Literature and Empathy

Last week’s post was about my experience writing physical intimacy between women, the reaction to my writing when I shared it, and the difficulty of writing away from my heteronormative male libido. I wrote about working hard to back my piece away from dude fantasy land and that I wasn’t totally successful in the effort. Still, progress was made.

One of the very interesting things that happened as I worked on it, read it, worked it, read it, and worked it some more, is that physical intimacy between women shifted towards physical intimacy between human beings. It started to seem natural that women could engage in a profound and satisfying physical and emotional relationship and that I could identify with that empathically. I started to be less the voyeur, and more a compassionate witness.

When I put my piece out into the public, I believed it was plausible, respectful, and well written, but, it felt risky. I was conscious of tackling subject material beyond my direct experience, and acutely aware of the male sexual voyeur perspective it was easy to fall into. I worried about grossly misunderstanding what an intimate physical relationship between two women would feel like to those women. My worst-case scenario was that I was so wrong and disrespectful that a woman would feel compelled to walk up to me and tell me how screwed up I was. Thankfully, this didn’t happen. Instead, the silence was deafening. I suppose that was good news. I was not so egregiously out of line that a woman felt the urgent need to set me straight. But it also did nothing to refine my understanding of my subject matter.

Finally, a virtual acquaintance on one of my social networks, a woman, read it and offered a helpful critique. She told me I hadn’t entirely escaped the male ogling gaze, gave a few examples of where I had not done so, and urged a vocabulary shift. Who knew that “fondle” was loaded with male, heterosexual-lizard-brain, sensibility? When I related this particular insight to my wife, she instantly said she hated the word. I never knew. I was more deeply stuck in the culture of male heterosexuality than I had imagined.

I’ve begun to think of my social media acquaintance as a spirit guide, sent to lead me through the landscape of inter-feminine love and sexuality. She suggested I read LGBTQ+ romance novels and recommended I start with One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston. I immediately purchased it for my Kindle and started reading. It’s wonderfully imaginative and well written. I’ve blazed through half of it already. I just finished the intense and beautiful climactic sex scene. I was able to stay in the place of compassionate witness as I read. My education is accelerating.

This leads me to thoughts about the profound importance of literature in developing empathy. We spend our lifetimes steeping in cultural cosmologies1 that become gated communities of belief where anything outside the gates is foreign, even dangerous. Some of us have expansive cultural cosmologies with highly permeable membranes around them. Some of us have tightly limiting cosmologies with hard exoskeleton membranes and little permeability. The majority of us are somewhere between. Literature is often the way hard, permeable exoskeletons are avoided or softened.

To understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes, read accounts of it by talented authors who’ve had that experience or have done the work it takes to write an honest and empathetic portrayal of it. And write about it yourself. Nothing lets you walk a mile in another’s shoes quite the way imagining and writing about it does.

Which brings me to the current far-right efforts to ban books that have anything to do with rendering a cultural cosmology other than one based on a cisgender, white patriarchal, christian experience. And, the more liberal among us should not get smug. While the present book banning efforts may be largely from the far right, it is not unknown on the left side of the equation. Huckleberry Finn has been the target of banning efforts throughout its history and is presently a banning target of culture warriors from the left.

Having access to literature that helps us occupy the space of alien-to-us ways of being is of profound importance to the development of tolerance and understanding. If I were teaching creative writing to young people, I would start at an early age and have them write age-appropriate pieces where they are asked to imagine life in another person’s or creature’s shoes.

Humanity is a beautiful mosaic. As long as another’s way of being in the world doesn’t cause physical or psychological damage to those around them, all ways of being should be tolerated. We should aim to educate as broadly as possible in the variety of ways one can be. Children in particular, at appropriate ages, with appropriate guidance, should be allowed and encouraged to inhabit a multitude of ways of being, as they work out what their way of being will be.

  1. I owe this concept of cultural cosmology to Ryhd Wildermuth’s recent substack post, Political Theology↩︎

The Photograph

Photograph by Margot Kingon

When she stumbled across it, she didn’t think much of it. A photograph with little useful information. A photograph with nothing apparent to say about family history. A black and white photograph of a man crouched in the waters of a stream, rocks visible below the surface in the foreground, a darkness on the opposite bank in the background. She tossed it aside, favoring images with faces to recognize, her grandmother, her grandfather, her mother, her father, her aunts, her uncles. That is to say, portraits she recognized as the family history that had brought her to where she was in life.

She made a selection of those images and tucked them into an envelope to bring with her to the hospice. She wanted to provoke memories from her father, as many as she could before he left. She wanted to carry forward as much of the family history as possible, for her children, her children’s children, her children’s children’s children. She wanted to be able to speak the web of stories to them down through the ages, adding her own, inspiring them to add their own as they moved through space over time.

She walked through the door to her dad’s room. His eyes opened to the distinctive sound of his daughter’s entry. There wasn’t anything exceptionally noticeable about the way she moved through doors, but when you’ve known someone all their lives, you become familiar with their nuances. You sense them in all manner of ways you are barely aware of.

A smile spread across his face as she walked up to the bed.

Good timing he said, just finished a nap.

How are you feeling? she asked.

Better now that you’re here. What’s that? he said, glancing towards the envelope clutched to her chest.

Some of your pictures dad. I thought we could look at them together and you could tell me about them.

More family inquisition? he said with a half smile.

He understood his daughter’s need to plumb the past and gather what she could about his-story, which was, of course, part of her-story. He didn’t mind these sessions, though he was growing more weary each day as his body moved towards reintegration, as he liked to think about it.

She pulled the pictures out and they went through them, Who’s this? she asked, or, Tell me more about Aunt J or Where was this taken? or, Why does mom look sad in this one?

After a while she could see her father was getting tired, so she tucked the pictures back into the envelope, turning pictures already viewed the opposite direction from the ones not viewed so she could remember where they were tomorrow. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. She sat in the chair beside his bed and listened to him breathe for a while, then she dosed off too. When she woke his eyes were focused on her. They smiled at one another.

Glancing at her watch she said I better go, gotta feed the dogs and Mark, Same time tomorrow?

I’ll be here.



She knew he would keep his promise if he could. She knew the hospice would call her if it looked like he wouldn’t.

When she got home Mark was waiting, dogs fed, diner ready. A Persian shrimp dish with basmati rice and bitter greens salad. She poured herself a glass of wine.

How’s your dad? he asked.

Good, we had a nice chat. I brought some of his pictures and we went through them. It was nice to hear his stories. I know most of them, but there is always something new.

How was your day? she asked.

Work is work, he said.

She considered his reply for a moment.

Thank you, she said.

For what? he asked.

For working, for being here, for giving me time with my dad.

Nothing you wouldn’t do for me, he said.

Days continued to pass. Her visits with her father became less conversational and more quiet communion as his energy flagged. His “reintegration” would be soon. She spent more of each day by his side, wanting to be sure he wasn’t alone, that she didn’t miss the final goodbye.

She came home briefly for a change of clothes. For some reason, she felt compelled to have another look through his photographs and the odd one, the ambiguous one, came to the top again, it posed so many questions. Why did he hold on to a photograph that seemed to have so little to say directly about how things were? She decided to bring it back with her. He spent little time awake or coherent at this point, but if he became lucid she thought she would ask about it. And there was a lucid moment. When it came, she raised the photograph up.

Can you tell me about this one? she asked.

His face came alive in a way she could only describe as beatific. The expression then faded away without a word uttered. Breath stopped shortly after. She would never know what the photograph meant to him. She would never forget his radiant smile.

She framed the photograph and hung it on her wall. It gave her peace to look at it and remember her father’s radiant smile.

Time continued to pass. She too grew old and frail. Her son visited often as she moved towards her reintegration. One day he asked her about the photograph on the wall, which seemed so ambiguous, about so little. A smile spread across her face, she told him about her father’s final moments, his radiant smile.

When she reintegrated, he brought the photograph home with him and hung it on the wall. It reminded him of her beautiful smile. He imagined the crouched figure of the man in the water as the cumulative spirits of all his ancestors. It gave him peace whenever he needed it.