Flinching, but Never Looking Away: Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

Reading between the lines.
April 8 2014 7:45 AM

The Flinch

Leslie Jamison’s discomfiting essays explore the pain of others and how it affects the self.

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This kind of ambivalence, this doubling back on her own assumptions, is what makes Jamison such a wonderful essayist. What feels especially vital in this passage is the intensity of her self-interrogations, the dramatization of the resistance against her own literary instincts. It’s in the space of these interruptions, in this hyper-conscious flinching from herself, that the real work of writing takes place. When the inevitable happens, and she starts to suspect that she might herself be starting to suffer from Morgellons—the delusional nature of which she feels makes it all the more treacherously communicable—she tries not to think about whether she is itching. “I am trying not to take my skin for granted,” she writes; it’s a striking claim, certainly, but one that seems strangely commensurate with her aversion to any sort of complacency. What’s most fascinating about this essay is not the strange phantom illness itself, or even the way in which she keeps almost helplessly metaphorizing it (despite the tutelary spirit of Susan Sontag hovering above her, warning her against doing so); it’s the literary virtue she makes of her own necessary difficulties with both.

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Writers, as Joan Didion remarked, are always selling someone out, and this is a reality of which Jamison seems always to be sharply aware. Her sense of the suffering of the people she’s writing about here is so acute that you can feel her willing herself to believe in that suffering in the same way they do. She portrays these people with a keenly affecting clarity and compassion. At one point, she’s sitting behind a man named Paul who has lost interest in the presentation taking place in the room, and is looking at photographs of his own wounds on his laptop—injuries of scratching and picking and scraping—observing the evidence of his own torment. “Even here,” she writes, “among others who identify with the same malady, he retreats into the terrible privacy of his own broken body. He brings others—strangers, briefly—into this quiet battleground, but it’s always just him again, eventually, drawn back into the cloister of his damage, that nearly unfathomable loneliness.” At the end of the essay, she returns to Paul, to her own guilt at writing about him and his fellow sufferers:

Paul told me his crazy-ass symptoms and I didn’t believe him. Or at least, I didn’t believe him the way he wanted to be believed. I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he hurt like there were. Which was typical. I was typical. In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal? I want to say, I heard you. To say, I pass no verdicts. But I can’t say these things to him. So instead I say this: I think he can heal. I hope he does.
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It’s obvious that The Empathy Exams wasn’t conceived from the beginning as a single book project. There are subcutaneous connections running throughout, though they seem to result more from an organizing cluster of obsessions than any kind of willful effort to make a major statement about empathy. One of the most enjoyably propulsive essays is “The Immortal Horizon,” a report about an insanely grueling Tennessee ultramarathon and its affably sadistic ringmaster; although it is necessarily concerned with bodily pain and self-punishment, it’s not especially concerned about pulling its thematic weight in the collection as a whole.

Like Rebecca Solnit, whose writing these pieces sometimes recall, Jamison takes full advantage of the licenses extended to the essayist—to create emotional affect through strange juxtapositions and connections, to generate meaning through long-range metaphors. Jamison’s writing is often formally inventive, but never appears to be pursuing formal invention for its own sake; it’s always a case, rather, of the material demanding some radical style of treatment, like a condition with no obvious cure. Jamison’s essay “Morphology of the Hit,” for instance, could easily have been a schematic nightmare, but winds up being devastatingly effective. It’s a short memoir about a time she spent in Nicaragua in her early 20s, during which she was mugged and savagely assaulted. The piece is modeled around the stringent formalism of Vladimir Propp, whose book Morphology of the Folktale isolated 31 plot elements, or “functions,” supposedly common to all Russian folklore. Jamison tries, and ultimately fails, to map out her experience along Propp’s narrative coordinates. The essay’s real brilliance is in its transcending its own cleverness through that failure. The problem of making sense of the experience, the nearly intractable difficulty of writing about it at all, becomes a vital part of that writing. “There is no function,” she writes in the closing lines, “designated for how this essay might begin to fill the lack or liquidate the misfortune—replace the eyes, the heart, the daylight. Everything I find is stained by a certain residue: all that blood. My face will always remind me of a stranger. And I will never know his name.”

That phrase “wound dweller” haunts Jamison so abidingly, it seems, because of its suggestion of a perverse preoccupation with pain, an indecent lingering around the sites of injury. It was delivered, presumably, with the intention that it would cause its own complicated wound. And for days after reading this beautiful and punishing book, I found that I myself was haunted by the phrase, but for a different reason. There is a type of person, after all, whose job it is to linger around the sites of injuries, to observe the damage we do to ourselves and to each other. “Wound dweller,” I realized, is an apt and troubling synonym for “writer.”

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The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. Graywolf.

The Empathy Exams: Essays

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.