Empathy the Hard Way

by Christine King

I work in a minimum security womens facility that is more like a college dormitory than a jail. The women take classes in life skills, parenting, substance abuse, knitting, and Nonviolent Communication. There is a garden where they grow vegetables and then prepare the food in their kitchen.  They also foster kittens that are too young to be adopted. This gives the women something to nurture and love and it’s sweet watching how fiercely some of them protect those kittens. 

One day when I came to work at the jail, some of the inmates were furious because the whiskers had been completely cut off one of the kittens. These women were going from room to room announcing what had happened and how they were going to find out who did it and she was going to pay. Eventually, an inmate was accused of cutting off the whiskers and ‘rolled over’, meaning she went to a higher security jail. I never saw her after that.

I tell this story because I thought long and hard about why someone might cut off a kitten’s whiskers. The woman who allegedly did it was a student in my class. When she told her life story and others guessed at emotions such as angry, pissed off, furious, she often said, ‘no, I didn’t mind when my boyfriend treated me like that’.

Many of these women come from homes where emotions were not safe, valued, or encouraged. This is not unique to the prison population, yet it may be more pronounced because most of these women come from abusive homes, molested by their grandfathers and fathers, the very people we look to for love and protection. I once heard an ex-offender say he grew up thinking the world was a scary and dangerous place so he had to be scary and dangerous to protect himself. This is also true for many of these women.

I believe the healing process is enhanced when these women can begin to identify and trust their emotions. So I start with a pretty gentle, common sense approach. I begin by teaching them that feelings keep us alive—if we didn’t know we were hungry or cold, we wouldn’t put on a jacket or eat food. From there, we explore the full range of physical and emotional feelings and connect the feelings to needs. My experience is that the women in the jail are hungry for empathy.

Reflecting about the woman who cut the whiskers off the kitten, I realized cat’s whiskers help orient them and feel into their world. If the kitten couldn’t feel anything, then in one sense, the kitten was experiencing the exact same thing as the inmate who was not connected with her own emotions. To not be isolated or alone, we need others to share our experience. If our experience has been one of phased abuse, unconsciously we may inflict abuse on another to “share” our experience. Cutting the kitten’s whiskers was the woman’s woeful attempt to receive empathy.

I believe many of the crimes these women do commit are misguided desires for empathy. One of my current students is in jail for physical violence. She was beaten by her own stepfather who also beat her mother. We talk about her childhood and all the pain she still carries around from that experience. By physically harming others, it’s like saying “if you feel exactly how I felt, then I’m not alone and there is someone else to share my feelings.”

It’s possible that crimes which physically inflict harm on others may be tragic attempts for empathy. It backfires of course when the person who commits the crime is incarcerated and punished. Because then more pain is created and the need for empathy increases and so the cycle continues.

I dream of a world where those who are in emotional pain receive the empathy and understanding they need.

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