The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir
“A beautiful book… an instant classic of the genre.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times • A New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2021 • A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice • Named a Best Nonfiction Book of 2021 by Kirkus • Winner of the 2021 National Jewish Book Award in Autobiography & Memoir • Winner of the New England Society Book Award in Nonfiction
MIT psychologist and bestselling author of Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together, Sherry Turkle's intimate memoir of love and work
For decades, Sherry Turkle has shown how we remake ourselves in the mirror of our machines. Here, she illuminates our present search for authentic connection in a time of uncharted challenges. Turkle has spent a career composing an intimate ethnography of our digital world; now, marked by insight, humility, and compassion, we have her own.
In this vivid and poignant narrative, Turkle ties together her coming-of-age and her pathbreaking research on technology, empathy, and ethics. Growing up in postwar Brooklyn,Turkle searched for clues to her identity in a house filled with mysteries. She mastered the codes that governed her mother's secretive life. She learned never to ask about her absent scientist father--and never to use his name, her name. Before empathy became a way to find connection, it was her strategy for survival.
Turkle's intellect and curiosity brought her to worlds on the threshold of change. She learned friendship at a Harvard-Radcliffe on the cusp of coeducation during the antiwar movement, she mourned the loss of her mother in Paris as students returned from the 1968 barricades, and she followed her ambition while fighting for her place as a woman and a humanist at MIT. There, Turkle found turbulent love and chronicled the wonders of the new computer culture, even as she warned of its threat to our most essential human connections. The Empathy Diaries captures all this in rich detail--and offers a master class in finding meaning through a life's work.
Praise for The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir
“Sherry Turkle’s memoir, The Empathy Diaries, is a beautiful book. It has gravity and grace; it’s as inexorable as a fable; it drills down into the things that make a life; it works to make sense of existence on both its coded and transparent levels; it feels like an instant classic of the genre.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times
“The strong suit of The Empathy Diaries is the wonderful clarity with which Turkle guides us through her intellectual development . . . [a] compressed summary of Sherry Turkle’s intellectual progress toward the study of 'how computers change not only what we do but who we are' does not do justice to the pleasure a reader gets from following it in the pages of The Empathy Diaries, where it is recorded with a grace and lucidity that are inspiriting.” —Vivian Gornick, New York Times Book Review
“Turkle opens up the archives of her life, such that she becomes a subject to think with as much as an exemplary object about which to think. Whether uncovering the secrets of her family (and secrets are always multiple), examining the pain and joy of cross-class sociality and education at Radcliffe, or recounting evenings spent with Lacan, Turkle points her reader toward that which makes us human: vulnerability and, of course, the self-reflexive capacity for empathy. Along the way, Turkle offers an invaluable account, both personal and critical, of how 'science and technology can make us forget what we know about life.’” —Hannah Zeavin, Public Books
“[A] transformational journey from an anxiety-infused childhood to an adulthood devoted to psychological insight and excellence in scholarship . . . Out of the ashes of the shame induced by her mother’s insistence on lies and pretense, Turkle learned the value of genuineness and empathy.” —Patricia Steckler, Drizzle Review
“If a book could carry a scent, The Empathy Diaries would waft Chanel No. 5….Turkle’s narrative is skillfully assembled, like pieces in a puzzle. She effectively blends the story of her growth in self-awareness with her professional realization that computers pose threats to the humans who have created them.”—Arthur Hoyle, The New York Journal of Books
“Lively and accessible . . . [Turkle] deftly draws the characters that populate her life and times–and what characters they are! With a disarming simplicity that (mostly) exonerates her from name-dropping, she introduces us to a roll call of some of the most significant intellectuals of the mid-20th century on either side of the Atlantic . . . an insightful autobiographical case-study in how a personal and intellectual life can be mutually formative and an astute cultural commentary on our times.” —Professor Lynn Frogget, Journal of Social Work Practice
“A beautifully wrought memoir about how emerging technology makes us think and feel [. . .] Anyone who studies, develops, or produces technology—and anyone who uses it—will gain crucial insights from this profound meditation on how technology is changing us. A masterful memoir by a pioneering researcher and incisive thinker.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“[R]evelatory and forthright . . . Turkle's candor and transparency are totally in keeping with her personal and professional commitment to understanding human emotional motivation and our capacity for empathy, not only towards others but also towards ourselves.” —Booklist
“ [R]ichly detailed . . . Anyone who has felt the struggle to fit in will identify with [Turkle's] story.” —Library Journal
"Since digital culture became part of our intimate lives, Sherry Turkle has helped us understand our complex, evolving dance with technology, using the power of data and analy- sis. Now, with raw and refreshing authenticity, she shares her personal journey, which serves as a powerful and poignant reminder that it is in our relationships with one another—not technology—that we find our most important source of meaning and healing." —Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, surgeon general of the United States, author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World
"In this beautiful, compulsively readable memoir, Sherry Turkle, who has asked why we expect 'more from technology and less from each other,' excavates the eras of her continually surprising 20th century life. In her hands, empathy is the instrument of knowledge, illuminating the uses and pleasures of crucial human values now under threat. This is the story not only of a woman but of her humane and exhilarating mind." —Honor Moore, poet and memoirist, author of Our Revolution, a Mother and Daughter at Midcentury
"Sherry’s life story is that of a woman who made her own way—both in the academic world and in the larger cultural conversation—by following her passions without fear and with tremendous integrity. In so doing, she has helped us all understand a vital aspect of our lives with much greater clarity. The Empathy Diaries is a case study in courage and where it can take us." —Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global
"Sherry Turkle’s memoir is a page-turner, and I was so drawn in by its vivid narrative and exquisitely drawn characters that it took me a while to realize that this is also a strikingly original book about empathy. Her searing encounters with a stark lack of empathy in two of the most important men in her life—her scientifically driven father and renowned first husband—led her to the discovery that empathy is not simply an interesting research topic or ‘feminine’ virtue but, as it became for her, a ‘strategy for survival.’ The Empathy Diaries is a magnificent capstone to Sherry Turkle’s studies of the human costs of our romance with technology. Drawing on firsthand experience, she shows us how empathy is a lifesaving necessity in human relations and, potentially, a key to our survival as a species." —Carol Gilligan, author of In a Different Voice and most recently, Why Does Patriarchy Persist?
“In this brilliantly integrated memoir, Sherry Turkle traces her metamorphosis from the gifted child of a disturbed man to the preeminent ethnographer of digital culture. One part intellectual history, one part daddy dearest, one part portrait of the critic as a young woman, this is a one-of-a-kind page-turner. Bravo!” —Gish Jen, author of The Resisters
“I’ve long marveled at the remarkable and inspiring career of Sherry Turkle. Her path, so courageously interdisciplinary, has been strewn with dazzling insights. And now, in just the kind of brave and brilliant memoir one would expect from her, she gives us her personal story, explaining how, in a mind like hers, the deeply personal is transformed into ideas that can be shared by us all.” —Rebecca Goldstein, MacArthur Prize Fellow; National Humanities Medalist; author of Plato at the Googleplex
“This is a scintillating memoir. Turkle acts at once as storyteller, ethnographer, and psychologist of her own life—one stretching from a straitened Brooklyn Jewish girlhood shadowed by an unspeakable secret to a womanhood of academic accomplishment amidst the excitements of Radcliffe, Harvard, Chicago, Paris in the years after the upheaval of ’68 and MIT just as our computer world is born. Along the way she gives us a vivid account of ideas crucial to the last half-century of intellectual life, tracing their inner history with bracing clarity.” —Lisa Appignanesi, author of Everyday Madness: On Grief, Anger, Loss and Love and Mad, Bad, and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors
“By respecting her own emotional, social, and intellectual history with careful—even loving—attention, Sherry Turkle shows what rescue from the crisis of technological disconnect looks like. Intimate, compassionate, and critical, her book instructs, edifies, and heals. A paradigmatic personal narrative, yet The Empathy Diaries is a tour de force of social science, saluting and protecting the precious intangibility that no machine can match—the quality that makes us human.” —James Carroll, author of The Truth at the Heart of the Lie
“Like a Harvard educated Nancy Drew, Sherry Turkle searches her past for clues to her true self and hits the mother lode in this fascinating, fearless memoir. Her struggle with the legacy of long-held family secrets as she forges her own unique path to authenticity and forgiveness is a story countless women will identify with. Reading The Empathy Diaries, I felt my mind—and my heart—expanding. Sherry Turkle is not only a great writer and teacher—she’s great company.” —Winnie Holzman, cowriter of the hit musical Wicked; creator of the television series My So-Called Life
“‘Use concrete events to think about large ideas. Use large ideas to think about concrete events.’ Sherry Turkle follows the advice of her professor, Samuel Beer, and The Empathy Diaries is the compelling result. The stages of Turkle’s narrative unfold so gracefully, in prose of such candor and clarity, that it’s easy to overlook how many tasks this memoir performs. The Empathy Diaries is about a childhood and a coming of age. It’s about a courtship and marriage. It’s also about the progress of Turkle’s engagement in the dynamic and overlapping fields in which this professor of social sciences, science, and technology is a crucial, authoritative, and, yes, empathetic voice. In every way, this is a book about an education. Fans of Turkle’s earlier work will certainly want to read The Empathy Diaries; but so too should everyone struggling in the cyber maze in which we find ourselves. A remarkable book.” —Rachel Hadas, PhD, Board of Governors Professor of English, Rutgers University–Newark
“I read it with delight. An honest, insightful, compelling, and sometimes painful account of the intellectual and emotional forces that shaped Turkle into a pioneer in the study of digital culture and how computers change the way we think about ourselves. Turkle’s is not only a personal story, but also a story of our digital age.” —Alan Lightman, Professor of the Practice of the Humanities, MIT; author of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine
“Sherry Turkle has been daring and original for a long time—bearing witness to the emergence of artificial intelligence but also writing forcefully, while surrounded by true believers at MIT, about its limitations. In The Empathy Diaries, she dares even further by investigating a tightly held family secret, affirming in the process the wisdom of the human heart. The Empathy Diaries tells a fascinating story—one that manages to be profound and entertaining at the same time.” —Susan Quinn, author of Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady
“Over the decades, Sherry Turkle has provided the most penetrating analyses of the relations between the human and the computational worlds. In a remarkably revealing memoir, Turkle explores the personal as well as scholarly sources of her understandings and, in the process, provides a brilliant panorama of our time.” —Howard Gardner, author of A Synthesizing Mind