The Empa­thy Diaries: A Memoir

By – May 24, 2021

Famed MIT pro­fes­sor, clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, and lead­ing voice on the rela­tion­ship between tech­nol­o­gy and human inter­ac­tion, Sher­ry Turkle has spent her career ana­lyz­ing the emo­tion­al com­po­nent of the dig­i­tal world. Now she turns the lens on her own life. An only child raised in part by dot­ing grand­par­ents among the Russ­ian immi­grant pop­u­la­tion in post-War Brook­lyn, Sher­ry Zimmerman’s life was mired in secrets. Her father dis­ap­peared ear­ly, but his last name didn’t. One day her moth­er announced that she was being adopt­ed by her step­fa­ther, thus Sher­ry Turkle was born.” That the fam­i­ly nev­er dis­cussed any of these events is unsur­pris­ing — there was much to sweep under the rug at that time — but Sher­ry was for­ev­er haunt­ed by her miss­ing father.

What starts as a mem­oir about parental aban­don­ment shifts into a clas­sic fish-out-of-water tale as Sher­ry wins a life-chang­ing schol­ar­ship in 1965 to attend Rad­cliffe. A work­ing-class con­trast in her day dress” and stock­ings to the WASP elite with their twin sets and pearls, Sher­ry quick­ly learned where she belonged” as the unfor­tu­nate tri­fec­ta of female Jew­ish schol­ar­ship stu­dent. In a clas­sic case of white priv­i­lege, the uni­ver­si­ty put all the stu­dents who were poor, Jew­ish, and/​or women of col­or in a sub­par set of dorms, while their wealthy coun­ter­parts lived in the Cam­bridge equiv­a­lent of Hog­warts. Har­vard jus­ti­fied this by say­ing these wealthy girls had request­ed the high-end dorms in advance, but who else would have the inside scoop on where to live on-cam­pus? Cer­tain­ly not a girl from Lin­coln High School in Coney Island, even if she was the valedictorian.

At Har­vard, Turkle latched onto the study of the impact of tech­nol­o­gy on children’s brains and devel­op­ment — you might say she was vision­ary.” She dis­cuss­es how she and her research were often dis­missed by the pow­ers that be ( white men), and how she was ini­tial­ly denied tenure. But she hob­nobbed with the globe’s most elite sci­en­tif­ic minds — a stint in Paris was par­tic­u­lar­ly for­ma­tive — and close friends-slash-lumi­nar­ies such as Nicholas Negro­ponte make cameos. But the sto­ry is Turkle’s own. Her voice, which is clear and engag­ing, reveals a low hum of inse­cu­ri­ty that shows itself in her rela­tion­ships with men, par­tic­u­lar­ly in her dif­fi­cult mar­riage to AI pio­neer Sey­mour Papert, her eccen­tric and much old­er col­lab­o­ra­tor at MIT. The intense­ly com­pet­i­tive and per­fec­tion­is­tic cam­pus cul­ture cer­tain­ly didn’t help matters.

The book’s title is a nod to both Sherry’s work­ing life and her per­son­al one. While not in true diary for­mat, the text has the inti­ma­cy of an authen­tic first-per­son con­fes­sion­al. The writ­ing is hon­est and raw and allows the read­er to feel the weight of Sherry’s strug­gles and heart­break decades lat­er. The sto­ry is book­end­ed by Sherry’s few in-per­son meet­ings with her birth father, Charles; the com­plex­i­ty of emo­tion is felt on the page. Turkle is an accom­plished schol­ar whose work has chal­lenged a gen­er­a­tion to con­sid­er the ethics of com­put­ing and human inter­ac­tion, but she’s also just a daugh­ter with lots of questions.

Amy Oringel is a com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant for risk advi­so­ry firm K2 Integri­ty, as well as a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in The New York TimesBusi­ness­Week, and The For­ward.

Discussion Questions

Sher­ry Turkle is an MIT pro­fes­sor and the author of six pre­vi­ous path-break­ing books on the rela­tion­ships between peo­ple and their dig­i­tal devices in the age of social” media. Now she turns her analy­sis on her own life, and The Empa­thy Diaries is a gift: warm and wit­ty, daz­zling and hum­ble, gut­sy and inti­mate, a sto­ry rich in empa­thy after hard­ship and depri­va­tion. Turkle’s upbring­ing in Brook­lyn in the 1950s strikes many Jew­ish chords. How did her child­hood affect her choic­es? Read the irony and weep; then rejoice at her triumphs.

Pro­fes­sor Turkle’s life­work is con­nect­ing think­ing and feel­ing” although much of the aca­d­e­m­ic world pars­es them into sep­a­rate depart­ments. Ear­ly on, she saw that com­put­ers [would] change not only what we do but who we are.” She recalls being sur­round­ed by pio­neer­ing researchers who won­dered not long ago how we’d keep our com­put­ers busy. Now it is clear that they keep us busy. We are their killer app.”

The New York Times called Turkle’s mem­oir an instant clas­sic.” We hope it is Vol­ume One. She epit­o­mizes inter­dis­ci­pli­nary achieve­ment (clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, soci­ol­o­gist, and ethno­g­ra­ph­er). If the Times asked which three authors we would invite to a fan­ta­sy lit­er­ary din­ner par­ty, Sher­ry Turkle could assured­ly fill all three chairs.