Saturday, October 10, 2015


Therapists often talk about quitting, going into some other field. Some normal field, where they aren't flooded with the emotions of others for five to eight hours a day; what I call empathy overload. Most people, even those who aren't therapists, become overwhelmed when friends and family have tsorris (Yiddish, rhymes with floor-dis, means troubles), all that feels unfair.

When the Holocaust is mentioned in a therapy session, it is empathy overload for the victims, even for the survivors, that brings the patient (and sometimes the therapist) to tears. Someone has to change the subject.

The rub is that even if we did change jobs we would find ourselves still feeling the pain, that of the people, the very world around us. Just like you do.

So at the gate, waiting for the plane, I’m looking around, not at the books so much, usually there isn’t time for that (barring a flight delay), but am scanning my fellow travelers, the most interesting species in the zoo, my attention mostly to women, sometimes men. People lose their social persona, that put-on thing, seated at the gate, outside their usual milieu. It is hard not to watch.

At some point I stop. Because there she is.

She’s not making eye contact with anyone, rather focused on a computer, never her phone. She may be wearing make-up, but often goes bare, a touch of lipstick, eyeliner. She may be wearing jeans with a nice blouse, or slacks and a blazer. She’s generally not got much, if any jewelry, maybe a pendant, an antique ring. She isn’t smiling. Her lips are pursed, shoulders back, head held high in that line to board. Standoffish. concentration within, gazing at nothing.

And I wonder, is she thinking about someone she’s about to visit? Her mom, her sister? Is she running from a boyfriend or grieving a break-up? Did she just lose her job? Is she a writer? A middle-manager? Why is she aloof, and is she this way with friends, too? Is she usually sad, or is this just how she seems, beaten? I feel she is, and want to know her story.

It is not such a mystery, this emotional draw to others, random lives at the gate. The brain likes new things, wants to unravel the puzzle of human beings, especially if this is what it is trained to do.

Even if we wanted to leave our empathy sensors behind while on vacation, leave the whole idea of other people and their problems in the taxi, we can't. It is a part of our packaging, noticing the emotional state of anything with a pulse, any living thing. (You certainly don't have to be a therapist to be equipped like this, but it is a vocational plus if you are.) Empathy is a trait, but curiosity an appetite, nourished young. In third grade, there's a girl sitting in the desk on the left, upset about something more than her C-minus. You're dying to know what.

Here, with a random stranger, it is just that, empathy sparking curiosity, but there's no authentic caring. If she were to run to get a last minute coffee and missed the flight, it wouldn't matter to us. Our curiosity doesn't work that hard.

But if our sister or brother   took off for a sandwich and didn't return, didn't make that plane, we would care.  Second to parents, siblings are among the first objects of attachment. We bond with them, are in forced-habitation with them during those early, formative years.

Parents contribute, reinforce those first ties, even orchestrate close sibling alliances, by (1) staying out of the middle; (2) showing favoritism to all, not no favoritism; and (3) forming a loving executive committee that makes decisions. The last is a tight communicative unit that allows input from the peanut gallery, but still makes the rules. Or (4) parents can influence a sibling alliance off-handed, unconsciously, behaving in completely dysfunctional ways, their children close because of the dysfunction. When the sibship is unhappy, people say: Family breaks your heart.

But back to hanging out at the airport.

So when I’m looking around, it looks as if there is at least one person whose heart, whose very identity, has suffered a fracture or two. Not that the hunch is necessarily right; this is just a feeling, an intuition. Maybe misguided empathy. There will likely be no conversation as a validity test. 

But if I wanted to delve, if I wanted to ask about someone's life while waiting for a plane, or anywhere, for that matter, it would be the life story of Mary Anna King.

Lucky for us, she kindly wrote Bastards  and shared. The memoir could be considered bibliotherapy, and like Mess (the September book pic), is extraordinarily well-written. Bastards reads like a mystery. Not what will happen next, but how will these messed up people ultimately turn out? Dead on drugs or as medical professionals, perhaps, in a uniform? How will they pass?

Ms. King won’t talk to you at the gate, for sure not. But to read her story about losing four sisters (!!) to adoptions, losing herself to an adoption,  is to feel unimaginable separation anxiety.

We know what it is like to lose someone to death, to disease. We know what it is like to lose someone to an abusive relationship, watch that someone lose self, personality, to domination. We know what it is like to lose money, to lose a home, possessions, even to lose a loved one to terrorist executions, assassination, airplane and car crashes, to alcohol, to drug overdose, even old age. School shootings. Adoptees rarely tell their stories. Everyone assumes it has to have been the best choice, in the best interest of the child.  
In this memoir we learn, maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Feeling what it feels like to lose siblings, either as the one who is taken away from the others, chosen by an adoptive family, or as the one left behind, isn't feeling so good.

Bastards is about what family, what having brothers and sisters, should mean to us.

And as I'm reading it, cover on, I keep flipping to Mary Anna King's picture, just like I do while working, jotting notes, looking up, repeat, or even at the airport, when someone just looks interesting.

So, Ms. King. If you see someone glancing one too many times in your direction at the gate, don't get paranoid. Maybe offer to sign my copy of your book. I could mail it to you with a SASE*.  


* a SASE is a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Bastards is published by Norton, a company that is really putting out wonderful psychological treatments on difficult subjects. 

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