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Empathy and Sympathy in North Carolina

Kasey Thornton’s debut novel Lord The One You Love is Sick takes place in a fictional southern small town called Bethany. That name, and the title of the book, are references to the Biblical story of Lazarus’ resurrection. At one point, the shortest verse in the Bible — also from the story of Lazarus — is referenced by a pastor recruiting for a grief counseling group as, “He wept.” And there is much going on in Bethany to draw tears: addiction, domestic and child abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, suicide. Whether there is new life after the tribulations is left for the book’s ending.

Each character’s predicament intersects with that of several others. A lonely young man sequestered in his mother’s basement renews a grade school friendship when a woman leaves her abusive husband. Another man has a mental breakdown. As the cloud lifts in treatment at the psych ward, he remembers that the nurse is married to the troubled car mechanic in town, and promisees to look in on her and their children.

These are not problems unique to small towns or the south, but Thornton is from North Carolina and fills these stories with details unique to her experience. Wealthy outsiders from the north or big cities are both a source of income and resentful amusement for the locals.

Early in the book, a local talks with her date about her deceased husband, “things used to hurt” him, “he didn’t like watching the news or reading too many books. He had an empathy problem.” Her date, the husband’s would-be replacement, latches on to a break in logic rather than the emotion in her story, and proceeds to define empathy and sympathy for her:

Sympathy means you understand what people go through and you feel bad for their misery. Empathy means you put yourself in the shoes of another person.

Never mind that dictionary definitions differ on these terms, the man has just confessed that he is autistic, so the ironic turn toward mansplaining and away from exhibiting either empathy or sympathy is the point. It is also telling that this man is the only significant character in LTOYLIS from out-of-town. Thornton is concerned with how small towns in the South process grief, what is talked about and what goes unspoken. Outsiders have different ways of avoiding pain.

Sympathy and empathy are important parts of a writer’s toolkit. Thornton puts herself in the shoes of these characters because she has experience with much of what she puts them through.

Lord The One You Love Is Sick came to me through The Nervous Breakdown book club (the book’s inclusion of a nervous breakdown is coincidence, not the club’s literal theme). In an accompanying podcast interview with Brad Listi, Thornton discusses personal experiences that parallel those of characters in the book, including a childhood as a free-range urchin, experiences with the mental health system, alcohol addiction and chronic pain.

Every writer must empathize with their characters’ lives. A reader’s ability to feel sympathy for characters’ misery (or joy) depends on the writer’s ability to do so. Thornton’s ability to get inside the heads of so many characters awed me in this debut. As I turn away from a season of nonfiction election anxiety blogging back to my own novel, Thornton’s debut is inspiring me to explore the interior lives of my characters in new ways, and to consider more deeply the ways their experiences and emotions mirror situations I’ve lived through.


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