The Think Piece Interview: Leslie Jamison

Empathy is one of those words everybody likes. President Obama wants it in Supreme Court justices. Atticus Finch teaches Scout to have it. Bill Clinton was famous for feeling it. It’s been decided: America is pro-empathy! But do we really know what it means to have it? Has anyone ever examined that question? Leslie Jamison does in 11 essays in her book The Empathy Exams and the results are spectacular. In her groundbreaking book Jamison looks at empathy from a multitude of perspectives: hers, others, others related to hers, hers related to others, others related to others, and still others. Each essay is an event in itself. There’s one about sufferers of Morgellons disease, a condition in which people believe that insects or parasites are plaguing their body. One where she talks to participants in the grueling 100-mile Barkley Marathon race and asks the simple question, Why? Another has her revisiting the city in Nicaragua where she was assaulted and had her nose broken and was left with mental health challenges. It’s a remarkable collection.

David Foster Wallace once said he wanted literature to make the head throb heartlike. The Empathy Exams certainly got our noodle pulsating, and it left us changed.

TP: There is such a range of experiences in the book, but one of the through-lines seems to be about shame and how people handle it. Has this long been an interest of yours?

LJ: I do think shame is an important way into what I write about, not that every single topic I cover either in my own life or in the world around me has to do with shame but I feel like shame signifies some kind of internal conflict or tension, a desire for some part of your experience to be heard, and you may be conflicted by or embarrassed by the desire to be heard. I think of shame as vectors crossed or vectors pointing in slightly different or opposing desires. And I’m always drawn to points of conflict or things that feel difficult to resolve. In the Morgellon’s chapter, the idea that there is something wrong but not being able to say what that something was. With the one on the Barkley marathon, there is something heroic and awesome in that physical exertion, but there doesn’t seem to be a purpose behind it. That kind of insoluble tension. I just kept repeatedly being drawn to those kinds of stories.

TP: Your pieces don’t tidy up in the end; they’re messier than that, and more interesting.

LJ: I think it’s because of the mystery or that it seemed to be filled with unanswerable questions, things that I can’t quite understand my own reaction to them, those are the things that always interest me.

TP: How did you choose your topics, and how did that inform the organization of the book?

LJ: I was interested in what I couldn’t get away from in terms of obsession or points of focus. It felt really good at a certain point to step back and see that even if I never felt comfortable with thesis statements or arguments or saying, This whole piece of writing is unified by trying to prove this one idea, that’s rarely felt comfortable to me. But the idea of pieces of writing being linked by questions, what they have in common, questions to me feel like a much more comfortable linkage.

TP: Was there a moment where you knew it would hold together?

LJ: I found myself wondering in all the pieces about the gap between our own experience and the experience of others. Once I took the time to articulate this explicitly it became clear that they had been there the whole time underneath everything.

TP: Much of what you write about involves painful circumstances. Was it painful for you to write about?

LJ: A lot of the process of writing some of these essays was uncomfortable, which is the first word that comes to mind. The discomfort was happening on a couple of levels. There was the discomfort about thinking about something hard or painful, like thinking about the incredible damage of the Narco wars or thinking about some of the people I met at the Morgellon’s conference, all of that was hard to contemplate. And then there was a second layer of discomfort where there was something painful about the experience but also what is my relationship to this experience. What am I doing here standing here looking at it?

TP: Is there a book that you looked to for inspiration when it came to doing this brand of immersive journalism? And what kind of questions did the reporting raise in what you chose to reveal about the subjects?

LJ: I really love the book The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcom. It’s a really great book about a man convicted of murder, and for years the journalist let the man believe that he as a journalist believed the man was innocent when in fact he knew he was guilty, and that became clear when he published his book. It’s concerned with the journalist-subject relationship, which can often feel like a betrayal. You get people to open to you and try to get people to tell you as much as you can get them to, and then you repurpose their lives for your own purposes. There’s a real discomfort in that, too. You have to believe you’re doing some good in bringing stories to light or trying to create a space for your writing where people are relating to each other’s lives in some kind of compassion or respect, and I do believe there’s a value in that. But there’s often that feeling of spectactorship.

TP: So many people seem to think the writing process is therapeutic, or at least cathartic. Do you think that?

LJ: I wouldn’t say the writing process is therapeutic. One is that for me I’m rarely motivated by the desire to get some part of my personal story off my chest. It’s rarely that I’m saying I really want to write about that chapter in my life. It’s more that there’s some kind of question I want to answer, and my experience is one of the materials available for me, which isn’t to say that I have a totally clinical relationship to my own life, but I have an access to my own interior experience that I don’t have with anybody else’s. There’s a way I can draw on what I’ve gone through to face certain questions more deeply than I can draw on anybody else’s.

TP: How do you feel about using your own life as material?

LJ: I don’t want to sound defensive about it, but sometimes when people criticize confessional writing in general or the confessional parts of the book – Jamison can’t stop going on and on about some tiny little thing that she’s gone through – it’s never that what’s happened to me is any more remarkable or interesting than what’s happened to anybody else. It just so happens that my life is the life I’m closest to because it’s mine. (Laughs.) It’s not that I have such perfect self-knowledge but that I’m starting from inside the house. Usually if I’m writing about something that I’ve gone through, it’s something that I’ve already emotionally a few degrees removed from the experience, and maybe the writing process helps me get there but by the time that something is going out into the world, it rarely feels raw anymore. You really develop certain callouses around some of the experiences. It’s not that I feel calloused about people in my life, it’s not that. (Laughs.) But for example, I don’t feel like I need people to feel sorry for me about what I’ve written about. I feel like I’ve put things out there for public consumption only when I feel like I don’t really need anything about those experiences anymore.

TP: I’m curious about the gender difference in response to the book since this book, justly or no, seems to be cast toward a female audience. Do you hear much from male readers? And is there a difference in the type of feedback they give compared to women?

LJ: It does feel different. I did an interview with the Virginia Quarterly Review and one of the  comments from it was basically an essay-length response from a man that is very much a male response, there’s an aggression in there but there’s also intense guilt as well. It’s very intense and emotionally charged. It’s interesting because I get a lot of personal responses to that essay, and most of them are from young women who say some version of, reading this essay helped me feel like my experiences are worth articulating, or I don’t have to feel ashamed of this feeling of being in pain. I mean they’re all their own particular expressions of that sentiment. I guess I feel like it may help people honor this part of their own lives, and by honor I don’t mean wallow, or make it a part of your identity in that the wound has to constantly be open, but make it a part of yourself, and I think there is a way to make them part of you without just bleeding all over everyone you meet. It’s that kind of sweet spot of owning that this thing happened, this mattered, this is hard, I don’t have to be ashamed of saying, this is hard, some sweet spot between that an inhabiting some space beyond the pain, beyond the hurt, which I think is only possible once you’ve granted some space and some importance to it. I got one response from a very elderly gentleman who was writing from a retirement home. He told me he was nothing like the profile of the woman described in this one piece, but he said many of the emotional processes resonated with  him, and that was so cool that there was this resonance independent of demographics or life situation.

TP: So we’re based in Minneapolis and have a pride in the fact that Graywolf Press published your book. What was it like working with them?

LJ: Graywolf is awesome. There’s just this warmth to the way I relate to everybody at Graywolf. They’re also really good at what they do. I didn’t even know there were certain things that could be part of a book coming out, like reaching out and building a groundswell in the independent bookselling community. That was never discussed, or on the table, at least to my knowledge, when my novel came out with a big New York house. It was so important to get all this enthusiasm for the book early on so when I went on my tour, every time I showed up at a bookstore there would be booksellers who had been excited about the book for months and months, which was so different for me, and they were able to get 45 people out on a Tuesday night in Kalamazoo. There was this real feeling of excitement around that, which was so much to do with Graywolf’s reputation in the industry. It’s pretty amazing what they do.

TP: The book was just everywhere when it came out, and you suddenly became a literary rock star. Has it ever felt like too much attention?

LJ: It’s seven months out from publication and I do feel like it’s been this incredible ride, but I also feel myself wanting to take the turn inward, for two reasons, to be with my family and also that I can write again and go in some new directions. I feel so honored by everything that’s happened with the book and I take none of it for granted, but I also like quiet life. It’s been a very public set of months, and I’m a little bit sick of the sound of my own voice, and a little bit sick of my own voice talking about empathy. I can feel the tide ebbing a bit.

TP: I’ve read that your next book is about addiction. Can you tell us about it?

LJ: The addiction book is going to be a hybrid memoir and cultural history. I hope to create a sort of echo chamber where my own story is turning off of other people’s stories. I want to look at questions of how storytelling plays a role in recovering from addiction, how the process of recovery influences creativity, the relationship between creativity and dysfunction, and creativity and getting better, what it means to write about getting better, and how that’s more boring than writing about things going wrong. (Laughs.) Drawing on experience in thinking about those questions and one of those experiences being mine, but only one of them.

TP: When is it due?

LJ: Three years. I’m supposed to deliver the first draft of the manuscript in September 2016, so not for a little while.

TP: We can’t wait.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing