How memoirs increase empathy

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

During my training to become a therapist, one of the more esoteric instructions I received was that when a client told me about their situation, I was supposed to pay attention to my own feelings.

I found this instruction unsettling, given that I had no idea how to observe my own feelings. It soon became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to help other people until I learned how to steer through the complexities of my own emotions.

Hoping to correct my deficiency, I read Emotional Intelligence, by Dan Goleman, and was heartened by his assertion that this “intelligence” was learnable. So I started on a long road of self-development, to increase my sense of empathy.

Years of being in therapy helped, but the real breakthrough came from a surprising direction. From reading memoirs.

I’ve always enjoyed losing myself in books. The problem was that in my younger years, all my reading matter was written by males. They involved very little emotional intelligence.

So for example, I read lots of books about people dying, but instead of learning about the emotions of loss, the story centered on finding the killer.

Other emotions were similarly superficial or ignored altogether. Take children for example. A mother’s love for a child was given a vague gloss. Cute but without any depth. And the experience of falling in love was a linear operation, with little time spent appreciating its complexity.

Back then, my reading preferences exposed me mainly to people who barely bothered to feel their lives. But when I decided to broaden my emotional horizons, I switched to reading memoirs. By immersing myself in each author’s inner world, I experienced what it was like for that one individual. And after I completing each one, I pondered how I felt about it, similar to the instruction in my therapy training.

One reason reading memoirs had such a profound influence on me was because I was also trying to write one. In order to effectively communicate my experience, I needed to learn how to communicate emotion. And the only way I, with my tin inner ear, could know if I’d succeeded, would be to get feedback from readers. So I joined a critique group, composed of others who were also trying to turn their lives into stories.

Together with a few people, all in a similar situation,  I discovered an exponential benefit. By sharing our works-in-progress, we were becoming each other’s teachers, not just in writing but in empathy.

The directive to “pay attention to my own feelings” became crucial when critiquing my fellow memoir writers. To give them feedback about the quality of their writing, I had to tune into the emotions they aroused in me.

In this way, the empathy-enhancing effects of memoir reading were accentuated (or “potentiated” in the parlance of neurobiology) – and as a result, year over year, I could observe myself growing increasingly curious about the whole range of emotions that had once eluded me.

As I continue to gain emotional sensitivity, I keep pushing the limits. Glad, sad, mad, might sound simple, but in their infinite variety of expression and nuance, they continue to draw me out of myself and into an intimacy with the human condition I never knew was possible. Memoirs were an incredible source for this never-ending variety.

Perhaps one of the most complex, enjoyable and emotionally satisfying memoirs I’ve read recently (or perhaps ever) is a surprisingly light hearted little book about cancer, named The Dog Lived and So Did I by Theresa Rhyne. As I set myself aside, and entered Theresa Rhyne’s story, I was in for a feast of emotion, artistically organized into a fulfilling tale.

For a guy who was looking for deeper insight into the realms of emotion, this book is especially valuable, because it weaves together three stunningly intricate emotional experiences: the threat of mortality, loving a pet or child, and most stunning of all is the entanglement of two people attempting to partner up.

Rhyne offers a rich drink from the cup of emotion, providing nuances about her specific circumstances that allow me to turn each of these situations over and over in my mind in new, unique ways. And it all added up to a terrific story.

In the case of cancer, first her dog, then (spoiler alert) she herself, must go through the grueling rigors of chemotherapy. But while the medical details of such a process might be cold and clinical, in a memoir the journey becomes warm and inspiring, filled with the intricacies of misery and courage.

And her relationship with her dog raises astonishing emotional complexity. While Marley and Me by John Grogan brought us closer to the family dog, The Dog Lived takes it a step further, making the relationship almost indistinguishable to the emotions you might expect with a troubled child. And in her love for her pet, it is easy to feel the full protective embrace of a mother’s love.

Finally, there was the romance – that terrifying process that in my younger male mind, I wrote off as a caricature only relevant in cheesy novels. I used to pretend that partnering was easy, or more to the point, if it was difficult, I didn’t want to know about it.

After I’d read enough memoirs, I developed a far more nuanced appreciation for the ups and downs of finding a romantic partner. Theresa Rhyne’s story pried me open further, making me even more willing to include the aching pain of romance into my ever widening circle of empathy.

The thing that makes this particular memoir so emotionally rewarding is the expertise with which the author weaves these three themes. Each one is as complex and nuanced as any good theme should be, and yet they add power to each other, providing a far greater story in combination.

Her memoir demonstrates the vast difference between mere memories and the stories they generate. Anyone who had to look back on this collection of past events, all one might see in memory might be a bratty dog with behavior problems, two incredibly disruptive scary cancer experiences, and an attempt to forge a relationship against unbelievable odds.

I am in awe of this nearly-impossible challenge that every memoir writer faces – to take the life dealt to you by destiny, and turn it into a satisfying page turner that resonates long after the book is closed.

How Theresa Rhyne pulls the whole thing together into such a lovely memoir is a testimony to her skill as a writer, and also a testimony to the enormous humanity of this genre – it is designed for exactly this deep human need – to enable us to immerse ourselves in each other’s emotional experiences.

I’m not the only one who could benefit from a course in empathy. My hope is that as more people discover the nuances of the human experience, as shared in memoirs like this, we will all grow more empathetic to the difficulties and joys of being human together.

Writing prompts

Write a paragraph about our most complicated romantic encounter

Write a paragraph about an encounter with cancer or some other life threatening and disruptive health issue.

Write a paragraph about a relationship with a pet, child, or someone else who both relied on you and caused you problems.

If you are feeling adventuresome, try to weave these three high-intensity interactions in your life into one compelling story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Footote about empathy and neurons

How could I, or anyone for that matter, truly be learning how to be more empathetic? Wasn’t I stuck with the amount of empathy I was born with? Based on the most up-to-date neuroscience, our adult brains can change. Through effort and lots of training, I was able to increase the number of neuronal connections responsible for my sense of empathy.

Our brains contain a feature called “mirror neurons” which enable us to empathetically relate to each other’s emotions. So in a sense, the best way to raise our aptitude about our own emotions is to carefully pay attention to each other’s.

NOTES

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

2 thoughts on “How memoirs increase empathy

  1. These are very interesting insights Jerry. As a writer-author turned Counsellor, I value the role of memoir in self reflection and often encourage clients to practice it. I’ve been impressed by Susan Wittig Albert’s ‘Writing from Life’ as a go to tool box and I shall check out your book too.

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