Book Review: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

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Leslie Jamison Reading w/ Adam Fell

Prairie Lights — Tuesday, April 1 at 6 p.m. (Free)

Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams
Leslie Jamison reads from her book, The Empathy Exams, April 1 at Prairie Lights.

“Empathy,” Leslie Jamison explains in the first essay of her debut collection, “comes from the Greek empatheia — em (into) and pathos (feeling) — a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?

Pain and tourism form the rails on which The Empathy Exams moves from the narrator’s embodied pain, out into the world and back to “wounded womanhood” once more.

In the span of 11 essays, we see Jamison’s body in Austin; Beaver and Fayetteville, West Virginia; Bolivia; Costa Rica; Los Angeles; Mexico; New Haven; New Orleans; Nicaragua; rural Tennessee; and our own Iowa City. We see her body watching episodes of Intervention, consuming packet after packet of artificial sweetener, dissecting Berlinger and Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost documentary trilogy about the West Memphis Three. See Leslie in a Bolivian silver mine, in an exam room as a medical actor, in a tacky French Quarter watering hole, in an exam room getting an abortion.

The thrill of following Jamison the tourist is that her mind is an extraordinary analytical machine capable of producing sublimity. Watching Jamison’s mind work on the page is consistently impressive. She moves through a series of environments, some rarefied, taking in details — ultramarathons, the literary theory of Vladimir Propp, heartbreak, Didion, the self-medicating habits of writers, Agee, Diet Coke, Girls, etc. — and then gathers surgically inquisitive, multi-faceted ruminations on the dizzying, perhaps insurmountable gap between inter-/intrapersonal feeling and knowing (a liminal space Jamison describes as “affective conviction thrust against epistemological uncertainty”).

While the first five essays are expertly written, the collection becomes electric in “The Immortal Horizon,” Jamison’s account of watching her brother run the Barkley Marathon, an essentially unwinnable ultramarathon in the wilds of Tennessee. There’s a warmth and geniality to Jamison’s prose and self-representation in this essay that was missing for me in the preceding essays. It’s not that smart women must always be warm and likable on the page, but that those essays either use form to keep readers at arms’ length or they traffic in the stories of less-privileged peoples in ways that even Jamison’s swoon-worthy blend of memoir, reportage and critical theory cannot keep me from finding a bit flawed:

See Leslie assaulted and robbed in a foreign country.

See Leslie tour, by bus, dangerous parts of Los Angeles, also a foreign country, to her, even though she grew up 18 miles away in Santa Monica.

See Leslie go to one elite private school after another. See Leslie travel and consume without worrying about how to pay for anything. See Leslie’s mother call her cardiologist. See Leslie get her broken nose fixed by “an expensive surgeon in Los Angeles.”

See Leslie submit autobiographical short stories to Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

As Jamison relays in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” while workshopping one of her stories, one of her male peers in the Writers’ Workshop asks, “Does this character have a job?” “Sounding annoyed,” the man says Jamison’s protagonist “might be a little easier to sympathize with if she did.” Moments like this one, and there are several, show me that Jamison is not unaware of how she will appear to a certain segment of her target audience. However, because she is so wonderfully incisive on issues of privilege and oppression related to gender, her slight nods at the implications of her own class and race come across as facile.

“How do we represent female pain without producing a culture in which this pain has been fetishized to the point of fantasy or imperative?” Jamison asks in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” The very title of this essay presupposes that femininity and female pain are monolithic social constructions, monolithic embodied realities unmediated by race, ethnicity, skin color and class. Jamison, who is completing a dissertation in literature at Yale, is likely familiar with Barbara Welter’s germinal scholarship, “The Cult of True Womanhood.” We are no more “post-racial” than we are “post-wounded,” a nimble term Jamison coins to describe what she sees as a Girls-era shift “away from a wounded affect” the result of her female contemporaries being “aware that ‘woundedness’ is overdone and overrated.” Given the veneration of white womanhood throughout U.S. history, I would have appreciated if Jamison had turned her unrelentingly critical and fiercely empathetic gaze to how, exactly, she both subverts and embodies the “kinds of reality [that] are considered prerequisites for compassion.”

“Empathy,” Jamison says in the first essay, “isn’t just remembering to say ‘that must be really hard’ — it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.” At its best, The Empathy Exams is a much-needed lighthouse vertiginously perched on the rockiest terrain. What Jamison describes as “the grand fiction of tourism” might also be the “grand fiction” of the essay: “that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it. It’s a quick fix of empathy … We want the inebriation of presence to dissolve the fact of difference.” This observation is what I love about the essay as a form: its ability to make my insides move, not just away from complacent thought, but toward another human being for a fragmentary moment of emotional connection. However, for all her facility with words and gorgeous, smart brain, Jamison sometimes keeps the reader at a distance, and I finished the text wondering what this narrator knows of pain that neither money nor privilege can fix.

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