What is Disability Studies?
“Disability Studies refers generally to the examination of disability as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. In contrast to clinical, medical, or therapeutic perspectives on disability, Disability Studies focuses on how disability is defined and represented in society. It rejects the perception of disability as a functional impairment that limits a person’s activities. From this perspective, disability is not a characteristic that exists in the person or a problem of the person that must be “fixed” or “cured.” Instead, disability is a construct that finds its meaning within a social and cultural context.” -Alan Foley
What is Hyperempathy?
In Parable of the Sower, disability is portrayed throughout the novel as hyperempathy. Hyperempathy is a psychological disorder that gives Lauren Olamina, the main character, the delusion that she can physically feel the emotions of others such as pain and pleasure. There are multiple instances in the book where she explicitly experiences the pain of others. For instance, Lauren says, “I was eleven then, and I still bled through the skin when I saw someone else bleeding” (13). She also talks about another situation where fighting someone causes her to hurt herself: “I felt every blow that I struck, just as though I’d hit myself” (13). She feels the pain of the other person even though she is the one who inflicts it on them. Lauren is aware that her disability is a delusion but emphasizes how real it is for her.
How are Genetics Involved?
Hyperempathy, in the novel, is a condition that develops in a child due to the abuse of a drug called Paraceto during a mother’s pregnancy. Lauren Olamina’s mother, who died during child birth, used this drug while pregnant with Lauren. This in turn affected Lauren’s neurochemistry, and she was born with the psychological disorder, hyperempathy.
Is Hyperempathy an Advantage?
Critic evaluation can provide an understanding as to how hyperempathy is portrayed as an advantage throughout the novel. Jim Miller claims that hyperempathy is a cure and a source of wisdom for the cruel world that Lauren Olamina lives in and could be a solution to all the negative aspects in the society. With this condition, people are more aware of others’ well-being, and by being connected to their emotions, they will be less likely to inflict any harm on other people. Marlene Allen also depicts that hyperempathy is an advantage by stating that this disability shows major strength and is “the ultimate power” in the society. By experiencing others’ pain as one’s own, a greater understanding between people can be reached and possibly contribute to a more moral society. Essentially, by being more connected to others and sharing compassion, the likelihood of incorporating morality into one’s actions would increase do to the strong emotion connection between the people of that society.
“But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would 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.” (Butler 10.136)
Is it better to have a hyperempathetic world where everyone feels each other’s emotions?
Lauren states in the novel, “sharing is a weakness, a shameful secret. A person who knows what I am can hurt me, betray me, disable me with little effort” (Butler 15.108-109).
However, according to the views of opposing critics, hyperempathy is also seen as a disadvantage. Rebecca Wanzo states that this condition is a weakness because it does not contribute to the advancement of society. Feelings and emotions solely would not advance the society, but change itself would. Other scholars who agree that hyperempathy is a disadvantage state it is a weakness because Lauren’s vulnerability to pain can be exploited and used against her. As Lauren’s brother Keith says, “that hyperempathy shit of yours would bring you down even if nobody touched you,” it is clear that his views correlate with Wanzo’s in that hyperempathy is a disadvantage (Butler 97-98). Being so vulnerable to everyone’s pain would increase the risk of being taken advantage of as well. Lauren states in the novel, “sharing is a weakness, a shameful secret. A person who knows what I am can hurt me, betray me, disable me with little effort” (Butler 15.108-109).
Animals vs. Humans
In the novel, there are certain situations where Lauren interacts with animals and the emotions she feels from them differ from that of human beings. She somehow does not feel all of the pain from animals but rather a faint blow. An encounter with the death or injury of squirrels and birds shows that the pain she felt from them was bearable and not as excruciating as that of a human. Chelsea M. Frasier depicts that Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome allows her to make her own connections between humans, non-humans, and life. When talking about humans, she experiences deeper and more intimate feelings, but with an animal, she is not as connected. Although she does feel the death of an animal like a dog severely, it does not scare her to the same extent of a human.
What does this say about the significance of human life and animal life?
Is it Actually Empathetic?
Although hyperempathy implies empathy towards others, does that actually make a person more empathetic? Lauren turns away from the people in the novel that are conflicted many times because the pain is unbearable for her. Being hyperempathetic in turn makes those affected by it want to avoid any type of suffering at all cost in order to not feel it themselves. This can be seen throughout several other characters in the novel who also possess hyperempathy. For instance, another character, Grayson Mora, also carries the syndrome but does not show much compassion at all. He is a rather hesitant fellow and does not “help” others as much as Lauren had hoped.
Is the disability seen as a direct result of the events that are happening in the society?
It is impossible to categorize hyperempathy as strictly an advantage or disadvantage. Octavia Butler does not explicitly portray hyperempathy as either negative or positive to the society. Many critics evaluate this condition through different aspects including various weaknesses and strengths seen within an affected individual. There are many examples in which hyperempathy is seen as negative aspect with the pain, suffering, and timidness that is brought upon the affected individual. However, there are also many optimistic thoughts about the syndrome that come from Lauren herself. Therefore, hyperempathy is not 100% beneficial or 100% detrimental, but a mixture of both.
Hyperempathy in the Opera
In the opera directed by Toshi Reegan, hyperempathy in only seen in a few minor scenes. Specifically, there was a scene where Keith intentionally hit himself in order to hurt her and physically on stage doubled over in pain. When another character in the opera died, Lauren showed that she also felt this pain by her stage presence. During these two scenes the audience could clearly see that Lauren was in pain due to her facial expressions. In addition, the harsh, abrupt, red lighting represented the pain that Lauren was feeling, and the edgy music gave a feeling of dystopia that is represented in those scenes. Other than these few scenes, hyperempathy was not very prominent throughout the performance.
Wanzo, Rebecca. “Apocalyptic Empathy: A Parable of Postmodern Sentimentality.” Obsidian III
6.2 (2006): 72-86,265. http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/stable/pdf/1290146.pdf.
Frazier, Chelsea M. “Troubling Ecology.” University of Minnesota Press 2.1 (2016): 40-72.
Allen, Marlene D. “Octavia Butler’s “Parable” Novels and the “Boomerang” of African American History. “The John Hopkins University Press
32.4 (2009): 1353-1356. http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/stable/pdf/27743153.pdf.
Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” SF-TH Inc.
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Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Books, 1995. Print.
Foley, Allen. “What is Disability Studies?.” Syracuse University Disability Studies, 6 Sept. 2014,