Late Night Library

“I think about what kinds of experiences I want my readers to have.” A conversation with Leslie Jamison

Sarah Marshall: I first got ahold of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (Graywolf Press, 2014) courtesy of my best friend from high school, who sent it to me as a birthday present earlier this year. “Happy birthday,” the card read, “to the woman who taught me to empathize with others.”

Really, I had taught her, by years of example, how to be a drama queen in high school, a bleeding heart in adulthood, and a crybaby throughout. For an embarrassingly long period, I did believe that sobbing at the end of “Norma Rae” was the same thing as empathy–and of course, a part of me still wants to. But, like so many of the other people who have already picked up The Empathy Exams and been unable to put it down, I found myself spellbound by the book’s remarkable ability to blend an expansive embrace of the human condition with rigorous interrogation of the definition and uses of empathy itself. Inevitably, Jamison also explores empathy’s kissing cousins, from outrage and pity to sympathy and sentimentality to just plain rubbernecking.

Jamison writes with an arresting combination of tenderness and precision, and the reader follows her from a West Virginian prison to an Arkansas trailer park, from an Iowa hospital to a Tennessee race course, from a Bolivian silver mine to a Texas church, knowing all the while that the meandering course she takes through the world will allow her to lend the reader clarity, knowledge, curiosity, and the opportunity not just to experience empathy, but to understand just how much empathy can do.

SARAH MARSHALL: You’ve spoken elsewhere about writing some of the essays in The Empathy Exams without knowing that they would end up in a book devoted to the theme of empathy, and of writing others with the collection in mind. Did you write any of the early essays with another collection, with another focus–or another project entirely–in mind? What effect do you think this process had on your work?

LESLIE JAMISON: The most honest answer is that I wrote the early essays without any larger project in mind. Each essay was a project of its own. I think it was important for me to follow what I found interesting without any sense of an overarching thematic architecture—it lent some breathing room to these pieces; didn’t force that thematic claustrophobia of grasping too overtly at common conceptual linkages. Avoiding that grasping, overdetermined feeling became a starker danger with the later essays—once “empathy” had begun to cast its thematic-keyword-shadow over the whole collection.

SM: You examine a lot of media in this book: episodes of Intervention, online message boards, songs by artists like Tori Amos and Kate Bush, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries on the West Memphis Three. In your view, can these media afford empathetic experiences that writing cannot? Are there things writing can do that other media can’t? Your reading of Paradise Lost (“Lost Boys”) is particularly intriguing in this regard, as the documentaries themselves allow the viewer a profound opportunity for empathy, but gives them great freedom as to who they empathize with. Did you ever find yourself consciously following the films’ approach as you wrote?

LJ: Part of my interest in approaching these various media is looking at how they afford and obstruct empathetic experiences at once: how Paradise Lost is inviting you to empathize with everyone but also corralling your empathy towards the narrative it wants to offer; how Intervention sculpts lives into certain formulaic patterns in order to elicit an easy knee-jerk empathy; how songs actually invite people to sink more deeply into their own pain rather than getting in touch with anyone else’s.

SM: In “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” you talk about the anxiety of sentimentality, and the way people can both embrace and abject sentimental response as proof of their engagement with the world–for some, “tears become trophies and emblems of…compassion,” while others “reject sentimentality to sharpen a sense of [themselves] as True Feelers, arbiters of complication and actual emotion.” Do you think the process of acceptance and rejection–acceptance of sentimentality, then rejection of it, then re-acceptance–is necessary for writers? How did your changing relationship to sentimentality affect your writing, and your concerns as a writer? I’m also thinking here of your reference in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” to the “brilliant and powerful female poet” who declared she was “tired of Sylvia Plath” when you recited “Ariel” in a workshop. Sylvia Plath is certainly not a poet many would categorize as saccharine or sentimental, but it seems many female writers have to go through a process of acceptance-rejection-acceptance (or just acceptance-rejection) with her work, and a period when they must reject, as you put it, “The Girls Who Cried Pain.” Is this process one you think women are particularly likely–or even required–to go through with regards to emblems of female sentiment, victimhood, and pain?

LJ: Probably every woman goes through a different arc in her relationship to pain—to her own pain, to other peoples’ pain, to art made from or about or against pain. But I think you’re right to note the possibility of this boomerang pattern—acceptance, rejection, acceptance—and I do think many women have to overcome a certain kind of shame in order to speak about pain, or identify as having experienced pain, and that overcoming can be mapped across this acceptance-rejection boomerang as well. Just puzzling through it now makes me remember how much my head hurt the summer I was writing that essay—I felt so dizzy with the ideas themselves, and so resistant to the prospect of making too many sweeping generalizations about the experience of all women, or invoking a collective “we” that wasn’t earned. Hence crowd-sourcing the essay: asking all my friends what they thought. But I did want to say: there’s a pulse and a problem here, I feel that.

SM: In your work as a writer, or simply as a human being trying to live empathetically, have you ever encountered an impossible subject? It seems there are many figures we socially and collectively agree not to empathize with–in your opinion, how much of this lack of empathy is the result of refusal, and how much comes from disability? A friend recently told me he had always thought he would feel differently, more strongly, or more angry about pedophiles in the news once he had children, but that, now that he is a parent, is surprised by the fact that the refrain is always “what if it happened to your child?” and not “what if your child was a pedophile?” Has your refusal to not empathize led you down any particularly thorny paths, or paths which turned out to be dead ends? How far can a refusal to refuse take us?

LJ:That pedophile example is fascinating: the fickle channels of empathy. I wouldn’t say that I’ve encountered any true dead ends, though sometimes I find myself withholding empathy when the subject is asking for that empathy too strongly. This is a lesson that comes up in writing workshops, too: the more you command your readers to feel a certain way about a character—to feel that character’s pain, to feel that character as someone hurting—the more likely a certain kind of resistance comes; there’s a kind of shrill insistence upon the necessity of empathy that can make the empathy feel forced or sour. I did a weird event called an “Empathy Roundtable” (sponsored by a consulting company; we were all picked up in a stretch limo) where a woman pushed on the idea of empathizing with people who were evil—why did they deserve empathy? To me, it seems like people who commit evil acts are the ones with whom it’s most important to empathize—or try to empathize: how do we penetrate that mystery?

SM: Much of this book is concerned with physical experience: incarceration, surgery, illness, abortion, menstruation, self-harm, and feats of near-masochistic strength. In your reckonings with various subjects, you also use even mundane physical experiences as a means of empathy: in an interview with Virginia Quarterly Review, you say you are “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.” Do you think women, and particularly female writers, are more likely to see life as an experience had by a body–a body labeled weak, a body labeled “wrong,” a legible body, a body subject to assaults and public debate? Do you think your approach to your subjects through the entry way of physical experience is influenced by your experiences as a woman? If so, is this an influence you have ever tried to escape?

LJ: My first response to this question is to think about all the men who have thought about the relationship between empathy and embodiment—or, more generally, the centrality of our bodies to our whole lives. I think about Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenology is interested in bodies as access points to other peoples’ consciousness (“eloquent relics of existence”) or an author like Faulkner, whose characters are always relating to each other and to history through powerful sensory stimuli: the smell of honeysuckle, the ghosts of cavalry. So I’m not sure if women are more likely to think of life as an experience had by a body, though I do think there are certain experiences that only women have that I’m interested in writing about—as predicaments that bring us back to bodies, always, as inescapable vessels.

empathy-examsSM: When I talk to my students about the concept of empathy, or ask them to try to define it, they often say that it’s “like sympathy,” or simply the same thing. Do you see empathy as a less-well-known of less-understood sister to sympathy? What are the uses of sympathy, and its limitations? What might The Sympathy Exams look like?

LJ: I love this question. I actually feel like writing The Empathy Exams has already exposed me to a version of The Sympathy Exams by putting me quite frequently in situations where I’m asked about the difference between those terms. I do think about sympathy as more a question of “feeling bad for [x]”—a more vertical kind of relation—rather than the horizontal blend of cognitive and affective relation that empathy implies. So The Sympathy Exams might interrogate more fully why and how we like feeling bad—what we get from that; and whether it actually enables any better understanding of other lives.

SM: Have your experiences as a teacher influenced your approach to your subject matter, or your concerns as a writer?

LJ:Teaching has made me think hard about writing in terms of giving readers an experience—because I see my students having such a range of intense experiences—and I think about what kinds of experiences I want my readers to have. It helps me think about writing as a gift. I see the effort my students put into reading well—reading hard, reading deeply—and I want to repay that effort for my own hypothetical readers; I want to give them something that deserves and repays the intensity of that attention.

SM: We often describe empathy as a means of inspiring change–e.g., if we really empathized with victims of violence or hunger or political oppression, we would surely be motivated to give, help, alter our habits, or in some way attempt to make some kind of concrete difference. What happens when this empathy has no measurable outlet? How does our experience of empathy change if we see it not as an undertaking reserved for special occasions, but as a way of life?

LJ: Great question. What’s the relationship between empathy and action, and what does empathy look like—or what value does it have—if it doesn’t produce action. I mean, I hope we don’t live in a world where empathy is reserved for special occasions, because there are a thousand ways it’s necessary in even the smallest, most banal moments of our daily lives. Wallace is great on this in that famous Kenyon commencement address, asking his graduates to realize how little they know about the other folks in supermarket check-out lines; how important it is to grant the possibility of ordinary strangers experiencing extraordinary pain; to grant that probably everybody is in some kind of pain, so how do we keep our eyes and ears open? How do we assume that we can’t assume much?

Get a copy of The Empathy Exams on IndieBound

Leslie Jamison has published work in Harper’s, A Public Space, Oxford American, and the Believer. Her debut novel, The Gin Closet, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Prize. She lives in Brooklyn, and is completing a doctorate at Yale University. Find her at or @lsjamison. (Photo credit: Colleen Kinder)

Sarah Marshall has too many degrees, all of which she earned at Portland State University. Favorite books include The Easter Parade,  In Cold Blood, and The House of Mirth.

Posted on: July 7, 2014 · Blog, Homepage, Late Night Interview ·Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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