Oops and the Blossoming of Empathy

When I was 12 I found books via my mother's bedside table. Scruples. Fear of Flying. Loose Change. Lots of Belva Plain. It was trashy and thrilling.

I have no idea if she knew I was reading them—it never felt like a secret. But we never exactly discussed them either.

I believe—actively, as in have a parental policy about—that kids should get to read whatever they want. This was more an issue when they were littler. Diana read early, and seeing her sweet six-year-old eyes goggle in horror when she confronted the Metro section of the New York Times was a problem, so there was some early banning. But past then? It's all fair game. Sometimes we suggest, or warn, or caution, or discuss, but basically we allow.

And then we leave books all over the house, and see what happens. (This last part is maybe not intentional, but still.)

That's how Chestnut came upon this:


Gee, doesn't the cover make it look like fun?

Well. Chestnut read it—and liked it. And then she read it again. And then again. Again. It turned up all over the house, on the bathroom floor (the place of honor), next to the toaster oven, on the coffee table. And each time I saw it I thought, "Oh, right, I want to read that." And then it would disappear.

Well I've read it now. Ahem.

So, it turns out it's about kids at what's essentially a reform school—run by a charismatic therapy-speak-spouting charlatan. The kids (who are depressed, suicidal, antisocial, and heavily drugged) are abused, a kid dies, there is cutting, drug use (prescription and non—hey!). It's just…wow. A little much for a 12-year-old.

So I talked with Chestnut. Or, it was more like I said, "OH MY GOD, this is so crazy and intense, oh my god, are you OKAY?! Holy cow, they're locking this one kid in a room! Oh my god!"

"Yeah, it's pretty crazy," she said. "It's a bad school."

"Yeah no kidding it's a bad school."

We sat there for a while, me in shock, her considering. "Are you…OK after reading this? I mean, The Hunger Games was too intense."

"Yeah, but this one—. It's like, there's this wall between you and the main character so you can't feel what he's feeling."

And she's right. It's not a book that lets you feel it. (Heavy irony re: the title etc.) It's just—cut-off. "But why?"

She thought: "I don't know. It's just that I didn't feel it. Is it called a failure of empathy?"

And so I told her yes, while inwardly thinking, "Wait, holy crap, when did she learn about a failure of empathy? What's happening? Oh dear, she is growing up and leaving me and she is so wonderful!" But I just said the "yes" part.

She clarified. "It's good though. And it's sad. It's just—you can't exactly feel it."

So there you go. She seems unscathed. 

But watch out for what you leave on your night table. Your kid will be fine, but your heart might get broken is all.

2 thoughts on “Oops and the Blossoming of Empathy

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