Hannibal (2013): On Empaths, Self-Realization, and the Healing Power of Horror

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Self-portrait.
Self-portrait.

During these past few weeks I reached a breaking point in my emotional involvement in the constant barrage of horrible things happening in the US and around the world. Dozens of bomb blasts globally, drone strikes killing children, the former CEO of Monsanto now the head of the American Food & Drug Administration, Republicans trying to privatize libraries, how the police could have rescued those three kidnapped Ohio women if they’d listened to neighbors, and on, and on, and on. My threshold for trauma has long been reached and I have no more energy available to get fired up about all that’s wrong with this country and the world. I’m calling it “trauma exhaustion”.

In the meantime, an incarnation of one of my favorite books of all time — Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon — has been adapted for television by NBC. Hannibal follows Will Graham, a troubled man with an incredible gift of criminal profiling that comes with several heavy prices as he’s tasked by the FBI to assist in hunting down serial killers each worse than the next while also being psychoanalyzed by everyone’s favorite cannibal, Hannibal Lector.

When I first read Red Dragon at 13, I was drawn to Will for so many reasons. The way he sees the world and how he gets into people’s heads resonated with me, even as a child. One of the main characters is a blind woman who ends up having an affair with a serial killer who murders whole families. Haunting stuff, my friends. By now I’ve revisited Red Dragon seven or eight times, making it one of the most-read books in my library.

In the initial throes of my trauma exhaustion I watched the first episode of the new Hannibal and my life has not been the same. In the years since Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon, a whole lot of research has been done on a group of people we now call empaths. These are individuals who are able to literally see and take on the emotions, experiences, and behaviors of other people. Turns out my old “friend” Will Graham is an empath, that’s how he knows the things he does about criminals and their motivations. The show goes into great detail about what it means to be an empath, and before long I found I had tears streaming down my face. Looking at Will and hearing about his “affliction” was a mirror into myself.

Is there really such a thing as an empath? I wondered as I sobbed into half a box of tissues. And if there is, am I one? Have I always been one like him?

With nobody home to talk to about it, I turned to Facebook and asked my friends. The response was an overwhelming yes, and several threw articles my way.

As I read through all the new information on the empath personality type, suddenly everything made sense. This was a major CLICK moment in my life. Muscles I didn’t even know I was tensing relaxed.

~Two~

From the literature on empaths, every single trait describes me, as if someone had been following me around since I was a child and taking notes. My preference towards one-on-one interaction, my behavior before and after hanging out with toxic or negative people, my imagination, my anxiety, and on, and on. I wish I had known about this when I was younger because I would have spent so much less time thinking I was crazy, or believing family members who kept it no secret that I should be in a mental institution. (For serious.)

I watched that (groundbreaking for me) first episode of Hannibal again and didn’t cry so much. Instead, I enjoyed finally knowing who I am and started to understand where I fit into this world. Why I’m here at all.

Why I’ve always been a good detective. Why I find things that are lost. Why I’ve been able to write great heroes and especially great villains. Why I love using the second person tense. Why I throw up after hanging out with certain people. Why American supermarkets are so overwhelming for me. Why strangers come up to me and tell me their secrets. Why I know how my friends are feeling even if they’re across the planet. Why I know when someone is upset with me from a thousand miles away. Why I know things about people without being told. Why I’d rather hang out with dogs than people, especially in a social situation. Why I always end up living near water. Why I can walk through a space and tell if good or bad things happened there. Why I have an addictive personality. Why my alone time is so fucking important and why I get angry when I don’t have it. Why people often find me staring off into space daydreaming, sometimes for hours. Why extended sociality leaves me drained, unsettled and ultimately physically sick. Why being around some people makes me tired. Why dealing with office politics has caused me so much trouble. Why I’d make a great animal communicator. Why I still mourn the deaths of people long, long gone.

Several moments in my life come to the fore:

In high school I had just read my birthday sister Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for English. Mrs. Thomas gave us an assignment: to write a story from the perspective of one of the characters. I chose the stepfather who was abusing Maya. The story freaked everyone out, including my teacher, because it was so real, and because I found a way to humanize a monster. I was fifteen years old.

During my teenage years, on weekends I would stay up long after my family had gone to sleep and watch movies or read in the living room. The house would finally be quiet. I’d make a big glass of coke with ice cubes and enjoy whatever art was du jour for me, from Edward Scissorhands or Fried Green Tomatoes to Dante and Stephen King and Shakespeare. Those were among the happiest moments in my family home. Alone, reveling in a movie or book with my familiar Cubby by my side until the wee hours of morning.

In college I took a creative writing class with the amazing poet Martha Ronk. There were these frat assholes in the class and I don’t know how, but I knew they were abusing women. I wrote a story in which a group of jocks attempt to gang-rape a passed-out girl but are stopped by my superheroine Glamour, who can blend into the background. You should have seen those guys faces after I read the story aloud in class. Shellshocked. And after class I saw them sitting in their car looking freaked as fuck. I know they were wondering how I knew what they did. And Professor Ronk went so far as to meet with my college advisor to tell him it was the first time she’d ever witnessed “guerilla storytelling” (her words) in all her years of teaching.

When I lived in Sevilla a friend took me to the Casa de la Moneda, the plaza in which slaves were sold. I threw up. And every time I’d have to go through there I’d dry heave until I was out.

For years when I would drink too much I’d absolutely lose my shit. I couldn’t figure out why, nothing seemed to trigger it, it just happened. I’d rage, I’d break things, I’d hurt myself, even before PTSD came into the mix making it all the worse. When I found out that my father had been cheating on my mom since I was born the freak-outs stopped happening. Just like that. Boom. Stopped. I realized that I’d known my whole life something was wrong, I just didn’t know what. And once the secret finally came out, my body stopped having to vomit that subconscious knowledge whenever it was in a vulnerable state.

Classic empath moments all, so I’ve learned.

I watch each episode of Hannibal at least twice because I still cry through the first viewing. Now not so much out of sadness, but from the sweet relief of recognition. That’s who I am! I know things! I find things! I’m just as haunted! I wouldn’t have it any other way!

I wonder, how could I have gone thirty four years without knowing? And how much damage have I done to myself with the not knowing?

Suddenly I’m less needy of friends’ attention. I’ve stopped spending so much time with social media because I noticed I was internalizing everything my friends were posting, from the personal to the political.

I’ve been keeping things to myself that before I would have shared immediately, I think because I’m not searching for who I am anymore. Finding out I’m an empath means I no longer need the external validation I’ve craved since childhood. It feels amazing. I’m hanging out with the me who so many people did their damnedest to quash and occasionally did with their labelling of me as unbalanced, disturbed, psychotic. Being an unrecognized empath will certainly lead to those assumptions, as I’ve also since learned is common among people like me.

~Three~

Hannibal Collage
Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal Lector and Hugh Dancy as Will Graham.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out the new Hannibal, I can’t recommend it enough. The acting is stupendous, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelson should get Oscars for their performances even though this is on television.

Speaking of Mads (and no insult to Sir Anthony), he is the Hannibal Lector I always imagined from the books. His poise, his sharp features, his slight accent, his elegance, his thin lips and dark eyes hide one of the greatest monsters ever written. Everything else brilliant about the show aside, he is a pleasure to watch, like one of Hannibal’s meticulously prepared meals.

Hugh Dancy embodies the empath with an astounding level of clarity. I see every emotion, every thought he’s feeling in his eyes. What a haunted, beautiful, remarkable man.

Molly Shannon appeared in the only-available-online episode that was pulled from the line-up as a quietly deranged woman kidnapping children and then getting them to murder their own families. Oh my Gaga. She should get an Oscar for those forty-five minutes as well. I never knew she could be anything but funny.

Each episode is horrifying, but in its way beautiful. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. In a way if Twin Peaks were being made today, it would resemble Hannibal. One word: magnificent.

Hannibal’s writing is marvelous. The cinematography makes you forget it’s “just” a TV show. The visual metaphors they employ make my toes curl. Each episode is so packed with meaning it’s almost overwhelming. Hands down Hannibal the best show on television I’ve seen in years, and not just because it helped me learn the most fundamental truth about myself. Like the book Red Dragon, this is one I’ll be revisiting for years to come.

And once again, I raise my glass to the healing powers of horror.

©2013 Sezin Koehler, infographic by Zuzu Arbus, Hannibal images ©NBC.

3 Responses to Hannibal (2013): On Empaths, Self-Realization, and the Healing Power of Horror

  1. I fully understand what you mean, I have always been drawn to helping people, getting into people heads was my passion, but not to manipulate but to help. I was always the sensitive one , cared about the underdog too much. Always feeling tired for no good reason. I was also more drawn to violent offenders, I found it a huge achievement to calm the agression inside people. I was always getting in between the boys when they would start fighting. The peace keeper, I enjoyed it I found it easy to do. But I also got to that point of fully understanding why people do such horrible things. I wanted to become a forensic psychologist, but the more I looked inot it the more freaked out about myself I got. I felt like a freak because I could understand their minds, and of course I didn’t understand my own personality at the time. Didn’t realise I was an empath. So I kind of turned away from it. But now I know that I am not a freak and I won’t become a violent offender lol. Now I know I can be that forensic psychologist if I want. I have a gift and I want to use it to help eliminate the next victim.

  2. Zuzu, girl…..I’ve been reading websites upon websites about how sweet empaths are, ugh! Yes we can be, but there is SOOOO much more. The first time I watched Hannibal I felt the EXACT same way you did. I’ve always been able to tell the motives of serial killers for years. It’s not that I want to carry out those things, my God NO!! As an empath, it is almost impossible because inflicting pain on others renders us in pain as well, but seeing through their eyes is ….. in a word cathartic, as sick as that sounds. But then I’ve also been able to see what psychologically wounded soldiers go through and why it’s so hard for them to explain to their loved ones about their broken nature because they simply can’t, not in a way their loved ones would ever be able to understand. Maybe only in graphic paintings. Thank you Zuzu!

  3. I entered “Hannibal empath” as I wanted to learn what the mainstream peeps thought of such a being and I came across this post. I’ve known that I was an empath for a few years now and it’s always comforting to find other people like me. I can, for lack of a different word, empathize with you fully! 🙂 It’s a gift and learning how to manage it can be challenging at times but I agree with you in that I wouldn’t have it any other way. May you be blessed on your journey of self discover and learn how to best benefit those around you with your gift.

Thoughts?