Query and Response: “The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison

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In a 1999 interview for BOMB magazine, performance artist and sculptor Janine Antoni calls for empathy in response to conceptual and performance art:

The key word for me is empathy. It’s something I think about a lot because I want to put the viewer into a particular relationship with the objects. That’s different from how we have traditionally learned to approach a conceptual work of art. Traditionally, we stay objective and go through a process of decoding information to make meaning. I’m much more interested in the viewer empathizing with my process. I do these extreme acts because I feel that viewers can relate to them through their bodies. I realize it’s charged. The viewers can be analytical, but about their own responses.

I love this: The viewers can be analytical, but about their own responses. In her new collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison answers Antoni’s implied imperative: use yourself, your emotions and your responses, as an analytical and critical tool. Antoni’s ideas illuminate Jamison’s primary techniques—Antoni and Jamison, perhaps, share a working definition of empathy: empathy as an effort of imagination,[1] effort of intellect; empathy as a door through which to enter art, for reader, viewer, and maker; empathy as inquiry; empathy as the site of analysis; empathy as resistance to tradition or traditional tropes; empathy as choice. In the first and title essay of the book, Jamison writes:

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, the dowdier cousin of impulse….This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work.

And Jamison, throughout The Empathy Exams, works hard: she “writes against [her] own feelings of shame” to transform emotion into inquiry, to pop the hood, to reveal the machinery of her thinking, feeling, and writing. She works hard to present herself—her mind, her responses, her responses to her responses—as case studies in the kind of empathy she advocates. The first essay establishes this motif: the story of her abortion and heart surgery takes the shape of a case file, including a case summary, medication history, medical history, etc., the kind of dossier given to medical actors as they prepare for a role.

Not that she presents herself as an unimpeachable model: she’s honest about her blunders, her failures of thought, action, and inaction. I think of the time I went to the Santa Rosa County Fair with my family and saw, up on a makeshift stage, a cow with a large, perfect hole in its side. The cow’s handler reached into the hole, plunged his hand directly into one of the animal’s four stomachs, pulled out a clump of half-digested hay, and held the glob forward towards a delighted crowd. When I say Jamison is honest, I mean: she’s both cow and handler. She reaches deep into her gut—her heart, her mind—and offers up what she finds there. She shows us what she’s consumed, why, how, where it’s going, where it’s been. She provides access to the icky details of her thinking, her inward reach unflinching. I trust her for this meticulous honesty, and I admire her for the writing it engenders.

In a review of The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit and This Is Running For Your Life by Michelle Orange, Jamison writes, “Instead of telling the straight story of memoir, they say: This is the story of how my mind moves.” Likewise, in The Empathy Exams, Jamison follows the movements of her mind.[2] Like snails, her hard-won insights leave trails, beautiful, opalescent records of progress and labor. In this way, we find the heart and the heat[3] of these essays in Jamison’s thought processes, her exacting self-consciousness, her arguments and counterarguments.

The Empathy ExamsIn the book’s final essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison writes about cutting herself. “Cutting was query and response at once,” she says. While I don’t intend to turn cutting into a metaphor for Jamison’s project (“[My cutting] was what it was, neither horrifying nor productive,” she writes), I want to borrow her words: query, response. In these essays, Jamison’s emotions function as both query and response. Guilt, shame, discomfort, pain, the dismissal of pain, numbness. “There are certain emotions that feel to me like signposts, pointing at something important happening under the surface, and shame is one of those,” Jamison says in an interview for Paris Review Daily. “Whenever we feel shame it’s a mark of some deep investment or deep internal struggle. But the shame is also pointing to some kind of conversation, an argument that’s happening.” Out of these kinds of conversations, her essays arise. “You feel uncomfortable,” she writes in a collage of short pieces titled “Pain Tours (I).” “Your discomfort is the point.”

When I read “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” I felt shame. In this essay, Jamison contends with what she terms the “post-wounded voice, a stance of numbness or crutch of sarcasm that implies pain without claiming it, that seems to stave off certain accusations it can see on the horizon: melodrama, triviality, wallowing—an ethical and aesthetic commandment: Don’t valorize suffering women.” I felt shame because I’ve written in this voice and I’ve been impatient with its opposite. But I’ve been discomfited by the post-wounded voice, too. In a statement of poetics I wrote during graduate school, I claimed a desire for melodrama: in order to write what’s urgent and important, I argued, you have to nuzzle up to melodrama. In spite of these assertions, though, I often relied on strategies of understatement, dismissal, and elision when I wrote about pain, my pain, the pain of others. I shirked vulnerability though I wanted, more than anything, to write vulnerably. I made excuses for myself: doesn’t a refusal to acknowledge pain speak to the force of that pain? Yes, but also, I was afraid of writing “tasteless” poetry. The post-wounded voice—had I been able to call it that then—was safe and reliable.

I meet with a group of women writers, three poets and one fiction writer, for an informal workshop once a week. We share works-in-progress, give and receive feedback, give and receive support. About a month ago, I brought in a new poem, “On Wanting Sons,” and one of the women, a straight-talker, told me the poem was boring. She said, “You can do better.” I felt defensive and hurt, and then I felt ashamed of my defensiveness and my hurt. I tried to play it cool. At the center of the poem, I had placed the lines “I was never hurt when / my mother said she’d wanted sons.” Which is true: when I was a preteen, my mother told me she thought she’d only have boys. And though, even when she first said it, I translated her statement into “I wanted sons,” I wasn’t hurt. I got it. I myself dreamt of access to the World of Boys. Imagine, you have a twin brother, your best friend; he’s on the baseball team and the football team. Imagine, you’re the drummer in an otherwise all-male band.

Aside from that one line, “On Wanting Sons” describes a trip to an aquarium; none of my readers could connect the aquarium imagery to the poem’s title and central statement. I dismissed the central tension of the poem as soon as I deployed it: I wasn’t simply writing about pain in a post-wounded voice, I was writing in this voice about the absence of pain. (Looking back, I wonder if I was trying—but failing—to write about the post-wounded voice.) In the poem, I pointed to the absence of pain, because, I think, that void—that numbness—pained me. Why wasn’t I hurt? Am I, as some of the women in Jamison’s essay worry, “a secret misogynist”? As I write and rewrite, I’ll look to Jamison as a model. I’ll work to follow the heat, the hurt.


[1] Jamison imagines the pain of others, but not without reservation. She cites her partner, “[Dave] believes in listening, and asking questions, and steering clear of assumptions. He thinks imaging someone else’s pain with too much surety can be as damaging as failing to imagine it. He believes in humility.” I get the sense Jamison believes in this kind of humility, too.

[2] Speaking of movement: “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” (from “The Empathy Exams”).

[3] Jamison says, “I was talking to a friend of mine recently, a filmmaker, telling her about someone who’d made fun of me for constantly taking recourse in the language of ‘heat’ when I talk about essays: ‘I just try to follow where the heat is’” (from an interview with Merve Emre for Paris Review Daily).

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