I am a teacher focused on helping writers communicate their personal truth. I am deeply concerned about the current administration’s support of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” I believe there is a pathology in America right now that uses self-deception, lying and deceit as a winning tactic. Over and over I’ve watched ignorant people get the attention they crave by saying outlandish and disturbing things. Last year a popular rapper made news by stating his belief that the world is flat. Republican spokesperson Kellyanne Conway talked about the “Bowling Green Massacre” which never happened. Rumors of the “Pizzagate” scandal inspired a man to go to a local pizza parlor with an AR-15 style rifle where he fired three shots, convinced that the Democratic Party was running a child sex ring. It is disturbing to watch public people pass along unverified rumors spreading lies about the world for their own amusement and entertainment. It is a dangerous game to deny the advances of the Enlightenment, and disregard reason as the primary source of authority.
Empowerment and the First Person Essay
We are never going to completely understand other people’s experiences. The closest we can get is through the empathic process of excellent storytelling. I think of being a child in suburban America and learning about how Laura Ingalls Wilder made it through winter on the prairie. Reading The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the cornerstone books that allows schoolchildren to understand how war affects entire families, and that children are not immune to the evils of genocide and war. Noble prize-winner and girl’s education activist Malala Yusefzai’s book, I Am Malala, shows how an education is priceless. Think of the books that formed you – as a child reading first person accounts are how we begin to understand the minds, times and struggles of others.
First Person Narratives Have Been Effective in Changing History
I’ve seen first person essays teach people, but this is nothing new. Frederick Douglass used writing to show the abomination of slavery and created empathy for his abolitionist cause. In What is the What, we read the account of one of the lost boys of the Sudan. Without these stories, we only hear the news reports of numbers and data. First person reportage allows us to go deep with what the writers want you to know about their lives, struggles and hopes. The first person writer gets to choose their subject, how they frame their lives and experiences. In that, first person stories are empowering in a way that journalism sometimes can’t be.
Storytelling Creates Empathic Mirroring
As Elizabeth Svoboda wrote in Aeon, “Our mental response to story begins, as many learning processes do, with mimicry.” Svoboda references a scientific study, “Listeners and speakers also showed parallel activation of the temporoparietal junction, which helps us imagine other people’s thoughts and emotions. In certain essential ways, then, stories help our brains map that of the storyteller.” Reading or hearing a story gives us the experience, and in some ways the memory of another person’s life. How else can we feel what another is going through, and through feeling understand?
A very sad example of this is the Victim Statement from the Brock Allen Turner Stanford Rape Case which was circulated on the internet. Who could not read this first-hand account of this anonymous woman’s story, how it affected her, and her disgust? The passion of her writing, the fact that she truly elucidated the emotional toll of her assault will never be forgotten as an example of powerful self-advocacy.
Storytelling Becomes Part of the Historical Record
Your voice is a weapon because it creates empathy. Currently, many Americans are afraid of being unable to afford health insurance or being denied due to a pre-existing condition. I have read many stories about the situations citizens have found themselves in and the consequences are dire. Attaching real people and real problems with a voice and story is always going to be more powerful and easy to empathize with than “24 million people” losing their insurance. Below are some examples of people who have spoken out and added their story to the historical record:
- Disabled Woman Writes About Fear of Losing AFA
- Bartender Shares Pre-Obamacare Horror Stories
- A Teenager Doesn’t Know if She Will Live to See the Next President
How can we build trust and empathy in society in order to practice respect for all people? We keep talking, writing, showing and telling. There is an African proverb, “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.” Be the lion, and tell your story.