In the opening to Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes an Italian militiaman he meets in Barcelona, “a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders.” The militiaman is trying to read a map one of the officers has unrolled across a table, but the militiaman doesn’t know how to read a map. When someone makes a remark that reveals Orwell is a foreigner, the militiaman turns to Orwell and questions him:
I answered in my bad Spanish: “No, Inglés. Y tú?”
As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.
Leslie Jamison’s new collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, demonstrates the kind of connection Orwell describes: she manages to bridge that “gulf of language and tradition” and meet her subjects “in utter intimacy” like Orwell does, whether they’re imprisoned long-distance runners, sufferers from a possibly imaginary disease, or writers living in some of the most violent places in Mexico.
Every day, news reports on drone strikes, healthcare, and domestic surveillance show us that how we view each other isn’t an issue that’s been settled. In an early essay, “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison visits a conference for people with a condition known as Morgellons disease, which causes “sores, itching, fatigue, pain, and something called formication, the sensation of crawling insects.” A distinct feature of the condition is the appearance of “strange fibers emerging from underneath the skin.” The most distinct feature of the condition, however, is that it might not be a condition at all. The CDC thinks that Morgellons is an example of what’s known as a “delusional infestation” — meaning it might just be in people’s heads.
For a book about pain, empathy, and illness, Susan Sontag — author of such classic texts as Illness as Metaphor and Regarding the Pain of Others — should be a touchstone, and she is. Sontag pops up in essay after essay, like a methodological whack-a-mole. But while Sontag’s writings seem to drill from one level of analysis to the next, Jamison’s work functions more like an archeologist’s brush, exposing the layers of narrative and critique until a larger picture becomes visible.
Jamison is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, which showcased her gift for lyrical prose and creating nuanced relationships between her characters. The Empathy Exams, like previous winners of Graywolf’s Nonfiction Prize, such as Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, isn’t just a collection of personal essays. Jamison uses the narrative and the critical together to interrogate the idea of empathy itself. Seemingly disparate essays on a grueling ultra-marathon in Tennessee, the notion of sentimentality, and the wrongly convicted West Memphis Three work together to probe at empathy from multiple angles. The collection’s first essay, “The Empathy Exams” details Jamison’s time as a medical actor:
My job is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a standardized patient, which means I act toward the norms set for my disorders. I’m standardized-lingo SP for short. I’m fluent in the symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips.
Even in seemingly small word choices, we can see Jamison unpacking the notion of pain. She’s “fluent” in her diseases; illness isn’t a binary, but a spectrum with degrees of mastery. Some of the medical students examining Jamison get nervous, while others “rattle through the checklist for depression like a list of things they need to get at the grocery store.” Her descriptions are clear and direct — the kind of prose that Orwell practiced and admired.
“Other students seem to understand that empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion,” Jamison notes. Throughout the book, we can see that she also negotiates this balance, such as when she talks to the attendees at the Morgellons conference. Jamison’s empathy, too, is perched between gift and invasion, but her perch helps her make sharp observations about how people respond to pain and how people respond to other people’s pain.
At the end of “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison explores the ambiguity she feels about her trip to the Morgellons conference:
I went to Austin because I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment. 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. I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he hurt like there were. Which was typical. I was typical. In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal? I want to say, I heard you. To say, I pass no verdicts. But I can’t say these things to him. So instead I say this: I think he can heal. I hope he does.
Leslie Jamison is a different kind of listener. She’s one willing to implicate herself and ask the tough questions about her (and our) capacity to understand each other. Jamison sees her subjects as similar to herself, but — even more importantly — she’s aware that she’s seeing her subjects as similar to herself. That bit of intellectual maneuvering lets her both experience empathy and examine it at the same time.
Orwell refused to shoot a half-dressed enemy soldier trying to hold his pants up as he ran. “I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists,’” he wrote in “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” “but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.” In The Empathy Exams, Jamison’s essays do a rare thing: they show us — in many ways — what empathy means. They show us how we become, as Orwell wrote, “fellow-creatures.”
I read and admired Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet when it first came out –and was immediately curious about its author: How could someone so young (Jamison was 26 at publication) write a book so lyrical, dark and knowing? As she and I both found ourselves in Iowa City this last spring, Jamison, now 28, agreed to sit down for a chat.
This was Jamison’s second stint in Iowa City; she’d received her MFA from the Writers Workshop five years ago, and is presently a PhD candidate at Yale. Now, she was accompanying her boyfriend, another Yale PhD student, while he got his MFA in poetry at the workshop.
On a cool spring day, before the cornfields were plowed or the leaves of the trees had unfurled, Jamison and I drove to the small town of Mount Vernon twenty miles north of Iowa City. Our destination was a coffeehouse called Fuel, a standard-bearer among coffeehouses with nooks and comfortable chairs, ample table space, amusing oddments to look at and buy, not to mention great coffee, and cookies baked in small batches all day long. (Jamison works part time in a bakery and has developed, she says, a snobbery about cookies: Fresh from the oven or none at all!). Fuel is one of Jamison’s natural habitats; she reads and writes there for hours at a stretch, so it seemed the ideal spot for a good long chat into the digital recorder. Also, as Jamison herself pointed out, The Gin Closet, which came out in paperback this month, is concerned with three generations of women and Fuel is run by three generations of women. Today, the granddaughter served as barista as the grandmother baked.
Stella, The Gin Closet’s protagonist, joins a long line of literary heroines, very intelligent young women on the cusp of adult lifewho willfully make bad choices (think Emma Woodhouse, Dorothea Brooke, Hester Prynne, Isabel Archer). At loose ends in her mid-twenties, Stella works for a famous, abusive boss and has fallen in love with a married man. In part to console herself, Stella moves in with her grandmother Lucy only to discover that Lucy is dying.
Jamison’s prose is lyrical, with the frank blare of youth:
Every night I said things like: Today my boss and I got drunk at lunch. Today my boss was on Oprah! Today I spent a thousand dollars on gift baskets. Today I used the word “autumnal” twice, and both times I was speaking to tulip salesmen…I compressed my days neatly into appetizer courses. I worked as a personal assistant for a woman with a reputation for treating people like shit, and she treated me like shit. I couldn’t spin witty versions of the rest. In the darkness I began caring for my collapsing grandmother. She wasn’t being inspirational or having sex or treating anyone like shit. She was just getting old.
As Lucy dies, a secret emerges: Stella has an aunt, Matilda, who was cast out of the family before Stella was born. After the funeral, Stella sets out to find this Aunt Tilly, ostensibly to deliver a letter but really to set things right. Tilly is found in a trailer in the Nevada desert.
The novel alternates between Stella’s first person and her aunt Tilly’s limited third person narrations. Tilly is a late-stage alcoholic and ex-prostitute whose difficult past Jamison renders fearlessly. Tilly’s one son Abe, a banker, has been sending her enough money so she can quit turning tricks; he wants her to live with him in San Francisco, but only if she’ll stop drinking. Stella convinces Tilly to take up this longstanding offer and the three of them—Stella, Tilly and Abe—set up housekeeping together in the city.
The center, if there ever was one, doesn’t hold.
As I suspected, Jamison is whip smart, articulate and intense—a terrific conversationalist.
Michelle Huneven: What got you started on this book—what was the germ, the seed?
Leslie Jamison: The short answer is my family I was working on a different novel and was stuck–I didn’t understand how stuck. I moved into a family home with my grandmother who was very sick. My life was taken over by her declining health. Trying to take care of her was completely beyond what I understood how to do. I realized when I woke up in the morning that there was no way I could work on this other novel, it had no claim on my heart or thoughts, so I just started writing with no particular plan about what was happening with my grandmother and how it was bringing up a lot of feelings about our family, a lot of old wounds that hadn’t been repaired. I had a fantasy that they could all be repaired before she died. It didn’t happen that way. But I was left with these pages about how I wish things had been different in our family, in particular with an aunt who had been estranged for a long time. I started to write a novel that explored bluntly what if– what if my aunt came back into the conversation of my family. That scenario had a lot of emotional weight with me and really drove the first draft of the novel. It took many more drafts to get further in–and further away from my family.
MH: I particularly liked Stella’s mix of naieve hopefulness and her blind confidence that she could repair the familial breach and somehow accomplish what her mother and grandmother hadn’t managed to do.
LJ: Yes, Stella has a dual feeling of guilt and superiority. I shared some version of that, myself. You feel responsible for what your family has done, even if you weren’t alive for it, but you also feel like, I’m better than that, I would never do that to somebody, and what’s more, I can go fix it. Stella thinks “I can do what my mother wasn’t capable of doing, which was to love the damage in another person.”
MH: In a way, Stella’s a classic young heroine. She’s smart and deep, but she’s not yet fully-formed, which makes her ripe for demons—in the beginning of the book, she has a terrible boss, she’s deep in it with a married man, then she’s in over her head with her sick grandmother. A flick on the back of the head is all that’s needed to send her down some misbegotten path—like saving her aunt.
LJ: Which lets you in on the dirty secret of what altruism really is, which is saying I don’t know how to deal with my own stuff so I’ll immerse myself in somebody else’s stuff, so I can feel like a hero in their life.
MH: Yes, but there are times when nothing can touch your low self esteem except getting out of yourself and being of service to another person.
LJ: We can do good things out of flawed motives–which doesn’t make them less good. But you can also show up for a certain situation only to discover that the situation is bigger than you are–you’re really signing up to lose control.
MH: One scene really haunts me. Stella goes to her aunt’s trailer in Nevada and sees the gin closet, her aunt’s drinking room. It’s a terrible womb-tomb place, bottles, flies, a turkey carcass of all things, a stool in the corner—truly the nightmare version of a tuffet. Appalling! But the next thing you know, Stella and Tilly are drinking together. Reading along, I was thinking: No! Don’t do it, Stella–you’re giving too much ground! I knew she wanted to help her aunt and bring her back into the family. While I never thought she had a chance of succeeding, I really didn’t want her to sink to her aunt’s level.
LJ: I wanted to destabilize Stella’s hero complex from the start to show it as confused. She wanted to connect with her aunt and build a sense of trust and to not be just another voice saying, “you’re a fuck up and we want your problems far away from us.” The short cut to that was to get low with her, get shamed with her.
That’s as opposed to saying I’m here, in a better spot, and I want you to come here too, which imposes a boundary and a separateness that requires a lot of moral fortitude and a kind of caring that’s willing to be patient.
MH: And drinking with her aunt is like taking food in the dark realm, like Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds—it compromises the mission, prefigures its doom.
The novel also plays with a universal orphan fantasy: you’re a little girl and you’re mad at your parents and then you think, Hey! what if I had another, secret family which was my real, true family. Even the happiest child imagines at some point that she actually belongs with the fairies.
LJ: (Laughs) Yeah! Drunken fairies! Absolutely. Stella replaces her mother with a woman she can be a mother to. She has trouble recognizing all the ways that her mother has been a mother for her, and wants to instead focus on what she resents her for and to replace her with a relationship that can make her feel good about herself, where she can occupy this nurturing role. What Stella’s mother has given her is complicated, but there’s a lot of good in it. And that, I think is ultimately the reckoning in the orphan family fantasy–where you have to come back and say, maybe I didn’t want the fairies after all.
MH: It’s Coraline—suddenly your busy, hardworking mother seems infinitely better than the one who wants to replace your eyes with buttons.
LJ: Or Where the Wild Things Are. Suddenly, your cold porridge in your room doesn’t look so bad after where you’ve been…
MH: I was interested, too, in how, when the new family forms, when they move into Abe’s apartment, closeness doesn’t follow. The two educated young people don’t really know how to find common ground with Tilly, who is white-knuckling it through her days working at a new job that’s essentially busywork, and trying to put her stamp on the loft by decorating it with cheap little trinkets she finds on her wanderings. The three don’t even enjoy a honeymoon period together.
LJ: Yes. It’s strange to suddenly be family with someone with whom you don’t have that whole backlog of quiet awkward shared family experience. Tilly and Stella are family but there’s no territory that they share beyond a feeling that it’s wrong that they hadn’t been family so far. So there’s kind of a rabid good intention coming up against, well, what it looks like day to day.
MH: Here’s a question all the bookclubs will ask you: How did you write so convincingly about prostitution?
LJ: I did what every self-respecting PhD student does…which is to say, I went to the library. I checked out 20 books from the Yale system and spent a month doing little but reading them. The main thing I remember feeling from all these womens’ stories was that, yes, many of them were stories of incredible hardship, but they weren’t about soul-erasure or the effacement of dignity–they weren’t black and white Before and After stories. There was a tremendous amount of dailiness; not quite so much melodrama as I’d imagined. I remember thinking, I’m not qualified to imagine my way into this. And then thinking, I’m just going to have to get over that.
MH: What writing, what literary models conditioned you for writing The Gin Closet?
LJ: I distinctly remember reading–over the course of two long, lonely, completely engrossed days–the entirety of Yates’ Revolutionary Road. I’d reached one of those points where I’d forgotten what the point of a novel was–why the world was better-off for having it, I guess–and why I was writing my own; and I read Yates and felt such deep humanity and honesty and richness in his world, and felt myself so changed–I thought, if I can do this for anyone, the book will be worth it. The deep geneology of my conditioning had been going on for a long time before the draft, as is true for all writers: Faulkner and Woolf are my twin gods; Plath has always been important to me, Anne Carson, the many beautiful and talented writers I’m lucky to call friends.
MH: What’s the next book? How is it different or the same from The Gin Closet?
LJ: I am working on the second draft of a novel about the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaraugua.
I feel like The Gin Closet was a gush of consciousness. I wrote it from pure feeling. I followed it intuitively. I’m not sure if any of my other books are going to be like that. The process of writing since then has been much more deliberate– not that my heart isn’t involved. But I’ve been extending out of myself much more, whereas with the first one, I was dredging stuff out from inside myself. That’s not to say it’s totally autobiographical.
MH: Who are you looking to now, for the new book? What writers do you reach for to “prime the pump” so to speak—to make you want to write?
LJ: There are some writers who make me want to write, and other writers who make me feel as if I can write–as if I have it in me–and these circles aren’t entirely overlapping. Shirley Hazzard makes me want to write–in fact, she makes me want to write exactly like she writes–but this is usually bad, because I end up writing second-tier Hazzard instead of any-tier Jamison. I usually read poetry when I’m trying to write–it makes me swollen with beauty and possibility, with honesty, but it doesn’t call up the urge to imitate. Lately I’ve been reading Carson’s Nox, and Berryman’s Dream Songs. The new book is about history, which gives me a rich well of reading that isn’t fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of Sandinista memoirs–they are just so fucking interesting; full of the physical world and translated curse-words and a surprising (maybe not so surprising) amount of sex and humor.
MH: You seem to have a penchant for poets…how has living with/among poets affected your writing and your attitudes toward fiction and poetry?
LJ: I’ve always thought “A penchant for poets” might be a good title for my memoir, if I ever publish one. I’ve dated a few of them, and–as you point out—I have been living with one for several years, in a house so laden with books in multiple genres it’s creaking at the seams. As I’ve mentioned, poetry gets me inspired to write–I love getting close to the minds that make it. I love having conversations over scrambled eggs about line breaks and refrains, because I get to think about making without thinking about my own making. Sometimes it’s hard because I feel like Practical Peggy juxtaposed against the infinite and infinitely disorganized energy of a poet–short attention span, fickle production, wild strokes of genius.
MH: So which side are you going to root for this year at the Writers Workshop softball game?
LJ: I’m going to have to root for fiction. Genre before love. Plus, my boyfriend loves to argue, so I think this will suit him just fine.
MH: How has it been being back in Iowa City for two years, when you’re not at the workshop?
LJ: Yeah! (Laughs and squints at the iphone on the table between us) How much time do you have left on your little recorder there?