The short review: the title, The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir (Sherry Turkle New York: Penguin Press, 2021, 357 pp.) reveals that empathy lives, comes forth, in empathy’s breakdowns and failings. Empathy often emerges in clarifying a lack of empathy. This work might have been entitled, less elegantly, “The Lack of Empathy Diaries.” I found the book to be compellingly written, even a page-turner at times, highly recommended. But, caution, this is not a “soft ball” review.”
Do not misunderstand me. Sherry Turkle’s mom (Harriet), Aunt Mildred, grand parents, and the extended Jewish family, growing up between Brooklyn and Rockaway, NY, were empathic enough. They were generous in their genteel poverty. They gloried in flirting with communism and emphasizing, in the USA, it was a federal offense to open anyone else’s mail. Privacy is one of the foundations of empathy – and democracy. Sherry’s folks talked back to the black and white TV, and struggled economically in the lower middle class, getting dressed up for Sabbath on High Holidays and shaking hands with the neighbors on the steps of the synagogue as if they could afford the seats, which they could not, then discretely disappearing.
As Tolstoy famously noted, all happy families are alike. What Tolstoy did not note was that many happy families are also unhappy ones. Figure that one out! Sherry’s answer to Tolstoy is her memoir.
Families have secrets, and one was imposed on the young Sherry. Her mother married Charles Zimmerman, which was her last name as he was the biological father. Within a noticeably short time, mom discovered a compelling reason to divorce Charles. The revelation of his “experiments” on the young Sherry form a suspenseful core to the narrative, about which more shortly.
Mom gets rid of Charles and within about another year marries Milton Turkle, which becomes Sherry’s name at home and the name preferred by her Mom for purposes of forming a family. There’s some weirdness with this guy, too, which eventually emerges; but he does have a penis and a younger brother and sister show up apace.
In our own age of blended families, trial marriages, and common divorce, many readers are, like, “What’s the issue?” The issues is that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, even as the sexual revolution and first feminist wave were exploding on the scene, in many communities, divorce was stigmatizing. Key term: stigma. Don’t talk about it. It is your dark secret.
The rule for Sherry of tender age was “you are really a Turkle at home and at the local deli; but at school you are a Zimmerman.” Once again, while that may be a concern, what’s the big deal? The issue is: Sherry, you are not allowed to talk about it. It is a secret. Magical thinking thrives. To young Sherry’s mind, she is wondering if it comes out will she perhaps no longer be a part of the family – abandoned, expelled, exiled. Even the siblings do not find out about the “name of the father” (a Lacanian allusion) until adulthood. A well kept secret indeed. Your books from school, Sherry, which have “Zimmerman” written in them, must be kept in a special locked cupboard.
How shall I put it delicately? Such grown up values and personal politics – and craziness – could get a kid of tender age off her game. This could get one confused or even a tad neurotic oneself. The details of how all these dynamics get worked out make for a page turner.
Fast forward. Sherry finds a way to escape from this craziness through education. Sherry is smart. Very smart. Her traditionally inclined elders tell her, “Read!” They won’t let her do chores. “Read!” Reading is a practice that expands one’s empathy. This being the early 1960s, her folks make sure she does not learn how to type. No way she is going to the typing pool to become some professors typist. She is going to be the professor! This, too, is the kind of empathy on the part of her family unit, who recognized who she was, even amidst the impingements and perpetrations.
Speaking personally, I felt a special kinship with this young person, because something similar happened to me. I escaped from a difficult family situation through education, though all the details are different – and I had to do a bunch of chores, too!
The path is winding and labyrinthine; but that’s what happened. Sherry gets a good scholarship to Radcliffe (women were not yet allowed to register at Harvard). She meets and is mentored by celebrity sociologist David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd) and other less famous but equally inspiring teachers.
She gets a grant to undertake a social psychological inquiry into the community of French psychoanalysis, an ethnographic study not of an indigenous tribe in Borneo but a kind of tribe nonetheless in the vicinity of Paris, France.
The notorious “bad boy” Jacque Lacan is disrupting all matters psychoanalytic. His innovations consist in fomenting rebellion in psychoanalytic thinking and in the community. “The name of the father” (Lacan’s idea about Oedipus) resonates with Turkle personally.
Lacan speaks truth to [psychoanalytic] power, resulting in one schism after another in the structure of psychoanalytic institutes and societies. Turkle intellectually dances around the hypocrisy, hidden in plain view, but ultimately calls it out: challenging authority is encouraged as long as the challenge is not directed at the charismatic leader, Lacan, himself. This is happening shortly after the students and workers form alliance in Paris May 1968, disrupting the values and authority of traditional bourgeois society. A Rashomon story indeed. Turkle’s working knowledge of the French language makes rapid advances.
Turkle, whose own psychoanalysis is performed by more conventional American analysts in the vicinity of Boston (see the book for further details), is befriended by Lacan. This is because Lacan wants her to write nice things about him. He is didactic, non enigmatic amid his enigmatic ciphers. Jaques is nice to her. I am telling you – you can’t make this stuff up. Turkle is perhaps the only – how shall I put it delicately – attractive woman academic that he does not try to seduce. Lacan “gets it” – even amid his own flawed empathy – you don’t mess with this one. Yet Lacan’s trip to Boston – Harvard and MIT – ends in disaster. This has nothing – okay, little – to do with Turkle – though her colleague are snarky. The reason? Simple: Lacan can’t stop being Lacan.
Turkle’s long and deep history of having to live with the “Zimmerman / Turkle” name of the father lie, hidden in plain view, leaves Turkle vulnerable in matters of the heart. She meets and is swept off her feet by Seymour Papert, named-chair professor at MIT, an innovator in computing technology and child psychology, the collaborator with Marvin Minsky, and author of Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.
Seymour ends up being easy to dislike in spite of his authentic personal charm, near manic enthusiasm, interestingness, and cognitive pyrotechnics. Warning signs include the surprising ways Sherry have to find out about his grown up daughter and second wife, who is actually the first one. Sherry is vulnerable to being lied to. The final straw is Seymour’s cohabitating with a woman in Paris over the summer, by this time married to Sherry. Game over; likewise, the marriage. To everyones credit, they remain friends.
Sherry’s academic career features penetrating and innovative inquiries into how smart phone, networked devices, and screens – especially screens – affect our attention and conversations. The research methods are powerful: she talks to people, notes what they say, and tries to understand their relationships with one another and with evocative objects, the latter not exactly Winnicott’s transitional objects, but perhaps close enough for purposes of a short review.
The reader can imagine her technology mesmerized colleagues at MIT not being thrilled by her critique of the less than humanizing aspects of all these interruptions, eruptions, and corruptions of and to our attention and ability to be fully present with other human beings.
After a struggle, finding a diplomatic way of speaking truth to power, Turkle gets her tenured professorship, reversing an initial denial (something that rarely happens). The denouement is complete. The finalè is at hand.
Sherry hires a private detective and reestablishes contact with her biological father, Charles. His “experiments” on Sherry that caused her mother to end the marriage, indeed flee from it, turn out to be an extreme version of the “blank face” attachment exercises pioneered by Mary Main, Mary Ainsworth and colleagues, based on John Bowlby’s attachment theory. The key word here is: extreme. I speculate that Charles was apparently also influenced by Harry Harlow’s “love studies” with rhesus monkeys, subjecting them to extreme maternal deprivation (and this is not in Turkle). It didn’t do the monkeys a lot of good, taking down their capacity to love, attachment, much less the ability to be empathic (a term noticeably missing from Harlow), leaving them, austic like emotional hulks, preferring clinging to surrogate cloth mothers to food. Not pretty. In short, Sherry’s mother comes home unexpectedly to find Sherry (of tender age) crying her eyes out in distress, all alone, with Charles in the next room. Charles offers mom co-authorship of the article to be published, confirming that he really doesn’t get it. Game over; likewise, the marriage.
On a personal note, I was engaged by Turkle’s account of her time at the University of Chicago. Scene change. She is sitting there in lecture room Social Science 122, which I myself frequented. Bruno Bettelheim comes in, puts a straight back chair in the middle of the low stage, and delivers a stimulating lecture without notes, debating controversial questions with students, who were practicing speaking truth to power. It is a tad like batting practice – the student throws a fast ball, the Professor gives it a good whack. Whether the reply was a home run or a foul ball continues to be debated. I was in the same lecture, same Professor B, about two years later. Likewise with Professors Victor Turner, David Grene, and Saul Bellow of the Committee on Social Thought. My own mentors were Paul Ricoeur (Philosophy and Divinity) and Stephen Toulmin, who joined the Committee and Philosophy shortly after Turkle returned to MIT.
Full discourse: my dissertation on Empathy and Interpretation was in the philosophy department, but most of my friends were studying with the Committee, who organized the best parties. I never took Bellow’s class on the novel – my loss – because it was credibly reported that he said it rotted his mind to read student term papers; and I took that to mean he did not read them. But perhaps he actually read them, making the sacrifice. We will never know for certain. One thing we do know for sure is that empathy is no rumor in the work of Sherry Turkle. Empathy lives in her contribution.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project