MIT Professor Sherry Turkle has long been revered for her research on society’s relationship with technology. In her newest book, The Empathy Diaries, she blends her research with her own narrative as she analyzes the various roles empathy has played in her family history. Sherry talks with Zibby about how her relationship with her mom continues to evolve and the ways in which writing this book began to heal some of her old wounds.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sherry. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Empathy Diaries.

Sherry Turkle: I’m so happy to be here. I listen to this. I’m a mom who has time to read books, but I listen anyway.

Zibby: Excellent. At least then you’ll get lots of other recommendations.

Sherry: I’m a special mom because I’m a professor. My day job is reading books, so I don’t have that excuse.

Zibby: There you go.

Sherry: I’m in a special mom category.

Zibby: I feel like you’re the coolest professor there can be because your whole life is technology meets emotion. What cooler things to even learn about and then to read about? That’s awesome.

Sherry: Yeah, except that they the technologists get mad at you because they say, no, no, it’s just a tool. A computer is just a tool. There’s no emotion. You’re just a girl. You’re just reading into it.

Zibby: Oh, come on. Did they really say that to you, type of thing? Wow.

Sherry: Less now because now tech companies are realizing that they can market their computers as having personalities. For the longest time, seriously, that was my, I don’t want to say my cross to bear, but my struggle at MIT was that people would say, you pursue this, you will not get tenure. garbage in, garbage out. It is not a thing to argue that it’s an intimate machine, computer is Rorschach. That’s not what we’re pushing. That’s not what it is. A technology is just a blank screen. It’s just a neutral tool. who were saying, no, when I put a piece of my mind into the computer’s mind, did I come to see it differently? That’s not just a tool. That’s identity. I’ve gotten some pushback.

Zibby: I feel like the geniuses over time are ones who start in a new way and go against the grain. You rarely hear, oh, I did everything everybody wanted.

Sherry: I don’t mind you thinking I’m the coolest mom. I don’t mind you thinking I’m this mom. My daughter will hear it. It’s a big cred.

Zibby: Let’s talk a little bit about your book. As someone who thinks a lot about empathy in general and is the hugest proponent of it as the central force to improve the entire world, having a book come across my desk called The Empathy Diaries, I was like, oh, my gosh, yes, this looks amazing. Of course, you open it up in such a, not nail-biting, but this way of you trying to find your father and then right up front, figuring out this big thing that he was doing as a child and why your mother had kept him from you to begin with and this whole thing and all these pictures of your family. You’re in it with you right away. It was awesome.

Sherry: I start that way because the central problem of my life as a child was, why did my mother — she left him without telling me why when I was one years old. She called her sister and said, “We’re packing. We’re leaving.” As my aunt tells it, she put a few . She didn’t have luggage. She put a few A&P boxes and bags together with some underwear and a dress and some diapers for me. She went back to live with her parents where my aunt, who was not married, was also living. The thing is that they didn’t want me to know his name. They didn’t want to talk about him in front of me. I didn’t know his name. We weren’t allowed to talk about him. Then when she remarried, wanted to use her new husband’s name, Turkle, way before he legally adopted me. I was Sherry Turkle officially even when it wasn’t official. The mystery for me was, why was she keeping me from him? It was the kind of thing where you couldn’t say, hey Mom, look, I know there’s something really bad going on here, but talk to me. Talk to me. I know it’s bad, but any talk would be better than what I’m imagining. It was before the days you could do that. I tried to evoke a world where children did not say those sorts of things to parents. I came home — my name was Sherry Zimmerman in school. I had to lock up my homework and all of my books so that my sister and brother would not see them, my half-sister and brother from her new marriage, because they never knew I had another father.

I begin the book with the kind of mystery of what the book will be about and tell the reader to be on my mother’s side a little bit, that there was a reason. I don’t tell you the reason until it comes up in the narrative of the story. I don’t go into detail until I find him and I get the full blast. I want the reader to be on her side because for so many years I wasn’t on her side. I think that’s very important. I didn’t have empathy for her. Empathy, for me, was a way to do the detective work of trying to figure out what could possibly be on her mind that she would do such a thing. It was a detective work. It was a strategy for survival rather than, really, a way of reaching out to her, understanding her, being able to put myself in her place. That’s the kind of distinction I draw in the book. Empathy that can heal is really being able to understand somebody else’s problem and say, you know, I’m sticking with you with this problem and I’m committing myself to you. She didn’t allow me to do that. That’s why empathy is so important to me because she didn’t allow me to do that.

Zibby: Then tragically, she passes away when you were, what, eighteen or nineteen?

Sherry: I was eighteen when she passed away.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. Tell me about that moment and then how when you had to reconcile all the stuff you didn’t know and then the loss with these unresolved feelings in the midst of — that’s a tricky time between mothers and daughters, I would say, across the board.

Sherry: Right. What made it trickier and what I try to do in The Empathy Diaries is — I was so angry at her. I adored her. She was everything I wanted to be. I’m really not all the things she was. She was tall. I sort of stopped at 5’4″.

Zibby: Taller than me. I’d take 5’4″ on a good day.

Sherry: Now I’m kind of shrinking back down to 5’3″ and a half. She was tall and voluptuous and funny. In terms of her personality, I really tried to emulate her. She was warm and compassionate. It was this secret about my father that was the sticking point. I was so angry at her because she took him away from me without any explanation. I sensed, and this of course was for no reason, that I somehow was like him, which turned out to be true. He turned out to be a very intellectual man. My family was super smart. The Bonowitzes, her side of the family, they were super smart. My grandfather, he read every newspaper. He read them back and forwards and upside down. He was always saying, “Is this good for the Jews?” He’d read about something in the deepest Africa about Patrice Lumumba and he would be trying to figure out whether this was good for the Jews.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I have to show you this book. Do you have this yet, The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia?

Sherry: No, I don’t.

Zibby: Literally, at the end of every chapter, they say, “But is it good for the Jews?” So funny you just said that.

Sherry: That was my grandfather. He was super smart. He had to drop out of school when he was twelve, but he was just super smart. My grandmother was smart. My aunt was smart. The Bonowitzes were very smart. It turns out my biological father, the Zimmerman guy, she was drawn to him because he was very intellectual. I sensed that there was something in my intellectuality that kind of came from him. Without even knowing him, I identified with him. Of course, he was forbidden, so that made him more. Who could he be? Why was he taken away? What had he done? I was angry at her. This anger came out in weird bursts because I technically loved her so much. There were a few episodes in the book which were the bravest things for me to put in because I show my anger at her. I put them in. I took them out. I put them in. I took them out. I didn’t want to show how mean I was to my mother. People say, but you showed your husband being unfaithful to you.

Nothing compared to that I showed I was mean to my mother. There’s one episode, we’re going to an interview at Radcliffe College where I so wanted to go. She had not told me of her cancer because she knew that I would stay home and not go away to college which I so wanted to do. It was my dream. If I knew about this cancer, I would’ve just wanted to be with her in her last years. To the interview, one of the clips that she used to keep the bouffant style of her hair, she had left because she kept them in all night to keep the line of the hair. She had left it in for the interview. She had forgotten to take it out. As we came out of the interview, I said to her, “Mommy, I’m so ashamed. You left in a clip.” It was like telling her, you’ve ruined it for me. You’ve ruined it for us. It was that clip. You showed us to be who we were, that we don’t belong here. It was so cruel. I say if I could have one do-over in life, that would be my do-over. It was so cruel.

Zibby: It’s okay.

Sherry: Thank you. Honestly, it’s as though I want — what I like about the book and where I think the book is really me is that it almost asks the reader to say, is it okay? Do you forgive me? I’m not over it yet. With all my analyses and all my — I’m just getting over it. The book has been a healing because I realized that there was no way for me to not be angry at her. I had to. At that point, not knowing that she saved me by leaving my father, I had to be angry at her. The book really has been a journey in that way. That is the kind of story I tell. I was just separating from being angry at her. Maybe I was going to confront her about this father thing. Okay, look, I’m eighteen years old. I’m going to be nineteen. Now it’s time to talk to me. Maybe I should meet him. Maybe we should talk about him. Maybe I should see him before he dies. I should know who he is. I should know what he did. Was he abusive? And she dies. Then later in the book, I find him with private detectives. It’s a whole second chapter. The story of my mom and how I had to get closer to her, it’s why I needed empathy, the kind of empathy that could let me try to get into her head and figure out what she wouldn’t tell me.

Zibby: All those unresolved feelings, this sounds so hokey to say out loud, but just because you pause the movie at a bad place doesn’t mean it’s not a wonderful movie. Just because that’s where your relationship had to end chronologically doesn’t mean that she didn’t take all the positives along with her. She knew how much you loved her. I feel like your regret comes from her not feeling love or respect and that you diminished her in that moment where really, that’s not how you felt. She knew how you felt for real. I’m sure she did.

Sherry: Yes. That’s my comfort. I think my mother knew that I her.

Zibby: Of course she did.

Sherry: My mother knew that I deeply loved her.

Zibby: Then with the empathy piece too, when you meet your dad, he exhibited zero empathy, as you pointed out. When I first started reading him, I was like, maybe he’s autistic or he’s on the spectrum.

Sherry: I think he is on the spectrum, in fact. Actually, I think that was part — I’ve been reading. To do my research, I read a lot about the attitudes of people towards people on the spectrum, people who were autistic, people who were a little off, a little crazy. I think that my mother’s wanting him out of my life had many dimensions. One dimension is that he was treating me in ways that people on the spectrum treat people. He was treating me like an object. He didn’t know how to treat, I would say a real girl, not a Pinocchio, but a real girl. He was objectifying me. He treated me like a doll. I think she took a look at that, and she was out. More than that, I think when she realized that he was not, in some ways, relational in the way she needed him to be for her child, not to mention their marriage — I’m sure it wasn’t a happy marriage. I think when she saw him relating to me like a doll, she didn’t have words for it, but she knew he wasn’t all right. There was a tremendous stigma.

Number one, she had married somebody mentally ill. Oh, my god, in her Jewish community at that point, that was bad. Perhaps she wouldn’t be able to marry again. Number two, she had a child by this man. What about the genetics of me? I think in that world, I would’ve been stigmatized. She wanted it not to be known that she was married, not to be known who she was married to, not to be known why she was divorced, and not to be known that there was a taint of potential something with something in me because she was worried for my future. All of these things which today we don’t even think about were on my mother’s mind. When I was just dishing out my little cruelties because she wouldn’t talk to me, I wasn’t thinking about any of this, none. Actually, I have to say that it wasn’t until the book was sort of finished that I had many of these revelations. The book for me, in so many areas, was a project of discovery. Now I have some more things to say about really what I learned because I imply but I don’t think I took the full measure of some of these things that were on her mind. I don’t stop the narrative and say, hey, look at how mental illness was considered in the sixties. I keep the story going and I let the reader do some of that work.

Zibby: Which is fine. What was it like for you? Clearly, this is so emotional and so close to your heart. What was it like sitting down, just you and the computer? I’m assuming you did it on the computer. What was it like, you facing the computer and having to get all these thoughts out and relive some of these painful moments?

Sherry: It was very different, different days. Even now, I’m a different person for having written it. For example, the memories of Rockaway and my relationship — the outtakes of the book — I have a daughter who’s now twenty-nine. When I finished the first draft of the book, which was, I want to say, four times the length of this book — I have an apartment in New York. I printed it out at a FedEx that had a printer because my home printer was shaking. It was too much. I printed it out. I made two copies. I put it on a credenza I have because I tend to lose things. I just put them there. I invited her to dinner. She lives in New York. I said, “Becca, look, this is everything. You’re not going to want to read this now. This is too much. When you’re forty, when you’re fifty, you may want to read the details of every little shopping list of your great-grandmother’s.” In the first draft, I was so into it that I have great-grandma’s Monday shopping list, Tuesday shopping list, the special Wednesday shopping list. Wednesday, my grandfather had a late day off. His time was a little different coming home from the theater. He was a manager of a Times Square theater. We had breakfast together. She bought this thing that was expensive called sturgeon which we never ate any other day of the week. I include this detail.

I got so into the pleasure of recreating Brooklyn in the fifties and also chapters on Essie who ran the sweet shop and what she was like. She went to Florida in the winter. All the boys were in love with her because she was big-bosomed. The girls wanted to — I just got into Proustian — I was in a new space. As I rediscovered my mother’s affection for Archie & Veronica comics and how she wanted to be Veronica and scenes of being on subway stations with her where she bought Black Jack chewing gum — then I went out and found that you could still get Black Jack chewing gum. I went through a month of chewing Black Jack chewing gum much to my dentist’s . What is going on here? Don’t you know that you have fillings? Who do you think you are? Some five-year-old with your mother chewing Black Jack chewing gum? Some of it was very pleasurable. Then some of it was so hard. I knew that I didn’t want to tell a story that was me, me, me. Everything in the book had to serve a higher purpose. Vivian Gornick talks about the situation and the story. I have a story, but I also really am trying to make some points about robot psychotherapy and that the world shouldn’t be friction-free, that people don’t operate like that, and about empathy and about healing and about the pandemic. Everything had to have a purpose. I did want to show vulnerability about myself because I think that so much of my point is that vulnerability is where empathy is born. If people couldn’t feel empathic with me, I hadn’t done my job. If I just was Little Miss Smarty takes great tests and then Little Miss Smarty takes great tests at the next school and more Little Miss Smarty, that wasn’t going to work. I include stories that are very painful. That was hard. In general, it was a book, as I say, of great — writing about myself and the objects of my life, I think it was a very healing exercise.

Zibby: Wow. You do a fantastic job. The parts about Rockaway, I felt like I was there. I understand now what that was like at that time, in that era, in that place. It was so visual. I felt like I was watching Brighton Beach Memoirs or something. Do you know the movie? That was great. You transport the reader in both emotion and time and place. That’s great. What else can you ask for in a memoir, really? Plus, the secrets, I feel like that’s the key to most memoirs, the corrosive power of secrets in a family. It’s time and time again in different books because it’s what people are working through constantly in understanding themselves. What was hidden? What happens when it comes out? Pretty awesome.

Sherry: My mother had secrets. She had these big secrets, my father, that he was ill, that he had done some — I don’t want to give away the book.

Zibby: Don’t. I won’t say anything.

Sherry: There is a secret. She also had little secrets. She did have a kind of desire to — her favorite character was Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. From that movie, she took the idea that you could make the world into your version of the world by force of will. She was this tall, beautiful woman. I know she was 5’11”. She might have been six feet. She didn’t like that. She thought that wasn’t feminine. This is hysterical. She convinced the women at the division of motor vehicles when she got her license —

Zibby: — She was 5’7″, right?

Sherry: Every time she went, she said, “Look, I’m single. I want to catch a husband. If he thinks I’m a little shorter, it’ll be easier. I always wear flats or heels,” those tiny little kitten heels, the little Audrey Hepburn ones with less than three and a half inches, almost two and a half, with a very shaped little heel. She was a specialist for wearing these sandals. She had a whole wardrobe of these very beautifully shaped but very low heels so that she could slink along with a 5’10” guy and kind of hunch over, even a 5’9″ guy. She kept shaving inches off her height. By the time she died, I had her wallet, and she was 5’7″, which defied imagination. There she was at 5’7″ to be shorter than her current husband. There was no way my mother was 5’7″. She was walked into a room and she was like Cyd Charisse. As a matter of fact, she was so happy — she idolized Cyd Charisse who was, Fred Astaire, one of his last dancing partners who was exactly 5’5″. I think Fred Astaire was 5’11”, and so Cyd Charisse wore ballet flats to dance with him and even then was a little taller than he. Fred Astaire just says, she’s a great dancer, let’s do it. She idolized Cyd Charisse because Cyd Charisse was tall and proud. I think that if Cyd Charisse had come on the scene a little earlier, my mother might have not shaved so many inches off her driver’s license. I joked with her. “Mom, now it’s too hard to go back and say you’ve grown. You can’t go back now and say now you want to be Cyd Charisse’s height.”

Zibby: What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Sherry: Start with an object. I wrote a book on evocative objects. Actually, the cover of The Empathy Diaries is me in the red car. I think Nancy Drew had a blue roadster. I don’t remember if it was red or blue. I think it was blue, but I interpreted it as red. I had a red roadster going off after I graduated college on my adventure of my life. All the objects that surround me are the objects that were evocative objects. I teach a course on evocative objects. These are objects that really carry more than the objects themselves. They carry the meaning. They carry the people. You bring them inside and they kind of become part of you. On the outside are my grandmother’s best dishes that she used for Passover and Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah and a birthday party, an anniversary. They were so special that she said — we weren’t wealthy. They were bought for her as a wedding present by her mother and her mother’s mother on the Lower East Side off a pushcart. She said, “This is the only thing that will survive me. These dishes will survive me. You will eat on them. Your children will eat on them and beyond.” I remember being a little girl and knowing exactly what she meant. She didn’t have jewelry or anything to pass on, really. It’s true. I cherish them. My daughter cherishes them. I know that my daughter will use them and her daughter will use them. These dishes won’t die.

Zibby: I have my grandmother’s dishes too.

Sherry: She knew what she was talking about. The dishes are the frame. Then Nancy Drew mysteries come in the second because they were an evocative object. They were like my guide, the cover of some of my Nancy Drew mysteries. Then there’s a letter that my mother wrote me when I was in Paris at the . Then there’s a mysterious photograph of a man taking me out on a lake, which is my one memory of my biological father, Charlies Zimmerman. I was allowed to see him once or twice. He went to court to have the right to see me. It’s shrouded in mystery, but I remember that event. I teach my memoir students that you just begin by talking about an object that means a lot to you. I began this book by writing about my grandmother’s giving me a Smith Corona electric typewriter when I went off to Radcliffe in my second year. Maybe it was my third. I think it was my second year. The whole first year I had borrowed other girls’ typewriters. The school had a typewriter. It was old. My papers looked disgusting.

She didn’t have very much money. She said she cooked depression cooking for two months, like adding a lot of noodles to the soup and a lot of what she calls mandels to the soup, which were little fried pastries so that my grandfather wouldn’t notice that there wasn’t much soup and not much meat, but a lot of this pastry in the soup so that she could buy me this typewriter. Probably at the time, it cost forty dollars. She didn’t have the forty dollars. She saved it all summer to buy me this typewriter. I still have the typewriter. I still write on it when I get writer’s block. It forces you to think in sentences, which is something you don’t have to do when you write on a computer. Mostly, it just brings me back to her love. That’s the best thing you can do. You start writing chunks of things around objects. Stay at it for two months. Then read what you’ve written. Read where the objects of your life have taken you. It opens up a lot.

Zibby: Thank you so much. This has been so interesting and moving and emotional. I feel like it’s taken me back through my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. As you’re talking, I’m imagining my own. Thank you. Thank you for your book and this conversation. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you.

Sherry: It’s been a pleasure. I really appreciate what you do. Thank you very much.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day. Buh-bye.


The Empathy Diaries by Sherry Turkle

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