The 6th IABA Conference

Elisabeth Hanscombe

“Mind the Gap: Empathy, Translation, and the Autobiographical Impulse”

Panel and Time

Monday, June 23 • 10:30–11:45 • Sarimanok Room

Panel: Translating Silence and Dis-ease
Copanelists: Linda DeMaio Brewer and Linda C. Middleton


In this paper I explore the notion of empathy as a central factor in the translation of internal experience into the public sphere, through autobiographical writing. My focus is on the narration of abuse within my family. By drawing attention to things that would otherwise be ignored, the writer can reverse figure and ground. In other words, the writer can bring forward issues that are obscured or hidden through familial, societal, or psychologically determined conspiracies of silence. To reverse figure and ground,, the autobiographer relies on an empathic reader who is willing to engage with material that is difficult and sometimes disturbing.

I use the work of Eviatar Zerubavel on the nature of “silence and denial in everyday life” to highlight the tension between the autobiographer’s role in translating the unspeakable into the speakable, and the reader’s willingness or otherwise to interpret the writer’s experience from an empathic position. This requires an ability to tolerate the uncertainty of another’s perspective, particularly when that threatens the reader’s “cognitive tranquility.” I write from the dual perspective of autobiographer and psychotherapist, and use my creative writing to highlight the complexity involved in any such translation. This complexity is underpinned by the gaps that exist within any autobiographical text, and the difficulties of negotiating the crossover from the inner to the outer in face of the indeterminate differences that exist between all human beings.


Elisabeth Hanscombe is a writer and psychoanalytic psychologist who is currently undertaking a PhD in the Unit for Biography and Autobiography at La Trobe University on the topic “Theories of Autobiography: Life Writing and the desire for revenge.” She is interested in the ways in which Psychoanalytic Object Relations theory intersects with that of narrative and the auto/biographical. She has published a number of short stories and essays in the area of autobiography, psychoanalysis, testimony, trauma, and creative non-fiction.

Copyright 2008 - Center for Biographical Research - University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa - Honolulu - Hawai‘i