The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir by Sherry Turkle (Penguin 2021)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
My mother kept secrets and spoke to me in a kind of code. Nothing was straightforward. From childhood, I had to figure out how to read her mind, to intuit the contours of her reality. If I developed empathy, at first, it wasn’t so much a way to find a connection as a survival strategy. (xx)
Secrets, taboo topics, and mystifying family tensions set the stage for Sherry Turkle’s memoir, The Empathy Diaries. Her memoir is a transformational journey from an anxiety-infused childhood to an adulthood devoted to psychological insight and excellence in scholarship. Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Professor of Social Studies, Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her highly regarded books, especially Reclaiming the Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age and Alone Together, probe the psycho-social impact of the digital world.
In her writing, Turkle asks penetrating questions and raises thought-provoking concerns about the diminution of emotional intimacy, empathy, and meaningful conversation in the digital age. But to find that success, she had to suffer through the unspoken messages and taboo topics that wormed through her early life with her mother.
Foremost among these taboos was the prohibition against using her original last name, Zimmerman. Turkle’s parents separated when she was a toddler. After that, her mother forbade her from asking about her father, Charlie Zimmerman, or from even saying his (and Sherry’s own) last name aloud. This rule was just part of a list of ongoing taboos imposed by her mother: “Never bring up your dad; Pretend we have more money than we do; Seal up troubled feelings.”
Even when a man assaulted her on a subway when she was a young teen, she felt too ashamed to report it to her mother. She feared that her mother would be more upset about her torn pants than what or who had caused the pants to tear. Revealing grave illness was also taboo; notably, her mother’s breast cancer, a secret kept from Turkle for ten years. As she attempted to navigate through this sea of lies, cover-ups, and mixed messages, Turkle experienced considerable anxiety throughout her childhood.
Turkle’s mother abruptly fled her husband and home, and so at first mother and daughter lived with her maternal grandparents and Aunt Mildred, who loved her devotedly and with delight. Turkle’s grandparents and aunt provided a solid foundation of unconditional, uncomplicated love, counter-weights to her mother’s caring but unfathomable ways. “I grew up with two deep convictions: Something was wrong with me because of my name. And, four loving adults had made me the center of their lives.” (24)
To capture the preciousness of her extended family, Turkle poignantly describes the evocative objects that meant so much to her. Stories about her memory closet, a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter, and the Dior “Speedy” bag, purchased for her by Aunt Mildred in Paris, thread through this memoir. These precious objects, among others, resonated with “my aunt’s intelligence and integrity; my grandmother’s empathy and resourcefulness; my grandfather’s tenacity.” (77)
Her memory closet not only held favorite keepsakes but also clues to her dad’s identity:
All of my special objects had their place in the memory closet at my grandparents’ apartment. To reach it, I had to push the kitchen table under the memory closet, and then stand on the table to reach my treasures. I was looking for the missing person. Once I found a photograph with the body still there but the body still there but the face cut out. The image had been attacked, but it contained so many missing puzzle pieces. What his hands looked like. That he wore lace-up shoes. That his pants were tweed. (44)
The missing puzzle pieces of her father’s identity entranced Turkle. The prohibition against uttering his name propelled her to unlock the mystery of his life. His scratched-out photo captivated her, but unhappily; so unlike the glee she felt when handling precious objects from her mother’s doting family.
Despite the fortifying effects of her beloved grandparents and Aunt Mildred, Turkle felt intense shame from lying about her biological father and pretending to be who she was not. Once during the Jewish High Holy Days, the family posed as temple members. They stood outside of the neighborhood synagogue, all dressed up, to greet friends and neighbors as if they belonged. But in reality, they could not afford the temple membership. “I felt [my mother’s] shame as though it were my own,” wrote Turkle. (65)
Turkle emerged from the alternately choppy and serene waters of her childhood with an exquisite level of empathy, a keen intellect, and a drive to make sense of her inner and outer worlds.
When her mother passed away, twenty-seven-year-old Turkle hired a private detective to find Charlie Zimmerman, her biological father. She needed to understand why the search for meaning and the relationship between people and objects were so primary in her life. The private detective found her father, living in New York City. She went to see him. Here’s what she learned at her awkward reunion with him, related in an NPR interview in March of this year:
And he sort of drops a bombshell. And the bombshell he drops is very casual, as though it’s sort of not much to say. He says that when I was little, he used to do experiments with me, kind of Skinnerian-type experiments where he would not speak to me, leave me in a room by myself, not respond when I spoke, leave me in the dark. And then he went on with kind of a list of, you know, psychological experiments that he thought would make him the next Skinner. And then one day, my mother found him at those experiments. And that’s the day she left.
The disturbing disconnection between her father’s scientific passion and his incapacity for tenderness or empathy is chilling. In his eyes, she was an object of study, disembodied. Yet, to Turkle, this encounter was life-changing. She transcended the damage caused by her father’s dehumanizing ways by learning to prize warm, human connection and infuse meaning in both people and objects. In Turkle’s world view, people and personal items are precious, imbued with significance, and deserve respect. And this, ultimately, is the impetus behind her memoir.
Out of the ashes of the shame induced by her mother’s insistence on lies and pretense, Turkle learned the value of genuineness and empathy to promote intimacy and live a “real life with thought and feeling joined.” (192)