The itch started in my leg, and then I felt it somewhere on my back. I was reading an essay about Morgellons disease, a malady in which people feel they are being infested by—what?—a virus, a parasite, something on their skin?—and I began to itch.
For a moment I might have mistaken my itching for empathy for the individuals in the essay, who describe the torments they experience to Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams. But my itch was simply an unconscious sensation, something about me,not about them. How easy it was for me to direct my attention to myself and away from those I was reading about.
To further complicate my feelings, Morgellons disease is, well, “made up.” Jamison never says so, but at one point she does say:
This isn’t an essay about whether or not Morgellons disease is real. That’s probably obvious by now. It’s an essay about what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion.
That’s a difficult question to answer, and one of many in this excellent collection of essays.
The Empathy Exams covers a lot of ground, with Jamison sometimes inhabiting the role of journalist, sometimes the role of first-person confessional writer. She is a medical actor, an actor in her own life drama; she is a poverty tourist, a journalist researching poverty; an academic, a reader, a writer. Jamison’s goal, if it can be reduced to one sentence, is to advocate for empathy—the ability to recognize another’s emotions. But The Empathy Exams is much more than that.
What stands out in these essays is Jamison’s rare ability to express both depth of emotion and intellectual rigor. One can imagine another book by a different writer that argues for more empathy in our lives—a book that argues that empathy is the key to fighting the ills our society faces, a book that argues this simple step is all we need. The Empathy Exams is not that book.
Empathy seems simple: feel for a person, without question. But these essays are never simplistic. Though her objective is to show the importance of empathy, Jamison shows it as a complex human experience. After spending much of the Morgellons essay winning the reader’s sympathy for its sufferers, Jamison asks of us, and of herself, “When does empathy actually reinforce the pain it wants to console?” It’s a troubling thought.
In another essay, concerning a documentary about three wrongly convicted teenagers, Jamison writes: “I didn’t enjoy what was happening [to the teenagers], but I enjoyed who I was while I was watching. It offered evidence of my own inclination toward empathy.” Here, empathy easily turns into self-congratulation.
The Empathy Exams is structurally inventive (it reminded me at times of John D’Agata’s Halls of Fame) but never comes across as an MFA project about ‘What the Essay Can Do’. The title essay takes the form of medical dossiers; the Morgellons essay takes the form of a scientific paper (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion); “Morphology of the Hit” takes its form from Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale.
The Empathy Exams is not a book for specialists, and yet Jamison seems to be aware that many of her readers are writers themselves. She shows the work of the essayist, instead of trying to hide the mechanics behind the argument. The writing is often self-conscious:
I feel how conveniently these lives could be sculpted to fit the metaphoric structure—or strictures—of the essay itself.
I do believe there is nothing shameful about being in pain, and I do mean this essay to be a manifesto against the accusation of wallowing.
Still, form never overshadows content.
More than just an argument for feeling someone else’s emotion, The Empathy Exams is an argument for feeling, all of it. “I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”
Joan Didion saw in Barack Obama’s election the end of irony, but for anyone walking around Brooklyn (where Jamison lives) or San Francisco, or any other large city—or really, anyone who uses the Internet—irony has been alive and well through 9/11 and Obama’s presidency and everything in between. Irony, we’ve come to see, can be as suffocating as the earnestness it seeks to undercut. Jamison wants “to feel swollen by sentimentality and then hurt by it, betrayed by its flatness, wounded by the hard glass surface of its sky.” (Though elsewhere, in one of her distinctively nuanced terms of phrase, she tells us, “Irony is easier than hopeless silence but braver than flight.”)
If suffering and sentimentality have a legitimate role in literature and in life, so does getting better. In the final essay, she writes, “I say: keep bleeding. Just write toward something beyond blood.” That is, don’t mistake suffering for the only thing worthy of human attention, like the sufferers of Morgellons disease, whose lives become the story of parasites that don’t exist—and nothing more.
In the end, Jamison’s book about understanding other people has much to say about understanding oneself, about how empathy for others can also lead to empathy for oneself.
I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy. I happen to think that paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing.
– Kyle Boelte‘s The Beautiful Unseen is forthcoming from Counterpoint in 2015.