Teaching Empathy in an Unkind World

On my long commute to work yesterday, I heard an interesting report on NPR. The foundation behind Sesame Street surveyed parents and teachers about kindness in children. You can read the report, but it boils down to this: parents and teachers agreed that kindness was more important than academic achievement, however, parents overwhelmingly chose manners as the most important part of kindness, while teachers chose empathy.

As a parent and a teacher, I am firmly in the empathy camp. Manners are a superficial show of niceness. Manners don’t require any real kindness at all. Are they important? Sure. But not as important as empathy. As the report points out, bullies are very good at using manners in front of adults.

Empathy is the ability to imagine what other people feel. After raising teenagers and teaching grades 7 through college level, I can assure you that empathy is seriously lacking in our culture, both in and out of school. Either that, or apathy has overruled it–maybe we can empathize with others, but we simply don’t care what they might be feeling.

My children are suffering because of this empathy/apathy problem. We have moved around a lot as I have tried to find decent work in a place where I could afford rent, so my children are too often the new kids. Six weeks into this school year, not one student has asked them to join them for lunch. My son is depressed because people continually interrupt him, talk over him, don’t ask him anything about himself. My daughter feels isolated and alone without her brother sitting next to her. I, of course, feel guilty for once again making them the new kids. But this happens everywhere. This happens even after two years in a particular school.

We are a family who cares about academics. We also care about other people. When my children complain about some other kid, I try to get them to think about where that kid is coming from. What are they thinking? This helps instill empathy in my children. But it is not the only reason my kids have empathy. They have empathy for others because they read books. They read literary fiction and creative nonfiction. They read short stories by unknown teenage authors on the internet. They read whatever they can get their hands on.

What the heck am I talking about? How can reading make a person kinder? Well, scientific studies have finally shown what English teachers have always known–reading literary fiction cultivates empathy. David Comer Kidd and Emanuelle Castana published their studies in Science back in 2013. (You can read a synopsis here.) These studies showed that the kind of book matters–popular fiction doesn’t cut it, as these novels are more about plot and entertainment. But literary fiction is often about the inner workings of a character’s mind. Readers are forced to try to understand another, walk in their shoes for a while. This is the basis of empathy, and the road to true kindness.

So how can we teach kindness? Read. Read to our kids, read ourselves, encourage our children to read the good stuff. Teachers have less and less time to really dig into good novels in school. Plot and who did what are easy to teach. Analysis of a character’s motivations is not. When students refuse to read at home (and why should they if their parents don’t?), teachers have precious little time in class to discuss the real meat of a novel. Add in standardized testing and a million other hoops to jump though…you see where I’m going with this.

Parents need to take up the slack, and encourage their children to read good books. Period.The dumbing down of America is not only hurting our reasoning abilities and public discourse; it is making us unkind.

Isaac Asimov put it this way:

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”

I am throwing down the gauntlet. Your ignorance is not as good as my knowledge. Willful ignorance makes us unkind. Most of us would agree that learning to read is important, so why don’t we think that actually reading is important? If we agree that kindness is important, then let’s do something to help our children learn the empathy required to be truly kind. Let’s read with them.


need literary book suggestions? For contemporary authors, try Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, David James Duncan, Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, George RR Martin, Neil Gaiman, and JK Rowling, to name a few. For a list of great classic literary fiction, see Goodreads.




Study referenced above:

Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind
SCIENCE18 OCT 2013 : 377-380

Accidental Rape Culture?

The phone rings in our big farmhouse kitchen. Dad answers, puckers his eyebrows, “Trisha?” and then hands me the phone. I am 7 years old; I have never received a phone call before.


I walk around the corner, into the dark laundry room, stretching the beige cord of the wall phone as far as it will go because Dad is standing in the kitchen watching me, listening. Mom is cooking. I do not remember the conversation or even who it was that called, but I do know that it was a boy from school. I go back around the corner to hang up, and Dad walks over to me, asks who it was. I tell him. Then I feel the zipper of my red hoodie against my chin, look up at the bright lights of the kitchen, realize I’m in trouble for something as my feet dangle in mid-air. Dad has grabbed my shirt and lifted me off the floor, tells me I shouldn’t be talking to boys.

I wasn’t hurt. Dad put me down gently and said he just wanted to keep me safe. And even then I knew Dad was trying to protect me, trying to warn me.

In high school, Dad said, “I know what those boys are thinking.”

In college, Dad said, “I wish you would have told us,” after I finally did tell about the date rape at age 14.

Yesterday, Mom said, “You should have told us,” inferring that the daily groping in middle and high school would have stopped if I had done the right thing.

My parents are good people. Most of my teachers were good people. My parents were strict, but I knew they were trying to protect me from the dangers a young girl faces out in the world. They wanted the best for me. I was loved. So why didn’t I tell them about the daily, habitual sexual assaults? Why didn’t I tell them about the date rape? Why didn’t I tell them about the supervisor who assaulted me at work? Or the next boss, a woman, who fired me because I wouldn’t play dumb and flirt with a customer who was demeaning me?

Why didn’t I tell them? Because I didn’t know I could.

I was trained to avoid stranger danger. I was never taught that most assaults are perpetrated by acquaintances or loved ones. I didn’t know what date rape was. It took me three years to figure out what happened to me was, indeed, rape. I was also taught that if I “let” a boy touch me, it was my fault.

Right now, Kelly Oxford’s #NotOkay is burning up social media in response to a public figure bragging about assaulting women. Women are using #NotOkay to share their first assault memories, and many men who are shocked that sexual assault is so commonplace are joining the discussion. I was late to the tweeting party because I couldn’t pinpoint the first. Who can remember the first time? I do remember it stopped for a while when I had a visible boyfriend—we respect private property.#notokay

When boys started smacking and grabbing my 12-year-old ass in public, not one teacher or administrator or coach did anything about it. Not one. The only time I fought back in school—I was in 4th grade—and kicked a boy because he grabbed my best friend, I got reprimanded by a teacher. Girls couldn’t touch boys. But boys could grope with impunity. No one said it out loud then, but the message was clear: this is the way of the world, girls; your body is not your own. The only time this aggressive behavior stopped was when I had a boyfriend in high school. Apparently the boys did have a rule—don’t touch another man’s property.

Let’s be clear: it wasn’t all boys. But it was enough of them that I can’t remember all the names and faces of the boys, guys, and men who have grabbed, groped, smacked, or said wildly inappropriate things to me in my life. Actually, I remember the ones who didn’t. The list is shorter.

There is another reason I didn’t tell anyone, though. We call it victim-blaming. When the boy telephoned 7-year-old me, it was my fault—don’t talk to boys. When the boy showed up at the house to ask if he could date 14-year-old me, it was my fault—you’re not allowed to date yet. When the other boy raped 14-year-old me, it was my fault—don’t go to parties or dances with friends. When I quit my job because the kitchen supervisor grabbed my 19-year-old hips and slammed me against his genitals, it was my fault—why didn’t you tell someone?

At 14, I knew that if I told someone what happened the consequences would entail everyone who was at that house that night getting kicked off the track team (we weren’t supposed to be at that house). I assumed I would be grounded, not allowed to go anywhere or do anything. And I didn’t even know it was rape. I didn’t have the words. I didn’t have the awareness. The responsibility for keeping boys at bay landed squarely on the shoulders of adolescent girls, and I had failed, somehow, to do my part.

At 16, inarticulate anger took over. My rapist turned into a pimp, tried to force me to have sex with someone else. He leaned down and blew cigarette smoke in my face when I refused. My vision exploded into kaleidoscope colors, all clarity left me, and I kicked him hard in the groin (though I magnanimously and purposely missed his genitals). Several male friends had to stop him from physically attacking me in retaliation. Yet they never stopped him from groping people in public. They never stopped him from slut-shaming his victims.

At 19, I figured out I shouldn’t have to endure routine harassment and assault. My (misguided) answer was to quit my job. I went to work for a family friend, a woman, and when she asked why I wouldn’t put up with demeaning, sexist remarks from a customer, I finally told someone. I told her. And she fired me.

Yesterday, at 41, while discussing the damaging consequences of run-of-the-mill, predictable sexual assault on adolescents and women all over this country, I was asked, why didn’t you tell someone?

I am telling someone now. I am telling my daughters, and my sons, and anyone who will listen. I am telling everyone. Awareness is the answer, folks. Why are we so afraid of it? We ban sex ed in schools, fire teachers who talk about date rape, and unfollow our social media friends who actually post meaningful discussions. We get mad—not all men are rapists! Of course not. Of course not! But denying the oppression and abuse of half the population isn’t helping anyone. (It is not lost on me that these things do happen to boys too, especially boys who are disabled or identify as LGBTQ. I am simply writing about girls here because these experiences happen to almost every girl or woman.) To all you good men out there: we know you’re good, we really do, so why not step up and say yes, this is a problem? We need to teach consent, and we need to be careful about accidentally teaching our boys and girls that boys will be boys, and girls bear the brunt of the responsibility for what happens to them.

Sometimes I think about what happened when I was 14. I’m certain he didn’t know what date rape was either. Maybe if he had, it wouldn’t have happened. I know he thought of me as a notch on his belt, a way to prove his superior manhood. He learned his behavior. He learned to be a rapist every time he smacked an ass in the hallway and a teacher looked the other way. He learned to be a rapist every time he called a past conquest a slut, and other boys laughed. He learned to be a rapist every time an adult told a girl to cover her shoulders or her cleavage, because boys will be boys. His social training, perhaps accidentally, encouraged him to do the things he did.

We can not tolerate this “accidental” rape culture any longer. We need to be conscious of our own social training, conscious of the way we treat victims of sexual assault and harassment, conscious of teaching our boys responsibility for their own actions, conscious of how we shame boys for being compassionate human beings. We need to stop asking girls why didn’t you tell someone, and start encouraging boys and girls to please, tell someone. There is a world of difference in those three words. There is safety, and no blame.

Please, tell someone.

On the Moral Ambiguity of Doing the Right Thing

My boys are 15 and 17. We were talking, yesterday morning, about many things. School, bullying, feminism. Cole uttered the misbegotten term “feminazi,” and River saw the look on my face. Before I could retort, my clever, broken-hearted boy said, “it’s just that sometimes you seem to hate men, and Cole and I feel bad.”

Tears rose in both our eyes immediately—mine fell, his did not. I explained that I did NOT hate men, and it hurt my feelings they should think that. I explained why I am a feminist. I explained why I am afraid for their sisters. “We know, we know,” they said. Cole even said, “most men are assholes,” and River agreed. “But not all,” I said. I explained that what I hate is the reality of fear women must endure. I hate that while we were all out pulling weeds the other day, my 13 year old daughter and I got cat-called by passing cars when we bent over. “That’s why I told her to go inside,” replied River in a subdued tone.

We dropped the subject and discussed school options for this fall. We talked for quite a while, until something caught my attention outside the window. A young woman stood on the sidewalk fifteen feet from where I sat. A young man was blocking her way, lightly pushing her when she tried to pass. I froze. River and I watched. The man pushed her again, harder this time. I jumped up and ran out the door, down the steps, stopping on the last step before the sidewalk.

“Do you need help Maam?” Loudly.

She stood round-shouldered, head tilted down, but she did not back away from him. She was trying to get past him. She raised her eyes to me, said nothing. Her body language showed fear. No sudden moves. His head snapped around. I do not remember the first words he said, but I can tell you that the words “fucking” and “fuck you” and “fucking bitch” were used more than any others combined. He ordered me to go back inside. When that didn’t work, he informed me that the woman was his wife, in a plaintive way, as if that made it okay to intimidate her. I did not move. I told him I would call the police if I had to.

“Go ahead, here, I’ll call ‘em,” he said, taking a step toward me. Then he turned back to her, so she could not get away.

“You need to let her pass.”

“Mind your own fucking business!”

This went on for a few minutes. I stood there, would not move. He did not let her pass, but he didn’t put his hands on her again. Eventually, she gave up, walked back to their driveway next door. They were my new neighbors.

I spent last night locking windows instead of opening them to the cool breeze we so desperately needed after the 90 degree day. I lay in bed thinking I shouldn’t have done that. I put my family in danger. What if I don’t hear him break in? Should I turn off the fan?

My boys saw me do it, and they assured me it was the right thing. But was it? Had I known they lived next door, I might not have walked out there. I might not have called the police either, unless I saw something very bad. The man is clearly violent, though just a boy really, 20 years old. (He told me his age, claimed because he was 20 he could call me a fucking bitch if he wanted to.) He clearly thinks he has a right to do and say whatever he wants.

A few months ago, I was running late getting out the door for work. There was a car, a minivan I think, parked in the alley adjacent to my driveway. It is illegal to park in this alley, and it is illegal to park behind someone’s driveway, but this guy parked in that spot nearly every morning to deliver coffee and chat with some girl who lived down the block. I waited him out more than once, but this particular morning I was tired of being late for work, and in no mood for this nonsense to continue. So Sable and I went to the car, and I made sure she was in.

“I need to get out and I’m late for work. I need you to move please.”

“You can get by!” he shouted.

“No, I can’t.”


He spit venom as he moved his car back five whole feet. I was forced to maneuver past him.

I truly did not expect such a hateful response. I was surprised, shaken. Is standing up for myself and others putting my children at risk? I have to admit that in those two instances, the answer is yes to some degree. Those men know where I live. And so I second guess myself, feel guilty for my momentary courage. In those moments, and others like them, I didn’t really consider the consequences. That’s not true. I did consider them, for less than a second, and I acted anyway. I barged past the rush of fear and stopped that man from pushing that woman on the sidewalk. But did it do any good? I heard him blame her for attracting my attention. He might have beat her for it last night, for all I know.

This is how fear wins. This is how bad people win. Those of us with both courage and conviction still back down sometimes because we are afraid for the people around us, afraid for our loved ones. The internet hive mind is always talking about balance, as if balance is the answer to every problem. How does one find balance here? Where is the balance between justice and fear?

Things I Can Say about Spock, an Ex-Academic, and Power Now that They’ve All Bumped into Each Other in My Head


mr. spock 2Of course it is sad, I am sad, to know that Leonard Nimoy is gone. With unashamed sentiment, I have read some lovely eulogies, tributes that address fully what a fan should say about the man and his body of work.

This weekend, the passing of this beloved public figure intersected as an event with a public outburst of someone known to me and my group of MFA alum. Far flung from anything ever imagined or expected, this meeting of figures was a moment of observational dissonance, of petty, mean, self-serving wittering played like a bad radio behind memories of all the ways reason and reserve first appeared to me as choices for living and creating.


I have written elsewhere about the enigma of Helen, who was my mother. Since this rogue whirlwind was our mother, and since our father had his own luggage along for the…

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Know thyself–and thy Goddard peeps

Know thyself—this is the essential requirement for anyone writing memoir. When I enrolled in my MFAW program, I knew myself. And I didn’t want to write memoir. Oh, I knew I had stories to tell. But I wanted to use those stories as background noise, experiences that would inform my yet-to-be-written sophisticated nonfiction essays, experiences that would sculpt my voice. I did not want to use them as stories. You see, I was an elitist. And I knew it. I believed, quite completely, that no one would care about my stories unless I learned how to write them well. And that, my friends, is why I pursued an MFAW in the first place. I told my advisors I did not want to write about abuse (at least my own). I told my advisors I did not want to write a scorned-woman-revenge-novel/memoir. It’s been done, I said. They agreed. I want to write like those New Yorker dudes, I said. Fine, they said, let’s do that.


The very first day I arrived in Port Townsend, I asked how many applicants had vied for the 18 places in our new class of writers. Because I was an elitist. We all know that elitism comes from insecurity. I wanted to know that I was good enough to be there. Within two days, I was in crisis. So much talent surrounded me. I was terrified. What am I doing here? I am not good enough to be here. Crap. One advisor quelled my fears. I stuck to my guns on the memoir thing—I’m not old enough to write a memoir, I said. Knowing there were 20-somethings doing just that, I qualified my statement. Memoir is not for me, anyway, I said. Goddard welcomed me, and I wasn’t about to alienate my new people with my own need to be better.


So, plan in hand, I went home, and within a week, was getting divorced. I sent packets that were just thick enough to pass. Researched, detached essays became increasingly difficult. By the end of my first semester, I gave in and wrote some of my stories. I was proud that I had learned enough in that short time to be able to take some journaled nonsense and turn it into something worth reading.


Second semester I had the same plan—don’t write memoir. God. Anything but that. I was sick of myself. After a productive residency, I went home to really get to work. But I couldn’t write anything. My packets became increasingly thinner. Finally I asked my advisor, a writer’s block guru, for advice. She said…write some memoir. Get it out. Don’t worry if it is good, just send me a whole lot of pages and get this thing out of your way. By golly, it worked. Some of those pages ended up in my final thesis; some didn’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that in those pages, I found a story that was indeed worth telling. I ultimately told it a different way, but the knowledge that my story had some universal truth, some kernel of value, changed the direction of my MFA project and my writing in general.


Did I go on to write a straight-up memoir? No. But I did write about abuse. I did write about single motherhood. I did write about disability. I did write about a lot of things that I initially wanted to avoid, things that my elitist cronies would not consider worthy of great literature. I wrote stories of abuse and divorce and motherhood and disability and rape and otherness. I wrote stories of women. And stories of women, by women, are not often what we consider to be great literature. We read them, sure—in women’s lit class, or in the memoir section of big chain bookstores. But you won’t find many of these stories in the New Yorker.

I had to accept that my path was to write the best stories I could write, New Yorker and Seattle elitists be damned, because I was writing to make a difference. I wrote (and write) in the hopes that my stories, whatever they may be, might help someone else. And my stories are about women. And abuse and otherness. Because, folks, I write about women. Women’s lives are full of such things. And if that meant I had to give up my membership in the elitist’s club, so be it.


Once I stopped fighting the stories that needed to be told, my writing blossomed into published essays, poems, and awards. Which totally fed my elitist need to be good, of course. But that’s not the point. The point is this: an MFA program should lead you toward the best writing you can do. Goddard did that for me, as soon as I got out of my own way.



Why am I telling you all this? Because a former MFA advisor has shaken our little world with his elitist epistemology. I don’t want to give him any more power than he already has—I learned years ago to stop wasting my time on little boys in grown-up bodies. But I am not writing this for him, or even in response to his derisive comments and outright attack of abuse victims. I am writing this because our community, our Goddard world, deserves a response. Goddard taught me to be less of an elitist—the complete opposite of what RB seems to believe creates the Real Deal—and more of a writer. I was lucky to have advisors who really taught me the craft, expected more from me than I knew I had, and valued my stories. They did not hold my hand while I whined. They dished out hard love and writerly wisdom with compassion. I believe our community was so rocked by that venomous article because most of us had experiences similar to mine. We’re Goddard. We just don’t do this to each other.


What we do is write. And we do it well. Goddard truly restored my faith in humanity at a time when I had none. And Goddard taught me how to write. It was absolutely the best experience I’ve had in my life. This elitist thinks Goddard is the Real Deal. We are still Goddard. He is not. So write on friends. Write on.






The Story of “A Story Like This”

Make it small!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

tim Tim Hillegonds examines the role of interrogation in his recent Brevity essay:

The scene that I attempted to capture in “A Story Like This” has been bouncing around inside my head for almost ten years now. However, as is the case with so many things that feel significant to me, it was difficult to write. I suppose that, perhaps, in one sense, the moment just felt too big to me—and so I felt like I needed to write it equally as big. But it was actually the opposite that proved to be true.

The writer Michele Morano, in a narrative shorts workshop I was taking with her, ultimately helped me wrap my head around what I needed to do. She told me that I needed to “interrogate the moment.” And that word—interrogate—stuck with me. It allowed me to see that this moment that I’d been wanting to write about had…

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Why the current outrage over a teacher abusing a (typical) child pisses me off


The latest case of media-covered teacher abuse has Americans outraged. And well it should.  But why don’t we hear about the kids with disabilities who are abused, restrained, and even killed in our schools? Where is the outrage when we do hear about it? What follows is an excerpt from a letter to my daughter, who was diagnosed with Autism spectrum Disorder when she was four years old:


I eventually learned that your sensory overload made “behaving” in big stores nearly impossible. No amount of sticking to my guns (though I did that) stopped the outbursts—you screamed because you were in pain, not because you were a brat. So we went to the store for one thing at a time. If you made it out without a meltdown, you got gum or stickers out of the machine in the entryway. But the rewards didn’t matter. Ten minutes, fifteen. One thing, ten, finish the list (only the list). For years we did this, gradually increasing your tolerance. When you weren’t feeling well, or our schedule changed, you’d end up pressed to the bottom of the cart, whimpering or screaming, depending on the day. Going to Meijer with you had to be about you, not about groceries. I learned my lesson the hard way. The slow, gradual desensitization worked. You can handle most shopping trips now, though Wal-Mart is a nightmare (for both of us) and I either avoid it or give you the option to go or not. You choose not. And that is fine. One of the great things to come out of all our trial and error is that you have learned your own limits, and sometimes, when you’re having a good day and trusting me, I can still get you to push past them. But when you feel you can’t, you can articulate that. That’s a good thing. You know how to say no, and why you say no.

If you couldn’t get through half an hour of Meijer, why did everyone expect you to get through seven hours a day in a school building that resembled, in nearly everyway, a big box store? Years in and out of public schools taught us that the energy you expended just tolerating the school environment—fluorescent lights you can see flicker, chemical and food smells nauseating you, squeaky chairs and sniffling noses and slamming lockers and pencil scratches you can’t tune out, auditory processing problems—precludes any learning and exhausts you to the point that developmental gains in real life start to disappear. You forget how to wash your hair. You forget what to say at a checkout, or how to order your food. Life rushes right by, shoves you to the ground.

During the last year you attended public school, I witnessed well-meaning teachers pin you to the ground to prevent you from leaving the room. They didn’t know I was standing outside the window. When I confronted them, they said that was not a “take down,” which they were required to report. They claimed you lay on the floor, put your arms straight out as if you were on a cross, and then they rubbed your arms to calm you. You didn’t look calm to me. Soon, you were terrified to enter the school (any school, as it turned out). You were traumatized and confused, and couldn’t talk about it. You liked your teachers. But when they reached their hands up to usher you into a room, you panicked. I warned them to keep their hands off you, so they slammed the door behind you as soon as you entered the room. One day, you turned around and fell into the teacher as she did this. You ended up on the hallway floor, and she bloodied her shin on the door. I was done, and so were you. But I had to play along. I was legally bound to at least try to honor your father’s wishes—that you stay in “school”.

We had a meeting. Everyone—teachers, your father, stepmother and stepfather, therapists, grandparents—seemed to think the most important thing was that you finish the school year. You weren’t learning anything. You were terrified and depressed. But I consented to a shortened day, hoping it would ease your anxiety. It didn’t work. We had another meeting.

Toward the end of the year, your school day was one and a half hours long, officially. This school day consisted of playing the Wii in the resource room. Driving you there one morning, you spoke up over NPR, which we always listened to in the car. You didn’t want to go. “You have to go. I’ll be back in an hour to get you.” Then, in an uncharacteristic moment of verbal clarity you said, sadly and cogently, “I’d rather be dead.”

Stunned and frightened, I didn’t know how to respond. For once, I wished you were repeating lines from a movie. But you weren’t. I questioned you, and you confirmed your statement: “I’d rather be dead than at school.” You were twelve years old.