Not Oprah’s Book Club: The Empathy Exams

The Empathy ExamsThe first essay of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, from which the collection takes it title, begins with a declaration of performed pain: “My job title is medical actor, which means I get to play sick.” The final, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” ends with a “search for possibility.” It asks how we might understand this performed pain–bloody, self-inflicted, purple, feminized or otherwise–and also all pain, in all its painfulness, as real. The nine essays in between are exercises in not letting the violence of metaphor, and metaphorizing pain (the act of writing, really), overpower painful realities and the reality of pain itself. They are, as Jamison titles two paired series of shorter essays, “pain tours.”

Jamison, as a participant-observer, tours us across landscapes of bodily and spiritual and psychic suffering–real and imagined, literary and literal: the mysterious formications of Morgellon’s disease; Frida Kahlo’s vocabulary of color as a private language of despair; a defense of the sentimental genre that emerges from the history of artificial sweeteners; a gripping reading of the Paradise Lost documentary trilogy that helped to exonerate the alleged young murderers known as the Memphis Three; a palimpsest of “the contours of two parallel geographies, one mapping the narco wars and another the landscape of literary production” in Mexico; a perverse incarnation of the Most Dangerous Game that calls itself the Barkley Marathon; a festival of miniatures for the life-sized desires of a Bolivian town. 

Thanks to Jamison’s writing, we are granted acute access to these strange topographies. In return, Jamison asks that we travel along with her as more than strangers. We are not given permission to stare dumbly as tourists. We are pushed beyond the voyeur’s glass window into the sweaty, and uncomfortable, and contested seat of the journalist’s chair–and, if we summon enough feeling, her subjects’ too. Jamison tries to hold us all accountable while also often wondering aloud whether and to what extent this type of accounting is possible.

As an intellectual project, the collection reads as an inquiry into the economics of empathy. An inquiry that explicitly and brilliantly seeks more questions in the place of answers: What is the value of feeling for another if it doesn’t change anything about their material situation? Can making ourselves into better feelers actually help others feel better? When might it make everything worse? How can we dwell on wounds–our own and others–in the face of the rampant accusation (our greatest fear and shame) of wound-dwelling? When does empathy slide into narcissism? Is empathy always just narcissism by another name–or is this fear of solipsism an alibi we use to get ourselves off the hook, with our doors locked, relationships confined to the contacts in our phones?

Jamison’s extensive dwelling on the self–a dwelling that would so lovingly be called self-reflexivity/consciousness/charm when exhibited by her male counterparts and is perhaps too readily called narcissism for females–is daring in its willingness to dwell on the unknown. These internal debates end not with a harsh RESOLVED but with the insistently feminist curve of the question mark. That Jamison asks these questions of herself doesn’t mean she has all the answers. “What good is guilt?…We ask. We like the sound of the question. It puts a crude finger on a heartbeat in us that won’t stop racing, a pulse broken in sympathy. It makes us talk. It makes us talk about ourselves. It makes us confess. We want to purge something that even confession won’t justify.” 

It’s worth noting that the word “essay”–as anyone who has ever looked it up in a dictionary will condescend to tell you–comes from the French verb to try. I think this factoid is important insofar as The Empathy Exams is a series of trials: the essays examine and experiment the histories and pleasures and limits of this oddly relational feeling. They quite literally test, with a keen eye and capacious heart, our own capacity to relate to these relations, to feel with and for and through others–in short, to empathize.

They sketch out this structure of empathy–as feeling, as questionable feeling, as necessary feeling–in their form. They are all part memoir, part someone or something else’s story. Jamison tries to feel with and through her subjects; we try and feel with and through her feeling. But these trials are not cumulative. There is no feel-good moral to the stories, no conclusive take-away. “Like Stevens’ thirteen blackbirds, we see pain from every angle; no single posture of suffering is allowed any measure of perceptual tyranny,” Jamison writes of Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” in “Grand Unified Theory,” but she might as well be summarizing her own collection as well. Her perspective is likewise kaleidoscopic and firmly situated: an ecstatic panorama of observation privy to all of its own particular agonies of flesh. Remember: “We can’t see suffering one way; we have to look at it from thirteen directions and that is only the beginning–then we are called forth to follow this figure out of the light.”

Jamison is always present as a first person narrator and her presence on the page is the figure we follow into the light. Yet as our thoughtful guide, she sounds less like the retrospectively-omniscient-New Yorker-writer, wryly profiling (in this caricature) the personalities of “fascinating” subjects, and more like a real person thinking in real time. This means that when she’s funny she’s funny without the jaded edges of irony. This means that she’s willing to admit when she feels like “an idiot,” when she doesn’t know what’s going on, what she doesn’t know. She processes–and takes readers through the process–of these errors not towards some higher path of ultimate truth, but rather, down the gentle slope of humility, inadequate and intimate. In “Devil’s Bait” Jamison discusses the “strange sympathetic limbo” that comes with writing about Morgellon’s disease, a dermal condition known to its sufferers as excruciatingly real but to the medical community as a collective delusion: I wish I could invent a verb tense full of open spaces–a tense that didn’t pretend to understand the precise mechanisms of which it spoke; a tense that could admit its own limits.”

Nearly every one of her essays acknowledges, at some point and in considerable detail, its own scene of writing. Like that moment when she writes about taking a break from typing notes for her essay on the Barkley Marathon to watch the Real World in the backseat of her car (was it a station wagon?) in the pouring rain as her computer battery was just about to die. Or when, in the last moments of “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” the last moments of the book, she writes (I cry): “Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”

Her constant self-examining, self-reflective presence is more than a winning rhetorical move: it is always also an ethical stance. There is no view from nowhere here, nor are any of her critical positions unstudied.

As she wrote these articles and fiction short and long, Jamison studied at Harvard, then Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop for Fiction, and now Yale, where is she currently completing her PhD dissertation in English. What is so amazing about her hybridization of scholarly and creative genres is not just the risk but its results: rigorous, probing, inventive prose. She employs both the Writer’s Workshop eye for fine-toothed description (“He was like a kid’s drawing of God”) and the academic’s insistence on intervening into an existing conversation–and does so conversationally: “Wallace Stevens called sentimentality a “failure of feeling,” but his syntax is ambiguous: does he mean that we’ve failed our feelings or that they’ve failed us? This ambiguity seems to circle back to Solomon’s distinction…” She locates us among the small details of the world; she locates her own position within a critical dialogue; and in doing, swiftly swims us inside of these problems, too. You might even recognize–in her ritual (dis)avowals of psychic pain, of guilt and confession, of the shame of watching oneself cry–and the thrilling pleasure, your own aching secrets. I did.

We can read the essays, as they are collected and assembled here, as an ethnographic excavation–of the splintered spectacle of the self, of sentimentality as virtue rather than disease, of illness and metaphor, of dead hot shame. As a journey to the wayward center of a feeling that is always off-center. A journey that must inevitably end with the not-defense, not-apology, not-jargon theoretical framework she calls (in earnest, I hope) “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” I like to think she calls it this because no one else would dare to totalize female pain. Which is her point. She reminds us how tiring it is and how damn tired we are of seeing Woman as nothing but a pretty picture, a never-ending bruise. That essay is a request and invitation that is also a question: “…what if some of us want to take our scars seriously?”

She is writing against the tradition that turns female suffering into a trope, that turns real cries into the aestheticized contours of the hysteric’s arched spine. “I want to insist that female pain is still news. It’s always news. We’ve never already heard it.” She is writing against the dominant literary canon that makes female pain into the butt of an infinite jest. But she is also writing against our tendency as “post-wounded women” to shrug at this masculine tradition with “post-wounded” laughter. She is writing the essay I’d been waiting to read my whole life. She is writing: “There is a way of representing female consciousness that can witness pain but also witness a larger self around that pain–a self who grows larger than it scars without disowning them, who is neither wound-dwelling nor jaded, who is actually healing.”

And as she sketches this self–at once a private quilt and an authoritative cenotaph, eleven fractured and oracular representations, healing, wounded, always and never broken–so too are we as readers invited to suture our own failures of feeling into the essays, to map our conscience onto the consciousness of others, to wonder what the conditions of possibility might be for feeling differently, for feeling more. With bigger hearts, arms uncrossed, arms wide open. Arms wide open: it’s a cliché, but I mean it, too.

Throughout her work, Jamison encounters and cites the brightest figures of the generation before her, writers like Grealy, Carson, Sontag, Didion, and the like. I–we–will quote Jamison. We’ve never already heard it.

Ava Kofman is a freelance journalist. She is a guest contributor to Feministing. 

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