Evil Abe was the nickname I gave to the man on the screen who squeezed the cherry-red tip of his black beard until it sharpened into a downward point. In his stovetop hat and long black jacket, he looked like a cross between Satan and Lincoln. The other three contestants clenched their inked-up biceps and stared into the camera. Only one of them would win the $10,000 prize for cutting the face of a dead baby into a stranger’s skin. The theme of today’s show was “in memoriam,” and the challenge was to ink portraits of lost loved ones. Babies as floating heads or sleeping dolls with eyes closed and flowered headbands. This is reality TV in America. This is reality. This is TV. This is America.

This didn’t use to be me.

Like many of us who grew up in the eighties, TV was the background noise of my childhood. Like most teenagers, I rebelled. Because I am from working class Detroit, I rebelled against my blue collar roots. I thought if I wanted to have a chance at making it to college, I had to immerse myself in high culture and turn off the boob tube. If I wanted a white-collar job, I couldn’t be branded by the outlaw machismo that used to be associated with tattoos.

So what was I doing watching Tattoo Titans with my son? Blame my maternal empathy. Blame me for letting my teenager dumb me down.

Though he wasn’t a teenager anymore. This was J’s twentieth birthday, and (miraculously) he chose to share it with me. He had gone through his own adolescent rebellion, so I was thrilled that he wanted to spend time with me at all, even if it was doing something I had spent most of my life trying to avoid.

My husband and I had cable TV installed for the first time this fall because, after returning from a year in France, we wanted our ten-year-old daughter, E, to keep up her French by watching francophone shows.

“You waited until I moved away for college and then you got cable?” J complained. (“And a dog,” he said. “The two things I’ve been begging for my whole life.”) Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that he decided to take a semester off in the spring.

I tried so hard to make him feel welcome and comfortable. Maybe too hard. I was shocked when my husband told me that when I talk to J I start to talk like him. I say um and dude and even slur my speech. In my conscious mind, I try to be a role model. I’d have to listen to myself more carefully.

One night at dinner, I caught myself regressing. We started talking about Putin’s annexation of Crimea. E asked, “Did you read the op-ed piece about how the ‘new Cold War’ might be a good thing for Russia? Because most of their technological advances happened because of competition with the U.S.”

J said, “Are you always asking your friends, Did you read this or that New York Times article? Because they probably don’t read the paper every day like you, and they might think you’re a douchebag if you keep asking.”

I should have reassured E. I should have defended her intellectual ambition. But instead, I dropped my elbows on the table, slouched, and said, “If you say Putin with a French accent, it sounds exactly like the F-bomb in French.”

Cue in canned laughter. My family was turning into a sitcom.

It hit me that we were becoming the Simpsons. E was Lisa and J was Bart. As a kid, I would have been Lisa, too. Then why had I started talking like Homer?

I’d heard about people who grew up in the South then moved North and lost their Southern accents. Sometimes, when they talk to other Southerners, all those y’all’s come crawling back. My husband, who lived in England for part of his childhood, unconsciously starts calling umbrellas brawlies and TVs tellies when he encounters a Brit. And a friend told me about dating a man with a stutter and not being able to stop stuttering when she was around him. We do this because humans are social animals. Because by mimicry we show empathy.

Science backs this up. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, found that human brains imitate the speech patterns of other people, without meaning to. Their findings, published in the journal Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics, show that “we intentionally imitate subtle aspects of each other’s mannerisms, postures, and facial expressions. We also imitate each other’s speech patterns, including inflections, talking speed, and speaking time. Sometimes we even take on the foreign accent of the person to whom we are talking.”

The trendy field of mirror neuron research also has something to say about my downward slide into dude diction. In the early 1990s, Italian researchers implanted electrodes in macaque monkeys to study the animals’ brain during different activities. When a researcher reached for his own food, he noticed that one of the monkey’s brains lit up as if the monkey himself had reached for the food. The animal’s brain mirrored the brain of the person he was looking at.

I wanted so much to show my empathy for my son, to draw him into conversation, that I had unconsciously started to mimic him. I didn’t need to do the same for my husband or daughter, because I knew they would talk to me no matter what.

I’m not proud to admit that I watch more TV now than I ever have in my life. Guys Grocery Games and Shark Tank are the new background static of my adulthood. But in the foreground is a running conversation with my son. Telling me about his day. His plans, fears, and hopes. His feelings.

As I cheered on Evil Abe in Tattoo Titans, I could feel this junkfood-for-the-head shrinking my cerebral cortex. But I also noticed something else enlarge, as my mirror neurons fired away. Every needle prick on the show seemed to cut through my own skin.

The sharp jabs opened me up. To a possibility of conversation across generations. Maybe if we spent enough time together, my son would start mimicking me in empathy, too. The pristine grammar and vocabulary of a long-time editor. The rhythmic cadences of a person who spent decades reading poetry aloud as recreational activity. Maybe even the goofy smile creeping up my face.

Because whether I’m a smarty pants or a douchebag or a cartoon moron stand-in, there’s one thing I’m sure of. I’m happy to reconnect with my son.

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SHARON HARRIGAN's work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Her memoir, Playing with Dynamite, is forthcoming from Truman State University Press, Fall 2017. She teaches memoir at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia.

One response to “Tattoo Titans, Mirror Neurons, and Intergenerational Empathy”

  1. Carole Mertz says:

    I was very inspired by your story, “Half.” Really good writing. Thank you.

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