Leslie Jamison on the hazards of empathy


“Nothing human is alien to me”: this is the epigraph of the essay collection The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, and also a tattoo inked into the author’s forearm. It’s an apt summary of her philosophy as a writer, journalist, and thinker. She takes on central questions of the human condition such as “How do we understand and practice empathy?” or “How do we make our pain and suffering decipherable to the people we love?” and ventures forth to collect stories – from Texas and Connecticut to Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Mexico. This mass of humanity is then put into what can only be described as an arsenal of observation, the contents of which comprise The Empathy Exams. The resulting emotional power is a blow to any reader – in the best way possible. Curious to learn about her process as a writer and thinker, Stephanie Kelley interviewed Jamison for The Oxford Student.

One of the most captivating pieces in The Empathy Exams is an essay called “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” In it, you write about walking a taut tightrope between writing about pain and glorifying it. What’s the easiest trap for a writer or journalist to fall into when writing about difficult subjects?

Certainly that tightrope stretches across one trap: the possibility of relishing pain or dysfunction or the kinds of sexy narratives they can offer. Another trap that I’ve become increasingly fixated on—largely because I’m often guilty of it—is the siren call of over-easy metonymy. Basically I mean: letting some small, interesting detail become emblematic of the whole situation, offer a neat distillation that actually oversimplifies everything: the homeless man sitting next to the guys with big guns outside a bank; the butterflies landing on pineapple wedges in a glassed-off garden in the Singapore airport. This is related to the Didion I quote in the book (from Salvador) about the perils of the ironic detail—how that irony can offer an easy escape hatch. Part of the call or prerogative of New Journalism is setting scenes, and choosing to recount the details from reported scenes that deepen the meanings you are trying to convey—but I don’t believe in letting the details save us from the hard work of exposition and really digging into complication.

I don’t believe in letting the details save us from the hard work of exposition and really digging into complication.

When you’re not writing about yourself, how do you maintain a measure of distance between you and the subject, while still making every effort to dig deep into the truth? Does it ever get difficult?

Absolutely it gets difficult. In about two hours I’m headed to a panel at the NYU Journalism school—where I taught last semester—to take part in a panel called “Reporting Pain” about the difficulty of writing about the pain of others—trying to be empathic without co-opting anything; trying to humanize but not make too many assumptions about someone’s humanity. I try to ask lots of questions, to give a subject the benefit of the doubt, and to make space—in the final written product—for abiding gaps or points of mystery, rather than offering a conclusive narrative—too often, that feels like trapping the subject in a closed space with no breathing hole.

Of the two forms you’ve published in – the essay and fiction – which do you prefer?

Impossible question. Choosing between children. I’m just glad—as a reader and a writer—that we’ve got both, and that we’ve got others. Right now I’m writing mainly nonfiction because it feels like the best way to weave together my impulses to blend memoir and reportage—to look inward and outward at once. But I’m considering writing a novel about two characters who are both memoirists—so make of that what you will. Maybe in order to look at nonfiction writing I’ll need to get outside of it by going back to fiction.

I saw you wrote an article for Vice about the suicide of novelist David Foster Wallace. In his widow’s memoir, Bough Down, she writes, “It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.” From Empathy Exams, do you think this is true when writing about emotions like grief and empathy?

To me there’s a lot of wisdom in that sense that it’s difficult to write about tender things tenderly. Without knowing exactly how she meant it, I know how it strikes me—reading it now—that too many vectors pointing in the same direction don’t actually end up inspiring what they’re meant to. That contrast and juxtaposition and a bit of undermining and complication actually sharpen the rendering of emotion—so you evoke the deep amount of love at a wedding not by writing about how beautiful everything was, and the deep soulful gaze between bride and groom, but by writing the awkward bits—how the groom comforted the bride when she started crying because she couldn’t remember her vows, or no one told her that her teeth were stained pink from the pomegranate seeds in the artisanal fig salad or whatever. The strange, odd, cumbersome bits are often what carry the feeling—just as the moments or respite or levity are often what make the most painful stories utterly heartbreaking.

The strange, odd, cumbersome bits are often what carry the feeling—just as the moments or respite or levity are often what make the most painful stories utterly heartbreaking.

Continuing the subject of difficulty – Life is hard! Writing is hard! – what would you say is the most difficult thing about becoming a successful writer? Is there anything you wished you would’ve known earlier?

Not everyone will love your work. Or even like it. Or even think it has the barest sliver of use or value to offer the world. I knew this in the abstract but it was really hard to let go of the idea that if I just wrote something [fill-in-the-blank] enough: good enough, smart enough, soulful enough—that it would be somehow beyond dispute. But it doesn’t work like that at all. My most beloved pieces still drive some readers insane; make some readers absolutely hate me.

I’m curious to know what your least favourite thing about the literary world is (in any or all of its incarnations – online presence, print publishing, New York writer-culture, MFA-land, etc.)?

Well, I hate the way that wonderful writers sometimes end up feeling forgotten or deserted by their publishers—can end up feeling left at sea, adrift, without much support. But I have to say that for everything I could say in response to this question, I could also think of something pushing back against it: maybe MFAs create artificially cloistered worlds, but they’re also putting out wonderful writers; maybe the NYC literary scene is ridiculous but it’s also full of wonderful events and incredible conversations. Twitter can feel addictive but it also sparks a lot of generative interplay. I would say that the American literary scene can be way too insular, and pretty ignorant of what’s happening in the rest of the world. I’m guilty of that; but I wish I lived in a culture that shamed me more actively for it.

Do you think the boundaries between the genres of the essay, journalism, memoir-writing, and literary criticism have discrete, fixed edges? I’m thinking of works that combine a lot of these genres, like Empathy Exams, My Poets by Maureen McLane, or The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience by Ann Lauterbach (maybe not coincidentally, all works by women!)

At this point my career and my “brand” are pretty much contingent on my answering “no” to this question—but that’s only the cause because I believe in that “no” so deeply. Why should there be fixed boundaries between these various modes of inquiry? It makes absolute sense to me that we would bring all these modes to bear together: reportage, memoir, travel, criticism, all of it. They have so much to say to one another. To me, it feels less like “forging” a hybrid genre and more like dissolving artificial constructs to let natural resonances emerge on the page—whenever I’m reading as a critic or working as a journalist I’m still myself, a breathing human with a history, and that history is informing how I’m absorbing everything. The play between that history and various acts of professional absorption—that’s fascinating to me.

One last question – what projects do you have in the works? What’s taking your fascination right now?

Right now I’m working on a book about addiction narratives. What can I say about it? It doesn’t respect fixed edges between genres. It’s got a lot of archival research in it, some reporting, some criticism. It’s also got a lot of my own story.

The captivating essay collection The Empathy Exams is available from Blackwell’s Books for £12.99.

Illustration/Thomas Barnett