The Empathy Factor

HairThe basis of writing the most endearing characters is to draw the audience into that character in a sense of shared universal experience. I find myself very conscious of this when I’m watching something or reading something. Still, I sometimes am surprised at the depth of feeling a medium will have for me. On such occasions, I like to try and dig into my childhood (and perhaps my present) to find where the root of the empathy lies.

In the novel “The Thorn Birds”, there is a very poignant section early on that deals with a lice infestation on a little girl and the loss of her hair. There are scenes in both the movie and novel “Flowers in the Attic” that also deal with the loss of long hair. All of these scenes are an example of this type of mysterious empathy I seem to have that I never actually looked into until just recently.

It’s the scene from the Thorn Birds that touched the most deeply; pulled on the memories and brought them back in a pang of shared experience. As a little girl, I had gorgeous, wavy, golden hair that from birth had rarely felt the bite of scissors, even for trims. By the age of five or six, it was down to my hips. While I found the daily routine of brushing annoying, especially since my hair was so thick and so wavy it tended to tangle very easily, my hair was my pride.

I remember the day very clearly when my mother got a call from an adult cousin who had been over earlier that day. She had gotten home only to find a louse on her daughters head. My mother checked my hair and found that I, too, had an infection of lice. This happened to be in summer, and I had been playing with a large family that had recently moved into the neighbourhood. My mother called them and confirmed their daughters had, just that day, been discovered to also have lice. My mother than forbade me from ever playing with that family again, despite that they were one of few set of young folk nearby.

What follows was less painful but equally as traumatic as the young girl goes through in the Thorn Birds as far as treatment. My mother, who, if my memory serves me correctly, was nearly in tears, cut my hair to make it easier to treat. It went from being at my hips to a little below my shoulders. I don’t know if I cried as hard as I remember or harder, but I know I cried. I might as well have been shaved completely bald for all the pain it cost me to have my hair cut “that short”.

Like me, young Meggie Cleary in the Thorn Birds had her hair cut short. Also like me, she found herself ostracized from the friendship of the girl she got the rather common childhood ailment from (albeit in a far more violent fashion). Perhaps it was that loss that makes that part of the novel one that gets me each time in the same place of dreadful empathy for the main character that I want to cry.

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