Leslie Jamison’s Finite Economy of Empathy

Let’s get one thing straight: Leslie Jamison can fucking write. There are some moments of sustained brilliance in The Empathy Exams, and plenty of lines I wish I had written. There is an acute intelligence at work, a deft mind wrapping itself around things (Morgellon’s disease, the Barkley Marathons, and the history of artificial sweeteners) that we never knew we were interested in until she wrote about them (one of the most delightful things about a good set of essays). The Empathy Exams is in many ways a writer’s book—the kind that makes you reach for your journal and inspires obscure areas of research—and it’s as maddening as it is thrilling.

I’m an English teacher (formerly eighth grade, now moving to high school), so I tend to view everyone in my life through the lens of what I think they were like at fourteen, in a classroom. Jamison, I imagine, was that student (there’s always at least one) who is used to getting away with sloppy thinking because her writing is so much better than everyone else’s. On the surface, the sweeping conclusions seem lovely, well-wrought, mic-drop-worthy. But with a closer look, they fail to hold.

Don’t get me wrong; some of Jamison’s extended metaphors work—like really work in the sense that they offer up something new—which makes it even more disappointing when the comparisons that some of her other essays hinge on fall flat. As with my strongest students, I’m hard on her because there is so much promise. I expect more.

Let’s start with the collection’s first, eponymous essay, “The Empathy Exams.” Jamison recounts her experience working as a medical actor. Thirteen-fifty an hour to pretend to be sick, and to then evaluate how you’re treated in this fictitious scenario by medical students pretending to be real doctors. “We’re holding the fiction between us like a jump rope,” Jamison says.

There are a lot of lines like that: beautiful ones full of insight that I underline with delight and more than a tinge of writer’s jealousy. Another: “empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion; empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges.”

Jamison’s big-picture eye is sharp. This is someone who pays attention to her fellow humans, to the way she relates to them and they to her. She considers all the angles, like a kid making moves in a game of Operation.

Then Jamison begins to weave her experiences outside the medical acting into the essay. She shares about an abortion, and about an operation designed to fix the rhythm of her heart. It’s a clever conceit—the pretend patient, the real one. She excels at telling on herself, and not always in a self-indulgent way:

I know that being in the hospital made me selfish… When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.

This is what we want from a good essayist—someone who sees in herself what we see in ourselves, who is willing to tell the truth about the contradictions in human feeling. “I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself.” We wish to be singular and separate and special; we desire comfort and community and coddling.

In this essay, Jamison offers an interesting foil for herself: her boyfriend Dave. Unlike Jamison, Dave thinks that “imagining someone else’s pain with too much surety can be as damaging as failing to imagine it.” Unfortunately, by the end of the book we are inclined to agree with Dave, frustrated that Jamison has fallen into a trap that she named herself, and disappointed to find that Dave is not around to commiserate. (He doesn’t return for anything beyond a passing mention.)

Several essays reveal Jamison is at her best when she turns her observant eye outside herself. In “La Frontera,” she writes about attending a writers’ conference in Mexico, and though she is firmly placed inside the narrative, she uses her positioning to implicate not just herself but the rest of us, too:

This is the grand fiction of tourism, that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it. It’s a quick fix of empathy.

We watch her struggle to respond to the pain of others when a fellow conference-goer describes the daily reality of his terror, living amidst the near-total anarchy of drug violence: “Is this all right, that I’m laughing?” she asks herself, asks us. “I think so.” We forgive her her uncertainty because it’s not like we know, either.

She does this over and over and it’s brilliant. In “Pain Tours—I,” she’s on the Gang Tour, a real thing that exists, a bus tour of selective parts of Los Angeles, and though she’s writing in second person—“You feel uncomfortable. Your discomfort is the point”—it feels like first and second both, and it works.

“Pain Tours—II” is less compelling. Observations from reading Frieda Kahlo and Joan Didion and James Agee have value on their own, but don’t cohere into anything greater when patchworked together. Still, Jamison remembers to think outside of herself:

I read Agee thinking about his own guilt when he was supposed to be thinking about three Alabama families, and I thought about myself when I was supposed to be thinking about Agee.

Later on, in “Fog Count,” one of the collection’s most successful pieces, she travels to a West Virginia prison to meet with an inmate with whom she has been corresponding very closely over many months. She recounts with plain but powerful honesty what’s going through her mind:

I’m afraid I’ll say stupid things—as I’m always afraid of saying stupid things—that I will ask questions that are beside the point, that my curiosity will prove little more than useless voyeurism.

Every non-fiction writer, every human being who has ever hoped to relate to another human being with a radically different set of circumstances, knows that feeling. Bingo—empathy.

And then she forgets to be uncertain. She forgets that she is not the only frame of reference. She writes, in “Morphology of the Hit,” about being robbed and punched in the face while traveling in Nicaragua. She tells us, “I never know how to start this story,” which strikes me as an indication she hasn’t figured out how to tell it.

She proceeds anyway, employing Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale as her structure (I. One of the Members Absents Himself from Home; VIII. The Villain Causes Harm or Injury; XVII. The Hero Is Branded; etc.). Her attempt to make the personal universal falls flat on its self-referential face. You know she’s smarter than this; you thought for sure she’d have more awareness of her privilege, that she would interrogate the implications. That could be interesting—how do we talk about first-world problems, knowing that they are first-world problems? E.g., I traveled to a third-world country and encountered the violence its inhabitants face with regularity. It was pretty awful, but in the end I could travel back to my first-world home and get expensive plastic surgery to fix my face. Let’s untangle that, shall we? But she doesn’t do any of that; instead, she just catalogues her suffering. Not everything from the pages of a writer’s journal belongs in front of a reader’s eye.

This is one essay out of eleven, not a deal-breaker. But it reappears, this sense of Jamison chasing her own interestingness. The lack of perspective that makes her voice feel very young, like it’s trying too hard. She is defensive, then self-conscious about that defensiveness. Nowhere is this more true than in the collection’s final essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.”

Jamison seems to suffer from the tragedy of being interesting—it seems appealing, that sadness, that neediness, that specialness—until you actually achieve it because something really, genuinely shitty happens to you. She writes about this tragedy, too, telling us about the ex-boyfriend who called her a “wound dweller,” admitting, “I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it.” An unglamorous and complex truth that will resonate with many of her readers.

I won’t argue this point, either:

There is a way of representing female consciousness that can witness pain but also witness a larger self around that pain—a self who grows larger than its scars without disowning them, who is neither wound-dwelling nor jaded, who is actually healing.

The trouble is, I don’t think she’s doing that (not in this essay at least). The larger self around that pain is largely absent as she invokes Anne Carson, Louise Gluck, Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos, Sylvia Plath, Leona Lewis, Lucy Grealy, as if their collective presence will lend some kind of weight or coherence. It doesn’t.

In certain places, Jamison anticipates my eye-rolling by saying things like, “You court a certain disdain by choosing to write about hurting women.” Okay, she’s got me there. I’m guilty—and as a reader, I appreciate her pushing me to examine my own bias, what I bring with me when I sit down to turn her pages. This is what makes her work so valuable.

The question Jamison and every other non-fiction writer grapples with is: How can we be anything but self-referential? The truth is, we can’t. To a certain extent we will only ever be this body, this mind, this set of circumstances. But there’s a difference between writing from within your own frame of reference and writing from within your own ass. Jamison and the rest of us do our best when we hold onto an awareness that our particular corner of the world is but one of many corners.

“I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy,” Jamison says at the end of her collection, leaving me with what I like most about her: a willingness to make a genuine, un-ironic “I” statement, a conclusion she’s earned by being smart and watchful and deliberately honest. I’m glad when she says this—I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy—because if this is what she believes, then it doesn’t seem like such a crazy thing for me to believe, either.

Nishta Mehra is a writer, middle school English teacher, and enthusiastic home cook who blogs about food and life at A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arizona, her first book, a collection of essays entitled The Pomegranate King, was published in June 2013. She lives with her partner, Jill Carroll, and their son, Shiv, in a suburb of Houston, Texas.