In the book I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy (Houghton Mifflin, 251 pp. (26 US$)), Cris Beam makes empathy present. She brings forth empathy her engagement with difficult cases that challenge our empathy, including her own conflicts. In the process of struggling with, against, and for empathy, she succeeds in bringing forth empathy and making empathy present for the reader. From an empathic point of view, I can think of no higher praise.
This book is a page-turner, and is laced with the straight-ahead, deadpan humor of a Dave Barry, skewering all sides of the debate (admittedly from a progressive LGBTQ perspective) with an equal opportunity debunking of hypocrisies, inauthenticities, and blind spots.
There are empathy lessons in abundance; but, being a human being, Beam has her blinds spots, too. How could it be otherwise? This is a work of nonfiction, but there are some surprises, so I hereby issue a spoiler alert. Beam tells an engaging tale; indeed you can’t make this stuff up.
Beam is a would-be “bad girl,” who has written a very good book. In a world of constrained, limited empathy, the empathic person is a non-conformist. Beam is one of those, too, and succeeds in sustaining a nuanced skepticism about the alternating hype and over-valuation of empathy over against those who summarily dismiss it. Most ambivalently, she calls out the corporate infatuation with empathy. I paraphrase the corporate approach: Take a walk in the other person’s shoes in order to sell them another pair.
Beam reports she is parenting a transgender child; and she relates how she was ready angrily to confront the celebrated neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran over a publication that implied there was a third gender. He dodged the bullet by blaming the graduate student, who did the research. Without skipping a beat, Beam points out: “In my lifetime, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has been utilized in this country on people like me to try to rid them of their socially objectionable behavior” (p. 54).
Beam’s account of extreme empathy, sometimes also called “radical empathy” needs telling. In brief, extreme empathy is empathy for the perpetrator. Empathy with victims and survivors is a relatively low bar, though compassion fatigue is a risk, but what about empathy for the perpetrators, those who cause suffering for others, behave like bullies, commit crimes? To be sure, people who are a threat to others or to themselves may need to be taken out of the community to protect the community and themselves. But incarcerating a person – whether in jail or a locked mental ward – rarely makes people better. They need treatment. Hence, the need for extreme empathy.
In the section entitled Ars Empathica, Beam is on a tear. She goes from a theatre piece depicting an interview with Eugen de Kock, the infamous chief of police of Vlakplaas, apartheid’s death squad in South Africa, to a convention for owner’s of Real Dolls, the expensive, anatomically realistic, silicone sex dolls that made their mainstream debut in the 2007 movie Lars and the Real Girl. Never having seen the movie, I acknowledge I need to get out more.
The challenge posed by Beam (and the “thought experiment”) is: now empathize with this: de Kock, Lars, various perpetrators. We can all empathize with lost and abused pets. Nor is anyone saying to stop doing so. However, let’s raise the bar. Everyone has to decide for her- or himself. What was de Kock thinking? Feeling? Just following orders (again)? The Orca killer whole who died of a brain aneurysm after repeatedly smashing its head into the side of the prison, oops, I mean enclosure? Beam frames much of this debate as performance art, otherwise the contrast would be – how should I put it delicately – maudlin and grotesque. Art is no longer beautiful; it is designed to get us to think. And Beam does that too.
However, then perhaps not surprisingly, empathy shows up – is made present – comes forth – as our shared, struggling humanity. One Real Doll owner lost his [real human] wife to cancer. People have different ways of expressing their suffering. Who am I to judge? Beam: “People on feminist sites were calling Real Doll owners ‘fat, ugly people who can’t get dates’ (the very slurs used against feminists)” (p. 76). The matter is nuanced. The husband of the cancer victim is a cross-dresser. Trigger alert: Pending politically incorrect thought: in addition to objectifying women, Real Doll owners are projecting humanity onto objects.
It gets personal. Beam reports that she is a survivor of a floridly psychotic mother and a father who, at least temporarily (and probably to save himself), abandoned Cris to her fate with that woman. As a teenager, Beam escapes to her father and his second marriage only to be rejected when she “comes out” as a lesbian some years later. Fast forward to Beam’s own second marriage [both to women].
Beam’s partner announces that the partner (at that time a “she”) is committed to transitioning to becoming a man. Beam decides to support her (becoming him) and sticks with it through the top surgery, administering the testosterone shots. The partner tells Beam: “I will love you always [regardless of my gender].” Beam decides to believe the partner. (See what I mean? You can’t make this stuff up.)
Things hit a rough patch; they do not go well. Beam does not say the following (but I (and Simone de Beauvoir) did): biology is not destiny; woman is more than a mere womb; man is not mere testosterone. But sometimes not much more. Testosterone will not increase one’s libido; but it can make a person more aggressive. Beam reports that she ends up with a black eye and a split lip. Beam moves out.
Beam engages with the distinctions between empathy, compassion, and forgiveness – as near as I can tell, putting them on a continuum of distinct but overlapping and ways of relating to struggling humanity, including one’s own. This reviewer found Beam’s account of the contribution to empathy of Heinz Kohut, MD, who put the psychotherapeutic (and psychoanalytic) uses of empathy on the map, to be engaging and compelling. Ultimately, the world needs expanded empathy as well as more compassion and forgiveness. This is not an “either-or” game.
Nor is this a softball review, and I decisively disagree with Beam when she says that empathy is “mutual vulnerability” and approvingly quotes André Keet: “there are no neat boundaries between victim, perpetrators, beneficiaries, and bystanders …” (p. 191). While such a statement is descriptively accurate once the suicide bomb goes off (or the father walks, leaving the psychotic mother and child behind), the commitment of empathy is to respect boundaries and (re)establish them when the boundaries have broken down or been violated.
Empathy is all about boundaries, and Beam, like so many of us, has her share of struggles with them. No easy answers here. But one final thought as my personal response to Beam’s thought provoking and inspiring work on empathy. We may usefully consider the poet Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.” I add: There is a gate in the fence, and over the gate is written the word “Empathy.”
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project