The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir

The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir

by Sherry Turkle
The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir

The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir

by Sherry Turkle


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“A beautiful book… an instant classic of the genre.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times A New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2021 A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice Named a Best Nonfiction Book of 2021 by Kirkus Winner of the 2021 National Jewish Book Award in Autobiography & Memoir Winner of the New England Society Book Award in Nonfiction

MIT psychologist and bestselling author of Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together, Sherry Turkle's intimate memoir of love and work

For decades, Sherry Turkle has shown how we remake ourselves in the mirror of our machines. Here, she illuminates our present search for authentic connection in a time of uncharted challenges. Turkle has spent a career composing an intimate ethnography of our digital world; now, marked by insight, humility, and compassion, we have her own.

In this vivid and poignant narrative, Turkle ties together her coming-of-age and her pathbreaking research on technology, empathy, and ethics. Growing up in postwar Brooklyn,Turkle searched for clues to her identity in a house filled with mysteries. She mastered the codes that governed her mother's secretive life. She learned never to ask about her absent scientist father—and never to use his name, her name. Before empathy became a way to find connection, it was her strategy for survival.

Turkle's intellect and curiosity brought her to worlds on the threshold of change. She learned friendship at a Harvard-Radcliffe on the cusp of coeducation during the antiwar movement, she mourned the loss of her mother in Paris as students returned from the 1968 barricades, and she followed her ambition while fighting for her place as a woman and a humanist at MIT. There, Turkle found turbulent love and chronicled the wonders of the new computer culture, even as she warned of its threat to our most essential human connections. The Empathy Diaries captures all this in rich detail—and offers a master class in finding meaning through a life's work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525560098
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/02/2021
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,160,782
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. A licensed clinical psychologist, she is the author of six books, including Alone Together and the New York Times best-seller Reclaiming Conversation, as well as the editor of three collections. A Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year, TED speaker, and featured media commentator, she is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Read an Excerpt

During the long hours of my grandmother’s dying, I begin to read the Brooklyn telephone book. I look up the Charles Zimmermans. There are pages of them. I study the entries carefully. It’s August 1975; I’m twent y­seven. For as long as I can re­ member, I’ve been both searching and not searching for Charles Zim­merman, my father, whom I haven’t seen since childhood.
Now I’m searching. In the back of one of my graduate school note­ books, I begin to copy down Charles Zimmerman addresses and telephone numbers, long lists of them. My mother is dead and my grandparents, with whom I stay when I’m in New York, have only the Brooklyn telephone book, no Manhattan directory. I know that in Cam­ bridge, Massachusetts, one of my Harvard professors has the Man­ hattan directory in his office. He once commented that everyone needs to have that directory at hand. At the time, this idea suggested a life of access and sophistication that thrilled me. Now, though, I feel a more practical need. When I get back to school, I ask his secretary if I may borrow his Manhattan book. She says no, but she lets me sit with it in his office, where I carefully copy out new Zimmerman can­ didates.

My grandmother dies in December. At LaGuardia Airport, flying back to Boston after her funeral, my plane is delayed. Standing next to a pay phone, I study the Queens directory and copy down the in­ formation for all its Charles Zimmermans. It never occurs to me that my father might live in the Bronx or have moved out of New York City altogether.

Nearly three years later, at a picnic table in Ipswich, Massachu­ setts, I tell my aunt Mildred, my mother’s sister, that I want to find Charlie, as he was known on the rare occasions when my family spoke of him. Can she help me?

Both  during  my  mother’s  life  and  long  afterword,  Mildred,  my grandparents, and I had respected my mother’s wish to keep secret what she considered the great shame of her early divorce. We never spoke of my biological father. More than this, from the time I was five and my mother remarried—this was to Milton Turkle—my fam­ily lived under a regime of pretend. The rules were that although my legal name was Sherry Zimmerman, I had to say that my name was Sherry Turkle.

Mildred’s struggle over what to say is visible, painful to watch. She promised my mother, before she died, to keep me away from my fa­ ther. Finally, Mildred comes to a decision. “If you are going to do it, if you are decided, I should help you,” she says. “Charlie once worked as a teacher. Many years after your mother’s divorce, I met someone who said that he worked as a teacher.” With that, Mildred stares down at her feet. I feel my aunt’s love. She has given me what she can. I met with a private investigator, a former police detective. I no longer remember his name, just his thin black hair and shiny gray suit. In the spring of 1979, I visited his small, bare office on the West Side, furnished with only a well­used lamp, a coat tree, and a steel desk. Sitting across from me, he traced out, on a clean sheet of paper, the meager details I knew about my father: his name; that he and my mother were divorced in Florida in the early 1950s; that he might be named in my adoption proceedings beginning in the late 1950s; and the precious detail added by my aunt: he had worked as a teacher in the New York City public school system.

After  Thanksgiving,  the  detective  called.  He’d  found  a  Charles Zimmerman who once taught school in Queens, he said. This former teacher is my father’s age. There’s also a record of a Zimmerman di­ vorce in Branford, Florida, in 1951. The man’s birth date matches that of the teacher in Queens. I remember that as we spoke, I could only take shallow breaths. I was crossing a line. My mother had not wanted me to do this. Perhaps she’d had her reasons.

I wrote a letter. My husband, Seymour Papert, helped me. We rewrote it many times. The final version left Charlie a lot of room to turn me down.
Dear Mr. Zimmerman, 
 I am Sherry Turkle, the daughter of Harriet Bonowitz and Charles Zimmerman, born on June 18, 1948. I was adopted by Milton Turkle, my mother’s second husband, and thus carry his name. I have reason to believe that you are my father. I have not been in contact with my father for many years. If you are my father, I would like to meet with you and renew our acquaintance. Please be in touch in whatever way you find most comfortable. Thank you.
Sherry Turkle 

44 Tappan Street, Brookline, Massachusetts 617-267-xxxx 
Some days later the phone rang. Seymour answered. He reached for me, slung his arm around my shoulder. He kissed me on the fore­ head as he passed me the phone. “Hello, is this Sherry Turkle?” The same voice asked if I had recently written to a Charles Zimmerman in Queens.

“Yes,” I say.

“This is your father.”
I haven’t spoken to Charlie in almost nineteen years. I saw him intermittently as a child, and then after Milton Turkle adopted me, I never heard from him again. Now he wants to see me. I grab a calendar. He gives me an address. We set a date for the following December weekend, just before Christmas.

Charlie answered the door. He looked like me. That’s what I no­ ticed first. The eyes. The mouth. I have his ears. His first words to me, right there at the door: “Did you find me through the New York Times?”

When I said, “No, I hired a detective,” he seemed disappointed. For a moment I imagined, almost giddy, that he’d been advertising for a lost daughter.

My father turned out to be a rogue scientist. Now a retired high school teacher, for decades he had worked out of his home and had written a book in which he claimed to disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Relentlessly, he then wrote to famous scientists, trying to get them to take his work seriously. He also advertised his self­published Einstein book in the back pages of the New York Times Book Review: “E=mc² is not correct. Queens high school teacher disproves Einstein. For more information write Charles Zimmerman.” He provided a post office box number. This is the advertisement my father thought had led me to him. His Einstein disproof is displayed on a table in the living room. It is small and dark and blue.

After such a long time of knowing nothing about him, it was good to find out that Charlie was alive, healthy, and not homeless. The apartment where we met reminded me pleasantly of my grandparents’ Brooklyn home. Here as there, an upholstered sofa and chairs were covered in plastic. There was a dining room set in a wood that looked so shiny that it could not possibly be real. It was some kind of space­ age cherry.

Charlie explained that this was the home of his “woman friend,” Lila. She’d been standing shyly behind him ever since he greeted me at the door, and now he introduced me. Lila is petite and pretty. I think of my mother. Tall and imposing, feminine and sociable. Char­ lie likes the company of women. Women like Charlie’s company. Lila encouraged us to sit down at the table, where food was already spread out. She said how happy she is that this day has come, that she has encouraged it often.

For lunch, Charlie told me that I will have the traditional: bagels, lox, cream cheese. Babka. He will have a kale shake. I knew he was a vegetarian because it was the first thing he mentioned after showing me his New York Times advertisement. A childhood memory came back to me—drinking a cantaloupe malted with him in Prospect Park.

As a child, among the few things I had heard about Charlie was that he was a chemist and that he had given up his right to be in con­ tact with me in exchange for being released from any obligation to pay child support. I think my mother let slip the chemist detail be­ cause it was something she could be proud of. I imagined her dream­ ing that a chemist husband would bring new status. She would visit the world of her parents and sister from a place of nicer things, she would be generous with them, her home could be their gathering place.

At our meeting, Charlie said that he had done graduate work in chemistry and also confirmed the story I’d been told about child sup­ port. My mother had wanted to erase her life with him, he said. He didn’t suit her, and her lawyer thought that the easiest way to get rid of him was to ask for what he couldn’t provide: money. You shouldn’t demand money from a father in exchange for letting him see his daughter, he said.

For a moment, I saw Charlie’s point of view. From there, I could imagine that he had actually been interested in me.

Then, over lunch, I began to take the fuller measure of my father. He couldn’t connect over a feeling or even a food. I told him I had missed knowing him. I had longed for news from him—on my birth­ days I had waited at the mailbox. He didn’t say he had missed me. It was “how your mother wanted it,” he said. At the table, he drank green juice but did not offer it to anyone else. Then he took small portions from several plates of pale cooked vegetables, none of these offered to the table either. I recognized only one: daikon. I’d seen it in Japanese restaurants.
As we ate—Lila and I, bagels and smoked salmon, Charlie, his eclectic array—I began to ask some questions and was relieved that he was willing to answer them. All these years, I wondered, had he re­ ceived any news of me? Yes, a little. He had a friend who had worked with my mother when she was a substitute teacher at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. Through this connection, Charlie knew I had done very well in school. He walked over to a manila folder and pro­ duced a June 1965 clipping from a Brooklyn newspaper. It reported that I’d won a scholarship to Radcliffe, and it was accompanied by a photograph. There I am in my official senior year portrait, wearing a black Grecian­style drape and staring into the middle distance some­ what dreamily.

I asked Charlie: “Did you think of writing me?”

“No,” he said. “I thought your mother wouldn’t have liked that.”

At this, I struggled to hold back tears. I told myself that saving  the clipping was how he was able to communicate his feelings of con­ nection. But I had hoped for so much more. Then he told me that he knew that my mother died while I was in college. I don’t remember him offering condolences or saying anything about her being gone. His face, I recall, was still.

Charlie said he lost track of me after Radcliffe. But now he’s glad to know that I am a professor at MIT. Because, he said, he and I had been scientists together. We had done “experiments from the start.”

Before I could ask what he meant, Charlie was talking about his scientific passions. Some, he said, were triggered by my birth. How does language begin? Is it innate? Could he make a groundbreaking contribution to child development? Was he perhaps the next Skinner? I felt a shiver, fearing what might be ahead, but Charlie seemed not to notice.

When I was a baby, Charlie explained, whenever my mother was not around, he used me as an experimental subject. I felt sick and was afraid to ask for details. I remember thinking that I must force myself. And so I did. “What experiments?” I remember the moment when his story became too painful and  I floated away from it, apart from the Sherry in the chair with the coffee cup on the table in front of her. I sat opposite my father and I could hardly breathe.
Finally I understood why my mother left him. Why Charlie never dared a holiday card or birthday call. Later, when I told Mil­ dred about my visit with Charlie, I didn’t mention the experiments. I reassured my aunt that Charlie had done me no harm during our visit. But I asked her what she remembered about my mother’s brief first marriage. She confided that very soon after the wedding, my mother was unhappy. Charlie was withdrawn and her new mother­in­law was intrusive and critical. Still, Mildred said, my mother chose her trou­ bles with Charlie over the shame of a separation. No one in my family was divorced. Or knew anyone who had been divorced.

But then, one Saturday afternoon in late spring 1949, my mother called and asked Mildred to pick us up. We were living with Charlie in Bayside, Queens, and my mother wanted to leave. She named an inter­ section close to our home, near some shops. Mildred said that she and my grandmother drove right out and found us waiting on the curb, my mother holding me in her arms, our hastily packed clothes in shopping bags at her feet. The drive to my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn was silent; no one asked any questions. Once home, my grandfather was happy to have us under his protection. When Charlie called after us, my grandfather got on the phone. My mother, he said, was getting a divorce.

As Charlie told me that afternoon: “That was the end of that.”

Table of Contents

Introduction: Le Nom du Père xv

Part 1 1948-1968

1 Summer Palace/Winter Palace 3

2 The Memory Closet 31

3 An Unsentimental Education 57

4 Dépaysement 79

5 Twelfth Night 103

6 Taxis 119

7 Mourning 137

Part 2 1968-1975

8 Newspapers and Vinegar 151

9 Things for Thinking 175

10 Great Books 185

11 The Lacanian Village 195

12 Chère-cheur 207

13 The Perfect Shortcake 221

14 Knots 233

Part 3 1976-1985

15 The Xerox Room 245

16 Building 20 263

17 The Marriage of True Minds 283

18 Coming Apart 301

19 The Last Experiment 319

20 The Assault on Empathy 331

Epilogue: People Are Not Objects 339

Acknowledgments 349

Notes 353

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