A Lie And A Truth: Empathy in Storytelling by Ally Malinenko

When I was in college, a friend told me that she thought I had Borderline Personality Disorder.

I didn’t know what that meant so I looked it up.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships.

Here’s some of the signs:

  • Extreme reactions—including panic, depression, rage, or frantic actions—to abandonment, whether real or perceived
  • A pattern of intense and stormy relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often veering from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
  • Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self, which can result in sudden changes in feelings, opinions, values, or plans and goals for the future (such as school or career choices)
  • Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few day
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness and/or boredom


Needless to say, she was wrong. But the term borderline stuck with me. Borderline like something on the edge, open to interpretation.

Over the years I have come to think of it as empathy to a fault. Radical empathy. I can quite easily put myself in someone else’s shoes. The problem is, I never seem to give them their shoes back. I made a habit of collecting other people’s stories and twisting them together with my own.

I would pick up pain or happiness or fear or anger and eventually it would become a part of me. Even if I didn’t own the root of those feelings to begin with.

I’ve been thinking about how this serves in creativity.

Since the publication of This Is Sarah, the number one question I get is, Is it true? And I understand that. I wrote a book about the aftermath of the disappearance of a teenage girl, told through the interlaced experiences of her sister, Claire and her boyfriend, Colin. It is a story about the stages of grief and the eventual acceptance process of those left behind.

So when I’m asked Is it true?  I recognize that people want to know if I am Claire, Sarah’s sister. Or Colin, Sarah’s boyfriend.

But I am not Sarah or Colin or Claire. Thankfully no one I know has been kidnapped. No one had vanished.

Inevitably the next question was, how did you know so much about what it would feel like?

Or something to that effect. They are fishing out the possibility that I am a giant imposter.

And they would be right. I am, to a degree, a giant imposter, as is everyone who writes fiction. But the real answer to how do you know so much about what it would feel like is much simpler.

Because I had grieved. Because I had lost people. And grief, regardless of how it lands at our door, is universal.

Personally, I thought that was a pretty good answer. And yet more often than not they were disappointed.

As if my “making it up” rendered it emotionally untrue.

A lie.

I had deceived them and I was an imposter.

They wanted the story itself to be real. It didn’t matter that the emotions were. It didn’t matter that the pain and the anger and the fear were. It didn’t matter that some people, like Colin, shut down in the face of death. That other people, like Claire, refused to. None of that mattered as much as wanting it to be true.

Empathizing wasn’t enough.

John Green wrote a book called The Fault In Our Stars. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s pretty famous. He dedicated the book to Esther Earl. Esther was a young girl that died of cancer, and the author of “This Star Won’t Go Out.

Mr. Green met Ms. Earl at a Harry Potter convention. He was moved by her story and he credits her with being part of the inspiration for his character Hazel. The book was published in 2012, after her death.

In a goodreads interview John said the following:

I could never have written this if I hadn’t known Esther. She introduced me to a lot of the ideas in the book, especially hope in a world that is indifferent to individuals, and empathy. She redefined the process of dying young for me.

Walking out of the hospital in 2000, I knew I wanted to write a story about sick kids, but I was so angry, so furious with the world that these terrible things could happen, and they weren’t even rare or uncommon, and I think in the end for the first ten years or so I never could write it because I was just too angry, and I wasn’t able to capture the complexity of the world. I wanted the book to be funny. I wanted the book to be unsentimental. After meeting Esther, I felt very differently about whether a short life could be a rich life.

But a lot of people have interpreted that to mean that John’s main character is Esther.

As if a story about death – the most universal thing of all – wasn’t as powerful if there wasn’t one specific life behind it.

Gayle Forman, also pretty famous, wrote a book called If I Stay. It is the story of Mia, a girl who narrates her story from a hospital bed after losing her entire family in a car crash. Except Mia is in a coma.

Gayle wrote a piece for the New York Times about how that car full of people were her friends. Except for Gayle, no one lived.

Mia, the cellist, was fiction, but the accident, and Mia’s family — her punk-rocker turned 1950s throwback of a father, her strong-willed mother and her adorable little brother — were resurrected from the ashes of my loss. A loss that no longer had the power to sucker punch but instead had become part of me, like a scar, or maybe a smile line.

The power in stories lies in their universality; that we can see ourselves in the people that populate them and can recognize the emotions that fuel them, be it love, sadness, heartbreak, fear, joy, misery or loneliness.

The greatest tool a writer has is to be able to absorb that emotion, to hold it bare in her hands and live with it. Stories are stitched together by the needle sharp power of empathy. They’re a lie and a truth all rolled up into one.

And if they’re good, then they make us remember what it means to be human.

Ally Malinenko is the author of the poetry collections The Wanting Bone and How To Be An American (Six Gallery Press) as well as the novel This Is Sarah (Bookfish Books). Better Luck Next Year, a poetry collection is forthcoming from Low Ghost Books. She lives in Brooklyn and tweets @allymalinenko mostly about Doctor Who and David Bowie.

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