Leslie Jamison’s restless writing

Tuesday, December 3, 2019 - 5:17pm


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“The Empathy Exams”

The usual premise of an essay collection isn’t simply the reproduction of a collection of magazine articles: There’s a reason why all of this is in the same place. One expects from a good essayist that a pattern will start to emerge, affiliations and positions slowly revealed via the author’s readings of literature, culture, society, politics. One writer who is particularly good at this — one whose essay collections feel like a single, slightly inscrutable object is being examined from many different angles — is Leslie Jamison. Her themes have remained rather consistent since 2014’s “The Empathy Exams,” and her new collection “Make It Scream, Make It Burn” is a continued fleshing out of Jamison’s longtime interests.

The title essay of “The Empathy Exams” begins with a firsthand account of Jamison’s experience as a medical actor, someone who gets paid to act out symptoms for medical students to “diagnose.” The medical students are graded, among other things, on their ability to “voice empathy” for their patients. This experience — as well as Jamison’s experiences with other medical practitioners and a romantic relationship — provides a field for Jamison to ask some questions about empathy in general. What is empathy, exactly? Is it always good? She recounts the attempts of the medical students to “empathize” with her that end up just coming across as patronizing — “‘I am sorry to hear that you are experiencing an excruciating pain in your abdomen,’ one says. ‘It must be uncomfortable.’” Such botched attempts at compassion end up insulting the person they are directed at more than a simply impersonal statement might have, and elsewhere in the essay Jamison recalls a doctor’s calm impartiality as comforting. “Instead of identifying with my panic — inhabiting my horror at the prospect of a pacemaker — he was helping me understand that even this, the barnacle of a false heart, would be okay.” In the final account, Jamison sees empathy as an ethical stance that requires work. “Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.” 

This could be read as a statement about writing, too. The various techniques of representation through writing are, like empathy, dependent on understanding the subject, prone to projections and distortions. It’s possible only through careful attention, and the stakes are high. It makes sense, then, that “The Empathy Exams” is as much a record of Jamison’s own doubt about her ability to truly understand her subjects as much as it is a book about mysterious diseases, ultramarathon running and travels in Central and South America. Passages of straightforward documentary prose sometimes dovetail into self-doubt, which then becomes a reflexive resentment about the insufficiency of this same doubt, often in the space of a paragraph or two. She is unusually clear-headed with her own thought process, tortuous though it can be. 

The most striking essay in “The Empathy Exams” is “Devil’s Bait,” a dispatch from a conference on Morgellons disease. This “condition” emerged in the early aughts, has vague, variable symptoms and is not recognized by medical science — but the 12,000 or so people who claim to have it insist that their suffering is real. Jamison, in talking to sufferers of this disease, is faced with a problem: How does one go about expressing compassion for someone while simultaneously disbelieving in the cause of their suffering? Does compassion, in this case, actually make suffering worse? “When does empathy actually reinforce the pain it wants to console? Does giving people a space to talk about their disease — probe it, gaze at it, share it — help them move through it, or simply deepen its hold?”

She ends the essay without a solution, in a state of dejection. “I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known … But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so. 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.” She finally questions what, exactly, she is accomplishing by writing the essay: “I was typical. In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal?” She’s unable to see what she’s doing as anything other than a failure of empathy — or a limit case of it, which also becomes the limit case of the form of the essay. You can never create writing that is really true to someone’s feelings in cases like this — Jamison offers instead her own conflicted thought process. This is writing that, instead of making claims to objectivity, lets readers into the problems underneath the surface of the essayist’s craft. 

“Make It Scream”

The title essay of “Make It Scream” is, on the surface, concerned with many of the same things that Jamison was working out in “The Empathy Exams.” The essay is a long exegesis of James Agee’s 1941 book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” that doubles as a critical examination of journalistic veracity. It helps that Agee’s book is not at all a conventional work of narrative journalism — Agee, tasked by Fortune to write an article about sharecroppers in Depression-era Alabama, ended up writing, instead, a 400-page book that documents “everything Agee felt and thought and questioned as he tried to tell the story of these Alabama families.” The work is deeply reflexive in a way that presaged the New Journalism. Agee ruminates about his own inability to tell the story effectively in a way that nearly undermines his own authority, and that’s not even counting the bizarre and categorically inappropriate statements he makes — like wanting to have sex with the daughter of one of the families he’s supposed to report on. Jamison’s interest in the book is in Agee’s honesty about his own limitations as a reporter — she writes that “part of the claustrophobia of Praise is its suggestion that every strategy of representation is somehow flawed or wrong” and that he was “ looking for “a language for skepticism.”

The clincher is not Jamison’s valorization of Agee’s anxious style, but that she finds in his writing “a sincerity that lay on the far side of self-interrogation.” Sincerity becomes possible through interrogation — it’s a logical continuation of the argument she posed in the title essay of “The Empathy Exams,” of carefully applied attention and emotional intelligence. This applies to her subjects, too. In an essay about contemporary belief in reincarnation, she writes  “The more compelling question for me had never been, is reincarnation real? It had always been, What vision of the self does reincarnation ask us to believe in? I found something appealing about the vision of selfhood it suggested: porous and unoriginal.” This is the embrace of projection as its own kind of truth — something that indicates a feeling instead of indexing a fact. In another essay, “52 Blue,” Jamison writes about a famously lonely whale that has inspired an odd culture of devotees. After cataloguing the various tributes people have paid — an album or two, a tattoo, thousands of online posts — Jamison broadens her scope: “52 Blue suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but metaphor itself as salve for loneliness … Loneliness seeks out metaphors not just for definition but for the companionship of resonance, the promise of kinship in comparison.” Her topic gracefully slides away from the messy specificity of projection to the generalities of longing. It’s an incredibly sympathetic move. You could say Jamison’s topic has moved from suffering to longing, or is simply following the mandate she set out in 2014: “empathy requires knowing you know nothing.”

As a result, “Make It Scream” has less bite to it. It skews domestic — online communities get a lot of space via the “52 Blue” essay and another on “Second Life,” and other essays discuss meeting strangers on air travel, attending weddings, tourism. A good portion of the second half of the book is a record of Jamison’s own personal restlessness abating somewhat — she writes beautifully about her recovery from alcoholism, and her marriage to the novelist Charles Bock, two life events about which she is earnest. It’s a gentler book, overall, than “The Empathy Exams,” a book in which Jamison always held out the possibility that her subjects might be wrong or doing harm of some kind, and similarly held out the possibility that she, in writing about them, might also be wrong or doing some kind of harm. This anxiety might have gone away because she’s no longer writing about incarcerated people or people with debilitating diseases. Even so, it’s hard to escape the sense that a lot of the essays collected in “Make It Scream” have lower stakes and more obvious answers than in “The Empathy Exams.” One way or another, the book simply has less of the burning intensity, and moral urgency that has characterized Jamison’s work. I kept thinking of the ending of “Devil’s Bait” — “I didn’t believe there were parasites … but I did believe he hurt like there were. Which was typical. I was typical.” Even as she has found balance in some respects, in her new book Jamison slides a little bit toward the thing she names.