Super-sensitive, supernatural, superpower, or just plain stupid? The reality of being an empath

I’ve known I am an empath for over thirty years. I’ve had a name for it for about the last ten. And the first time I read anything even remotely mainstream about it was this weekend. Richard Godwin’s article for The Guardian read as science, psychology, self-help, fraud or fakery, depending on your point of view. Certainly the faithful Guardian commenters below the line had their usual array of cynical and sarcastic responses, and very few were brave enough to say out loud ‘I’m an empath too’.

There are problems with the article, the flaws in which were swiftly picked up on by the Guardian faithful: the headline empath had taken drugs which led to an awakening of his ability, and the narrative ‘proofs’ of some of the other empaths were described in such a way that it would have been easy to look at prediction as simply cause and effect. That is not to say that any of them were being deliberately fraudulent or misleading. But it demonstrates the difficulty of presenting anything for universal acceptance which is not scientifically grounded. I’ve written at length in other blogs here about the interface between science and the paranormal – if that’s the term you want to use – and my curiosity about what science might reveal were it to take a closer look at more of these sorts of experiences. Until someone takes a rigorous look at some core scientific phenomena that might be useful to prove or disprove by extension into some new contexts, we will remain in the realm of claim and ridicule.

Godwin talks to Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a researcher and expert on autism and developmental psychopathology, about the different types of empathy (cognitive, affective and consolatory), which anyone who experiences strong physical and emotional reactions to others would recognise. He also reflects on the societal value of empathy as a means of connecting with others, which can enable social and political resolution. I’d be interested to know whether Baron-Cohen has done any research on the correlation between autism and empathy though; I am aware of a couple of people with diagnosed autistic conditions who demonstrate many of the same qualities that the subjects of Godwin’s article claim to have, but who wouldn’t call themselves empaths or anything more than hyper-sensitive as part of their particular condition. I have seen one of these people predict a future outcome with staggering accuracy, and hone in with startling precision on the thoughts of a colleague in such a way that the only explanation would be highly sophisticated and nuanced communication on another level, whatever level that turns out to be, biological or otherwise.

I’ve devoted some of my literary life to exploring aspects of communication on another level, partly as a way to explore the challenges I have experienced in my own life. I don’t know that I believe what I’ve experienced any more than the averagely cynical Guardian  reader, but I can only tell you that things that have happened to me have been so indisputably clear that I have the evidence of something. Like some of Godwin’s interviewees, I frequently ‘hear’ the people who are calling or texting me long enough in advance to register the notion, wait, count to five, look at my phone and nod as their name appears. I have stolen unexpected news from people’s mouths as they brought it to me, and – occasionally – anticipated something that could not otherwise have been predicted. I don’t talk to others about this because I find it difficult to manage their response to me; other people don’t know how to respond without cynicism or ridicule, or sympathetic bemused kindness at what I have deluded myself into believing. And yet those whose news I have stolen always remember how weird it is, even if they can’t explain it and feel a faint indignation at how I blurt things out before they have a chance.

Godwin speculates on the empath as a “millennial rebrand of the old-school psychic”. Certainly, the scepticism is strongly reminiscent of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century disdain for mediums of the sort I wrote about in EquilibriumI suspect there is a difficulty with the word ’empath’ in this case: as Baron-Cohen identifies there are scientifically valid aspects of experience that promote kindness as well as creating a visceral response to the sensory overload described several times in Godwin’s article. Empathy – the process of recognising and responding to what someone else is feeling – is valid and valuable. But associating something scientifically acknowledged with something speculative and unconfirmed will be taken by some to be a corruption of the word, regardless of the people who claim its existence in the latter terms. Is a metamorphosis of one into another – across the divide of ‘proof’ and ‘truth’ – the problem here?

I came to the conclusion that I could help people without resorting explicitly to ‘my ability’ though it is as natural to me as breathing. I wouldn’t dream of charging someone for my insight, even though it is daily at least as acute as many of the scenarios described in Godwin’s article. I am fortunate that the different roles I have beside writing enable me to use these insights for the benefit of others, without drawing attention to them, and I have learned to manage them, smuggling them in around common sense and truisms for years now, so as not to alarm or unsettle. Occasionally my mouth runs away ahead of my brain. But whose doesn’t? “How did you know?” people gasp, frown, smile. “You’re the first person I’ve told and I only found out yesterday.”

“Lucky guess,” I say. “Congratulations.”

*****

Evie Woolmore is the author of magical realist novels Equilibrium, Rising Up and The Salt FactoryShe is currently working on a new novel.

Visionary Fiction: Does the same wine taste different out of a new bottle?

allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore has recently joined the Visionary Fiction Alliance. She ponders how this might affect her ongoing questions about genres and labelling.

Years ago, when I was a student, I took a class on artistic criticism – literature, art, music and so on. We spent some time criticising stuff, and we spent some time reading other people’s criticism of stuff, all the while a-pondering who we were as critics and the impact of that on how we criticised. In many respects, it was quite a revolutionary class at the time, for reception theory was not all that widely taught, and because I was also interested in movies, I began to think a lot about how who we are impacts on the way we retell stories that we read or see on screen.

The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore

Decades on, as a writer, this idea has come to pre-occupy me a lot, and as anyone who has followed the excellent blogs on the Magical Realism Blog Hops (2013 and 2014) will know, those of us who call ourselves magical realist writers spend a lot of time thinking about what this genre means, and how it is defined. We think a lot about what readers bring and expect when they pick a book that belongs to our genre, and how expectations can be both enhancing and problematic to us as writers. We think also about how different themes in our stories are picked out and remembered by reviewers, quite often unrelated to what we intended as writers. I think I’ve disappointed a fair few magical realist and historical fiction readers along the way, so I was curious when someone suggested to during the last Blog Hop that perhaps what I wrote could also be defined as Visionary Fiction.

One of the interesting aspects of writing anything with a paranormal, supernatural or otherworldly element to it, is just how many labels you can apply to the finished book, and how many of these categories overlap. Amazon makes my life very difficult by over-simplifying its categorisations, though they are just one sieve through which my books will fall. I’m better at defining what my books aren’t – at least by looking at what other books fall into that category – than I am at defining what my books are. A quick swipe through the Goodreads ‘Historical Paranormal’ list made me realise that I definitely don’t belong there, and yet my books are definitely historical fiction with a paranormal twist.

equilibrium

So what I like about the idea of Visionary Fiction is the idea that VF is a tone of writing, as much as it is about content. In writing historical fiction, I could hardly be described as an architect of the future, which is often considered an aspect of VF, but what makes my writing very definitely VF is “the emphasis is on our limitless human potential, where transformation and evolution are entirely possible“.

A more long-winded way of saying that is something I’ve quoted of myself before: “The [magical realist] aspects in my novels do not exist in parallel to our world, they are right here in it. They are discoveries like electro-magnetism and radiation in the nineteenth century, and the Higgs-Boson particle in the twenty-first; they are part of the fabric of this all-too-real world, visible all along if only you would just tilt your head a little further to one side and set yourself free of some of your pre-conceptions.”

For me that is the tone of writing. What I write is entirely possible. smaller_ru

So, while I do not have the vampires or exoticism that so often feature in the outlying areas of paranormal and magical realist fiction, I do have “dreams, visions, paranormal events, psychic abilities, and other metaphysical plot devices”.  And perhaps, in having them, I have at last also found the right home for my novels.

*****

You can download samples of all Evie’s books by clicking on the cover images, or you can go to her webpage and find out more about her novels. Evie Woolmore‘s novels are available on all Amazon websites.

Indie Book Reviews (14)

This week, allonymbooks magical realist author Evie Woolmore reviews a light paranormal yarn, Restless Spirits by Kathy Bryson

Marilee Harper, jobless and locked in a complex relationship with her mother, is introduced to the somewhat mysterious and disconcertingly attractive John Smith, who is renovating an old hospital into a new bed and breakfast. Their unease around each other seems to infuse the atmosphere, which is increasingly unsettled by strange goings on, but Marilee and her mother move in and set about helping John with his project. But nothing is straightforward, for amid the romance is a sprinkling of mystery and the sparkling presence of Fair Folk, and what starts out as a journey of self-discovery becomes much more than that for Marilee.

I had the good fortune some years ago to spend a few months living in a small New England town, and anyone who has lived in a small town anywhere will instantly recognise the strong sense of community that pervades this book. Ms Bryson has peopled her novel with a large cast of well-defined characters whose interdependence and individuality form the nucleus of both a successful community and a fictional world. What sets this novel apart from other small-town romances is the paranormal twist, and with due reverence to Shakespeare, Ms Bryson has embraced the possibilities of fairies and the Otherworld. Indeed, it is just as well that Marilee has ‘a high threshold for the bizarre’ – although she revises that statement immediately to a low threshold, she has a curiosity for what motivates, ensnares and defines those around her, which I’m sure reflects the author’s own interests as a writer. This is a study of people, and there are many to keep us intrigued.

Marilee’s growth as a character is certainly key to our desire to keep reading. With my editorial hat on, I felt it could have done with a ruthless edit in the first half of the book: the pace is slowed by Marilee’s detailed self-reflection and self-analysis, and the sort of small town minutiae that are essential to local narratives don’t always translate as effectively to the fictional narrative where we need merely enough to delineate the boundaries of the story. In her gloom, Marilee also has a tendency to go round in circles at times, and though this is a good reflection of how her circumstances have trapped her, and how depressed I think she genuinely feels, it can at times have the effect of alienating the reader who relies on Marilee to drive the first person story-telling.

Nonetheless, this is a vividly drawn novel which will immediately enchant anyone who recognises themselves, their community or the twinkle in the eye of someone who is not quite what they seem!

*****

Evie Woolmore’s historical magical realist novels have a strong infusion of the paranormal, perfect for the Hallowe’en season! Find out more at her Amazon page or here on the allonymbooks blog.

 

Magical Realist Book Review: The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore, herself a writer of magical realist historical fiction, reviews The Firebird. 

I’m a relative latecomer to Susanna Kearsley’s work, as the first of what I would describe as her magical realist novels, Mariana, was published in 1994. Kearsley’s books could be defined broadly as historical fiction, where the past offers a portal for the present day heroine to witness history first hand and understand the truth of her own situation in some respect. It could be more simply described as time travel fiction, but what drew me to reading The Firebird (2013) was the focus on a more specifically psychic skill, psychometry or psychoscopy. This is the ability to ‘read’ something of an object’s past by touching it, explained by the psychometrist picking up traces of the energy of past owners or inhabitants. The word psychometry was coined in the nineteenth century, and literally means ‘reading the soul’, which in itself is an apt metaphor for this particular novel.

The Firebird‘s heroine, Nicola Marter is an expert in Russian art, and when she comes into contact with a small carved wooden bird, she instantly senses something powerful and significant in the object’s past, that it once belonged to the Russian Empress Catherine. Compelled by the tragic circumstances of the bird’s owner, she seeks the help of an old friend whom she hasn’t faced for many years. Rob McMorran possesses a psychic gift of a strength matched only by his purity of spirit, and in revisiting her past decision to deny her own ability – and her feelings for Rob – Nicola becomes able to revisit the past. The novel then becomes two stories in one, the events which lead to Nicola’s acceptance of her own ability and the events which lead us to the bird’s original owner.

Kearsley’s approach to historical fiction – and to the historical story in the novel – is as thorough as any fan of traditional historical fiction would expect. Indeed, The Firebird is the second in the Slains series, novels which draw on the rich and dramatic history of Scotland’s Slains Castle. Kearsley is detailed, accurate, and readily gifted at reimagining the past for her reader, although at times I think the historical authenticity slightly weighs down the pacing. There are also an enormous number of characters in the historical story, and in the last third of the novel, as the plot became more complex, it became occasionally difficult to keep track of everyone, especially after a break in reading. This is though a mark of Kearsley’s determination to tell a historical story properly, and not to oversimplify what were key historical and cultural events in Scotland’s past.

My key reason for reading this book, of course, was the paranormal aspect, and the reason why I would broadly call her novels magical realist. Not having read any of her other books, I was struck immediately by two things: the direct way in which Kearlsey introduces the psychic ability into the story, and Nicola’s implied sense of shame at her ability. It becomes apparent as the book goes on that Nicola’s attitude to her ability is complex: having volunteered years before for scientific tests of her ability, she did not complete the process and her emotional entanglement with and abandonment of Rob has left her with unresolved feelings about everything. Indeed, the direct acceptance of the psychometry as valid, right from the outset of the novel (we are left in no doubt that Nicola believes what she has ‘seen’, even if it has left her unsettled), is somewhat at odds with Nicola’s doubts and uncertainties about her own psychometric ability: she is afraid of what Rob can do, and of what she might be capable of doing, but is never in any doubt about the validity of the ability.

This comes to a head when Nicola must decide whether to admit to the owner of a painting she has been sent to buy that she knows it is a fake because she has seen its true and far more contemporary artist painting it when she touches the picture. Rob confronts her reluctance to admit publicly who she truly is and thus who he is too, and although Nicola ultimately accepts her ability, I was left with the sensation that this was ‘a cross to bear’, so to speak, for all involved. The potential for being a social outcast in any community which did not readily accept their psychic gift, and the unending requirement for proof of ability, is a common theme in any novel which tries to resolve or explain the paranormal, and in many respects The Firebird is framed as Nicola’s search for her own authenticity. I was left wondering though what I was meant to believe about psychometry, which was a curiosity because the novel is constructed around that original assumption that it is valid. We can’t access the careful historical truth Kearsley has written for us, if we don’t believe that what Rob and Nicola can do is actually possible. And yet they are arguing about how publicly acknowledging that ability is part of what makes it genuine.  I felt slightly as if I was being given something at the same time as it was being taken away from me. And I think this is the core conundrum of what makes novels which try to reconcile the ability so problematic. And in this case, paradoxically, we need an explanation for the journey from fiction (where anything is possible) to fact (the historical aspects of the story).

Would I recommend it? For fans of historical fiction, yes, without question. For fans of magical realism, probably not, because Kearsley doesn’t really say anything new about psychic ability, or craft any originality with it as a story element. But I will read other books of hers, if only to satisfy my curiosity about how she uses this time travel device in other contexts.

To find out more about Evie Woolmore’s historical magical realist novels The Salt Factory, Equilibrium, and Rising Up, visit the pages on this website or go to Amazon to download samples.

Another great review of Evie Woolmore’s Equilibrium

And hot on the tail of the lovely review of The Salt Factory, a review by Emmy of the Flaming Colours blog of one of Evie’s other novels, Equilibrium.

Equilibrium is a haunting tale of guilt and longing. Set against the backdrop of London and the Boer War, it shows Britain in a state of change. And as with all change, it is not welcomed by everyone. Between reactionary forces and those of change, the characters in the book struggle to find their own balance.

The atmosphere of London is captured beautifully in the book. The strict class divisions were still very prevalent in social Britain around the turn of the twentieth century. And it plays a huge role in the story. It illustrates poignantly the position of women at the time and the dire consequences for those who try to reach beyond its confines. Add to these the ingredients of the paranormal and a skeptical scientist and you get an idea of the historical depth and detail of the book. I found it absolutely captivating.

We learn much of what drives the characters because we spent a lot of time in their minds. But instead of it bringing me closer to the characters, I mostly felt it slowed down the story. The real engagement came when the pace of the story picked up. At that point, the dialogue and action brought them to life much better than the musings in their mind did. This is illustrated by the characters with whom you don’t get to spend time in their heads; Rafe (who at the start of the story conjured up echoes of Mr. Rochester for me. You’ll have to read the book to see how that works out!) is an excellent example.

The paranormal aspects in the book are well handled. There was a surge of interest for mediums and the paranormal during the time the book is set so it blends in seamlessly. Epiphany, ethereal as she may seem, is the real driving force behind the events of the story and the magical realistic elements are the author’s well used tools to portray what is in essence a very realistic tale of human losses and how to deal with them.

Indie Book Reviews (6)

This week, allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore reviews three novels that show how broad the definition ‘magical realism’ can be.

Dark Night of the Soul by E. M. Havens (Amazon UK and Amazon US)

This is one of the most accomplished novels I have read in a long while and it is well worth a read, whether you are YA or adult. Don’t let the synopsis put you off: it is a novel about death, about suicide in particular. But it is also a creative, imaginative, thought-provoking but thoroughly readable novel in an incredibly well-imagined world. It draws very cleverly on our own environment, reflecting familiar aspects that bring lightness to what otherwise might seem dark subject matter (the Wal-Mart section is particularly good in that respect), but it also does what the very best magical realism should do, which is to make you feel that this other world is just around the corner, if only you could learn how to see it. Continue reading

The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore: Exclusive Extract

To coincide with the recent publication of Evie Woolmore’s new novel The Salt Factory, this week’s blog is an extract from Chapter 1. To read the prologue and the rest of the novel, please visit Amazon UK, US or any other Amazon site.

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   Lymington, July 1891 

I don’t want to look at the dead bird for a moment longer than I have to.

At least, I think it is dead. It has been lying very still for several minutes but now, as the little girl beside me reaches out for it, its cloud-white breast surely twitches. The horse shies and whinnies, tugging at the harness I hold, its head jerking and rolling as if witnessing the most violent decay.

I must have imagined the fluttering of the bird’s heart. Its eyes are glassy, and from the horrible angle of its head, twisted almost back on itself against the wet sand, I guess its neck is broken. If it isn’t dead now, it will be soon.

My revolver hangs against my leg, in the folds of my skirt. It would be easy to put the wretched bird out of its misery. It would make a mess on the beach, but the sea would wash it away. The little girl would have to leave first, of course, and that might take some talking.

Talking which I don’t feel like doing.

How the bird could have come to such a fate, I can’t imagine. It isn’t as though it could have fallen off a rock, because there aren’t any. Nor could it have flown into something, unless it mistook the hot glossy shimmer of the wet beach for the clear summer sky faintly reflected in it.

The day is hot and oppressive. If I close my eyes, I might be back home in Colorado but for the vinegary sweet smell of seaweed harvested by the low tide and the mourning cries of other seagulls. My damned corset grips stiff and damp to my ribs, the bustle hangs like a canary cage off my behind, and the petticoat drags like a wet blanket, weighed down even more by the revolver. I long for the loose poplin shirts and trousers I wore on the ranch, for the simplicity of my holster. But first impressions are first impressions. And if the Magnus I remember from my childhood is anything like the Magnus I am about to see again, he would never permit such a breach of ladylike disposition. It will be shock enough for him to see me again. Best not make it worse. Continue reading