Early in graduate school, I still believed literature could save us, so I clung to a narrative device that seemed to promise deliverance: focalization. It’s not an especially sexy term; it means that an author writes from the perspective of one character, rather than from narrative omniscience—narrowing the reader’s focus to one person’s purportedly more subjective worldview.
This preoccupation took hold of me in the fall of 2010. I was foundering beneath a narrative that I had come to loathe. I was five months wed to my college boyfriend, and the tepidity of this marriage, so soon, seemed paralyzing, and my heart, never as steadfast as I assured myself, was tugging me in the direction of a classmate named Paul. By December I had slept with him. A week after that, I told my husband and, having done so, promptly swallowed a bottle of Tylenol. As I saw it, I’d centered myself as the protagonist in my life and, in doing so, forfeited the privilege. From any other perspective but mine, I was a villainess, a befuddled and self-absorbed bitch who had caused two well-meaning men a superabundance of trouble. The outside perspective became mine so easily. Better that I took my exit, and fast.
But I lived, and tried to prioritize my husband’s view of things. The only way to atone was to bend the arc of our narrative, once more, towards him. I agreed to shun Paul and submit to my husband’s anger. I hated him for being so indisputably the victim; I knew my hatred was unjustifiable; I drank to blunt its edge. What I had done—cheat, lie, entangle Paul in a relationship-shattering romance—contorted me into a character undeserving of empathy and, thus, undeserving of acting according to her own desires. You are the one who deserves hatred, I told myself; you do not deserve to hate. Your husband is the one who deserves empathy. If he wants to remain married, then you will learn to want that, too.
I returned to school for the spring semester and enrolled in a class on modernist literature and narrative theory. Some of my favorite novels—The Age of Innocence, Wuthering Heights—gave me a sense of how hatred can weight, even productively, the larger narrative context of a life. But I have never been as meek and penitent as I have often tried to be. I knew that self-loathing was not the weapon that would excise my hate. I wondered, sometimes, if I would one day get free of this old and tired plot line. I asked myself if I would ever be so bold as to assert the right to see from my eyes only, to deem myself still deserving of love and empathy merely because I said so.
I was reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a novel told elliptically by a cacophony of six voices, when I decided focalization would save the day. “That’s it,” I thought to myself, pleased, nearly triumphant to find in literature what I had been unable to tell myself in life. Everyone looks at the same world, but no one’s view is the same. I could not continue looking for an objective narrative if I wasn’t willing to write it.
In the months that followed, I determined that I could. I left my husband. I am still with Paul.
But, divorced at 25, I maintained the pricking sense that I still owed an explanation to anyone curious about it. The separation was not amiable, and for a time I was afraid that some of the people I loved most would never forgive me. And, to be sure, I hadn’t forgiven myself. When I reflected on the more sordid details of my matrimonial unraveling, the waves of self-hatred started crashing again. So teaching became my pulpit and my pressure valve, and I forced the concept of focalization upon my students whenever I detected the slightest opportunity. I assigned Ian McEwan’s Atonement one semester explicitly to parse the concept’s interpersonal implications—the twinned centering and de-centering of self.
The primary protagonist of Atonement, Briony Tallis, aspires to literary glory, but it eludes her until she grasps a truth that’s central to maturity: that everyone in the world possesses the vibrant interior we tacitly—by way of casual self-absorption—understand as belonging to us alone. I eagerly directed my students to Briony’s epiphany:
“Was everyone else really as alive as she was?... If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was.”
I taught this passage under a microscope, reasoning more with myself than anyone else. I was just one life among many, and maintaining empathy for my ex-husband did not exclude believing I deserved it, too. Though the lines distinguishing me from a reprobate seemed drawn in sand—they do today, still—the act of valuing my own perspective was not as self-indulgent as it felt to me; rather, it was essential to valuing everyone else.
I have always been obsessed with empathy, though I have no great claim over it. And as tends to be true of obsessions, mine is underwritten by fear. I’m terrified of my own selfishness, my own capacity to hate. I know I can be vicious, all the more so when I am lashing out at someone who can only love me in return. And that’s how it works, often: the people who bestow the most capacious empathy upon us are the ones who suffer most keenly at our hands.
There’s a certain vertigo inherent to realizing this; after all, it’s rare that we seek to hurt those dearest to us. But we’re creatures of convenience, and for all our love, we tend to flex our worst impulses when, even subconsciously, we know we will not suffer much in return.
This starts early, or at least, it did for me. When the first of my younger sisters was born, I shunned her. I refused to touch or look at her, slumped begrudgingly beside her in photographs, taking care to maintain my distance. A submerged, gentler self knew the wounds I was inflicting on my mother, but I was unable and unwilling to combat the certainty that I had been betrayed, replaced. I was panicked and furious—at five, already prepared to be cruel.
A few years later my family attended a wedding, and at the reception that followed I committed myself to the dance floor. Before long my sister tottered over to me and took my hands. She wanted to dance, and my mother, delighted, pulled out her camera. But I was infuriated by this interference. My face slumped into a grimace, and I responded to my sister’s tiny, soft touch as if she were dead weight. I was finally jolted out of my pout when my mother cast me a look of sorrowful reproach and led my sister away.
That night I was stricken with terror that my mother would no longer love me. I sensed in her a contempt stirred by my insolence—my hatefulness had made me worthy of hatred in turn. Perhaps it was pure fear of maternal alienation that finally coaxed from me the love and empathy my sister deserved. But I remember that night, how I taught myself to finally see my sister as my mother saw her—a vulnerable child in search of the simple pleasure of twirling with her big sister. “She loves me,” I realized, “and my mother loves us both.”
Over the years—and as I learned to be a better sister—I formulated a binary that cast empathy and hatred in opposition to one another. It works, particularly if you slant your gaze: the bitterest hatred metastasizes from the refusal to empathize with another’s set of circumstances—or, as one might say when teaching, to imagine a narrative focalized via their vantage point.
But, through establishing and relying on this binary, it’s clear to me now that both empathy and hatred became too unwieldy for my grasp. Empathy expands and connects, but it also poisons; in my case, wishing I were more empathetic has always warped me into a shame-rooted mania. Before the dissolution of my first marriage, there were other signs; specifically, for years, and until very recently, I grappled with cutting. The triggers were myriad; the goal was always to re-establish self-dominion. And for me, what marked the loss of self control was the rush of hatred. The feeling made me panic, turned me cold.
I started cutting in middle school, when allegiances sloshed back and forth, when fights came easily between immature teenagers, and I was terrified by how easily I felt malice rising. Was I so devoid of empathy that a petty disagreement could unhinge me? I felt venom, and tried to channel it by turning it back on myself. Writing out this rage on my own self, no one else, seemed like the compromise. I would repent, cutting my feelings out of my flesh. With a blade, hatred became measurable and extractable—a foreign object that would never really belong to me.
All my life, I’m realizing, I would have done anything to excise my own hatred. In response to this, I used empathy as a defense mechanism it’s not meant to be—as a method of self-control, even concealment. In doing so, I ignored the valuable reasons that hatred presents itself. Certainly, I didn’t obsess over empathy for purely altruistic purposes. I wanted to be good in order to ensure that I would always be loved. Agnostic from youth, I had no higher god to serve; heaven resided in others’ favorable opinions of me.
And nobody loves the hateful, or so I told myself. It was my greatest paranoia, one I still try to avoid contending with: that hate dissolves me, and only empathy can render me fully humane.
But how could any reasonable person avoid vitriol in a year like 2015? At its close, I’m forcing myself to push through my avoidance and say: I hated it. I hated this year. I hated this year with a force that felt external, like the weather. I hated politicians, I hated law enforcement, I hated guns. I hated academia and my fear of abandoning it and the sting of relief when I did. I hated the selfishness and arrogance that seemed so ubiquitous, so fully present within me. I hated my mother’s cancer and my fucking powerlessness against it. I hated my naked body during sex. I hated the media and my face and my own dumb shame of this roiling, soaking ferocious anger that I can no longer disavow.
On November 13, I folded myself onto the couch and watched as Paris reeled in agony from an ISIS-orchestrated attack wreaking chaos throughout the city. A spectator to the fray, I immediately started grasping for the “right” emotions, ones befitting the liberal-minded, gentle woman I tell myself I can be.
And in this case, finally, the severe limitations of my conception of empathy and hatred—as good and evil forces, incompatible, a zero-sum game—presented themselves to me. I loathed the extremists; I mourned them, too. I realized how foolish it was for me to try to parcel these emotions out in opposition. I had the sense of something that I, after two decades of trying to control my emotions, am still parsing: that the strongest feelings fundamentally cannot be wrangled. That we have to sit with our own monstrousness, our apathy, our pain in order to name it correctly. As I went to bed that evening, I let myself be angry.
Years ago, the flood of malice I have felt at points this year would have unhinged me, made me question my character: I do still wonder about this, some. Women are encouraged to cultivate softness; our humanity is predicated upon it. When flashes of hatred overwhelmed me as a child, I registered them as excessive—not just because I yearned to be the right kind of person, but because I wanted to be the right kind of girl.
But I am not sorry to have been taught empathy, nor do I wish to wallow in hatred. I only wish the latter had not been attended by shame for so long. I am not—I realize now—the villainess I’ve feared for so long. I know now that the best of me and the worst depend on one another. As long there is a brute within me, and there always will be, I must acknowledge her. If I do not, all of the fierce love that drives me forward will be suppressed in kind.
So I can only try—not only to love, but also to understand why it will sometimes be impossible for me to do so. Focalization, my treasured narrative device, has turned into political practice, a private taxonomy: a way of seeing what is fathomable, and what, in turn, is worthy of hate. If hatred turns away from hardship and unknowability, towards systematic power, then so be it. Hatred is embedded within each of us, rearing its head in the name of both the good and the wicked, and I’m beginning to see how hate can work in tandem with empathy—shaping it, giving it aim.
I’m done denying hatred, in any case. We must learn to live with what already exists. And so I will try. This December I am whittled down into my sharpest self. I’m not prepared, not yet, to offer January my softness.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via Shutterstock, illustration by Tara Jacoby