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Extreme Empathy, or An Author’s Affliction

There once was a talented actress/singer/dancer, let’s call her Michelle, who had suffered a series of hard knocks in life. She ended up in a small town, teaching others–but she never really gave up on her own dream. Then one day she heard about a national tour of a musical that was casting in San Francisco. She decided to get herself there and go for it, one last time, before she was too old. And she blew everyone else away. She could sing, she could dance, she ended up one of the last 20 standing, then one of the last five. Finally, it was clear it was her. She’d done it. And she’d deserved it. They said they’d be calling.

Then, on the way out, the rehearsal pianist, who looked a lot like Seth Rudetsky, told her how impressed he was, and to look him up if she was ever in New York. She replied that if she got this show, she soon would be. To which he told her, “Honey, they’re not casting anyone from here. They had to hold open auditions to satisfy a union requirement.” He looked for his card so she could be in touch, but he didn’t have one. He left. She went home.

I was wounded for days.

Never mind that it was the last episode of Bunheads, or that Michelle was played by Sutton Foster, who, I have reason to believe, is doing just fine. Even scolding Mr. Rudetsky on his FB page and threatening to get her his card myself (which he thought was pretty funny) didn’t help.



Before you think this is only an (slightly) amusing anecdote, let me give you a bit of background.

A lot has been written lately about the discovered brain similarities between writers and people with mental illnesses. Not that that comes as much of a surprise. There’s been fairly convincing anecdotal evidence since they invented the quill pen.

But my brand of weird thinking has always been a peculiar one, and I’m wondering if anyone else shares this peccadillo. 

I remember being very young–seven or eight–when I realized I could sometimes lose my footing and tumble into someone else’s emotional space. It wasn’t a “head thing,” it was like a fall off a pier into a cold lake. And I couldn’t control when it would happen. The times I remember most vividly were when I was watching television. A television showing of the film “I Want to Live,” with Susan Hayworth as a wrongly-condemned woman put to death nearly undid me. But it  usually didn’t take anywhere near that much. I remember “taking a tumble” watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. when Napoleon was going to be forced to marry someone. More than any threatened torture that spy stories could come up with, my eight-year-old self was horrified. Horrified! “HOW CAN YOU WATCH THIS???” I yelled at my parents. Now, the Man from UNCLE was completely tongue-in-cheek, and I’m sure neither Robert Vaughn, nor Napoleon Solo himself, had a moment of anguish about the situation. But I was overwhelmed with grief. 


I was usually “lost” in the lake of someone else’s emotions for a good half an hour and then it would linger for days. It was a keen physical sensation in which my stomach kind of glowed my muscles tensed and my heart pounded. I knew it was odd back then, and asked if I should see a doctor to keep it from happening, but no one knew just what to make of me. 

It’s probably worth mentioning that at the same time, I lived in a variety of different fictional worlds of my own creation. I knew what the real world was, but I had the choice of several fully formed worlds in my own head that I could choose to enter at any time. There were secret places I could go to–usually in the woods behind our house in Park Forest–to meet the imaginary friends and enemies who populated these worlds. Not surprisingly, the kids who became my best friends were ones who enjoyed entering these worlds with me. I think that’s how I began to be able to handle the crises of other fictional people, by being able to mold and motivate the characters in my own worlds. 

It all morphed when I got old enough to write. Then I was living in the heads of multiple characters. By middle school in Springfield, Missouri,  I was writing novels. (And my best friend and I were members of the French Underground.) One day I was acting out what would have to happen to have a physical attack come off the way I needed it to. Of course, I couldn’t do that without entering the head of the character who was being attacked. When the rest of my family got home, I was emotionally spent. Yet I couldn’t really tell anyone why.It didn’t seem actual. But it felt actual.

It carried over into reading other people’s novels, of course. I could barely scrape through Wuthering Heights over a yea’s time. What a horrid story of abuse! Run, Catherine, just freaking run! Although well-written and atmospheric. of course.

But then,  you need to factor in real life. When I went to college, I signed up for Spanish I as an easy A  Then one day, our seemingly mild-mannered middle-aged professor walked in, said his therapist told him that, as part of his healing, he had to tell his never-before-spoken-out-loud story. To people who would understand and forgive him. And so, for the next weeks, he came into class, sat down at his desk, and began by reading an excerpt from the handwritten story of his sexual abuse as a child, how it gave rise to horrible impulses to abuse children himself, how he couldn’t stop the feelings and he went to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a subway before he acted on these impulses; how a large man whom he believed to be an angel flung him from the tracks. Holy cow. I was right there with him. Ask me about college and I’ll tell you how I came to understand that there’s no one (and, by extension, no character) who cannot be redeemed. I might have had other classes. I don’t remember. 


I think this is partly why it wrings me out so much to write a novel. I know other writers who happily type out 10,000 words a day and are on their merry way. I don’t know that they have fewer characters to inhabit than do I. But I suspect they don’t have quite the same affliction. (It reminds me of when Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier were making MARATHON MAN, and apparently  Hoffman had been partying at Studio 54 all night before a scene when his character had gone without sleep. “Ever try acting?” asked Olivier, dryly.)

And I don’t think this happens to all writers. Once when I was a young writer in New York, I was tasked with walking a famous poet between engagements. We walked down 12th Street between Fifth and Sixth just as it was turning dark and lights were coming on inside the townhouses. “Doesn’t this just get to you?” I asked. “Don’t you wonder what is going on in each of these homes, and families, and lives?” Without breaking stride, he said, “No, I think that’s just novelists.”


Not surprisingly, I spent a decade as a celebrity ghostwriter while becoming a biographer and novelist. Looking back, it just makes sense.

It has been quite an education seeing the world through so many other pairs of eyes. One I remember most clearly is when the young man who would become my husband and I went on a Murder Mystery Weekend at an old house upstate, and through winning the opening gambit, we secretly became the murderers. We would win if we solved a certain puzzle and kept our identity secret; others would win if they unmasked the murderers. It was a real moment for me when we got what we needed from someone, and she begged for her life. Made all kinds of deals. But did we want to WIN? Then there was a final switch I had to flip. It was clear you’d only win if you had the mindset of a remorseless psychotic. What an “aha” moment. From then on, we killed who we needed to kill. And, in to that murderer, it made perfect sense. That time, I wasn’t overwhelmed with emotion. I was perfectly clear, calm, and calculating. We won. Hmm. Interesting who’s inside me.

So. is this extreme empathy thing a mental quirk? A blessing and a curse, as Monk would say? As Shelly one said, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.” 

Currently, I’m reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, a novelized version of the romantic lives of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny. I grok what Louis went through with his poor health and struggle to make a living with his words. Almost got out of the story interested but unscathed. But then a new acquaintance comes back from visiting cousins and friends back in England, whom Louis feels are his true family and heart-friends. When he’s told how they’ve turned on him and betrayed him–well, there I went. Long walk off short pier. That was two days ago. I’m coming out of it now. 


Which, I guess, brings us to anther point. I not only understand how much writers can have in common with people with mental illnesses, I understand how they can turn to drink. 

xo Sharon 


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