Lessons in Empathy
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)
Attack and temptation awaken in their targets a similar brand of self-revelation. In either case, something neither asked for nor pursued comes to one’s doorstep, and along with its heralding of diverse, powerful emotion is the choice of how to respond. The choices are usually stark, and in them are embedded one’s foundational sense of personhood.
In Give Me Everything You Have, poet and novelist James Lasdun describes how five harrowing years at the hands of a former student turned self-described “verbal terrorist,” whose obsession with him went from tender admiration to overt sexuality to violent, anti-Semitic hatred, impelled such self-analysis. Nasreen, as Lasdun calls her here, used email as her medium. A correspondence that began innocently—he taught her in a creative writing class, was impressed by her work, and offered to help advance her career—gradually escalated into full-scale aggression. First blaming him for her failure to publish her novel, Nasreen, an Iranian Muslim, upped the ante by accusing him of plagiarizing her ideas (for his own use or to farm out to Jewish writers for monetary gain), engaging in sexual misconduct, even orchestrating the circumstances of her alleged rape. Her stated intention to “ruin him” took tangible form when she began contacting others—Lasdun’s friends and colleagues alike—in a full-fledged campaign to destroy his reputation.
The tale is unequivocally frightening, but what is most remarkable is the extent to which Lasdun pursues empathy, rather than a justified volley of hostility. Certainly, it is a pursuit, as his compassion ebbs and flows with the degree of her viciousness. Lasdun sustains this tension throughout the book, striving always to locate Nasreen’s humanity, while simultaneously making the case that her irrational statements must be denied and disproved.
Indeed, it is the question of humanity that teeters on a taut line. Lasdun suggests that empathizing with someone who means to inflict systematic personal harm, rather than reducing her to an abstract notion of evil, is to acknowledge the possibility of your own culpability:
On the basis of there being no smoke without fire, surely something as black and billowing as these emails must indicate that I was guilty of something, and that even if I wasn’t unscrupulous in the precise way Nasreen claimed, I probably was in some other, related way.
However noble that admission may be, it invariably cedes to the persistent mystery of Nasreen’s motivation, which Lasdun attempts to understand via the stories of literature that echo his experience. “A large part of understanding something is finding analogies for it,” he tells us. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain’s struggles with honor, temptation, and cowardice form a framework for Lasdun’s personal hero’s quest in choosing how to respond to Nasreen’s attacks. His hero D.H. Lawrence’s fumbling resistance to overtures from his own obsessive acolyte complements Lasdun’s disquieting attraction to the perverse sexuality often implied in Nasreen’s correspondence. Guy Haines’s surprising affection for his tormentor in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train sparks Lasdun’s suspicion that his own failures of understanding, his inability to truly empathize, “laid me open to her siege in the first place, and that perhaps if I could summon such feelings, the great sense of injustice lodged inside her, whatever its source, would stand a chance of being salved.”
Perhaps. The question of evil looms, though, as it no doubt always will for Lasdun. There had been pacific outreach to Nasreen when things got bad, both by Lasdun himself and an editor with whom he had connected her early in their acquaintance. Her response to such outreach was more hostility and more egregiously anti-Semitic bile. It became increasingly difficult to ignore the possibility that one who wrote, “I wish ill health and disaster for you and your family. Baruch adonai, Nasreen” may not be a mere hurt, pitiable creature, but the specter of “malice that has no real cause or motive but simply is.”
Still, Lasdun makes one more attempt to deny this grim possibility in an exploration of anti-Semitism itself. His father, renowned British architect Sir Denys Lasdun, experienced unjustified vitriol after submitting a design in the late 1970s for the controversial Hurva synagogue in Israel, an undertaking criticized by many for being pro-Zionist. Lasdun holds that his father had no such ambition for the synagogue and likely would not have associated himself with the project had it been so presented to him at the outset. Yet the attacks on his father emerge as an unusual comfort to Lasdun. In their shared experience as targets of anti-Semitism, Lasdun links Nasreen’s unhinged personal assault to a broader, endemic cultural resentment:
It seemed to confer a more dignified solemnity on our conflict, turning me into a larger, grander adversary … than [Nasreen’s] “daytrading” conspiracy theory implied. Better to be found complicit in the original sins of Israeli history than in some act of petty plagiarism.
Understanding his experience in this light seems a tenuous attempt at comfort, as any explanation would be given the nature of Lasdun’s situation. Must he never find peace? Even if Nasreen leaves him alone, he won’t forget. He will always ask why. Compassion will inevitably turn to anger, sadness, confusion, and so on. Which to choose? Just as an epochal hostility between cultures cannot be neatly reconciled, Lasdun’s book argues for the tireless pursuit of humanity, even in those who make themselves our enemies.