Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams, winner of the 2013 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Jamison and her book are currently gaining some much-deserved attention, and we’re fortunate to have had a dialogue with her regarding not only her new book, but also the crafts of cultivating empathy and writing nonfiction.
I’ve got a question about perspective. It can be tricky for writers of nonfiction to know just how to frame their perspective for the reader. How do you make that choice? How do you figure out just how much first- or third- or (in the case of “Pain Tours”) second-person to use in an essay?
Most of my essays feel like constellations, a set of heat sources arranged around certain guiding questions: How do we represent suffering? Why are we ashamed of sentimentality? What constitutes empathy? The points of light might be anything: an investigative journey or a recounted memory, a novel or poem or documentary I subject to scrutiny. In this way, the whole arrangement usually ends up flickering between various perspectives—first and third. It’s less that I set out to write from one perspective or another—an essay about personal experience, or a piece of cultural criticism—and more that I’m trying to figure out which inquiries (personal or critical or journalistic) will be useful for a particular set of questions. But I like the discomfort—or at least, a certain jarring effect—that gets produced by an essay’s veer from cool remove to something more vulnerable: the highly rigorous mind confesses that it lives in a body; and here is something that happened to that body.
The second-person became part of this collection for reasons I can’t entirely explain. Many of my “Pain Tours”—essays loosely focused around the dilemma of voyeurism and pain spectatorship—take on the second-person: you do this, you do that. I found myself wondering, after I wrote them: Why did you do that? With that nagging you? I think part of it was a kind of self-escape—I wanted to get outside the body that had been deeply uncomfortable inside certain experiences of pain tourism—but I also think I wanted to give some advice to that past self inside the discomfort: to give her a bit of guidance about how to move through it.
Which adjectives would you say are usually used to describe your work?
Well, some of the usual suspects turn up: honest, raw, compassionate, painful, lyrical. But even the boilerplate praise is interesting to me, what sorts of assumptions it suggests about what makes writing great: I’m curious about what people mean when they call a work of memoir (or anything) “honest” (how do they know?); whether “rawness” is simply honesty on steroids, or something more pointed; what constitutes lyricism, and what work that lyricism is supposed to do. I’m pleased by the fact that my work has been called both “flinching” and “unflinching,” which I took to mean something like: I’m willing to look at difficult things, but I’m also willing to transcribe my own shivering and stuttering as I look at them.
“Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination,” you write. When I read this I thought about not only empathy itself, but also essay writing. What kind of balance between inquiry and imagination do you see in your own work?
I think that trying to “imagine another person’s experience” gets a bit too much credit—as an ethically inspired endeavor, much less an ethically beneficial one. Too often, imagining someone else’s experience just means projecting your own expectations onto them—and an emphasis on inquiry is a way to counteract that peril of tyranny: you submit yourself to asking questions, and listening to the answers; or doing research, and paying attention to what you find. That’s part of why my writing involves journalistic material as well as memoir, and part of why it wants to absorb as many other thinkers and sources and histories as possible: these are methods that spring from humility and necessitate more of it. The imagination comes in figuring out how to put them together, how to weave their details into visions.
In the essay “Devil’s Bait,” you talk a bit about what Sontag called “the kingdom of the sick,” versus “the kingdom of the well.” When you were writing this essay, what impact did you imagine it might have on those who belong to either kingdom?
Well, certainly I think Sontag was interested in reminding citizens of the “kingdom of the well” that they will someday be citizens of the other kingdom as well. I share that interest. The two territories foster a constant traffic—and writing about their border means reminding residents of both kingdoms just how porous the boundary is.
In “Devil’s Bait,” I certainly didn’t want my subjects to feel like I was standing on some kind of watchtower in the other kingdom—some kind of border control station—and peering down on them with my telescope, scrutinizing their every move and delusion. This sense of being scrutinized as other was precisely what I wanted to preempt; I wanted to illustrate that the fears and longings of this ill kingdom were the same fears and longings of any kingdom, of all realms.
So you share an interest with Sontag in reminding readers that their citizenship will one day change; but when you’re writing about all of this, just how close does that interest get to becoming fear?
Several of the essays explore the relationship between fear and inquiry—how it drives us forward and holds us back: how a certain kind of physical fear, at a certain point in my life, made me afraid to walk the streets of New Haven but also sharpened me to what I was reading (at that point, a broken-hearted James Agee), how I might find myself echoed in its pages. I also talk about being at a disease conference and starting to suspect that I might have the disease: that contagious quality of fear is a way that empathy can become counterproductive—if it makes us feel at risk, or self-protective; if we turn away our gazes in order to avoid that fear.
In the same essay (“Devil’s Bait”): “Is it wrong to call it empathy when you trust the fact of suffering, but not the source?” What’s your answer to this now?
I think it’s not wrong. I think it is empathy. I think that trying to understand someone’s state of being or feeling doesn’t necessitate condoning or agreeing with their point of view. Getting inside someone’s mind doesn’t mean thinking what they think; it only means realizing what they’re thinking. This gets to another question or distinction that has come up in various conversations I’ve had—with psychologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists—about empathy: should we empathize with sociopaths? With evil? And I think we should try precisely because empathy doesn’t have to catalyze complete agreement or convergence—only an entry and a reckoning. Andrew Solomon’s recent New Yorker profile of Peter Lanza—father of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza—is a perfect illustration of this distinction: he offers his readers the chance to empathize fully with this father and yet—also, improbably—with the figure of this boy, whose actions might seem to place him outside the realm of empathy entirely.
If the essay is a form in which questions get simultaneously asked and answered, how often do you find yourself leaning in one direction versus another?
Ah—I’m definitely inclined away from answering questions (which made this, ironically, an easy question to answer). At least one essay in the collection actually ends with a question mark.
Your “Creative Writer as Critic” panel at AWP was certainly my favorite out of the ones I attended. You spoke a little bit there about criticism as “evasive biography”—but in the case of a book like The Empathy Exams might it also be evasive autobiography? How might you say your critic-self and your author-self inform each other here?
That’s a wonderful question. I do think that criticism can veer into autobiography in fruitful ways—and that criticism always contains some amount of implicit autobiography, insofar as we’re always revealing the aggregation of our backgrounds and experiences (however covertly) whenever we comment on anything. Often I’m just drawn to making these connections more explicit. For example, when I write about James Agee I am also summoning my own life—the ways in which a recent trauma in my own life affected the way I read him. Sometimes this bleed between criticism and memoir feels like “evasive autobiography,” but sometimes “obtrusive autobiography” captures its texture more aptly: I find my own life interrupting or inflecting my investigations of the lives of others. But “obtrusive” isn’t quite right either—it’s too pejorative, too self-critical, too enmeshed in the shame and taboos that can surround autobiographical writing, especially for women. So I guess I mean something more like “porous autobiography”—autobiography that is constantly absorbing other materials, drawn toward other materials, allowing its gaze to flick between inward and outward settings.
Between evaluating empathy, and entering the discourse surrounding empathy, which would you say you’ve done more of here?
It feels more accurate to say that I’m entering the discourse surrounding empathy—though I’d take care to clarify that there are so many wonderful thinkers and researchers whose insights about empathy I don’t directly cite. But part of my project is definitely geared towards illuminating what might be a bit dark or flawed or dangerous about empathy—a concept that we often take too easily to be an unequivocally good or useful endeavor.
When you’re writing essays like those in The Empathy Exams, which tradition or lineage would you say you’re working in? Who were you reading at the time?
Well, “at the time” of writing these essays was a somewhat long time—they were written over the course of six years, from 2006 to 2012. During that temporal wingspan I was reading a lot, and not according to any plan, and this range pleases me a lot, now, looking at the collection as a whole. It’s like a huge party where I’ve invited all these voices that I love and asked them to hang out in the same room for the course of an evening: Susan Sontag and Joan Didion and James Agee and Frida Kahlo and Anne Carson and Tori Amos and Flaubert and Vladimir Propp and Adam Smith and Wallace Stevens and Lucy Grealy. If I ever put together a Fantasy Football team, these are the people who would be on it—and we would be terrible. We would lose every time. But we’d really figure out some important shit about suffering.