Arianna Huffington interviews Sherry Turkle.
The Empathy Diaries. A turn to memoir. How would you summarize the premise of your new book?
I thought I had a story to tell about the relationship between one’s life and one’s work passions.
I started my life with a secret identity. My real last name (my father’s name from my mother’s first marriage) couldn’t be said aloud. My mother, wanting to hide an early marriage and divorce, insisted that I lie about it until I was an adolescent and finally adopted by my stepfather. Yet, with multiple identities, I had to find myself.
My secret was a burden. Just by uttering my real name in the wrong place, I could blow apart my mother’s cover. So learned to pass, but I always felt like a fraud.
My secret also made me an outsider. This was a burden, but looking back, I learned to use it as a kind of superpower. Standing on the outside, I could see things that other people couldn’t. I would learn that the normal suppresses what doesn’t fit. I was primed to see things that didn’t fit because I was of them.
My path, by necessity lonely, taught me that the capacity for solitude is essential for empathy. If you can be content with yourself and know yourself, when you engage with others, you are not trying to turn them into what you need them to be. Solitude is where empathy is born. In the psychoanalytic tradition, one says: “If you don’t teach your children to be lonely, they’ll only know how to be alone.”
After my work took me to MIT, I became worried that technology got in the way of people’s capacity for solitude and self-reflection and thus for empathic connection. Tracing down that story became my life’s work.
I was reflecting on all of this, writing my memoir, when the pandemic began. It has been an opportunity for us all to become both outsiders to our own country and to have a forced experience with solitude.
How we come out of this, how we use this to make our country and ourselves stronger is now our greatest test...