Empathy

I had my earbuds in and Dermot Mulroney reading me part three of the last Denis Johnson collection as I climbed from the car Friday morning. A man called out to me.

I paused my story. “What?”

“Do you park here and then walk into town?”

“Yeah.” I nodded, and started the story back up.

He said, “Parking downtown is a clusterfuck.”

I nodded, but the stranger kept talking. I stopped the story again.

“I was a nurse eleven years on a cancer ward, but now I’m taking a break,” he said.

I pulled my earbuds out, wrapped them around my neck, and crossed to meet him on the sidewalk. He was a huge man — easily 6’5″ — with a giant Nike duffel over his shoulder. We fell into step.

“Are you headed to work now?” I asked.

“No, I worked eleven years on the cancer ward, but now I’m taking a break. I’m just headed to the gym.”

“At 8:30 in the morning? You’re hardcore.” He reminded me of the giant prisoner I’d taught to write 3-paragraph essays years ago in medium security. That prisoner told me he was doing 25 years for killing a man when he was 19. “I was lost,” he’d said, “but now I’m a child of Jesus.”

“I come from a competitive family,” the guy beside me says. And he starts telling me about his brother the litigator and his other brother the federal investigator. “They’re savages,” he says. “They will fuck anyone over and not give a shit. We were raised in a household without empathy.”

“How’d that look?” I ask.

“Well, we grew up in a military family.”

“Me too.”

“And empathy is weakness in a military family.”

“You have to be ready to fold up and go at any moment,” I agree.

“And our dad, he went to Korea, and then three tours in Vietnam, and he used to tell us, ‘Boys, the military needs men like me. I love killing!'”

“Oh wow. Yeah. But you worked on a cancer ward. That sounds like empathy.”

“My ex-wife asked me why I was going into nursing. ‘You don’t like people, and you don’t like helping anybody.'”

“Jeez.”

“I don’t know why I went into nursing. But I was on the cancer ward for seven years before I felt anything. I had this patient, she was dying of breast cancer, and I sat with her and felt this sadness. And it got bigger. And I realized it was empathy. I felt terrible. When my shift ended, I just stayed there, sitting with her. Everything got worse after that.”

Yeah. Yeah of course. Empathy is hard. Heavy.

And I’ve been thinking, lately, that the thing about empathy is that it isn’t about us. It’s not about figuring how to put yourself in someone’s situation or feel what they feel or anything like that. It’s about getting out of the way. About listening to the person who is suffering, and loving them.

It’s not about you.

What would it be like for a dude to grow up in that family, and go into nursing? I’ve been thinking about that all day.

I liked him. He shook me out of my story, out of my solipsistic morning commute, and told me something important. The precise moment where he recognized his feelings of empathy, and how much more difficult his life became because he learned to empathize.

It’s not about me.

I could see him in that hospital room when he told me the story. I could see her, too. And I had all this love for both of them. Seated together all this time later.

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Jill Malone

Jill Malone grew up in a military family, went to German kindergarten, and lived across from a bakery that made gummi bears the size of mice. She has lived on the East Coast and in Hawaii, and for the last seventeen years in Spokane with her son, two dogs, a hedgehog, and a lot of outdoor gear. She looks for any excuse to play guitar. Jill is married to a performance artist and addiction counselor who makes the best risotto on the planet.

Giraffe People is her third novel. Her first novel, Red Audrey and the Roping, was a Lambda finalist and won the third annual Bywater Prize for Fiction. A Field Guide to Deception, her second novel, was a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley, and won the Lambda Literary Award and the Great Northwest Book Festival.

Giraffe People

Giraffe People

Between God and the army, fifteen-year-old Cole Peters has more than enough to rebel against. But this Chaplain’s daughter isn’t resorting to drugs or craziness. Truth to tell, she’s content with her soccer team and her band and her white bread boyfriend.

And then, of course, there’s Meghan.

Meghan is eighteen years old and preparing for entry into West Point. For this she has sponsors: Cole’s parents. They’re delighted their daughter is finally looking up to someone. Someone who can tutor her and be a friend.

But one night that relationship changes and Cole’s world flips.

Giraffe People is a potent reminder of the rites of passage and passion that we all endure on our road to growing up and growing strong. Award-winning author Jill Malone tells a story of coming out and coming of age, giving us a take that is both subtle and fresh.

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A Field Guide to Deception

A Field Guide to Deception

In Jill Malone’s second novel, A Field Guide to Deception, nothing is as simple as it appears: community, notions of motherhood, the nature of goodness, nor even compelling love. Revelations are punctured and then revisited with deeper insight, alliances shift, and heroes turn anti-hero—and vice versa.

With her aunt’s death Claire Bernard loses her best companion, her livelihood, and her son’s co-parent. Malone’s smart, intriguing writing beguiles the reader into this taut, compelling story of a makeshift family and the reawakening of a past they’d hoped to outrun. Claire’s journey is the unifying tension in this book of layered and shifting alliances.

A Field Guide to Deception is a serious novel filled with snappy dialogue, quick-moving and funny incidents, compelling characterizations, mysterious plot twists, and an unexpected climax. It is a rich, complex tale for literary readers.

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Red Audrey and the Roping

Red Audrey and the Roping

Occasionally a debut novel comes along that rocks its readers back on their heels. Red Audrey and the Roping is one of that rare and remarkable breed. With storytelling as accomplished as successful literary novelists like Margaret Atwood and Sarah Waters, Jill Malone takes us on a journey through the heart of Latin professor Jane Elliot.

Set against the dramatic landscapes and seascapes of Hawaii, this is the deeply moving story of a young woman traumatized by her mother’s death. Scarred by guilt, she struggles to find the nerve to let love into her life again. Afraid to love herself or anyone else, Jane falls in love with risk, pitting herself against the world with dogged, destructive courage. But finally she reaches a point where there is only one danger left worth facing. The sole remaining question for Jane is whether she is willing to accept her history, embrace her damage, and take a chance on love.

As well as a gripping and emotional story, Red Audrey and the Roping is a remarkable literary achievement. The breathtaking prose evokes setting, characters, and relationships with equal grace. The dialogue sparks and sparkles. Splintered fragments of narrative come together to form a seamless suspenseful story that flows effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

Winner of the Bywater Prize for Fiction, Red Audrey and the Roping is one of the most memorable first novels you will ever read.

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