Background Story (Personal)
About fifteen years ago I met a customer in my bookstore. The books he was looking for were of a kind that interested me, also, and so he subsequently became, for a while, an apparently good friend. We enjoyed each other’s company and conversation. David’s acquaintance with the man I’ll call John Q. was friendly but not particularly important—to David. Later, looking back, I saw clues I missed early on, clues that would have told me that John Q. did not consider me his equal; at the time, however, the question failed to trouble me.
Here was one such clue: I had an idea for a health care service facility built on the successful food co-op model, care to be provided to members who would pay their way either by making financial contributions or by providing hours of labor in their work specialties or by some combination of work and money. I was very excited about my idea and shared it with J. Q. Well, you know how some people can’t wait to listen to your whole idea before they start finding fault with it? I’m sure everyone has had that experience at one time or another. What I should have noticed was the particular way in which J. Q. dissed the concept that was so exciting to me: He said it would be demeaning if I, for example, had to work for my health care by weeding gardens. Huh?
I must explain here that at the time I was working part-time for a friend who had a business in garden design, installation, and maintenance. The other facts of my life—that I had a Ph.D. in philosophy, that I had taught college-level philosophy classes, that I owned and operated my own independent bookstore, and that the entire idea I proposed was originally mine (why wouldn’t he, for example, imagine me as the lead P.R. person for the co-op?)—did not seem to occur to J.Q. at all. And was there something demeaning about the gardening work I did with my friend? Not in my eyes. It was honest labor, well done. I was stunned and fell silent about my "big idea." We could still talk about other things....
Time passed, and J.Q. and I saw less and less of each other, for various reasons, but then one day he appeared in the door of my bookstore. It was (briefly!) an agreeable surprise, and I greeted him with a big, spontaneous, happy smile. “John! It’s so good to see you!” He did not return the greeting but said merely, as he continued to stand in the door rather than come any further in, “Is David around?” I directed him to David’s gallery, feeling confused, disappointed, and slighted.
There were a few more encounters of the same nature, each one hurtful, and there’s no point in recounting each little offense, but the last straw was memorable. David and I were in Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City and ran into J.Q., who joined us for tea in the Shine Cafe. The three of us visited, and then David excused himself to go to the men’s room. On the way back, he ran into other friends and saw no need to hurry back, as J.Q. and I would be, he thought, deep in conversation. And we were. John had an idea for a book. I thought it was a wonderful idea and encouraged him to pursue it, asking all kinds of questions to draw him out on the subject. We must have talked for at least 20 minutes, just the two of us. It was good. It felt like I “had my friend back.”
The next time we met, I asked J.Q. how he was coming along with his book. “Oh, did you hear about that?” he asked, surprised. “I had a long talk about it with David one day at Horizon.”
J.Q. and I had been tête-à-tête discussing his book project, but he didn’t remember that I had been there at all—instead, he remembered the person who had shown such interest and given such encouragement as David. And David hadn’t even been near the table.
What the hell was going on? What happened?
In his book Social Intelligence: Beyond IQ, Beyond Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Coleman addresses a well-known philosophical problem, “the problem of other minds,” which may be playful skepticism for philosophers (How do I know other people aren’t just robots?) but is a serious social difficulty for people with autism.
Mindsight amounts to peering into the mind of a person to sense their feelings and deduce their thoughts—the fundamental ability of empathic accuracy. While we can’t actually read another person’s mind, we do pick up enough clues from their face, voice, and eyes—reading between the lines of what they say and do—to make remarkably accurate inferences. If we lack this simple sense, we are at a loss in loving, caring, cooperating—not to mention competing or negotiating—and awkward in even the least taxing social encounter. Without mindsight our relationships would be hollow; we would relate to other people as though they were objects, without feelings or thoughts of their own—the predicament of people with Asperger’s syndrome or autism. We would be “mindblind.” - Daniel Coleman, Social Intelligence: Beyond IQ, Beyond Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 2006)
Mind blindness is, above all, a failure of empathy. Coleman also notes that four times as many boys as girls are autistic and that boys and men are ten times as likely to be diagnosed with Asperger’s. Hold those thoughts, please. We’re coming to a sharp curve, and I’ll have to change gears a couple times.
In a chapter called “The Dark Triad,” Coleman addresses the worlds of the narcissist and the psychopath (or sociopath), and he distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy narcissism on the basis of empathy. Unhealthy narcissists, according to Coleman, “empathize selectively, turning a blind eye to those who do not feed their striving for glory.”
Here I have to make two very important points. (1) I do not think John Q. is autistic, nor do I consider him a narcissist in any sense of the term. (2) Neither do I consider autism a moral failing.
Coleman often cites the work of Temple Grandin, who has learned to overcome many of the difficulties of autism by becoming aware of her own limitations and developing strategies to get around them, but I really want to put autism and sociopathology completely aside at this point to focus for the moment on a much more “normal” kind of selective mind blindness that I’m calling woman-blindness.
A man who is “woman-blind” sees women, of course, with his eyes. He often desires them, can describe them in detail, and he’ll converse with them, sometimes wittily and engagingly. What Coleman calls a “failure of empathy” is, in this phenomenon, more a “failure of recognition.” It isn’t that a woman-blind man wouldn’t feel empathetic pain for a suffering woman or that he would use a woman like an object, without the least compunction. It’s more that he cannot recognize a woman as his intellectual or conversational equal. He will smile and kid around with a woman, and he realizes that she has a mind, but serious thoughts he will share only with other men. And if a woman tries to share a serious thought with him, he either won’t hear it or will assume it came from someone else.
The more shocking realization—and I can remember the first time this one hit me—is that some women are woman-blind, too. At least five in my experience come immediately to mind. I will not play Freud and speculate on why this should be so. Thank heaven such women are in the minority! (Such men are in the minority, also, but their minority is bigger!) I will say that it is, if anything, a crueler shock for a woman to realize that she is “invisible” to a “sister,” by virtue of her sex.
Friendship. That's where my story began. As an older woman, I am familiar with the experience of invisibility in many situations. But from people who call me a friend? As one of the female characters in the movie "Tootsie" said, "I don't take this shit from friends!"
Here's an irony that is also part of my story with John Q. At the height of our friendship, we had a frank discussion about male-female friendships. I observed that for most men, their friendships with other men took precedence over their friendships with women, when push came to shove. "I'm not like that," J.Q. assured me.
Sometimes Warm, Sometimes Cold
Coleman writes of stress as a social phenomenon. Studies show that the most stressful relationships are not those marked by uniform cruelty or constantly demeaning behavior but those about whom we feel ambivalent.
We try to steer clear of people we find unpleasant, but many unavoidable people in our lives fall into this “mixed” category: sometimes they make us feel good, and other times terrible. Ambivalent relationships put an emotional demand on us; each interaction is unpredictable, perhaps potentially explosive, and so requires a heightened vigilance and effort.
There is usually nothing hostile or in any other way intentional about the hurts inflicted by the woman-blind, and that is what makes it such a difficult phenomenon to get past. Those afflicted are unaware of their blindness, and attempting to point it out will not convince them. I find it very sad. As is the case with John Q., there are woman-blind individuals whose intelligence, knowledge, and other abilities I can admire. The trouble is that they cannot see what I have to offer in conversation or friendship. They can’t see me, and they can’t hear me. For them, I don’t exist. Not fully. Not in any interesting sense.
My comfort is that women-blind individuals, male or female, are in the minority. Most of us, women or men, can enter into conversation with minds and eyes and ears open to one another, and that is a basis for true friendship.