February 13, 2017 by Debra Gittler


I often talk about literature as a vehicle to develop empathy. And in class the other day, I really experienced it: the power of text-based-dialogue to change the way I see the world…

The first day of class, “the guys” wrote six-word memoirs. We call the students “Authors.” “Our Authors.” One of their six-word memoirs sticks with me:

Done Good. Done Bad. Both Successfully.

I wasn’t there for that class—the first class—but was home when Lisa and Jen called bubbling over with enthusiasm. The authors were forthright and grateful. “I didn’t expect to be so intellectually challenged,” one author said as they ended class.

I did get to go to the second class. Jen’s stomach flu became my opportunity.
We read Garnette Cadogan’s short memoir A Family Name.

I read Mr. Cadogan’s story as a tale of fatherly neglect. In class, we only shared the first two pages of this 8-page memoir—the entire tale was left for homework—but even in just the segment provided, it was clear to me that Garnette’s father had abondoned him.

But Our Authors read differently…

This line: “I always recognize him, although there is not a single photograph of him in the home. The only image of my father to be found has been the one painted by my mother’s bitter words, creating a hologram that is mugshot one day, target practice the next.”

Our authors said:

“It sounds to me like this man wants to be a part of his son’s life. He keeps coming back…”

“The mother has poisoned the son against his own father.”

“Garnette imagines his father as a criminal—he hears about him like he’s a bad man— so whenever he sees or experiences bad and criminal things, he associates that with his dad.”

“The story says that the dad calls him ‘Chris.’ Chris is the name family uses, so the dad is family…”

I asked if they identify with Chris. Or the father.

And of course, nearly every single one of them did. As sons. And as fathers. They knew the feeling of being abandoned, of seeing parents only sporadically. As one author explained, he could relate even though his experience was a bit different. “My dad wasn’t around for a lot of years. Because of addiction. But he was around some…”

They commiserated with Chris/Garnette, but they also felt strongly and defensively for the dad. “He keeps coming back,” they emphasized.

Throughout class, they spoke sporadically of their own kids, and their “babies’ mamas.” Kids they don’t have relationships with, at least not the relationships they’d like to have. Kids who were at home while the Authors were in that classroom, kids who were hearing bitter words about their fathers while their fathers were away. And women with whom they have bad relationships or complicated relationships or fleeting relationships. And even those Authors with loving, monogomous relationships expressed empathy for Chris’ dad—the plight of a father who is at least trying…

I shared my own experience. Of a dad who was home every day, who was always around. When I read Garnette Cadogan’s story, I thought I was developing empathy for what it’s like to grow up without a dad. What it must be like to have a dad look you in the eye and not know who you are…

Instead, I gained empathy for a dad who hasn’t been able to be a good dad. I grew compassionate for this father who, despite everything, keeps showing up…

And I realized how important it is that the men we work with help frame a larger conversation. Their experiences help bring a different understanding to the world—empathy that I wasn’t capable of without them—and with a different way of seeing problems, perhaps we can find better solutions…

Recent Posts

October 21, 2020

Open Circle: 10/16/2020

At the start of the pandemic shut down, ConTextos felt the urgent need to create a consistent, open space where folks could gather to commune,…

Read More
October 14, 2020

Dear Chicago: It’s Complicated

I am thrilled to be a part of the ConTextos team now as the Director of Communications and Development. Writing has always been such an…

Read More
September 29, 2020
Job Posting: Teaching Artists. Photography, Mural, Digital, Comic, Visual

Job Posting: Teaching Artists. Photography, Mural, Digital, Comic, Visual

Dear Chicago Community Arts Program in Auburn Gresham Seeking 4 part-time contracted positions: 8 weeks, 25-30 hour/week October through December 2020 Meaningful stipend based on…

Read More