Dennis, the hapless yet not undangerous protagonist in Jessica Westhead’s recent story, “Empathize or Die,” published in Taddle Creek’s Summer 2016 issue, feels very much like a man I have met before, and have recoiled from while also pitied.
From the moment the story begins, the reader senses that Dennis registers women through a warped lens. For instance, after speaking with the waitress in the Greek restaurant where he is eating a hamburger, he reflects that “her laugh sounds like an angel’s laugh” and compares her to a “mystical fairy.” Dennis imagines women, in the privacy of his own mind, as otherworldly, elf-like victims of “lecherous goblins.”
At the open mic poetry night the restaurant owner’s son is hosting, Dennis again fails to see women for who they are. As one of the female poets reads her work, Dennis, in a technique he learned in a high school theatre class, enters the world of the female poet’s poem, becomes one of its characters and then rescues a farmer’s daughter (presumably the speaker of the poem or a persona she has created) from a farmhand who, he imagines, might have killed her. Ultimately, Dennis marries the farmer’s daughter. Because the reader learns of the poem only through Dennis’s lens, the reader never really knows what the young woman’s poem is about, if it contains a farmer’s daughter or a farmhand or not. The poem might be entirely Dennis’s invention or fantasy.
Why does Dennis leap into the poem, and into other scenarios involving women, such as an advertisement for gum he saw in the bathroom? Upon seeing the ad, he entered its world, and again, imagined marrying and having children with the female model posing in it. In Dennis’s version of the woman’s reality, she is happy about the turn of events Dennis has brought about.
As it turns out, Dennis is a fierce believer in empathy, in delivering oneself mentally and emotionally into the psyche of another. He believes he and others (and anyone wanting to appreciate literature, unlike his fellow audience members at the open mic poetry night, unwilling to even pay attention to the poet) will “benefit” from this practice, and he has even invented a video game requiring users to completely immerse themselves in the emotional worlds of others; if they do not successfully empathize, they die.
The story seems to explore how human beings can fail at empathy, however noble their intentions. Dennis fails to empathize when he imagines women are no more complex than he has heard they are in a culture fond of conceiving of groups of people in simplistic, easy terms. Dennis’s empathetic transports actually reveal his real (and rather insulting) view of women as creatures in need of him, as one-dimensional, lacking thought and their own unique narratives. They exist for his happiness, for him to champion and save.
Why, when I meet someone like Dennis, do I recoil from him as well as pity? I sense that someone like Dennis will always be alone–even if in a relationship–because connecting with someone means doing one’s best to know who the other person actually is. Dennis is all too human in his desire to love and be loved, but he simply cannot or will not wake up.
Jessica Westhead has written an emotionally wise and cutting story that thrills with unexpected images and with language that is really music, achieving a dark yet generously comedic tone, and carrying the reader along its various complicated melodies and rhythms with incredible agility and skill.