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An Interview with Leslie Jamison

PUBLISHED: April 14, 2014

Leslie Jamison

The first Leslie Jamison essay I remember reading is “Fog Count,” in the Oxford American. At the time, I was busy researching and interviewing lifelong residents in small-town Virginia, and Jamison’s depiction of the community surrounding a West Virginia prison, and particularly one semi-martyred inmate, made me wince with recognition. The essay is about an adventurous man’s confinement, but the narrative keeps bleeding out toward other quixotic human struggles: the young idealist couple who host Jamison’s visit to coal country and introduce her to the environmental sabotage all around; the children visiting their fathers in jail, attempting a normal family life on cold, state-owned steel benches; and above all, Jamison’s own attempt to truly grasp the convicted man’s suffering, through letters and postcards, research and reading, and a prolonged interview where the only nourishment came from the prison vending machine. 

Jamison’s new essay collection, The Empathy Exams—which includes “Fog Count” as well as “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” from the Spring 2014 Virginia Quarterly Review—expands those themes to book length. I contacted her because I liked her writing, but also because I felt I needed to know her. Who was this young woman, running into some of the American landscape’s weirder, forgotten pockets while simultaneously pursuing an English Ph.D.? What made her turn to essay-writing after a well-received fiction debut, The Gin Closet? Jamison’s essays are elliptical; they raise more questions than they answer. I wanted to know the person who harbored such curiosity.

VQR: Obviously there’s a lot of thematic and even narrative overlap between The Gin Closet and The Empathy Exams—bodily pain and its emotional counterpart; the ways in which loved ones and strangers can each soothe and console us and give us purpose. Were these essays written right after that book? Did they grow out of research?

Jamison: I usually shy away from grand, sweeping pronouncements—I’m more of a “thinking against oneself” gal, to quote that wonderful phrase from E. M. Cioran—but I can say that I felt more hope about the possibilities of connection when I was writing the essays than I did when I was writing the novel. There are, as you say, so many resonances between the books: an interest in bodily experience (especially pain) and how it shapes us, how it inflects the ways we care for each other. But the novel often finds hollowness or self-interest or futility in certain things (presence, listening, rescuing) that the essays ultimately want to recuperate. They say, “Of course empathy and showing up and caring for are all subject to polluted motivation and troubled execution, but let’s try them anyway. Let’s see where they go. Let’s see what good they can do.”

All of this is not to say that I disown the novel—I do think it offers a kind of emotional authenticity, sorrow metabolized into a certain kind of lyric energy—only that I understand it as the illumination of a very different consciousness than the one I inhabit in the essays, which is a consciousness I’m forging even while I live in it; it’s a road we build as we walk; a voice we tune as we speak; a set of metaphors we mix to get right.

There was a more concrete question I abandoned in that avalanche of abstractions. I wrote a few of the essays before and while I was writing the novel (“Saccharin(e),” “La Plata Perdida,” and “Morphology of the Hit,” specifically), but mostly I started writing them as an escape from my deeply troubled second novel, which may never see the light of day. Essays helped me get out of myself, and my frustrations about how the fiction was going. The second novel is about the Sandinista Revolution, and because it’s focused on imagining lives so far away from mine, I took some relief in inhabiting my own perspective in the essays—trying to seek other lives, of course, and to query them, but always admitting and examining my own position as I was doing so, rather than seeking the omniscience of fully imagining fictional characters.  The great collectively enforced shame or taboo of the quasi-autobiographical first novel, I think, is that it has somehow “failed” to imagine far enough. My second novel was trying to answer this shame, and the essays were as well, in their way. I wanted to look outward from a position deeply grounded in personal self.

I want to be careful not to say that your preoccupation with empathy is a distinctly feminine one, but the male characters in your books are so (fairly, recognizably) different from the women. Your own body is a source of pain and fascination in the essays, susceptible to worms and beholden to doctors. Whereas the men tend to follow the example of your brother and his extreme marathoner peers in “Immortal Horizon”: The body is a tool, it’s something to exhaust or push, if it’s thought of at all. Again, I think it is an accurate depiction of men and women’s relative relation to their own skin and bones. But then of course I wonder if that means men are inherently less capable of empathy than women, and if not, then where does empathy really originate? 

Marcel Merleau-Ponty, this phenomenologist I was spending a lot of time with when I wrote my undergrad thesis, has a lot to say about the relationship between empathy and physical experience. In fact, his notion of intersubjectivity was distinctive for its attachment to the body; he understood empathy as an awareness of otherness made possible by the fact of bodiesas legible objects in the world. His phenomenology rhymes—in an odd sense—with Stephanie Phillips’s conversion disorder: interiority made legible across the undeniable articulations of a convulsing form. He talks about how this kind of empathy works: “how an object in space can become the eloquent relic of an existence.” His language suggests the logic of distant stars: By the time we see the body, it’s already a relic. Its existence has already fled. So he acknowledges: Our perception is always partial and mediated and necessarily outdated. But he still pursues it, this “paradox of consciousness seen from the outside,” because he believes in the possibility that our inner states might be perceived by and through our bodies—not just despite these bodies but because of them. 

My own physical history certainly fuels much of my interest in empathy, especially this question about the ways in which bodily pain can make us self-absorbed just as easily as it can sensitize our nerve endings to the pain of others. That tension is fascinating and troubling and infinite to me; I think in large part because I’ve felt the pull myself, in both directions—I’ve felt totally sunk into myself, compulsively checking my face in the mirror after surgery for a broken jaw or broken nose, but I’ve also felt deeply attentive to the way suffering structures existence, and sometimes I think I can smell it on strangers, like a trace perfume: the too-thin girl on the street, the red-eyed man on the subway, just trying to keep his shit together until Grand Army Plaza. It’s almost like I feel I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, because I’ve gone through a little bit of pain, but only a little bit. I keep compulsively imagining what it’s like to be living in some cave even deeper in the ice, deeper underwater.

How does all this get back to gender? I mean, I suppose that insofar as empathy is derived from physical experience, the ways in which men and women are consigned to certain essential differences in their physical experiences would mean that their empathy would get shaped differently. This is certainly one of the tensions in the title essay: How can my partner share the pain of having an abortion when he hasn’t had one? I am still optimistic about the way that physicality brings us back to shared experience even when it’s also pointing out some gaping asymmetry; it can offer some fragment of resonance—we can imagine eating a Snickers Bar in prison even if we can’t imagine being in prison. You imagine the taste of orange juice and pain pills after an abortion even if you can’t imagine the abortion itself. These physical details are like side doors or back entrances. A student of mine once talked about the idea of “pickpocket narration,” how a narrative can sneak in some deeply sad or troubling context (a divorce, a death) while distracting you with something else: squirrel-hunting in the attic, or a latte made wrong. That’s another kind of backdoor entrance.

But in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” you obviously recognize a certain kind of suffering that is, well, female. And it isn’t just a matter of menstrual cramps and childbirth. It has to do with the expectations we have toward women’s pain, and the cultural obsession we have with it, despite minimizing it at every turn. And here, too, I feel like men are luckily sheltered from a lot of this stuff—we have fewer demands on our physical attractiveness or presentation, fewer expectations that we be “motherly” at some point in our lives. This is all to say I’m trying to figure out where, as a man, my sense of empathy comes from. I think it has to do with dignity. I respond empathetically to people whose dignity has been crippled, whether by external or internal forces. What’s the equivalent for women?

I’m wary of essentializing anything. Aren’t we all. But a few things are coming to mind. One is that there might be some equivalent to this empathy for the plight of losing one’s dignity—a sort of male-coded empathy—in women feeling the pain of losing one’s object of care. One of my friends brought this up when I was crowd-sourcing for my essay on female pain: She talked about having a strong reaction to the Pieta, feeling a sense of sorrow for the woman whose “object of care had been removed,” and then wondering if there was something misogynistic in this—assuming that the highest calling of any woman would be maternal, that the greatest loss would be somehow failing this calling, or losing the chance to meet it. I thought that was so fascinating—both the reaction and the acute, intelligent self-reflection it prompted—and it was also something I’d never thought about before. Which was the whole reason I sent out an e-mail asking my friends for thoughts about female pain: Because I have so many extraordinary women in my life, I wanted to assemble their minds around this question to think of everything I couldn’t think of myself.

The other thing that feels important to say is that this question of how gender inflects empathy isn’t just a question of bodies; it’s also a question of cultural roles and social injustice—specifically the ways that abiding, structural forms of female disenfranchisement have changed how empathy plays out for each gender. Disenfranchisement sensitizes women to conditions of powerless and woundedness but makes it more difficult for women to claim ownership of these territories. This tension is part of what my final essay is getting at: Why and how is it fraught for women to associate with pain—as an identity category, or vein of empathetic response—because the role of victim has been one of the structural weapons of sexism?

I was surprised that addiction as such didn’t play a bigger role in your essays, even though certain people exhibit its symptoms, whether the Barkley marathoners or the Morgellons sufferers. I guess the difference between them and a more typical alcoholic (say, Tilly from The Gin Closet) is that they’ve found communities to share and normalize their compulsions. Support groups, almost. What do you think of such groups as tools for empathy? What did you think these people got out of sharing their experiences with others? 

My current doctoral dissertation is all about narratives of addiction—in literature, and in recovery communities: how stories shape what went wrong in order to help people get better, or in order to make something beautiful. So I think it’s fair to say that there’s not much addiction in this book because it’s brewing elsewhere. It’s part of another project. Certainly that project shares many of the concerns and questions that were central to The Gin Closet.

That said, my interest in recovery resonates throughout this book, especially the ways that communities are built around shared stories and storytelling practices. I definitely believe in the ways that communities facilitate and catalyze empathy. The structure and ritual (following a set of guidelines and formal statements in an AA meeting, for example) can help people absorb one another’s pain, and can make it possible to sit with suffering, in every sense.

A number of the essays in The Empathy Exams can be considered in terms of community, not just conspicuously—Morgellons Disease patients gathering in Austin, ultrarunners braving the briars of Tennessee—but more subtly: the vexed camaraderie of gender or tourism or vocation or nationality. It’s fair to say that in certain essays I’m interested in questioning my own natural impulse to extol the possibilities of community. With Morgellons Disease, for example, I also think about the ways that this community might be perpetuating certain ways of conceptualizing what’s wrong—i.e. the shared faith in a diagnosis—that might be obstructing the kind of help that is actually necessary. Put simply: Communities can ratify all kinds of things, and not all of those things are good.

In order to be a suitably harsh critic of your own work, you have to at some point think, “How would this read to an objective audience? Would it entertain them?” Which is itself a kind of empathy or outreach, however invented. So I’m curious who you think about when you write, because that might illuminate whose experience or consciousness you’ve spent the most time trying to imagine and embody.

It’s so smart to think about empathy and writing like that—not just the empathy that a piece of writing might coax from its readers, or the empathy an author does or doesn’t show her subject, but the empathy an author feels toward her imagined readers: What are you feeling and thinking, and how might I speak to that? (Parenthetically, I am an obsessive user of italics and I think some of it comes from the fact that I often use italics to signal that I’m imagining my way into some consciousness not my own—either a specific other or the imagined general “other” of a reader or a writer or a patient. Italics are my subconscious attempt to be responsible in ventriloquizing, to mark the shift or the process the same way you’d “show your work” on an Algebra II problem.) 

I can remember trying to imagine my way into a reader’s experience when I was figuring out the best order for these essays, because I started to think of them as a guided journey rather than just a series of disconnected nodes. So what would that journey be like? What would it feel like to go from Splenda to prison? Should I tell you about my own experience of random street violence in Latin America before I talk about Latin American violence in the more general, distanced, context of the Narco Wars, or vice versa? Some choices felt easy; I wanted readers to learn about my own experience of being a patient before they saw me interviewing a bunch of other patients about a disease I wasn’t sure existed. That mattered to me, to have readers know I’d been on the doctor’s table, too. I wanted readers to know that if I was taking them somewhere difficult, I was willing to offer some of myself along the way; to shed that skin for them.

Whenever I write, I find myself inhabiting the consciousness of whoever might disagree with me. This is almost reflex. In this sense, if writing is making me “less alone,” it’s inevitably granting me the company of my own detractors, a whole chorus of them—but I do think it can strengthen an essay to layer it with these voices of disagreement. It’s rhetorical strategy 101, sure, anticipate your counterargument, but it’s also a way to make an essay more vulnerable and revealing. And I don’t mean just the vulnerability of revealing autobiographical material, but the vulnerability of revealing your intellectual process. It’s a kind of intellectual confessional: I doubt myself on this; I question myself here; I imagine the counterargument here. It replaces the hollow plastic of unequivocal opinion with the striated rock of volatile argument, even self-argument—rock that holds layers of complication, layers of questioning, the fossils of prior opinions. I’d love to go through the book and mark all the question marks; I know they’d be a path of breadcrumbs, but I’m not entirely sure where they’d lead.  

At the Morgellons Disease conference, where I interviewed a number of people who understood themselves as suffering from a mysterious medical condition that made inexplicable fibers emerge from their skin, I was really struck by one young woman who did this incredible thing—she imagined herself into the position of someone who might think she was crazy. I was so moved by that. She was granting them what they weren’t willing to grant her: a fully considered state of mind. The essays are full of moments like that—where one of my subjects is failing or beautifully succeeding at the same kind of compassionate imagination the essays themselves are striving for.


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