Richard Simmons And The Agony Of Empathy
There’s a lot to feel in the hit podcast about the world’s most eccentric fitness guru
“I call you Saint Richard. Because that’s who you are.”
It’s four in the morning—modern life’s most vulnerable hour—when a semi-depressed 14-year-old with light insomnia catches the beginning of an infomercial starring Richard Simmons. It’s the late ‘80s, and Simmons, in his signature tank-top and silky shorts, sits across a woman named Rosa. Rosa is, by her own estimation and that of her doctor, significantly overweight. She hates her body. She hates herself. She hides from the world. Now, she’s in front of Saint Richard, who has promised he will rescue her from her hellish existence with Deal-a-Meal, one of the fitness guru’s numerous, profitable diet products.
By the end of the program, the promise of this new diet plan gives her hope—and may have even saved her life. She’s crying. Simmons is crying back, his fluttery doll eyes searching into the caverns of Rosa’s soul. And you know who else is crying? Me—the semi-depressed pre-teen. I didn’t know this woman, but I felt her pain, and that connection to her pain made me cry during an infomercial for diet products, as well as remember the incident decades later.
Now multiply my singular experience by several million, and a few million more on top of that, and you’ll get a rough estimate of how many people have felt those exact feels because of Richard Simmons. Empathy is Simmons’ greatest export: his power to relate to others in real time, huff their pain, and then exhale his expert advice—all while nurturing that feeling of empathy in others—appeared to be a well-baby-oiled machine.
Or so I thought. It seems Simmons’ overwhelming sense of empathy runs deep, but it’s not an everlasting gobstopper of infinite, regenerating sweet. There appear to be limits and consequences that come from perpetually connecting with others, which seems to be at the molten, emotional core of the hit podcast “Missing Richard Simmons.”
After 40 years of basking in the sunlight of human adoration and marinating in its distress, with an enduringly successful exercise studio in Beverly Hills, and a robust social following, the 66-year-old “disappeared” in 2014. It appeared to be a Garbo-esque retreat of solitude, minus the “I vant to be alone” denoument of ceremonious closure. Simmons self-zoink was a decision so uncharacteristic of the flamboyant, fuzzy-haired fitness star, that his fans and followers suspected the isolation was something more sinister. At least sinister enough that a filmmaker named Dan Taberski would dedicate months to tracking Simmons down, and record his efforts with a compelling podcast. Whether or not he succeeded will be revealed in the final episode of the hit series, which was released on March 20.
The podcast, which a colleague of mine described as “’Serial’ but with Richard Simmons,” features old recordings from his numerous television appearances and exercise videos. Hearing his high-pitched, Broadway-loud, sing-song voice triggered a near-instant response of emotion—a sense of nostalgic comfort, but also the urge to fix something. To help. To connect. Like Richard does.
The podcast entertains several outrageous reasons why Simmons stepped away from the public eye, everything from kidnapping to witchcraft. But I wonder if it’s something deeper—and maybe simpler. It wasn’t the fading spotlight. It’s that his empathy ran dry.
And perhaps, if you’re not careful, yours might too.
From Donald Trump’s comically caustic ruthlessness to a staggeringly tragic war in Syria that can’t seem to lodge itself in the essential American consciouness, the push for empathy has been something of a social mandate. There are products developed to cultivate deep empathy, such as the virtual reality “empathy machine” and any number of thought-leading TED talks. Inhabiting the emotional life of others is a necessary part of progress. For them—and for you, too.
But what if Richard Simmons is the Patient Zero of deep empathy gone awry? What if, after four decades, your ability and desire to connect wither away?
Yale psychologist and author Paul Bloom explores this idea in his recent book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. In it, he argues that empathy is potentially destructive; it clouds logic with overwhelming emotion. Those emotions lead to irrational decisions, and those poor decisions can apply to everything from healthcare to war. Response to Bloom’s arguments have been mixed. It’s just easier to promote the idea that there’s no such thing as too much empathy. That the cure for divisiveness is unity, and unity is achieved by imagining how it might be to walk in someone else’s shoes.
But there’s a selfishness in deep empathy—and perhaps an arrogance too—in believing its possible to feel what another person feels, and adopting responsibility and control with those feelings. Maybe Richard got wise to that. In “Missing Richard Simmons,” a number of Simmons’ devotees feel deprived of his attention, and cheated out of what you might think of as an unwritten social contract. He put so much of himself into them—doesn’t he want a return on that investment? It’s strange to think of empathy as currency, that one could feel “cheated” or owed, while another feels bankrupt. But there’s something transactional about sharing empathy.
I’m not yet sure what happens to Richard Simmons. I haven’t finished the final episode yet. But wherever he is, and whatever happens, I’m determined not to cry about it.