Finding Empathy Through Troubling Stories

This reflection was originally posted on the University of Wisconsin Press website to mark the publication of my book, “Spirit Children: Illness and Poverty in Ghana.”

As I began writing about infanticide and the “spirit child” phenomenon in Northern Ghana, I became interested in how narratives of vulnerability and difficult human experiences can evoke powerful emotional and imaginative reactions in listeners and readers. Spirit children are, most often, disabled or ill children believed to be spirits sent to destroy the family. In their fear, and with limited treatment options, families occasionally hasten their child’s death.

When speaking about my research to friends and the public, my descriptions of families’ difficult decisions would often induce silence or provoke awkward replies. After one presentation depicting a family’s struggles to care for a spirit child, a well-intentioned literature professor suggested I bring an MRI machine to the remote savanna to scan the children to determine if they are indeed spirits. In other venues, some people vehemently denied the fact that infanticide was even occurring. The most powerful responses, however, come from parents with young children. I soon learned to temper my descriptions after a friend became distressed when I casually explained the grim reality one family faced. She vividly imagined her infant confronting similar circumstances.

Some authors and anthropologists have written about the value of attending to their own emotions and the anxieties that arise while conducting research. George Devereux stressed that ethnographers should scrutinize their reactions and blind spots, because our emotional worlds shape the ways we experience and interpret other people. This self-attunement is useful for readers too. How might our internal world shape our understanding of what we read?

When confronted with difficult material, our emotions and anxieties can enhance or limit comprehension. When I’ve discussed infanticide, I have found that people quickly gravitate to familiar but experience-distant sociobiological paradigms. These are often encapsulated in the question: “Considering their circumstances, doesn’t infanticide make good environmental sense?” Although at times reasonable, biofundamentalist accounts can foreclose deeper moral engagements with human experience. People defer to purely objective explanations to distance anxiety and move disturbing knowledge to more familiar and manageable terms. Devereux described this process as interpretive undercomprehension. This dilemma results in anxiously clinging to a point of view simply because the reader can “tolerate that particular interpretation, while considering all other (psychologically intolerable) interpretations unscholarly and erratic.” Jacques Lacan described a similar process that he termed the “passion for ignorance,” or the desire not to know, and to want nothing more to do with knowledge that is too intense.

Authors leverage readers’ internal worlds in many ways. In my writing, I wanted to bridge diverse cultural experiences to confront the perceived strangeness of infanticide. I wanted to encourage moments of mutual recognition, if not always an empathetic attunement. The challenge has been in finding a balance between presenting the visceral realities of people’s lives and developing emotionally tolerable narratives that facilitate a deeper level of understanding.

Readers can also contemplate their own reactions to emotional subjects. Stories that confront cultural difference and distressing practices can evoke anxiety or revulsion. In these cases, we can maintain our passion for ignorance, or we can take the opportunity to contemplate the reason for these sentiments and reflect on the complexity of our shared humanity. Challenging stories can help build empathy and inspire us to action. Moreover, as we open ourselves to difficult material, we do more than learn more about the lives of others. If we pay attention to what a text evokes within, we can ultimately come away learning more about ourselves.

 

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