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.

Grieving memoirs – a different slant

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

Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis is a memoir about two strong-willed people whose relentless mutual attraction chips away at their individuality. When they discover that they are happier together than apart, their relationship is born. The memoir continues past consummation, into a marriage fueled by an unquenchable thirst to live life to its fullest.

From the beginning, John’s rare form of cancer hung over the marriage like a sword. Instead of slowing them down, the threat egged them on to passionately engage in culture, nature, friendships, and each other.Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis

Both of them were on the cusp of retirement, anyway. So they seized this opportunity to cut short their successful careers and devote the rest of their lives to each other. Then time ran out. In a breathless chronology, the author leads us blow-by-devastating-blow through her husband’s medical setbacks.

Shirley Melis relies on the skills she honed during her career as a professional writer to pull readers into the details of their bliss together and then their frightening ordeal. She used scenes supported by dialog and contemporaneous material (letters and journal entries) to cut away the distance between reader and writer and allows us to enter her world.

The couple’s care for each other turned John’s downward slide into another chapter in their passionate love story. While their doctors fought his disease with the full weight of medical science, Shirley and John threw their full weight into trust in the future. They were determined to defy mortality and make plans for the next adventure. The power of love transforms the ending of their story into a sort of crescendo.

To satisfy readers, the ending of a memoir must wrap up the entire story in a way that allows the reader a visceral reaction—goosebumps, say, or a smile—that inspires them to recommend it to a friend. Banged-Up Heart achieves those goals in a way that surprised me.

In just about every memoir about loss I can think of, death takes place early enough in the book to allow plenty of time for the author’s recovery. This bridge from death back to life is one of the great gifts that grieving authors give to the rest of us.

Examples are plentiful. Susan Weidener’s memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, is also about a marriage ended prematurely by cancer. Like Banged-Up Heart, Weidener’s memoir shares the entire life span of her relationship to her husband, from the romance, through building a life together, and having children. Then the ripping away of a too early death. Weidener’s memoir, however, goes on to the next stage in her journey, as she tries to rebuild her life.

Rebuilding is the entire focus of Kate Braestrup’s memoir, Here if You Need Me. We barely meet Braestrup’s husband, who was killed in a freak auto accident at the beginning of the book. The lion’s share of the story describes the author’s long journey back, raising her kids and growing as a person. In the end, she offers a lovely perspective on the nature of good and evil, providing readers with the gift of her own hard-earned wisdom.

Memoirs about the death of a child also guide us through death’s aftermath, as the authors strive to cope with their devastating loss. For examples, check out any of these moving memoirs: Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Leave the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash, and Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes.

Well-defined story arcs about loss and the subsequent grieving process have earned an important place in my taxonomy of memoir subgenres, because each one provides wisdom regarding this fundamental journey of the heart.

I assumed that Banged-up Heart would similarly explore the arduous climb back to sanity and acceptance. But as I approached the end of the memoir, John was still battling for his life, and both of them were still struggling to visualize their adventures after he recovered. During this period, Shirley was too focused on hope to spend time grieving. As the pages flew by, I began to wonder how she would have room to wrap up the story.

In my impatience, I felt there were many details that didn’t add momentum to the story. Yet I carried on, drawn forward by the compelling writing, and my empathetic connection with this terrifying situation.

Amid so many upheavals and disasters, I wanted to learn as much as possible about Melis’ thoughts. In every other grieving memoir I have read, the nuances of the author’s interior landscape were crucially important. For me, that is the payoff for reading a story about loss. I want to accompany the author on this noble search to reclaim a sense of meaning. But instead of emphasizing her inner landscape, the author focused mainly on what was happening around her.

During this run-up to the end, with John in his deathbed, Shirley beside herself with worry, and me juggling my own expectations about where this was going, the story took a surprising turn. The result dashed my expectations and broke out of the “grieving story arc.” And it did so in a most satisfying way. Like the final moments of the movie The Sixth Sense, which shifted the premise of the entire story, the ending of Banged-up Heart caused me to toss out the expected storyline of a grieving memoir.

Melis’ exquisite, loving description of placing John’s remains in his final resting place helped me understand exactly what she was trying to do and gave me a rush of recognition. “Oh, that’s what the memoir was about.”

By ending the book the way she did — not with feelings of loss, but with admiration and love for her husband — the intent of Melis’ book instantly flipped. This was not the journey of sorrow and recovery, which I had expected, but a book about courage, respect, mutual support, and how two loving people can create life in each other’s eyes.

Although the story structure was unconventional, in the end, the book met my expectations after all, by offering me the two great gifts I expect from all satisfying memoirs: first, the life and mind of the author, and second, deep insight into a universal aspect of human experience.

By letting me into her life she showed me the unique nuances of her situation. She met and fell in love with John while still trying to recover from the death of her first husband, complicating her approach to grief. John was an unusual character, full of complex ideas and extraordinary talents. Their relationship was only a couple of years old. These individual variations gave me a sense of being with a specific person, at a specific time.

These specific features of their love offered me a fresh perspective on the universal experience of loss. The emergence of universal insights out of the cauldron of individual experience is why I love memoirs so much.

Love is one of the great driving forces of human experience. Some even say that love is the primary force and that all other emotions derive from it. And yet in the memoir genre, love is usually neatly tucked behind the thoughts, dreams, and needs of the protagonist. Shirley Melis’ memoir Banged-up Heart brings love out of its supporting role and places it front and center, as the hero of her story.

Memoirs that represent other relevant subgenres

Memoirs that Review multiple relationships

These memoirs review the life of several relationships across the author’s lifespan. Instead of praising one relationship, they lead us on the protagonist’s attempt to make better sense of these crucial features of emotional life:
Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse by Kathy Pooler,
Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers his Marriages by Boyd Lemon
Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro

Memoirs devoted to loving one other person

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell — Love and loss of a friend.
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman — Her tribute to her husband mixed with the caregiving and cognitive rehabilitation after his stroke.

Notes
Shirley Melis’ Home Page

For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.