Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Leslie Jamison, _The Empathy Exams_

EVER SINCE MONTAIGNE, it has been the essayist's prerogative to be concerned first and foremost with his or her own circumstances and experiences, and most contemporary essayists take the fullest possible advantage of it, even seeing their personal history as a synecdoche of the story of their generation, of their nation, of civilization.

Jamison (in this somewhat reminiscent of Orwell and Didion) takes the relatively novel approach of being interested in the lives of others: people who have (think they have) the possibly-real-possibly-not Morgellons disease, people who go on insanely arduous endurance runs, people who used to go on endurance runs but are in prison for slack observance of mortgage regulations (this guy is in jail, and everyone from Goldman Sachs is free?), the West Memphis Three.

She is interested not only in the lives of others, but also in the nature of the interest we take in the lives of others, hence the theme of empathy that inhabits the whole book as well as the title essay. It's a phenomenon she can subject to an unusual degree of honesty and scrutiny. Of the documentaries about the West Memphis Three she writes:

...some part of me enjoyed these films. I didn't enjoy what was happening, but I enjoyed who I was while I was watching  them. It offered evidence of my own inclination toward empathy.

The book has two pieces (its first and final essays) that might become classics. In "The Empathy Exams," Jamison writes of being a medical actor, pretending to be a person with certain symptoms to test medical students both on their diagnostic skills and on their ability to summon up what will register as genuine human feelings for their patients. In other words, she performs in order to elicit a certain kind of performance, and in this instance the audience gets graded on how well they responded to the performance. This is all interesting enough--when Jamison juxtaposes it with the careful attention she gives to her boyfriend's response to her real ailments, we end up with one of the most memorable essays I've read in years.

"Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain" exemplifies the book's ability to combine self-examination with imaginative apprehension of others' lives. Jamison has enough of her own pain to keep an essay rolling--eating disorder and cutting when young, a bad breakup, getting hit in the face hard enough to suffer a broken nose (ingeniously narrated through the lens of Propp in "Morphology of a Hit"). But Jamison is just as (more, perhaps) interested in how other women have represented their pain: Lucy Grealy, Anne Carson, and quite a few of her friends.

Jamison is of a generation that grew up with representations of female pain. "I grew up under the spell of damaged sirens," she notes, "Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, Björk, Kate Bush, Mazzy Star." Honesty and candor empower, but is there a point of diminishing returns? "How do we represent female pain without producing a culture in which this pain has been fetishized to the point of fantasy or imperative?" Good question--and one we need to think about, since, as she points out, a truth spoken so often that people stop hearing it remains nonetheless true, and in need of being spoken.

"Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain" helped me think about Girls and Sheila Heti's How Can a Person Be?, which she discusses, as well as Ariana Reines and A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, which she does not but which I hope she someday will.

Really good book. Keep it going, Graywolf.

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