reader's listening ear. Only once when another woman in the group suddenly turned on me and said: "But you don&