In Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake, Kate Morrison is left emotionally stunted after a series of events leave her disappointed and grieving. When Kate is only seven, her parents are killed in a tragic car accident. Luckily for Kate, she could find condolence in her older brother Matt and the pond, a bond shared between the two. Kate idolizes Matt so it crushes her when he impregnates their neighbour and can no longer continue with his education. Kate sees this as a huge disappointment. She’s afraid of love and emotion due to her unresolved conflicts in the past. Kate has been left incapable of empathy in fear of becoming close to anyone again.
From a young age Kate has been unfamiliar with others’ and her own emotions. The Morrison household preferred to keep drama to a minimum. Kate refers to this as the Eleventh Commandment: Understatement was the rule in our house. Emotions, even positive ones, were kept firmly under control. It was the Eleventh Commandment, carved on its very own tablet of stone and presented specifically to those of Presbyterian persuasion: Thou Shall Not Emote (p. 9). Being a stranger to emotion, Kate finds it difficult to identify and feel what another person is feeling.
Exposure to emotional outbursts makes Kate anxious as she cannot find a proper way to deal with others due to her inability to fully understand and empathize. When Kate is approached by one of her students after class she assumes it is because of reasons related to her studies. “‘I guess I’m not the sympathetic type’ ” she admits, “‘[s]ympathy and empathy are linked, after all’ ” (p. 236). The student is struggling to find words when Kate suggests that “ ’ [i]f it isn’t connected to your work, then I may not be the best person... ’ ” (p. 237).
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When her student confirms it’s about her studies Kate begins with a generic authoritive response to Fiona’s problem, encouraging her to go on with her work rather than leave university but when she is faced with the raw emotion of Fiona’s tears Kate shys away, reminding herself that despite both growing up in a rural area, their situations were nothing alike. Rather than trying to relate, Kate pushes herself away. The Eleventh Commandment sticks with her throughout her life The return to Crow Lake unearthed feelings that had been buried for too long.
For Matt’s wife, Marie, these feelings were frustration with Kate’s attitude toward Matt. Marie quite clearly sees how Kate’s judgements negatively affect him and finally decides to lecture Kate on her blindness to Matt’s satisfaction with his life and her lack of forgiveness towards him. Kate was completely stunned by Marie’s words of how her disappointment is the heaviest weight on his shoulders; to Kate it seemed “that her accusations made no sense” (p. 279). Kate, unable to see things from Marie’s eyes, is unnerved and puzzled by what happened. She was convinced that she had been protecting Matt. Here am I, with my wonderful career, and here is my boyfriend with his wonderful career, and look at all of you” (p. 260). She felt as if she would have been bragging to talk about anything in her current life, rubbing Matt’s face in her big city endeavours. Her lack of empathy made her blind towards Marie’s attempt at displaying Matt’s want to regain the bond they had once had. If Kate was able to empathize, she would have been able to forgive Matt. Matt was only seventeen when he had to give up life as a normal teenage boy to be a guardian to his younger sisters.
Not only did he have school to worry about but also the well being of his siblings and financial stability. For a moment Kate is almost able to empathize with Matt on why he became close with Marie. She excuses Matt because “he was eighteen, and when he put his arms around her he would have felt how soft she was” (p. 248). But she quickly refuses to accept what Matt had done, unable to completely understand why he threw away what meant so much to him. Kate feels as though Matt is still grieving over his loss of opportunity when in reality he moved on. If Kate could only see things through Matt’s eyes she would know.
Her incapability of letting go obstructs her empathy skills and vice versa. Kate’s inability to empathize stems from the fear of being left disappointed. After the incident with Matt she doesn’t allow herself to become close. Empathizing requires openness, expression and a certain degree of intimacy, all of which are foreign to Kate. Although Kate is incapable of empathy, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have room to grow. Lawson leaves the ending quite open but hints at Kate’s readiness to finally let go.
- Lawson, Mary. Crow Lake. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2002.
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