Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

The Empathy ExamsTo her left forearm, Leslie Jamison has tattooed a quotation from the Roman playwright Terence: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto – I am human: nothing human is alien to me. These words also function as the epigraph to her bestselling book of essays, The Empathy Exams, winner of The Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Much is encompassed by this statement; it is both assertion and expectation. As she put it in an essay she wrote for the New York Times, “[…] my tattoo wasn’t true for me, not yet. But it was what I most needed to hear, an asymptote, a horizon.” Words like “asymptote” and “horizon” are particularly astute because they speak to the limits of empathy, limits that Jamison touches upon again and again in this book: no matter how attentively we listen, how assiduously we think ourselves into another person’s situation, we are always in the position of a spectator to their suffering. From her work as a “standardized patient,” someone who acts out the symptoms of an illness for the benefit of medical students, to essays exploring the fate of the West Memphis Three, the motivations of ultra-marathon runners and the experience of being a tourist in a foreign country, Jamison explores our empathic mechanisms in ways both foreign and familiar.

In the very first essay, Jamison defines empathy in what surely must be the book’s most memorable passage:

Empathy 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. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see […]. […] Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries. Sadness becomes a seizure. Empathy demands another kind of porousness in response.

Acknowledging our own ignorance – never a comfortable proposition – is the great prerequisite for inquiry and imagination, our passport across the the borders of selfhood, and so Jamison, naturally, is tirelessly inquisitive. But these are essais in the vein of Montaigne, relentlessly personal, and so we hear again and again of Jamison’s own traumas: failed relationships, self-destructive sex, self-harm, heart surgery to correct a palpitation, a physical assault that led to nose surgery, even the removal of a parasite from her ankle. That she manages to incorporate all of these experiences, draw upon the suffering they caused, without overwhelming her subject matter, is immensely to her credit.

My favorite essay, and the one that I quarreled with the most, is titled “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” and manages to be both a meditation on the role of sentimentality in literature and an examination of our societal love of artificial sweeteners. This one essay ranges effortlessly from the historical to the literary to the personal to the scientific, a worthy testament to Jamison’s range as a thinker. She begins with what I feel is an uncharitable insight into the motives of those who use words like “saccharine” as an insult (me, for one):

Perhaps if we say it straight, we suspect, if we express our sentiments too excessively or too directly, we’ll find we’re nothing but banal. There are several fears inscribed in this suspicion: not simply about melodrama or simplicity but about commonality, the fear that our feelings will resemble everyone else’s. This is why we want to dismiss sentimentality, to assert instead 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.

And no doubt she has a point, as anyone who has been embarrassed to find themselves moved to tears by the lyrics of a pop song or sappy Hollywood movie can testify. Moreover, she touches on the dilemma faced by anyone (me, again) that would place a higher value on art that requires a greater effort to achieve an emotional response: “If it causes pleasure, isn’t there something to respect in that – or do we plead false consciousness and argue otherwise? Do we insist that better artwork can elicit a better kind of feeling – more expansive, supple, ethical?”

I feel more comfortable unmasking myself as an unabashed elitist in answer to this question when she, on the very next page, presents irony as sentiment’s opposite, invoking the ghost of David Foster Wallace. Wallace felt himself imprisoned by irony. When Jamison says, on an earlier page: “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,” she is channeling Wallace. Jamison, like Wallace, wants a kind of literature that can make “our heads throb, heart-like,” or, in her beautiful phrasing, a literature that can “hold feeling and its questioning at once.” But it is no longer the “saccharine” that she is defending. Saccharine literature makes demands upon our emotions beyond what its artifice merits. It shortchanges us. This is what we resent, not its sentiment but its unquestioning.

The Empathy Exams announces Jamison as a deeply impressive writer, equal parts philosopher and poet, and I look forward to her future output.