I was in the middle of a challenging year-long internship position in Washington, DC and earning the princely sum of $12.00 per week when a couple friends offered to treat me to a movie. The work—resident manager of a house for homeless, pregnant and addicted women—was requiring the last shred of my emotional resources. Feeling as though I hadn’t paid attention to anything but surviving the job, and unable to afford much in the way of entertainment, I felt excited about the evening out with someone else paying. And I liked the title of the film, though I’d not read any reviews. It sounded like it was about farm animals, or life in some bucolic country paradise. I was looking forward to immersing myself in a story that took me away from city life and from my job, badly needing a break from both.
We were late getting to the theater and had to rush getting our tickets. I didn’t have time to so much as glance at the movie’s poster or ask what it was about. In happy ignorance, I took my seat in the front row—the only seats left in the crowded theater—to lose myself in pastoral bliss.
Only there was nothing pastoral about this film. Within ten minutes I’d buried my head in my hands, horrified and unwilling to watch. One of my friends looked over at me and said, “Let’s leave.” Saying it’s okay, I’ll wait for them at the coffee shop next door, I fled. I glanced around while hurrying up the aisle. All eyes were riveted to the screen. It seemed I was the only one reacting in this way.
The title of the film that turned out not to be a lovely nature story was “Silence of the Lambs.”
This is an essay about being sensitive, so I suppose it’s inevitable I’m feeling sensitive as I begin it. In many ways, I’m still the shy kid, the one who rarely spoke up in class, who was frightened of Santa Claus, cried more easily and got sick more often than did my three siblings, and who needed so much alone time my parents thought there might be something wrong. Then there’s the undeniable pejorative judgment in how we think and talk about the kind of kid I was. Take this example that riled me one otherwise quiet and happy Saturday evening when I was watching a show on PBS’s British television station:
Louisa, Doc Martin’s wife in the eponymous BBC series, is talking to her husband, Dr. Martin Ellingham, about their two-year-old son. She’s advocating for the boy’s enrollment in preschool so he can begin socializing with other children. Doc thinks he’s too young for that. Louisa says, worry all over her face, “We don’t want him to grow up shy and introverted, do we?”
“Yes, we do!” I shouted at the television, fighting an urge to hurl the remote at it. As much as I love the show, I take umbrage (I’m quiet, not passive) at this slap in my retiring face. Louisa’s rhetorical question may just as well have been, “We don’t want to feed him crickets and rat poop for dinner, do we?”
Shy. Introverted. Thin-skinned. Hesitant. Crybaby. Up-tight. Over-reactive. Fearful. Unsocial. Emotional. Inhibited. Neurotic. Others like me, more gently termed “highly sensitive persons,” or HSPs, according to the term coined by Elaine Aron, don’t feel much love from American culture. We do un-American things like reflect before we speak or act, listen better than we talk, shun the spotlight, and avoid violence in television, movies, video games, and books. We’re easily flustered and find it difficult to perform, participate in group discussions, or manage a simple task while under observation. We’re prone to anxiety, migraine, stomach ailments, depression, and low self-esteem. We’re the ones you don’t hear because the not-so-sensitives are hogging the conversation. Not that we want to hog the conversation, that’s anathema to those of us who avoid attention in a group of more than, say, two or three.
Now, however, from the perspective of six decades feeling like an alien on this planet, I’m going to risk the attention.
First, I ought to make a disclaimer. Some of this may … will … sound belligerent. As I write, I’m surprised at the animosity I feel. I believe this has to do with having been the over-looked and over-talked person most of my life. Now that I’ve allowed myself a platform, I realize I’m feeling an enmity for which I feel obliged to apologize in advance. But you non-HSPs must read on anyway, though you may feel criticized, misunderstood, and frustrated about being unable to respond. To that I say, welcome to our world.
Some of us would rather be silent than talk or listen to you. We search out quiet restaurants and wish your noisy group—as much fun as you seem to be having, as convivial as you all are—would go somewhere else. We don’t care that you have eight million more Facebook friends and most certainly do not take that to mean we’re unpopular. We get teary-eyed watching cat videos because the poor little dears are forever falling off tables and being freaked out by a zucchini on the kitchen floor. We’re the ones clapping hands over eyes while you’re giggling at the Funniest Home Videos segment showing people—children, even! —having weird accidents in which they’re injured. We’re the ones diffidently asking the coffee shop manager to please turn the music down.
We’re the few who love Beth the best in Little Women, though she does nothing much more than play the piano or sit in a corner after scurrying around serving others. She’s the sister seldom cited as “best,” at least in my experience. Case in point: If you type who’s the best sister in Little Women into your search engine, you’ll be referred to a 2008 NPR article you don’t even have to read to get your answer, given the title: “Jo March: Everyone’s favorite Little Woman.”
“… [L]ike every other girl who read Louisa May Alcott’s novel, I wanted to be Jo: creative, strong-minded, independent. She was an ideal, not only the kind of woman I aspired to be, but the kind of woman Alcott wanted to become.”
Not parenthetically, I feel compelled to note that this already egregious article begins with a dangling participle (I’m shy, not stupid): “Growing up with three sisters, Little Women was more than just a book, it was a parallel world.” What? This book grew up with three sisters? Some insensitive person was clearly talking too much during junior high grammar lessons. And probably irritating the expletives out of those of us attentively taking notes. We HSPs would never begin an essay with such a syntactic faux pas. We paid attention in class.
Let me calm down for a moment. Let’s try a change of tack.
The French have a phrase I like: a fleur de peau. Literally translated, fleur means flower and peau, skin. But the phrase doesn’t lend itself to literal translation, which would be “on the flower of the skin.” The closest English phrase is “thin-skinned,” but the sense of a fleur de peau is subtler than that, carrying a level of understanding absent in the English—an acknowledgment of a person’s depth of feeling and acuity of observation.
Translations of a fleur de peau sometimes include the phrase la chair de poule, which means gooseflesh. I like it as a way of explaining HSPs to non-HSPs. You may get gooseflesh when you’re cold or afraid or awe-struck. We get gooseflesh sooner and more often, and we’re apt then to move on to tears, or agitation, or a state of deep reflection or spiritual centeredness.
This essay is turning into a litany of what’s difficult about being an HSP. Goodness knows I could keep going. But all this venting and explaining has calmed me. Time for another change of tack.
Let’s note the positive aspects to being the kind highly sensitive person I am. I’m more acutely observant, more self-aware, and more other-aware. This characteristic led me to social justice work, and now informs my writing. People about whom I write tell me they feel as though they’ve been really and truly seen. Because my sensitivity inclines me to compassion, they’ve felt seen in a loving, understanding way.
I concentrate well. I can disregard email, turn off the radio and television, ignore you, hunker down and work well and efficiently. I don’t crave or need those fast-cut commercials, movies or news programs created, apparently, for people with the attention span of a gnat.
I can’t simultaneously walk and talk on my cell phone, but have decided it’s not such a bad thing. Did you know you’re deluding yourself about how well you multi-task? Brain studies show multi-taskers perform worse and learn less than do single-taskers. I’ve had to accept I don’t multi-task well, which places me way ahead of you and a lot safer walking down the street.
HSPs tend to be happier people. I wonder if Kahlil Gibran might have been an HSP when I remember this line I’ve loved since my teen years:
“And the self-same well from which your laughter arises was often filled with your tears.”
If the well is deep for upset, it’s also deep for calm. If it’s deep for sorrow, it’s also deep for joy. I understand my sensitivity in a new way when I reframe it to help me embrace feelings I might otherwise regard as being in conflict with or in opposition to each other. I like the holism of this understanding and how it eliminates dichotomizing between good feelings and bad feelings. And by changing how I relate to the judgmental characterizations—like over-reactive, emotional, thin-skinned—so often applied to sensitive people, reframing has also helped me with my sense of who and how I am in relation to this world. To America. More particularly, to American culture.
I’ve alluded to my dismay at and avoidance of violence. It’s awful how American culture fetishizes and normalizes it. Perhaps many would find that sentence arguable, but how else do we explain that America’s is the highest murder rate among all high-income countries? That Americans own twice as many guns per person (120 guns for every 100 individuals) than do citizens in the next highest country, and have more instances of that worst of horrors, school or mass shootings? And beyond gun violence, what about the rise of cyber bullying? Statistics showing twenty Americans per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner, most of these victims being female? I’m not saying violent video games or movies make a guy grab a gun and start shooting his classmates or turn into an abusive husband. I am saying the ubiquity of violence on television and television news, in games and movies and books, and on social media, desensitizes consumers of such fare to the violence around them and in themselves. In our desensitization are the seeds of violence’s omnipresence.
It’s funny, isn’t it, me running out of a showing of “Silence of the Lambs” when I realized it wasn’t about farm animals? Even I think it’s a funny story. But I’m appalled that people were entertained by this story of the skinning of women and the eating of human flesh. I’m willing to concede the movie was an extraordinary effort, and Jody Foster is an amazing actress. I still don’t believe a horrific depiction of how a man might treat women is one whit excusable in a world where women are brutalized every day. I say it appeals to prurient and immature impulses in the human psyche. I say forcing myself to watch would have changed something fundamental and beautiful in me, something irretrievable.
Maybe you saw “Silence of the Lambs” or a similarly violently dark film, and thought little of it aside from being grossed out. You may decide I’m (here we go again) way too sensitive and need to just get over it. You may be wondering what right I have to judge you.
My premise is ours would be a better society, more compassionate and less brutal, were we to sensitize ourselves to violence and its presence everywhere. And a corollary statement: ours would be a better society, more compassionate and less brutal, were we to allow ourselves to listen to and be guided by HSPs to the same extent we’re currently listening to and being guided by in-sensitives. Does that sound self-serving? It probably is. It’s also problematic because we HSPs are too shy to raise our voices above the din. Yet I believe our voices should be raised. What if we ignored derision and contempt, gladly risking accusations of naiveté and telling others in this violent, unaware world they’re playing an active role in the destruction of their own spirit?
I think this world is mad crazy to allow, promote and depict violence the way it does, and desperately wrong to unthinkingly consume it. Even seemingly innocuous acts like clicking on a story about a star whose nude photo has gone viral, or giving in to curiosity and following a link to photos of murder scenes, or watching the latest gore-fest on Netflix, fuel the fire. Yes, entertainment companies and moguls—Facebook and Quentin Tarantino leap to mind—are in the wrong for monetizing such ugliness in the name of profit, but we must pay attention to how we as individuals have been complicit in the downward moral spiral. It’s too easy to bash paparazzi and gossip magazines for hounding celebrities, ignoring what we’ve learned about the monetization of our clicks and Likes, the effect of buying that gossip magazine or horror-genre novel, and how our unmonitored salacious impulses affect our lives.
I believe our tiniest actions, when we’re unthinkingly succumbing to prurient interests, cannot help but form an ever-toughening skin over our hearts and spirits. I believe we’re the worse for it. It’s not that I don’t feel violent impulses, or don’t sometimes give in to libido or my id’s whisperings. But the cost of giving in comes too high and I regret how violent images I’ve seen or read stay with me. It’s too high because I can’t help but see a connection between becoming accustomed to violence and the ubiquity of rape, spousal abuse, mass shootings, hate crimes, hate speech, and bullying.
What if sensitivity were the norm instead of this casual consumption of cruelty and ugliness? What if violent culture were shut out to the point it had a lot less market value? I believe we don’t have to accept the rule of our worse selves as evinced in American culture these days. I’m not suggesting the country would be better if we all were HSPs, nor am I proposing a simplistic and unrealistic solution like just stop writing, filming, and creating violence of any kind. This is about awareness and choice, not eradicating all instances of violence everywhere, and I think it worth discussing what could be changed. I think it’s worth being a lot more conscious about our choices.
Of course, some will cite the First Amendment and freedom of speech in arguments about violent culture. I wonder if those people have read the First Amendment in its entirety:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. [emphasis mine]
It’s the last listed, after freedom of religion, speech and press: the right to go to the government and ask for a wrong to be righted. One doesn’t hear that cited very often in arguments about the first amendment. Yet it’s there for a reason. Maybe its position in the list indicates a bit of Founder second-guessing. Maybe they anticipated monumental clashes caused by all those freedoms held by all those different Americans convinced of their absolute right to say and do whatever they wanted. So they made sure to end the list of freedoms with one that could ultimately curtail any of the others. Your hate crime is my right to ask the government to change laws. My hate speech is your right to petition city council for public censure and resolutions for change.
This is already at work in society today. We don’t get to willy-nilly use the n-word, or burn a cross on the street corner. We don’t defame a Jewish synagogue without consequences, or defend a bully’s right to cyber-shame a teenager all over Facebook and Instagram.
Freedom of speech is often contained by social norms. It’s curtailed by a mature nation’s understanding that maligning Jews, always wrong, is particularly awful since the Holocaust. It’s curtailed by our own history of the enslavement, murder, torture and ghettoization of African Americans. It’s curtailed by human empathy because we were all teens once and still harbor a horror of public shaming.
Surely it’s a tiny gesture, considering the magnitude of humankind’s propensity to inflict mayhem upon its chosen victims, to censure in the strongest ways possible hateful tropes about Jews and gays and blacks and immigrants and Muslims and girl-sluts and [need I go on?]. And I mean in whatever forms they take, including video games, films, literature, photos, or social media posts.
One of my writer friends notes public expression of these ills is on the increase now, part of social norms under attack and, many of us say, normalized by Trump. Those of us on the curtailment side are struggling to comprehend this leap backwards and its publicly stated pride in hatred and bigotry. I don’t pretend to have any answers, yet I cannot help but see a natural progression. And being an HSP and prone to inward reflection (some would say navel-gazing), I examine my own complicity in what has, in the past half-century, led to this moment.
I imagine Americans voting with their collective wallet against consumer swill involving gratuitous savagery of all sorts. I imagine Americans rejecting the temptation to hear or see the latest humiliation of a star or politician or [representative of some group we like to criticize] by refusing to click on the story even though we’re curious.
Because of course we’re curious. I’m sensitive, not angelic. I don’t pretend to have eliminated baser instincts and impulses, though the consequences of giving in to them probably bother me more than they may you. I try to recognize them, name them for the destructive phenomena they are, and refuse to give in to them. I say try to because I’m not always successful. I have some fascination for the true crime genre so have gotten too far into stories I wouldn’t have chosen had I been more conscious in the moment. Before I ditched my Facebook account, I clicked on too many gossipy stories, feeling amused or titillated and eager to show I’m part of a group laughing at such things. As a liberal, I’m all too willing to puff up with anger or contempt at what radical conservatives say and do. Even as I write, I’m reminding myself of my commitment to be a non-consumer of violence and that I sometimes fall short.
When I was at a month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center in March 2019 and working on this essay, I had a lunchtime conversation with a photographer named Patrick. After some small talk, I asked about his work. He’s compiling a book of photos, he said. I asked if I could see them. He warned me they’re explicit. Sex? “Yes.” Violence? “There’s violence in them because violence is part of everything,” he said, shrugging.
Keeping my voice even, I told him about this essay. In his respons he very gently patronized me, mentioning violence in paintings on cave walls and Italian Renaissance art, as though he imagined my comprehension of the subject so shallow I needed to be reminded of these basics. He acts as though all he must do is tell me violence is part of our nature, I thought. I stared at him, bemused, my desire to listen and understand his point of view at war with anger at being spoken to as though I were a kindergartener.
Patrick was treating me as I’ve often been treated, like a naïf, someone tolerated but not respected. Someone to be patted on the head and sent on her way, chastened by wisdom. That I was twice his age didn’t ease my outrage.
“I’m not trying to say I’ve found some quick and easy answer,” I told him. “I’m not saying I’m some sort of saint, refusing to dirty my spirit the way most of the world does. I’m saying what I see and feel, that intolerance, violence and violent imagery are ubiquitous and we’re the less for it. We’re less safe, less happy, more insecure, more inured, less compassionate. Sure, humans seem to be innately violent, but does that mean we get a pass on what’s happening now?”
I mentioned my friend, Tom Kapsidelis, whose book on the Virginia Tech shooting and the ten years following it is to be published in April 2019. Patrick’s face changed, softened. He said a friend, Reema, was killed in her French class that day. We shared our sense of outrage and helplessness. We talked about the hopefulness of Tom’s book examining the aftermath of the shootings, how people heal, and ways to move forward with gun safety policies. Then we sat in silence for a while.
Research results are mixed on the effect of violence on humans, on whether being exposed to violence makes one more violent. Most recent studies focus on the immediate effect on a viewer of violent video games in a controlled environment. So far, science has not conclusively proved a causal relationship, although one study following post-publication of a YA novel about a young woman who commits suicide showed a 29% spike in suicides for kids ages ten to eighteen. Its authors were careful not to claim causation. But I wonder about accumulation, and think trying to prove causation may be a blind alley.
I can believe a young person could play a violent video game or two, get tested, and show little affect in that moment. I imagine she or he then leaves the sterile environment, sees an ad for the latest slasher movie, watches a music video in which women are depicted only as misogynist and horny males want to see them, passes by the home television blaring news about a school or synagogue shooting, listens to boys at school brag about raping a girl who was drunk at Saturday’s party and she was so stupid to drink like that, reads nasty Facebook posts about the boy no one likes or political ads bashing an opponent, listens to parents fighting, hears a news report in which a powerful government leader derides an entire race or country, and reads the new book about suicide or anorexia or self-harm or serial killers.
You’ve probably heard the story about two young fish swimming together. They pass an elderly fish who says, “Water’s nice today.” The younger ones go on for a moment, then one looks at the other and says, “What’s water?”
We’re swimming in it.
 Or British, come to that. Doc Martin is a BBC 4 production.
 My friend, Pam, points out to me that not all sensitives are like me. “Don’t some sensitive people turn violent? There are instances of shy, quiet, isolated boys taking guns to schools.” So yes, this essay is not about all sensitive people, only those whose sensitivity manifests in the same way mine does.
 It means nothing, that little happy dance we do when someone sends us a friend request.
 Then she dies.
 Can we just step back a moment to note the breathtaking arrogance of this sentence? You won’t find any of us sensitive types making such an assumption. We know we’re in a minority, and, unlike this writer, don’t need to be reminded our opinions are not everyone’s opinions. I mean, the nerve!
 OK, that’s probably true, the story revolves around Jo. But it doesn’t have to mean every little girl reading the book counts Jo as her favorite, appealing though she may have been. Is.
 Difficult about, not wrong with. An important distinction.
 I haven’t even begun about how we hate crowds, how long I was afraid of the dark, and what the movie “King Kong” did to me when I was eight. Come to think of it, those last two are probably related.
 I know this example is out of date—the movie came out in 1991—but it’s the last time I exposed myself to this kind of “culture.” You probably know current examples, but I’d rather my essay be a bit out of date than do that research. Anyway, I read widely, I consume news in various forms, I’ve passed movie theaters and seen the posters, browsed bookstores and read the titles, listened to NPR. I know about police shooting and choking black men, bullied teens committing suicide, military men maltreating military women, the high rates of domestic violence and [need I go on?]. So while I don’t consume our violent culture, I am aware of it. How could I not be? It’s everywhere.
 From here on, I’ll use the word violence in a broad, inclusive way to mean cultural phenomena (movies, books, ads, social media, etc.) and human behaviors (rape, hatred and hate speech, shootings, etc) ubiquitous in our society.