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The Faltering Defense of Self: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison’s debut essay collection, is a remarkable book. Although it deals with heavy issues—pain, suffering, the limits of understanding—it does so with a suppleness and grace that brings to mind one of Calvino’s lectures in Six Memos for the Next Millennium,where he posits a “lightness of thoughtfulness.” This lightness, which serves as an antidote to “the weight, the inertia, and the opacity of the world,” is not easily attained. It takes great technical skill, intelligence and, yes, empathy, for a writer to convey this weight as fluidly as Jamison does here. Whether writing about the West Memphis Three (“Lost Boys”), Morgellons disease (“Devil’s Bait”), or the epic Barkley Marathons (“The Immortal Horizon”), she manages—with a novelist’s eye for detail and scene setting—to come across as a Montaignian figure, full of doubt, heart, and a yearning to expand the boundaries of the fragile self.

I met Leslie earlier this year in Seattle. We talked briefly in a hotel bar—about, what else?, past lives—and began corresponding after I wrote to tell her just how impressed I was with The Empathy Exams. Our email exchange veered toward the voluminous and digressive. Much of what we discussed is included below, though I’ve edited out several asides on shame (I’ve never read Faulkner), long sentences (I’ve never read Faulkner), books left in storage units (whatever Faulkner I own is in a storage unit), and whales (no relation to Faulkner), among other less embarrassing (for me) things.

The last question I asked is the first here.

Stephen Sparks: The epigraph to your book, which you’ve since had tattooed on your arm, is a quotation from Terence: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. [“I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”] Do you think this assertion is risky?

Leslie Jamison: It’s funny that you mention the risk inherent in asserting or wagering that nothing human is alien to me. I feel very alive to the impossibility of the statement—of course things that are human are alien to me—but I love that too, the challenge of it; it’s more like an asymptote than a statement of fact. And I once had a very odd and unsettling and powerful encounter with a security guard about the tattoo in which he basically reprimanded me for the arrogance of the quote: did I know how much people suffered? How could I possibly think I understood that suffering? And for various reasons I felt his presence was invasive—more to do with body language than sentiment, though both were colluding—but I was interested by his vehement relationship to the notion on my arm; the way it made him want to rise up in response.

I want to believe that some of those counter-vectors are held in the statement, too: it holds its own argument. Maybe that’s just of wanting to have my cake and eat it too: I agree and disagree with myself! but god yes, the struggle past individuality towards something more universal. That’s been something I’ve been coming around to so much these past few years.

SS: What led you to write about the subject(s) in The Empathy Exams?

LJ: Maybe because we were talking about my shame-seeking superpower, but when I started thinking about this question I was thinking that many of them actually had their roots in some kind of shame: the shame of using too many artificial sweeteners, the shame of writing a first novel wholly obsessed with female “issues” I was afraid would be understood as melodramatic; the shame of being a tourist in the developing world, the shame of being a tourist in Los Angeles, my own city. I think shame is a powerful signal—like a fever—of some internal struggle. I mean, shame comes attached to many things—often traumatic things, and I would never want to reduce those traumas to mere sites of interest—but there are kinds of shame that are like arrows pointing to something tangled and subterranean, a faltering defense of self or an ache that hasn’t yet figured out its origins.

SS: I got the sense that being attacked in Nicaragua—which is a story you tell in “Morphology of the Hit”—played a large part in the origin of these essays. Was there something specific about the attack, besides, of course, the trauma of it, that led you to write about empathy and pain?

LJ: When I came back from Nicaragua, I felt a weird sort of shame about talking about getting hit in the face there—partially because there’s something strange about presenting to others in language a moment when you were utterly physically powerless—it enacts some sliver of that powerlessness, or asks you both to imagine it together—but also because I felt, from the very start, that no matter how I talked about the incident I would be somehow “making too big a deal” of it (this shame runs through the whole collection)—inflating my tiny moment of pain into something larger than I deserved. So I’d backtrack and minimize and then fight back against my own minimization. It was just a hot mess, honestly, my trying to talk about getting hit. And it happened that I was just starting my PhD at Yale that fall—2007—and reading all this theory about how stories are put together, and I read Propp—slicing Russian folktales into his taxonomy of narrative moves—and the idea struck me as an experiment: what if I tried to tell my story with his pieces? It was almost like writing a lab report in eighth grade: I had a problem, I had a set of materials, I had a method; I didn’t know what would happen.

You know how you sometimes have conversations that sear into memory—for whatever reason—not just the subject but the place itself, the landscape of it happening, because in the moment of that conversation something necessary was crystallized for you? I’m thinking about two of those conversations. One happened with another artist, a filmmaker—we were doing a residency together in Wyoming, and we’d driven out to try to find this llama farm we’d heard tell of, and we were talking about tourism (maybe how tourists are always compulsively seeking quirky travel experiences like llama farms?) and how many tourists are ashamed of the “beaten path” and construct their identities in opposition to it. That was a moment where something clarified about shame for me: it’s not just something negative but some kind of arrow, it’s pointing at something, some confusing blend of fear and desire. There was liberation in that, thinking of shame as something to follow, like a path—rather than simply something to be paralyzed by, or try to dissolve, or become second-level meta-shamed by (i.e. “I shouldn’t even be having this feeling of shame…”)

The second conversation was with a friend, in the Co-op where I used to shop, in the little Midwestern college town where I used to live. Iowa. I was telling her about submitting these essays to the Graywolf Prize. I think that was the moment where I realized how much I wanted these essays to come together into a collection. I wrote most of the essays without any sense of their eventually composing a collection, but I wrote the rest with the knowledge that they’d be gathered together—once the unfinished manuscript had won the prize, and I knew Graywolf would put it out—and then I revised the title essay several times after I knew it would open the collection. Some of its broader considerations of empathy are a product of that knowledge, I think. I mean, I revised that essay so many times; a story in its own right—essay as archeology; many layers of memory revisiting experience with a different cast each time.

But I’m so glad that I wrote a lot of these pieces separately, rather than thinking of them in chorus from the start. The connective threads feel organic rather than over-determined; and there’s not the feeling of everything happening in one tidy box; vectors are splayed every which way. With one piece I wrote after knowing about the collection (the Morgellons piece) I found myself using the word “empathy” over and over and over, compulsively—the theme was riding me too hard. I had to fight that.

SS: I hadn’t considered before reading your reply that shame is one of the secret passageways in the book, but now that you’ve said it, I can trace its tunneling through these essays. I wonder what that reveals about the relationship between shame and empathy? Do you think that your sensitivity to shame can lead one to be more empathetic? To take an example from the book, I think of “Devil’s Bait,” on Morgellons disease. Many of the people with Morgellons suffer from a double burden of shame: the physical toll of the disease (apparent on their skin) and the fact that it’s not officially recognized, that it’s written off as psychological—it’s real, but not quite.

In reflecting on their suffering, you also reflect on your response to that suffering, which moves you into a consideration of the role that reason plays in empathizing. This is another big question: where does reason stand in relation to shame? To empathy? I want to say that thinking through another’s suffering will move one closer toward an understanding of it, but there’s a nagging part of me that’s skeptical.

The characterization of shame as an arrow, a path to follow, is also intriguing. If so many of our responses to things, feelings, and events are conditioned by the metaphors we use to describe them, then I wonder if this way of conceptualizing shame can open up a new way of coming to terms with it. (Is it indulgent, though?) Although not violent, I’ve had my share of embarrassing experiences while traveling. In Cuba, I was charmed, despite knowing that I was being charmed and trying to extricate myself from the situation, into buying a box of cigars. I knew what was happening and had budgeted my money so tightly that I couldn’t afford this frivolous expense, but I could not stop it. This was nothing as dramatic or repercussive as the attack in Nicaragua, but I think the consequences and the feelings that grow up around events like these are similar. (And here it’s my turn to worry about “making too big a deal about it.”) In order to deflect my shame, I turned the story into a joke—which, of course, it was. You used Propp, which is an ingenious method for universalizing the particular.

As for the patterns and preoccupations in the book: I can’t help but to conceive of Empathy Exams in terms of music. This happened while I was reading the last essay, which struck me as an epic, multi-voiced closing track, one taking up the themes that preceded it and building toward a cathartic crescendo.

Once I read it, I flipped back through the book, and saw interludes (Pain Tours), the repetition of certain themes (obvious and otherwise) and characters… it felt conceptually whole to me.

Photo by Colleen Kinder

LJ: Right now I’m trying to map a triangle that can relate shame and reason and empathy. Is it obtuse or acute or equilateral? I do think carrying our own memories and experiences of shame can render us more sensitive to the pain or shame of others, in a couple different ways: not just that shame gives us something like a radar—a shamedar?—that alerts us to the discomfort of others, like a Masonic anti-signal, but that shame gives us a desire to escape ourselves, and the pain of others can offer that escape. My essay on Agee [“The Broken Heart of James Agee”] touches on that latter function, a bit—the way that someone else’s pain can be something of a relief, insofar as it relieves claustrophobia. And while this can edge onto the voyeuristic, I don’t think it needs to be a wholly cynical operation—it’s operative in good common sense: often the way to feel better isn’t talking about your own problems but rather listening to someone else’s.

I think you’re so right about the double shame of Morgellons, and it’s fascinating to parse it that way because the two shames are both simultaneous and oppositional—physical damage promises the possibility of proof that suffering is “real” but also compounds and deepens the isolating effects of that suffering. Which gets back to the question of reason—whether it always deepens empathy or whether it sometimes gets in the way. I felt how strange it was to look at scarred skin and feel several reactions at once—the brute, gut feeling of sadness; the scars proof that suffering had happened, no matter why or how—but also the curiosity of those scars, how they had gotten there, to what extent we might call them self-inflicted. And in those moments, the reasoning mind did feel like radio static interrupting the reception of pain with its nagging questions. This was a nice word of yours: nagging. So often good ethical impulses start as nagging—like a little kid tugging on a shirt or a finger, until we stop and pay attention.

Have you read Paul Bloom’s piece in The New Yorker, “The Baby in the Well: A Case Against Empathy”? He posits a very different kind of relationship between reason and empathy. Basically, he argues that empathy can get in the way of sound moral reasoning, and we ought to supplant it—or at least leaven it—with reasoning. Often the situations that call forth our instinctive sympathies aren’t really the ones we should be acting towards: a little girl caught in a well arouses more collective sympathy than the anonymous millions starving in Africa—but we owe so much to the suffering that hasn’t been or can’t be compressed neatly into narratives that tug our heartstrings.

Which gets back to narratives, and neat compression, and how that process happens. Did Propp help? Well, yes and no. It did help to write that piece in terms of diluting this crazy feeling of aggression and anger I had towards the guy who’d hit me. Recognizing that he had a name—even though I knew I’d never know it—and just saying that over and over to myself, whenever I encountered the essay’s ending and what I’d written there, was actually really powerful. But I still freaked out whenever I realized my face was different than it had been, and it became the physicalized locus of a certain kind of anxiety that still sometimes made me feel powerless and overwhelmed, and in that sense I had to confront—quite directly—the limits of narrative: how telling the story of pain doesn’t dissolve it. (Harriet: “Pain that gets performed is still pain.”)

I was so glad to hear you say the end felt like an epic closing track. It was the last piece I wrote and it felt like that—epic, swelling–as I was writing it. I knew the collection was a collection; I knew what was in it; and I knew I wanted this piece to pick up all these threads I’d been mulling on & feeling emotional about for years—from 15-year-old me listening to Ani Difranco in my high school bedroom, and on and onward. “Turn every scar into a joke,” which takes us to cigars—and how it felt when you told the joke of that story, whether it always felt like one of those jokes edged with pain, or whether it was cleanly redeemed into punch line; and how it felt to smoke those cigars, whether there was pleasure in them.

SS: Bloom brings up some interesting points. It made me reconsider a few of your essays in the light of his distinction between empathy and morality. In particular, those in which the line between the two is so ambiguous: “Lost Boys,” about the West Memphis Three, and “Indigenous in the Hood,” from the first of the “Pain Tours” pieces. In both, you’re examining very real, very non-Leslie situations. In “Lost Boys” especially, where there are clear victims—everyone is a victim in one way or another—it’s especially difficult to not let a wave of empathetic feeling wash over the whole lot. It reminds me of watching Keith Morrison on “Dateline”: I’m so easily convinced that the husband committed the murder, as an example, until the first commercial break, when a new angle is brought to light. Is this a productive feeling? What role does empathy play in forming moral judgments?

Writing “non-Leslie,” leads me to wonder: we can insert ourselves into situations, but how often do we succeed in becoming a part of them? A lot of your pieces are about that quest—manifested by travel, by touring Compton, visiting a prison—to experience something other, to get as close to it as possible. And, of course, sometimes you get so close that it hits back. Is empathy something you can get hooked on?

LJ: It’s interesting that the Bloom made you think about “Lost Boys”—I think that’s a good place to consider those questions. Bloom is interested in how feeling directs empathy in unproductive ways—or allocates it wrong—but his larger point is really, as you say, about the relationship between morality and emotion, and the story of the WM3 is also a great illustration of how emotion takes us to all sorts of distorted ethical stances—i.e. grief turning to anger turning so quickly to blame. I was also interested in that documentary as an illustration of how easily emotions can get manipulated to produce certain kinds of empathy—I felt my empathy for the defendants but I also felt how easily that empathy had been constructed. But there’s an ethical goal in that production of empathy—and ethical effects, too—the fact that those men never would have gotten free if it hadn’t been for the research funded by the money raised by the success of the first film. Which is such sadness, too—there was no triumph of the legal system, only a case in which the flooding of enough money meant its terrible irresponsibility was—in one single case—circumvented.

It was interesting, once I put “Lost Boys” into the context of the whole collection, I found myself feeling the ways in which its final moments reached for a kind of crescendo—not so much a call to action as a call to vision—that echoed what was happening in other essays: that sense of the end of the collection as a beginning more than an ending (that’s how I want it to feel!) But I started getting word that there was a sort of formula to these rousing closing cadences: Look! See! The world remains fucked up. All this lyricism doesn’t change that!

I think that paranoia is related to a deeper fear that connects up to your second and wonderful question about getting hooked on empathy. Part of my fear is that empathy feels good—or seeking it out feels good, offering these rallying cries can feel good—in a way that isn’t good at all. It’s the peril of inoculation. Do you know Zizek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce? He talks about the way ethical or empathic responsibility has become a consumer product: shoppers are invited to feel good about themselves by buying products that purportedly support the interests of the economically or socially vulnerable, but this state of “feeling good” (a commodity in its own right) ultimately helps sustain the system that keeps these populations vulnerable in the first place. (34-35). In other words, empathy is dangerous when it becomes its own end—empathizing in order to “purchase” a feeling of satisfaction about one’s capacity for empathy. Empathy is dangerous when it completes a cycle that should remain open to action. That feels related to it being something you might get hooked on. Also, my whole diss is about addiction!

Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams, as well as The Gin Closet. Her essays have appeared in the Believer, Harper’s, Oxford American, A Public Space, and Tin House. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Stephen Sparks is a buyer at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. He blogs at Invisible Stories and co-curates Writers No One Reads.

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  1. [...] MARSHALL: You’ve spoken elsewhere about writing some of the essays in The Empathy Exams without knowing that they would end up in a [...]

  2. [...] of Leslie Jamison, here’s an interview she did with Tin House about her new book, The Empathy [...]

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