During the camp season at Laurel Falls, Lillian Smith would write letters home to the parents of campers. In the mid-summer 1946 Laurel Leaf, she wrote to parents about the adventures of Buss Eye, the plays that the girls wrote, and other camp activities. Near the end of the letter, she writes about the conversations that the campers had after hearing about the lynching of George and Mae Murray Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcolm in Monroe, GA.

The campers asked what they can do, and she writes,

I think the most heartbreaking and frustrating thing for all of us who feel decent inside ourselves is to know what to do. If we don’t find some way for our children to express their kindly feelings I fear that they may find it easier psychologically not to have decent feelings but to grow instead a hard shell of indifference and blindness to protect themselves from questions that are hard to answer.

As I read John Ira Jennings and Damian Duffy’s adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, I kept coming back to Smith’s comments, here and elsewhere, about the empathy of children and the ways that as they grow that empathy may turn into a shell that walls them off from the rest of the world, isolated within themselves, unaware and uncaring about those around them.

Later in the same letter, she asks the campers to define the word “personality.” One camper says that personality is two things: your feelings about others and your feelings about work. If her father could not work, she says, it “would take a big piece out of his personality.” At this, Smith mentions that the campers have interesting conversations together, and she ends the paragraph by reinforcing what she said earlier: “I have always thought most grown people belittle children’s ability to express themselves on fundamental matters. If we give them a chance, they usually say interesting and sometimes very wise things.”

Smith listened to children. She learned from them. When the camp closed in 1949, she wrote to the parents, “I hope that the idea of Laurel Falls will not die. I want to believe that we have started a chain reaction of dreams that will go on touching child after child in our South.” She knew the importance of education. She knew the importance of reaching children as children. She knew that once the myths of fear, hate, and racism took hold within the children’s minds and hearts that it would be difficult for them to break out of the hardened shells they created around themselves.

Writing about Lauren Olamina in the introduction to Jennings and Duffy’s adaptation, Nalo Hopkinson states, “One of the central frustrations of youth is being able to clearly see what the world is doing wrong while chafing at adults’ apparent unwillingness to fix it. One of the capitulations of adulthood is the recognition that social change toward equitable communities is difficult and almost never see in the course of one’s lifetime. Lauren, a teenager on the verge of adulthood, stands on the cusp of both states.”

As I read Parable of the Sower, I kept thinking about Hopkinson’s and Smith’s insights. Lauren is a hyperempath. She acutely feels what those around her feel, and she empathizes with them in pain or joy. This connection is what children feel. The campers at Laurel Falls, after hearing about the murder of the couples in Monroe, asked how these events would affect the couples’ children. Like Lauren, they felt empathy. Like Lauren, they chafed at adults who allowed such atrocities to occur. Lauren takes the feelings that she experiences and channels them into action, formulating her own religious beliefs and writing them down in Earthseed: The Books of the Living.

When Lauren, her dad, and other residents of Robledo go outside the walls of the city, she sees individuals suffering and experiences their pain. Two of Jennings’ pages highlight this. On the left, we see Lauren, in profile, looking at three people outside of the walls. The first has sores on his face, the next is missing and arm, and the final person is missing a leg. On the right page, we see half of Lauren’s face as she looks directly at the reader. To the right, three more panels appear. In the first, she has sores on her face, in the next she is missing and arm, and in the third she is missing a leg.

These two pages, the movement from person to person and the positioning of Lauren’s face, are important. The three panels on the left page have clean lines for borders, and the right side of the panels flow into Lauren’s profile as she looks at each individual. Here, she looks at the people suffering as she describes life in Robledo and some of her family’s history.

On the right page, Lauren looks directly at the reader, not angry, but appearing to question the reader if he or she sees the same thing, kind of in an accusatory manner. The panels to her right, which show Lauren experiencing what the individuals experience, do not have clean borders. They are jagged, misshapen in relation to the other panels, and highlight the pain and suffering that she experiences when she sees others in misery.

The first panel on the next panel shows the group from Robledo riding their bikes, Lauren’s father in the front. She writes in her journal, “My father tells me, ‘You can beat this thing. Don’t give in to it.’ He pretends, or perhaps believes, that my hyperempathy syndrome is something I can shake off.” He wants to protect her, and his protection stems from fear of what lies outside the walls of Robledo. It is not unwarranted, as Lauren points out. However, the fear engulfs him, and he does not empathize with others outside the wall, who like himself, suffer under the same conditions.

After the Pyros attack Robledo, Lauren returns to the blackened shell of her town. Walking through Robledo, she thinks, “Who were these people? These human maggots? Did fire draw them?” She sees the scavengers as the perpetrators of the violence. She sees them as being different from herself. She goes to her home and writes, “So, in the company of strangers, I plundered my family’s home.”

As she “plunders” her family’s home and walks over the dead bodies of people she knew, she sees the scavengers doing the same thing. They search the remains for what they need to survive. She does not have an empathic episode, but she does, I would argue, see the scavengers as she does herself. This occurs when she meets with Harry Balter and Zahra Moss. Zahra tells Lauren about her past, being homeless, scavenging, then being sold to Richard Moss.

Lauren, Zahra, and Harry become scavengers. They plunder corpses and take what they need to survive. They strive to find refuge and create an equitable society, under Lauren’s guidance. Lauren’s empathy pulls others to their community, as he feels what others feel and brings them into the fold, sometime in opposition to others in the group. This path stems from her hyperempathy and her ability to feel what others feel. In the beginning of the Parable of the Talents, she has recurring dreams about losing her hyperempathy. She even writes about the dreams, “So why do I miss it now?”

Lauren’s trajectory through Parable of the Sower and her dreams at the beginning of Parable of the Talents, reminds me of Smith’s comments about children and the campers at Laurel Falls. When do we lose this empathy for others? When do we stop feeling for others? When do the myths, fears, hates of the world creep into our beings and form a hardened shell over us? When that happens, how do we break that shell? For me, those are some of the most important questions that I think about when reading Jennings and Duffy’s adaptation of Parable of the Sower.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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One Comment on “Empathy in John Ira Jennings and Damian Duffy’s “Parable of the Sower”

  1. Pingback: End of February Mega-Links! | Gerry Canavan

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