Nov 23, 2015

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams by Leslie JamisonThe Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

In her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”, one of the centrepieces of The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison acknowledges that hers is not “the first voice to call for sentimentality in the wake of postmodern irony”. She tells us that “there’s a chorus. There’s been a chorus for years. Once upon a time, it was directed by David Foster Wallace. Now it’s directed by his ghost.” This got me thinking about the fact that a lot of the voices I’m drawn to belong to this chorus: as readers of this blog will likely have noticed, I tend towards the earnest, though I simultaneously struggle with embarrassment and self-consciousness, and with a keen awareness of its possible pitfalls and limitations. Jamison is concerned with this struggle, too, even as she believes in the value and potential of open-hearted writing. No wonder I felt so close to The Empathy Exams.

The essays in The Empathy Exams are all concerned with suffering and empathy, though they approach these themes from a wide range of angles. They’re about injury and illness; connection and communication; dismissals and misunderstandings; the pain of inequality; the danger of co-opting and commodifying pain; the matter of pain and artistic representation; and, last but not least, what Jamison calls the “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”: how can we do justice to women’s real experiences of suffering in a world that has reduced female pain to an aesthetic commodity?

Jamison is interested in the limits of empathy as well as in its possibilities, and this is a central part of what gives her essays their depth. How do you continue to attempt understanding, even when you know that most of the time the end result will be imperfect at best, and that real human beings have been and continued to be hurt by faulty attempts? How do you make sure you truly hear others over the sound of your own anxiety about this? How do you resist dehumanisation, when everything about the world we live in encourages it?

As she puts it in “Devil’s Bait”,
How do I inhabit someone’s pain without inhabiting their particular understanding of that pain? This anxiety is embedded in every layer of this essay; even its language—every verb choice, every qualifier. Do people have parasites or claim to have them? Do they understand or believe themselves to have them? I wish I could invent a verb tense full of open spaces—a tense that didn’t pretend to understand the precise mechanisms of which it spoke; a tense that could admit its own limits. As it is, I can’t move an inch, finish a sentence, without running into some crisis of imputation or connotation. Every twist of syntax is an assertion of doubt or reality.
While I loved The Empathy Exams as a whole (it was one of the most personally meaningful books I’ve read this year), I was especially drawn to three essays, which strike me as the ones where Jamison’s thesis reaches its clearest articulation: the first is the title essay, which opens the collection; the second is “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”, and the last is “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”. Like Jamison, I value writing that comes from a place of openness. Candid personal essays (and fiction, and music, and so on) are extremely important to me, for many reasons. One of them is the fact that we live in a world where there’s an enormous mismatch between the most common cultural narratives and the reality of our private experiences. It’s not uncommon to feel that the way we experience love, or friendship, or rejection, or grief, doesn’t match the most prominent, too-neat representations of these experiences. And because stories are such a huge part of how we make sense of our lives, it’s very easy to end up feeling like there’s something fundamentally wrong with how we experience the world.

Feeling that our emotions don’t quite fit the mould makes us feel strange and alone, even if at the back of our mind we know that the problem is with the idea that there should be a mould. I believe that openness is how we battle this: I’ve become better at navigating my own life thanks to writing and art that acknowledge the rough edges of human experiences, the moments that leaves us grappling with feelings that don’t fit easily into a neat resolution, and allow me to find communion in that. In a more recent piece about the possibilities of the personal, Jamison spoke about the value of “honouring the complexity of your own life”:
If you grant us entry into moments that hold shame or hurt or heat, and if you’re willing to follow that heat, to feel out where all the small fires burn, then your readers will trust you. They’ll find flashes of themselves.
Doing this can be terrifying, but I desperately need stories that make those small fires visible.

And yet, even as I sit here thinking about how life-saving personal writing has been for me, I acknowledge that there are complicating factors, especially when you add gender or other marginalised identities to the equation. As much as I value openness (and I do, more than I can say; I don’t know how else to live), I don’t want it to become a straitjacket for other women. I’m wary of it being seem as compulsory; as something we can demand of others. I want a world where every way of being is accepted, but I realise that’s not the world we have. Like any other aspect of stereotypical femininity, emotional vulnerability is a double-edged sword. I want it to be safe to embrace it, and safe to reject it too. I want women for whom it doesn’t come easily to know that that’s okay. And I want women who need it not to be met with contempt.

Jamison addresses this contempt for what is perceived as excessive feeling in “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”. She asks,
What do we flee when we retreat into metaphor? What scares us about the “primary noon” of our existence? Milan Kundera claims that “kitsch moves us to tears for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel,” and I think our fixation with complication and opaque figuration has something to do with an abiding sense of this banality, creeping constantly around the edges of our lives and language. Perhaps if we say it straight, we suspect, if we express our sentiments too excessively or too directly, we’ll find that we are nothing but banal. There are several fears inscribed in this: The fear of interior simplicity, the fear of melodramatic actuality, and—perhaps most deeply felt—the fear of commonality: That our feelings will resemble everyone else’s. This is why we want to dismiss sentimentality, to assert that our emotional responses are more sophisticated than “other people’s,” that our aesthetic sensibilities testify—iceberg style—to an entire landscape of interior depth.
But doesn’t anti-sentimentality simply offer an inversion of the same affective ego-boost? We reject sentimentality to sharpen a sense of ourselves as True Feelers, arbiters of complication and actual emotion. The anti-sentimental stance is still a mode of identity ratification, arrows flying instead of tears flowing, still a way to make a point about perceptive capacity: an assertion about discernment rather than empathy. It’s self-righteousness by way of dismissal: a kind of masturbatory double negative.
And in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, she delves into all the potential gendered pitfalls I alluded to before. The result is a collection of questions rather than an attempt at a solid answer, but they’re questions I value and need to see asked out loud. I especially related to this:
I find myself in a bind. I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the hurting woman is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.
I, too, have felt wounded by this proposition. I say this with full respect for every individual reader who decides she can no longer engage with representations of a particular kind of female pain; I say this with full knowledge that we each have to draw our own boundaries so we can carry on existing in the world without being overwhelmed by pain and exhaustion. We do what we can. We do what we must. It’s okay, all of it; it has to be. I’ve written about this in the past — I didn’t have an answer then and I don’t have one now. All I know is that I want a world where we use words carefully, so that “I can’t do this story anymore” doesn’t become “Every iteration of this story betrays feminism, and if it happens to be your story, then you came along too late to have any right to voice it”. I don’t know how to do this, but I have to believe we can — I have to because I believe every variation of a common story is valuable nonetheless, just like every individual life is valuable; that every articulation will reach different people at different times and be helpful or potentially healing in different ways.

There are more questions to consider, of course; for example, the ones Jemison asks here:
How do we represent female pain without producing a culture in which this pain has been fetishized to the point of fantasy or imperative? Fetishize: to be excessively or irrationally devoted to. Here is the danger of wounded womanhood: that its invocation will corroborate a pain cult that keeps legitimating, almost legislating, more of itself.
The hard part is that underneath this obscene fascination with representations of women who hurt themselves and have bad sex and drink too much, there are actual women who hurt themselves and have bad sex and drink too much. Female pain is prior to its representation, even if its manifestations are shaped and bent by cultural models.
Relying too much on the image of the wounded woman is reductive, but so is rejecting it—being unwilling to look at the varieties of need and suffering that yield it. We don’t want to be wounds (“No, you’re the wound!”) but we should be allowed to have them, to speak about having them, to be something more than just another girl who has one. We should be able to do these things without failing the feminism of our mothers, and we should be able to represent women who hurt without walking backward into a voyeuristic rehashing of the old cultural models: another emo cutter under the bleachers, another hurt-seeking missile of womanhood, a body gone drunk or bruised or barren, another archetype sunk into blackout under the sheets.
I don’t know how we can do this, but I do know I need to talk about it.

Lastly, I love what Jemison has to say about deliberation in the title essay “The Empathy Exams”. Intentionality, she reminds us, is not the enemy of love. She makes a case for a world where emotional labour is both valued and made visible:
Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say going through the motions— this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgement of effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.
I’ll leave you with the book’s closing words — what they get at is simple, but to me they were a revelation:
I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.
They read it too: The Literary Omnivore, Shelf Love, you?


  1. I loved this book too. That last essay especially. Surprisingly one that has really stuck with me is the tour of Watts in Los Angeles she took.

    1. Yes, that was a really great one. Her final line, about trying to listen over the sound of our own anxiety and guilt, keeps going through my head.

  2. I teared up at that second to last quote. The part of me that worries about being evil because I don't always have the automatic emotional responses I feel like I should have kind of needed that. Also I have been complaining about the lack of essays not written by self-important men about how superior their music taste is in this country, I guess I should be getting my hands on these.

    1. I think a lot of us don't, not all the time anyway, and the idea that if it doesn't come unwilled then it's not genuine is so damaging. You should definitely get your hands on these - I found them so helpful, in so many ways.

  3. This has been on my list since it came out. Must.Get.To.It.

  4. This sounds like a must-read, on the list it goes! No idea how this has passed me by, so glad you posted your detailed and personal thoughts. I've mostly read woc feminist blogs that are along the lines of this one, I think, and then watched the revival of emotions and affect in academia with interest. What a relief after all the white male pomo stuff!

    1. There's just something about the way you worded that that made me really happy :D

  5. I still think about that final essay often. Those last words put a lump in my throat. I think it's so important that we have the right to tell (or not tell) our particular stories.

    1. Yes - it's so important to be able to make the right choice for the right moment, without either option coming with so much baggage.

  6. I really want to read "In Defense of Saccharine," especially.

  7. >>How do we represent female pain without producing a culture in which this pain has been fetishized to the point of fantasy or imperative?

    This. This forever. (Here is another comment that my iPad failed to post, argh, and I am trying to recreate it.) It's the perpetual fetishization of female pain that makes me more reluctant to engage with it in media, even when I know the media in question handles it with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. I'm just so -- I'm always on tenterhooks waiting for the book or the show or whatever to misstep, and it's exhausting.

    Did I tell you I'm watching Jessica Jones? I am! I think I'm growing as a person! Cause nobody gets raped in it; it just has characters who have been raped before. But there's no rape scenes to fill my head full of disturbing but aesthetically pleasing visual memories, so, yay.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.