By John Freeman
Newspapers may be dying, our publishing industry is at war with Amazon, but a bright spot remains in U.S. letters: the literary essay. In the past decade, writers known for other books and other work have begun working in the form that gave birth to the New Yorker.
These new essayists—from John Jeremiah Sullivan to Elif Batuman, Aleksandar Hemon and Daniel Alarcon—don’t come from the same boys club as the writers of the last heyday of the essay. They are unglossy, smart, deeply stylish and, with her debut collection of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison proves she will probably write her way into their company.
Jamison is hardly an underdog. She grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a prominent economist, niece to the psychotherapist Kay Redfield Jamison. She attended Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently studying for a Ph.D. at Yale. Her debut novel, “The Gin Closet,” the tale of three generations of women and their tortured family history, received high praise when it appeared in 2010.
And yet it did not prepare readers for “The Empathy Exams.” Written over a period of many years, the book examines how pain both defines and defies us, and meditates on its role in empathy. The title essay recalls a period that Jamison spent as a medical actor, faking ailments in scenarios meant to test doctors of their diagnostic skills and their ability to demonstrate empathy. “Empathy isn’t just listening,” Jamison writes, “it’s asking the questions that need to be listened to.”
“The Empathy Exams” feels like Jamison’s own self-test, as she flings herself out into the world—visiting a tough Mexican town, a grueling Tennessee ultramarathon, as well as the site of her own mishaps, wounds and collisions, both self-inflicted and otherwise. It’s a mesmerizing, occasionally maddening, often challenging book that became an unexpected New York Times bestseller this spring. I spoke to Jamison by email shortly after she arrived back in New York City from Sri Lanka.
I get the impression that your novel had autobiographical elements. When you write essays, do you work in more direct contact to yourself or life? Do essays expand you in ways different to fiction?
In writing both fiction and nonfiction, I get energy from moving in and out of the material of my own life—that’s similar across genres—but they enact that motion in very different ways. With my novel, I did draw on certain situations from my life (an estrangement within my family) but also felt artistically excited by the ways in which I was able to cut the narrative loose from what had actually happened—like snipping a cord and letting a kite fly off into the sky. With nonfiction, there’s a different sort of freedom, a different way in which personal material is allowed to become more than itself: I get to juxtapose my own life against the lives of others, to feel what’s common between us, to feel the ways in which autobiography unexpectedly brushes up against things that might feel far away. When I was reporting my piece about Morgellons Disease—a skin disorder in which people report inexplicable fibers emerging from their skin—I kept thinking about a parasite I’d gotten in Bolivia, a maggot I’d “hosted” under my own skin—not because the situations were entirely analogous but because I connected to what I was hearing from my interview subjects about how horrible it felt to get dismissed by doctors. So the piece I wrote ended up incorporating my experience into this larger journalistic account of the disease community—and that’s exciting to me; the way a piece can be about me without being all about me, the way self-exploration doesn’t have to be solipsistic; it can open outward, maybe—hopefully—suffuse the outward gaze with more feeling.
One of the men you interviewed in the essay on Morgellons had been treating himself by pouring root beer all over his body. He had also injected liquid nitrogen into his ear. Peeled off layers of his skin. You write of empathy as imagining the pain of others. What happens, do you think, when the way pain is performed makes us recoil, or consider someone crazy?
I’m interested in that process of recoiling. Sometimes it comes from fear, I think, the way in which we always know that pain might be coming for us, no matter how distant or foreign it seems—it’s just biding its time, planning its strike. Recoiling from someone’s pain feels like the opposite, or complement, to an avid—maybe even unseemly—interest in pain, the kind of interest that inspires damage-porn or poorism, the kind of interest I’ve often been accused of. Recoiling can be a problem, but so is leaning in too far, too fast, too fully. When I write about cutters, I’m also thinking through the dynamics of recoiling—the way people want to dismiss a kind of pain that feels too chosen or affected, worn as a kind of badge.
In a book about pain—and the purpose of witnessing it—I found the essay on the ultramarathon race in Tennessee particularly interesting, because the racers in it chose their suffering, they almost all of them acknowledge that it may have no meaning, other than its unknowability.
I think it’s a perpetually interesting tension, for me, between journalists and their subjects—that writers often try to attach layers of meaning that wouldn’t necessarily be embraced or endorsed by the people they are writing about; that subjects are turned into metaphors or symbols or parts of a pattern, that meanings are ascribed that don’t necessarily resonate for the ones to whom they are being attached. I felt this with the Morgellons patients I wrote about—trying to turn their disease into a stand-in for certain difficulties in the human condition more generally was a somewhat aggressive gesture, actually—and there’s certainly something similar at play with many ultrarunners: the action doesn’t necessarily stand for anything; for them, it just is. But of course, I rush to fill the gap. Because it does have meaning; it must have meaning. Or else they wouldn’t be doing it. And—without being too invasive about it—I believe that the journalist must tell a story about her subject that the subject couldn’t tell about himself, or herself. Otherwise what role is the journalist playing, besides serving as mouthpiece for some kind of ventriloquized memoir? So I believe in finding meaning where people wouldn’t necessarily find it for themselves. And I do think the chosen aspect of their physical pain is interesting—it’s not just something that’s been thrust upon them—because it suggests that meaning is being sought, not simply excavated from unwilled circumstances or suffering.
So much of fiction and culture—and abuses of power, too—is inscribed on women’s bodies. Do you ever worry that by writing about the pain and bodies that you’re reinscribing these tropes?
Absolutely, I worry about reinscribing certain tropes of pain. And I write about that worry, too, especially in the final essay in the collection—when I’m trying to examine that taboo that many women feel about expressing pain (especially having grown up in the aftermath of certain feminist advances)—I think that taboo is largely grounded in a fear of reinscribing certain tropes of femininity. So I’m trying to make a case for writing about pain, about bodies—about pained bodies—without simply re-hashing stale images of female victimization that actually enshrine or preserve this victimization. So often, for me, feelings of anxiety or worry or shame about what I’m writing are actually signals that the writing is on the right track—pursuing something valuable and resonant. Or at least that’s the hope.
I feel the ghost of Joan Didion in some of your pieces, and in sentences of your fiction, but your essay on sentiment, and your willingness to be vulnerable in a story, is very different from Didion, who almost always retains a cool remove. Did you have to train yourself out of her influence to write any of these pieces, or am I projecting too much influence onto your work?
Joan Didion is an influence. You’re right about that. I have tremendous respect for her writing and for her range—for the vast array of subjects toward which she’s directed herself, for her attention to the play between public citizenship and private experience (especially in an essay like “The White Album,” which is both personal and incredibly outward). But she’s also an influence insofar as her voice is foreign to me in certain ways, and I think sometimes I write against it—or write against a certain coolness or remove that it’s come to represent. But it’s less that I have to train myself out of writing like her, and more than my natural voice doesn’t share that desire for remove—and actually wants to push against it, loves its contrast as catalyst.
Another catalyst for this book seems to be Elaine Scarry’s “The Body in Pain.” Her formulation—that the unmaking at the heart of inflicting pain (or torture) is mirrored by the process of creation—has always interested me. I wonder if your style of essay—discursive, lateral, self-conscious without being solipsistic—is an attempt to mirror that process of pain.
This is a fascinating way of framing artistic possibility: mirroring the “unmaking” quality of pain while simultaneously embodying the creative process that repairs that unmaking. I do think I want my essays to do both—to express a certain kind of chaos and fragility, and also to push back against chaos and fragility by seeking meaning, or making connections. I think “Morphology of the Hit” is a good example of that: I try to tell the story of my own street assault as a kind of fairy tale, but keep showing that process breaking down. I’m turning an experience of pain into a story, but also showing how that pain keeps pushing against the coherence of the story, threatening to rupture its seams.
At one point in these essays you write about wanting to feel all things, all at once, which I think all of us—especially under the sway of romantics—feels, but of course it’s not possible. How do you, when not on assignment, control the leash of your own empathy without falling prey to self-loathing or self-doubt?
I love the notion of keeping empathy on a leash—as if it were a wild animal turned into an uneasy domestic companion. Perhaps that’s not too far off the mark. Excess empathy can become exhausting without doing much good. The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom is really good on this. There’s a recent Boston Review forum in response to a piece by him about the perils of empathy: that it can misdirect us or deplete us or distract us without necessarily accomplishing anything. While empathy is one of the structuring principles of my life—as a writer and as a person—I do think boundaries are important and limits are important, and I’ve been struggling with that somewhat in the aftermath of this book—realizing that we can’t feel all things on behalf of everyone, can’t be available to everyone at all times. I’m a big believer in ritual and in ordinary things: I have scrambled eggs for breakfast, I spend a fair amount of time with a five-year-old, watching cartoons; I talk to my mom on the phone at least once a week. It’s become important to me to push back against the sway of heavy feelings with lots of structure, the motions of ordinary life, the call to show up for other people in consistent ways.
“The Empathy Exams”
By Leslie Jamison
Graywolf Press, 256 pages, $15