Your book is titled The Empathy Diaries, what is so crucial and enduring about empathy to you?
This book is about how I learned to be a friend, a better listener, how I learned how empathy requires the capacity for solitude. As technology progressed to undermine the private spaces of our lives, I determined that when you undermine privacy, you undermine empathy, democracy, and intimacy. My personal and political passions became one.
As my career developed, I came to see empathy under attack by the imperialism of artificial intelligence. AI researchers put forth the idea that machines, like people, could have it. I see empathy as something only people have, the outcome of having a life, a body, having grown up from being little to becoming older, of knowing pain, of fearing death. If you want to solve an equation, you might turn to an artificial mind. If you want to discuss love and loss, turn to a person.
You’ve written the story of finding your way in your professional world. What is your advice to others trying to do the same?
Successful careers have origin stories. My book is about how my work became “lit from within” because of its connection to my personal journey. Work becomes tied up in attachments losses, in sum, the people we connect to and the people we lose. My story is particular and has its own dramatic arc—a rogue scientist father who used me for psychological experiments and then disappeared from my life, a mother who was ashamed of this story and made me promise never to speak about it. She took things to an extreme: We really never spoke of this father and I had to lie about his name, my name. I learned empathy because I knew that my mother loved me. I needed to figure out why she would do this to me, even as she loved me so. So the story that ties together my career and my personal life is dramatic. But my message is that every career has a story, even if less dramatic. At one point in the book I say: “We love the obects we think with; we think with the objects we love.” We are attached to people and ideas and objects. We make careers that try to stay close to them in one way or another.
We are often motivated because we are working out the stories of our life. I had talents, but I also had insecurities. If I were giving advice I would say: Don’t be afraid to learn about your insecurities as well a strengths. They’ll both help you forge a career that is uniquely yours. Develop confidence in your own style of creativity. And perhaps most of all, develop the capacity for creative solitude.
The book vividly takes the reader back in time—how did you achieve that?
I reached out to people from every phase of my life. From fifth grade classmates to my colleagues from my early days at MIT. I wanted to check my recollections against their impressions of me at the time. I went back to Wolozin, Belaurus, where the Bunowitz (turned into Bonowitz) family was from—at the Wolozin yeshiva, I found the names of my ancestors engraved on its walls from when they were students. Seeing these names made that connection to Wolozin all the more real to me. Of course, I also went to Hoboken in New Jersey and Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn, where my grandparents’ families settled in America. Thanks to Google, I could step out of my grandmother’s home in Hoboken and see the streetscape as she had seen it.
I had reunions of my fifth grade, junior high school, high school, and college classmates. I went to the 100th birthday party of my Aunt Mildred’s best friend, one she travelled with and who was a frequent companion at the theater. I talked to my mother’s doctor during her final illness. I was racing against time. Many of the people I spoke with, died shortly after I reached them. I can only say that I immersed myself best I could in the story of my life and tried to honestly re-experience it.
“Evocative objects” anchor many of the chapters. Can you say more about their importance to both your life and your work?
I do a lot of writing in the book about the power of objects. How they carry memories and ideas. How we use them to think through things. My grandmother considered her set of dishes her treasure, a link to her mother, to her children, to her grandchildren, and to her great grandchildren, whether or not she met them. She thought her dishes were so beautiful that these great grandchildren would be eating on her dishes on Jewish holidays. When she saw the dishes, she saw her future. She is right. I use those dishes. I am starting to share them with my daughter who also uses them on special occasions. Now, my daughter is pregnant with a girl. It gives me goose bumps to think that she will use the dishes too.
I love to talk about what objects mean in the lives of individuals and families. I hope my reader also learns how to use objects “to think with” as I narrate how I put that story together for myself.