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Parable of the Sower

Gabrielle de la Puente

In 2015, I listened to an episode of a podcast that has lingered in my mind ever since. The episode was titled Entanglement, and it featured on the now cancelled Invisibilia podcast from NPR, a show about the invisible forces that shape human behaviour. Scientific, emotional, it threaded vast conversations through the eye of a needle; it went sharp and deep into meaning. And I might have listened to every episode but Entanglement is the one I remember most clearly, when original hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel went to meet Amanda, a woman with mirror-touch synesthesia. Synesthesia is a crossing of the senses, and mirror-touch blends sight with touch. It means that Amanda can feel what she sees the people around her are feeling, however impossible that sounds. On the episode, Amanda tells the story of the first time she remembers it happening: ‘I was about 3 at a Christmas party. They had this boy - he was older than me - and people were hugging him like they hadn’t seen him in a while. And I remember feeling like I was being hugged watching him. It was like a warm rush up the spine and just constricted the shoulder area here, like this. And I followed him around, like, the whole entire evening because it was just so nice. I thought everybody felt that.’

This was unbelievable to me, but not because I didn’t believe it, only because I knew so little. The beginning of the episode was good news; like finding out a new colour had been discovered. I listened on as the hosts met with a neuroscientist called Michael Banissy who explained that mirror neurones mean we all experience this as we process visual stimuli, but it happens for the majority of us on a negligible scale. Scans have shown that in people with mirror-touch synesthesia, the brain’s touch centre is hyperactive; these people can really feel an impression of the actions they see, even if to do so seems ghostly or magical. Yeah, I think senses might be ghostly and magical anyway. They’re all we have to tether us to the world. My senses bridge the immaterial idea I have of myself to this material world. I can see the bridge forming as I touch-type these words, see them appear on the screen, and hear the patting of plastic keys followed by a quicker beat when I delete and rearrange my immaterial thoughts once more. Odd, good, constant, the senses build reality; and I imagine I was fascinated by this episode because it sounded to me as though synesthetes were living a hyperreality amongst us; somewhere with more colours that I would never get to see.

Mine was the fascination of somebody whose own biology was, at the time, in a neutral state. I had a curiosity for all people different from me — that easy naivety, like reading the opening paragraph of an interesting Wikipedia entry and leaving it at that. The implications of what it means to have a different body in a world designed for a very narrow kind of person set in for me later in life after I cared for someone, and then became disabled myself. That reality tried to set in later in the episode (though I couldn’t hear it yet, not really) when Amanda spoke about how she has to isolate to mitigate her body’s sensitivities. She can’t eat with other people otherwise she feels their forks digging into her mouth. She keeps the blinds drawn because the world outside is unpredictable. Think about it: if Amanda can feel other people’s pleasure — the warmth of a hug at a family party — then she can also feel their pain. She recalls a child falling over and slamming their head really hard outside a supermarket. She fell down with the child because of the instant, searing pain she was hit with in and by her own head. And it’s not just touch Amanda mirrors, it’s other people’s emotions too. She used to crash into deep sleeps after being outside, where other people’s experience of the world would stack on top of her own. Living one life is tiring enough, and she was living everybody’s.

Sometimes culture trails behind me for years before I find the appropriate place for it to land. It’s not so much a haunting, more like a lost child I need to reunite with parents — like the kid that fell down outside the supermarket in front of Amanda with a slam. I’ve thought a lot about the Entanglement episode over the years, but they were only ever the beginnings of thoughts, never full sentences. I think those thoughts might be complete now because I have just listened to the audiobook for Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, read by Lynne Thigpen.

Told from the perspective of teenage protagonist Lauren Olamina, this is a book of diary entries that cover her life — and our speculative future — from 2024 until 2027. Lauren grows up in a tense gated commune in California. It is secured and necessarily self-sufficient in order to keep residents safe from the collapse of civilisation happening outside their walls. They provide their own services. They grow food, they educate the young, and they keep watch for danger. Because in this new wilderness of desperately poor people, there is an epidemic of a drug called Pyro whose addicts are constantly setting fire to things as the flames let them reach new highs. Whole towns are quickly being destroyed because of it. Sometimes, the Pyro users become so entranced by the fires they set, they get too close and the flames destroy them too.

The commune’s peace does not last long, which feels completely inevitable. The diary soon records the fire that obliterates Lauren’s community, and we follow as she sets out on a reluctant adventure with the only two other survivors. It is really fucking bleak. Uphill, crude, blistered. Lauren walks empty highways where cars have become a rarity. ‘There was little other trash. Anything that would burn, people would use as fuel. Anything that could be reused or sold would be gathered. Cory used to comment on that. Poverty, she said, had made the streets cleaner.’ The three sleep in shifts to watch out for the thieves and cannibals. They rally with other refugees to pool resources and, despite their vigilance, they face multiple kill-or-be-killed situations. And these moments are made all the more visceral because Lauren just so happens to have a condition she calls sharing. That is to say, Lauren can feel what she sees the people around her are feeling, just like the real Amanda.

I don’t know if Octavia Butler was aware of mirror-touch synesthesia or if sharing was simply a metaphor that she wanted to sting this wounded story with like vinegar. Lauren’s father always told her to keep her sharing abilities secret because it might leave her open to abuse. But it was never a problem in the commune, where people were too busy committed to the laborious mutual-aid of keeping one another alive. Lauren has only ever lived with that goodness in mind, but after the fire leaves her exposed on the road, broken out of the tight shape she has only ever known, her sharing becomes a massive problem. People run at her with weapons and she has to fight them, knowing full well she will in turn feel every blow. A rock to the back of a man’s head is a rock to the back of her own. A gunshot is an agreement to feel death without the actual relief of dying. That is horror. Between the Pyro drug that grants pleasure at other people’s expense and the not-so-fictional mirror-touch synesthesia, Butler’s novel is a gutting exploration of how we negotiate each other. The post-societal world is the right stage for that kind of thinking, where there is no society anymore. We are all individuals again. Relationships reset, we’re all strangers, and the only new colours are found in terrible shadows.

Butler writes with a really measured realism. Her writing style is like the imprint a body leaves after sitting in the same position on the same couch every day for a lifetime, until that body finally dies. Her writing has a leisurely terror to it, lived-in, normal, and empty. I thought that reading might be another form of practising empathy because I really felt like I was there on the deadly highway in California and I did not want to be anywhere near. Felt like I knew the people. Felt like I was walking with them. Storytelling like synesthesia, crossing truth and lies and memory, so that I almost remember the slog and the doom of that walk as if it happened to me. I actually felt constant dread while I was reading. My friend couldn’t finish the book but I felt like Butler had taken me away, and I was also just interested to see where the story would end up because everything she wrote in 1993 about a speculative 2024 felt so embarrassingly relevant.

Lauren’s sharing in a tale about mass civil displacement begs the question: if you were made vulnerable, would other people help you or would they push you further into vulnerability? There’s the obvious answer you’d hope for, but then there’s the Israeli Defence Force strapping injured Palestinians to the front of their trucks like war trophies. Bombing hospitals, ambulances, and the aid workers from World Central Kitchen after they delivered food to a Gaza close to famine. And we’re supplying the weapons. There’s a Reform UK canvasser filmed telling voters to put the army on the beach and have them do target practice on migrants crossing the English Channel. There’s the Reform UK canvasser’s hopes and then there’s the Greek coast guard, who deliberately throw migrants overboard. People who cross water knowing they might die, but they cross it anyway because they are leaving other inevitable deaths behind them. Vulnerability into vulnerability.

Butler asks this question but there is no clean answer, no revelation threaded through the eye of a needle with her book. Instead, she snaps the needle in half and pricks us with the remnants as we read. And it is so hard to read. I said it was horror when Lauren had to feel so much to survive, but sharing could do something else. Could be defensive, could be a deterrent. It’s something Lauren thinks about. After someone she knows is murdered, she writes in her diary: ‘It’s beyond me how one human being could do that to another. If hyper-empathy syndrome were a more common complaint, people couldn’t do such things. They could kill if they had to, and bear the pain of it, or be destroyed by it. But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who could cause anyone unnecessary pain? I’ve never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before but the way things are, I think it would help. I wish I could give it to people. Failing that, I wish I could find other people who have it and live among them. A biological conscience is better than no conscience at all.’

With the podcast in the back of my mind, and this book in front of me, I began speculating on fictions of my own: What if we lived in a world where everybody had mirror-touch synesthesia? Would I still be reading about the ends of family lines in Palestine? Would Brianna Ghey still be alive? Would I still have a relationship with my Dad?

I listened to the audiobook of Parable of the Sower in bed. I’m three and a half years into Long Covid. Limbs solid, nausea like two hands around my throat. My body pays for everything: I made it to a café for one hour to sketch out what I wanted to say with this text, and when I got home I fell asleep for three hours. Woke up feeling miserable. I am writing this in short bursts in the moments when I can think straight in this smaller, slower life.

There’s a text from the doctor asking me to book in for a review of my long term health condition and I just haven’t bothered. We’ve spoken about the same things so many times but I don’t think talking is enough. If talking was enough — if it was enough to know that any virus could stick around in the body and decimate its insides in a post-viral hell with no end in sight, no healing — then, the whole world would stop and it wouldn’t revolve again until we had figured out how to braid the nervous system back together. I don’t think talking is enough to communicate the immaterial sense of pain inside of me. How could it be? Words are not enough. I need my ischemic muscles and my orthostatic headaches and my chest pains and my sweat and my shaking arms and my sick mouth and my heaviness and my exhaustion to cross a bridge into other people’s senses. Into doctors, politicians, family members, the people in the queue at the polling station. I need you to feel how I do, not because I want to punish anyone. I just want to close the gap between us because if everyone knew what life could feel like — this feeling with no relief — then we might rush to the end of what is happening to me so that it can’t happen inside your body as well.

And like, listen, I didn’t mean to write a floaty world-peace gesture. I am too poisoned to be cloying. But I guess I’m thinking more about our responsibilities to each other because I’m typing this a few days before the UK’s latest general election, and I’m summer-sick, and all futures seem impossible. But god, if we had to feel what everyone else was feeling because of the fictional sharing or the real mirror-touch synesthesia, then we would care so much more about making each other feel good. We are selfish enough for that. The hardness would have to stop. The neuroscientist who features on the episode of Invisibilia, Michael Banissy, says, ‘we do automatically slip into the shoes of other people, even if we’re not consciously aware.’ Fine, but I feel delirious imagining a world where that is amped up — where it is physical, instant payback that checks us as we move through the world so that we don’t just walk past hungry people sitting on the side of the road, no comfort, no joy, too cold in winter, too hot right now.

I wonder if we were all sharers, would we hold each other more closely; would we have ever organised the country so that a select few in government hold power over the entire population they keep at arm’s length? Politicians projecting biases into the ether, deciding they know best while their shouts echo around gold rooms.

I’m so tired. I have no faith right now. I don’t have faith to talk to the doctor and I don’t care to be governed by people who don’t know how I feel. I read the manifestos and listened to the speeches, and wanted Labour to win but I didn’t want to help them. I couldn’t believe in them as much as I wanted to. On Thursday, from the privilege of a Labour safe seat, I decided to spoil my vote. I didn’t feel especially good about it. I worried I was opting out of empathy, but no — I just felt that dread again, that if I voted for the Labour Party that was about to take power (or if I voted for anyone else, really) and they made the world even more dangerous for disabled people, or for trans women, or migrants, or prisoners, or any person made vulnerable by the world around them, then I would feel in some way responsible because of my vote. I wanted none of it. I wanted the widespread theoretical hyper-empathy that might collapse power structures altogether. I wanted to climb into the beginning of Lauren’s story and live in the commune, back before the fire made everything right turn wrong.

We would all need that biological conscience. It couldn’t only be a few of us. In Parable of the Sower, it’s a small minority of people who experience sharing. It takes a long journey before Lauren meets other people who have it, and then it becomes clear why her father used to warn her to keep that information to herself; the sharers she meets are all escaping indentured servitude. The few remaining businesses pay higher rates in this world to employ people with sharing abilities because, due to their vulnerabilities, they are far easier to abuse, manipulate, and ultimately, enslave. Workplaces pay their workers in credits that can only be spent internally on room and board at the same establishments; credits valued at much less than legal currency. Truck wages in a company town, they pay low and keeps costs high, that way workers have no choice but to become indebted to them. The government in Butler’s 2024 United States makes it illegal to leave a job you still owe money to and so, employees become trapped. The runaways that Lauren meets are all traumatised and penniless because their empathy was violently used against them —

It’s Saturday now. I’m writing this ending in one last blink of energy from bed, hoping there’s enough understanding between us to complete the cycle of writer-to-reader empathy we partake in each time I write and you read.

Labour won as we knew they would. I am numb to celebrations about the end of the Tories because I am worried Labour won’t be different enough. They scrapped the Rwanda policy before the first day was through though — thank God — and I thought, please keep proving me wrong. Give me faith again. Pull us out of this sinkhole, out of this sea, out of this bed. I turned the news off. I caught up on Glastonbury sets from last weekend while I was half-asleep. When Little Simz rapped the line ‘now I don’t wanna be the one to doctor this but if you can’t feel pain then you can’t feel the opposite’ in her song Introvert, I opened my eyes. I wish I felt more pleasure because I feel so much pain. I wish I could celebrate the Tories unemployment, but I just hope I can get a dentist appointment soon. Hope the new MPs are more empathetic than their predecessors. Hope we all wake up one day to find we are sharers.

It would be a great leveller. A moral reset. A new social contract. A huge relief. We could redesign the world so that we might live with comfort, safety and pleasure in mind. No genocide, no managed decline, no target practice, no toothache, no socially acceptable torture, no casual abuse of the senses. A new world that means Lauren can walk down the highway without fearing for her life. A new world that means Amanda is okay to venture outside, because the podcast is over and the book is done but I’m still thinking about the non-fiction she has to endure, and just how much horror we all agree to put up with.

-> Please comment a leaf emoji on this week’s Instagram post so that I know readers are out there 🍃🍂🍁🌿

-> Listen to Entanglement on NPR’s Invisible here

-> look after yourself today