Hyperempathy Syndrome and Normative Girlhood in Parable of the Sower (Kho S and Rachel W)

In Parable of the Sower, the main character Lauren has a fictional disease called hyper empathy syndrome, meaning she feels the pain and the pleasure of others. In their introduction, Day, Green-Barteet, and Monz discuss the Currie, Kelly, and Pomerantz article which states that narratives surrounding girlhood have “positioned young women in a space that simultaneously highlights their vulnerability and proclaims their strength” (5); we believe that Lauren perfectly represents this dichotomy in girlhood. In this post, we examine the ways in which the concept of hyperempathy syndrome both reinforces normative ideas of girlhood as powerless and creates a new definition of girl power by presenting a positive side of femininity.

According to Day, Green-Barteet, and Monz, girls “continue to be constructed as passive and weak within much of contemporary Western culture” (4). Though Lauren is without a doubt a strong character, her hyperempathy reinforces the narrative of passivity and weakness in girlhood: because of the syndrome, she is constantly preoccupied with ensuring those around her are comfortable. When her brother Keith is injured, for example, Lauren must “let [her] body shake and hurt and vomit in helpless empathy with Keith” (97). Lauren is pathologically compelled to feel with others, a natural exaggeration of the construction of girls as nurturing and, by extension, weak.

Hyperempathy is further connected to normative femininity through the character of Mora. Lauren reflects that Mora is “a male sharer, desperate to hide his terrible vulnerability[.] Sharing would be harder on a man” (324). This passage reveals two important details about the nature of hyperempathy: first, that vulnerability is ‘terrible’ and an undesirable trait, and second that such undesirability is typically associated with girls and women. By emphasizing the difficulty Mora faces as a male sharer, Butler also underlines the way in which sharing is considered a feminine trait; Mora must “[do] a lot to keep people away from him—keep them from knowing too much about him” (324). In other words, for Mora to hold on to his masculinity, and by extension his chance of survival, he must banish any trace of feminized traits—including his hyperempathy.

We may see, then, how Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome is negatively conceptualized as a disease throughout the story. However, her hyperempathy could also be seen as a gift.  Many characters in the novel show their lack of ability to sympathize with other people; this is of course natural, given their harsh environment. Even Lauren shows her lack of emotional ability when she loses her brother. When her town is burnt down and she loses all her family, she doesn’t lose her aplomb for survival. Because of her hyperempathy, however, she always has to consider the pain of others. It not only includes the pain she inflicts, but also the pain of others not related with her behaviour. Thus, her hyperempathy keeps her from forgetting the fact that “they are same people like me, who can suffer physically and emotionally,” (26-27) which may otherwise be hard to recall in her severe environment. In other words, because of her hyperempathy she can consider others sincerely and think beyond mere survival. Therefore, hyperempathy plays a role for her to keep hope and belief toward humanism. Her thought about Earthseed is based on this sensitivity; her many writings clearly show her hope and belief despite her current surroundings.

At first, Lauren cannot share her ideas about Earthseed with other people. However, after the fire when she has to wander to survive, she began to share his ideas with others carefully. Her hyperempathy means that she has the power to keep her hope in spite of more severe situation, even more than that, she started to share and influence other people by her ideas. Consider, for example, the moments after Jill Gilchrist dies: Lauren tells the reader that “We read some verses and talked about Earthed for a while this morning. It was a calming thing to do…we needed something calming and reassuring” (295). In the time after tragedy, it is Lauren’s hope in a religion about empathy that helps the group. It is impossible to think of her power without the hyperempathy syndrome.

According to the text “Girl Power and Girl Activism in the Fiction of Suzanne Collins, Scott Westerfield, and Moira Young,” by Fritz, girl’s socio-political identity can be obtained by not just resisting but by actively embracing the stereotyped traditional girlhood. Lauren’s hyperempathy described well the common expected characteristics of girlhood like emotional, sympathetic being. However, Octavia Butler chooses to accept and embrace those stereotypes by using Lauren’s hyperempathy, and she suggests the hope that the possibility of future girlhood, girl power and girl activism.

Lauren’s hyperempathy is a physical burden for her in that extreme situations, and is intimately tied to constructions of girlhood and femininity as weak and passive. However, because of it, she cannot lose the last bit of humanity within her and may finally share and influence other people with her ideas. Therefore, there is a silver lining to hyperempathy: it implies new meanings of girlhood and femininity that have the power to change and develop the world even in the harsh situation like Lauren’s.

Discussion Questions:

In this post we have examined how Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome intersects with normative concepts of girlhood. How might her hyperempathy effect and be effected by other aspects of her character, for example her race or class?

Why did Lauren only begin to share her thoughts about Earthseed when her home was destroyed? How might her hyperempathy syndrome connect to her growth regarding her religious beliefs?

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Grand Central Publishing, 1993.

Day, Sara, Miranda Green-Barteet, and Amy Montz. “Introduction.” Female Rebellion in 

Young Adult Dystopian Fiction. Ashgate Publishing, 2014.

Fritz, Sonya S. “Girl Power and Girl Activism in the Fiction of Suzanne Collins, Scott

Westerfeld, and Moira Young.” Female Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction. Edited by Sara K. Day, Miranda A. Green-Barteet, and Amy L. Montz. Ashgate, 2014

13 thoughts on “Hyperempathy Syndrome and Normative Girlhood in Parable of the Sower (Kho S and Rachel W)

  1. I really appreciate how you acknowledged that Lauren’s hyperempathy allows her to be a better leader when her group is navigating trauma, like in the example of Jill’s death. I read the interview with Octavia Butler in the back of the book after I finished it, and she mentions that Parable of the Sower was her way of exploring the humanity of a religious leader who would likely be idealized by her followers after she dies. This post made me wonder about how hyperempathy may be seen as a sign of Lauren’s inherent sacredness or worthiness by her later followers, and how the syndrome would take on new meanings once she is viewed as a kind of Prophet. Hyperempathy could shift from being a sign of weakness to being a sign of strength. It also made me wonder about how Lauren would be depicted in the future once she dies, like how most of Western art shows Jesus as a white man despite that not being historically accurate whatsoever. Would she be shown accurately and help future generations of her followers value different traits than what dominant culture values (things like racial diversity and vulnerability) or would they just cast her in a way that’s more palatable to the masses?

    In regards to your question about the relationship between hyperempathy and Lauren’s religious values, I think just as her disease makes her more empathetic in certain contexts, it also makes her intensely pragmatic. This makes Earthseed pragmatic by extension. Lauren was born with the disease and has been forced to adapt because of it, which is similar to the way she talks about how God is change. She has also been forced to navigate the world in an extremely physical way – California in PotS is a brutal world on its own, but because she always has to be concerned about other people’s pain, she constantly plans for moments where she will be faced with physical harm and has rational processes for how to avoid pain or make it quick. Her argument with Harry about the man she kills and how she views death as mercy from pain highlights this. Because she knows what it feels like to hurt intensely, she doesn’t have the freedom to intellectually debate the moral implications of killing in the same way that other people do. She knows the pain is agonizing, and so assuming someone is not innocent, she will kill them. Simple as that. Her pragmatism is reflected in Earthseed to the point where Bankole remarks on how bleak it is and how people will inevitably make the religion sappier as it evolves. It is a physical, survivalist religion, and it certainly values action over passivity.

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      1. I think empathy is viewed as a strength in certain contexts, although not in most of dominant society. Empathy is encouraged in many religious communities and it’s something I see a lot of parents trying to foster in young children. Socially we give a lot of lip service to the idea of being kind and gentle with one another. However, we often chastise teenagers and adults who demonstrate empathy as being overly sensitive. Girls and women tend to be called hysterical or weak, and boys are seen as effeminate. Lauren remarks on how having hyperempathy syndrome would be harder for a man because it defies stereotypes of masculinity. I don’t know if this is true, but being empathetic is usually seen as a deficit in men and an expected flaw in women.

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  2. You’re blog post is really interesting and well thought out. You discussed how Butler uses Lauren’s hyperempathy to embrace stereotypical characteristics of girlhood. I was wondering if you had considered the implications of what it might mean that Lauren chooses to dress as a man after she leaves Robledo. For me, this development seems more important that just a change in appearance because she thinks it will help her survive. I think deciding to travel as a man represents a certain amount of gender fluidity that begins to shape Lauren’s character after her community is destroyed. At home she took on more of a feminine, mothering role. She cared for and taught small children at Cory’s makeshift school, and often cooked meals for her younger brothers. It seemed to me that once she began to plan how she was going to leave her community and travel North, and even more so once she starts this journey, her character adopts certain qualities that move away from this female stereotype to more typically male roles. Not only does she dress as a man, but she takes on the role of being a provider, protector, and leader of her growing group. I was wondering if you, or anyone reading this, had any ideas on how this idea might interact with Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome. Thanks! Marilyn

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    1. Your points about gender fluidity are interesting. I agree that Lauren seems to take on stereotypical roles in the community–particularly that of teacher and caregiver. Do you think she assumes those roles willingly or do her parents encourage her to take on those roles because she is a girl?

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  3. I really enjoyed the way you argued Lauren’s hyper-empathy was like a physical symptom of the way girlhood is defined. Especially how it shows the weakness of girlhood, but also at the same time the strength. I agree that is presents a dichotomy as it is a syndrome that not only weakens her, but at the same time highlights her strength. This is as you say an accurate representation of girlhood in society in which a girl is seen as both weak and a passive figure in her own life, but also as strong young woman that can deal with the pain and still go on. I would like to bring up the point that Lauren literally is the strongest person in her group even though she has this debilitating weakness, although she has to not only deal with her own pain, she feels the rest of the fatigue and unrest of her companions and still manages to lead and shoulder on despite the pain. Furthermore, she is superb at masking her pain, her fellow hyper-empathetic companions did not pick up on how intense her pain when she got shot because she masked it so well and this point brings to attention her humanity. She did not want her fellow ‘hyper-empathetics’ – for lack of a better word – to be debilitated by her suffering, this shows how she cares about her companions and the people around her as well.
    To answer your discussion question, I think Lauren only started to share her thoughts about Earthseed after her home was destroyed because that moment was when anyone would take Earthseed seriously and more importantly, that’s when they needed it the most. When Lauren first brought up even the slight idea of change to Joanne while they were still living in a semi-safe gated community she thought Lauren was insane – and change is the basis of Earthseed. This deterred Lauren greatly and I believe this was why she never brought it up again. However, once they were outside the community and left to fend for themselves in the ruins of LA there was a significant decrease in hope and moral. Therefore, when she brought it up again her words fell onto more kind and willing ears. Although there was some argument and debate, the people she preached to had been through hell, and Earthseed provided hope. Which is why it was more successful when she brought it up outside the community and why I believe she did bring it up later on. I also believe her hyper-empathy effected her religious growth because the more she experienced as she felt – pain and pleasure – the more she learned, not just about herself but the people that were struggling by her side. This knowledge about not just the world, but the people living in this desolate world helped her shape Earthseed. She knew what people were feeling and could use this to shape a religion that can help them through the pain and suffering they were experiencing.

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    1. Do you think that being away from her family–even though it is through horrific, traumatic circumstances–is freeing for Lauren? Traveling with Harry and Zahra (and eventually others), she is no longer bound by the roles her father and stepmother expected her to play. Do you think this freedom, such as it is, enables her to talk more openly about Earthseed?

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  4. Your discussion of hyperempathy syndrome offers a new way to think about Lauren. I especially like how you linked your analysis to Fritz’s discussion of traditional femininity and the ways in which that can be empowering.

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  5. I’d like to start off by saying that I really enjoyed your post! I found that you conveyed your thoughts well and you make very good arguments. I especially like that you mentioned that because of her hyperempathy Lauren is actually a better leader. Naturally, Lauren believes that her hyperempathy syndrome negatively effects her abilities to lead others and that it is considered a burden. While it is difficult to manage, it actually gives her a unique advantage in her leadership position.
    As I was reading this post, I recalled our discussion in class on being an At-Risk or Can-Do girl. Very obviously, Lauren by personality is a can-do girl through, however, I think her unique circumstances put her in an at-risk situation. She is already poor and on the streets along with being a black woman in a fairly racist society, but on top of all of that she has a debilitating condition that prevents her from protecting herself at all times. This is evident when as fight breaks out with the gang members and she suffers greatly and is at risk of dying. Her hyperempathy thus only adds to already vulnerable aspects of her person, mainly her race and class.

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  6. Great post! I found it to be thought provoking and I especially liked how you brought up hyperempathy as a form of tangible empathy within the characters that cannot be ignored. One of my favourite points you brought up within your post was the idea that hyperempathy helps Lauren to stay grounded to her humanity, fantastic observation! I agree that most characters perceived hyperempathy to be a disease that should be kept hidden, as Lauren’s father stated so from the very start of the novel. Feelings of compassion, empathy, and nurturing are conceptualized with femininity is Western society, so I do agree with your argument that Mora was reluctant to reveal his own hyperempathy with people in the fear that acknowledging it to other people would be detrimental to his survival.
    In regards to your first question, I argue that Lauren’s hyperempathy does have the potential of having a direct affect on her class in particular. I say this based on Emery Solis, who stated in the novel that she was a slave, and her two sons were taken from her to be slaves, because they all shared hyperempathy. Emery described hyperempathy to be a desirable trait that slave masters looked for, so in that sense if Lauren was not the leader of such a large group, or if she did not possess weapons, her hyperempathy could be a threat to her freedom and physical well being in that sense. In regards to your second question, I argue that Lauren did not mention Earthseed before her community was destroyed because she was aware of the negative feedback she would receive from her family and community if she attempted to speak about anything outrageous, such as the religion she crafted herself. Push back against different ideas was seen when Lauren spoke about the possibility of her trying to leave her community with Joanne, leading to her father and Joanne’s parents immediately retaliating against such a “crazy” idea.

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  7. Hey Kho and Rachel,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love how you connected Lauren’s hyper empathy syndrome to the dichotomy of powerless and powerful girlhood highlighted in the Day, Green-Barteet, and Monz article. I never considered the idea that hyper empathy could be a gift because it allows Lauren to keep holding onto hope. I definitely agree that in this particular world, hope is key to survival especially once the community walls were burnt down. I believe Lauren only began to share her thoughts about Earthseed after her home was destroyed because in that moment of severe hopelessness and brokenness, she needed to cling to the hope that Earthseed brought her and the people she does have left in her life. Since religion can bring people calm in times of pain and fear, Lauren is protecting the vulnerability that her hyper empathy syndrome causes her by further exploring and growing in her own faith and sharing it with those close to her. To answer your second question, class definitely plays a role on the extent of Lauren’s hyper empathy. Both of her parents have stable jobs and for the most part, her and her siblings grow up privileged and sheltered. If Lauren were to grow up outside the community she had, she would be exposed to a lot more pain and suffering. As a result of this increased exposure, Lauren would either experience her hyper empathy as an even stronger hindrance onto her life or she would learn to better control it.

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    1. You make interesting points about the role of class. What about race? Does Lauren’s race make her more or less vulnerable? Does her position as a girl of color make it more important that she keep her hyperempathy syndrome a secret?

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  8. Kho S and Rachel W,

    I found this post quite interesting because of the connection it had to Danielle and I’s post earlier about Katniss. In our post we talked about how the attributes that Katniss has that make her a worthy role model are also characteristics that are seen as being male. We touched upon how her feminine traits are seen as weaknesses. Similar to Lauren, “vulnerability”, (due to her hyper empathy), as you said is undesirable and, “typically associated with girls and women.” I completely agree with that statement. When I compare the two protagonists, I can’t help but see the similarities in their leadership qualities. For example, their ability to lead a group, hunt or fight, makes decisions and take care of others. But these attributes are all typically associated with masculinity. Even Lauren knows she has a better chance of surviving outside of the fence if she were to disguise herself as a man. So if Lauren’s gender and hyper empathy make her weak, and her survival and leadership qualities make her strong, my question then is; Is Lauren, (or Katniss), really a good female role model for it’s young adult female readers, if their feminine qualities are seen as weaknesses and their masculine qualities are what make them a role model? Could that make readers think the only way to be a role model is to have masculine characteristics? Is that really sending a good message to young adult readers? Also I wonder what others think; Is Katniss or Lauren a better role model for young adult female readers?

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