Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams, a widely acclaimed collection of essays that recall
Jamison’s days as a medical actor, for which she was paid to act out symptoms of conditions to be diagnosed
by medical students. The book explores pain: why we feel it and what it means, how we care for
those who feel it, and what it means to empathize with someone who is—or isn’t—suffering. Jamison recently
joined Columbia’s faculty as an assistant professor of nonfiction writing. Blue and White writer Emma
Bogler met her in her office in Dodge to talk about irony, feminism, the validity of suffering, and gin.
The Blue and White: You mentioned [in an email] having vivid memories of your time writing for your own undergraduate literary magazine.
Leslie Jamison: Oh my god, yeah. The Advocate was the literary magazine that I was part of at Harvard. We had a house off-campus—
B&W: You had a house?
LJ: Yeah, there’s this house on South Street, this old clapboard, and the second story is called the Sanctum. It’s so saturated with pretension—probably like everyone’s most horribly stereotypical imaginings of Harvard—but it was so personally meaningful to me. The Sanctum was sticky-floored with, like, eight layers of gin from the last eight parties...
B&W: Gin? That’s hardcore.
LJ: It was always what was left over!
B&W: That’s rough.
LJ: Yeah, definitely. Part of what I loved about The Advocate was that it felt like the chamber in which a certain kind of transformation happened in me. From this shy, extremely self-conscious, cripplingly insecure person that I was when I entered college—and I was probably all those things when I left, I was just better at masking it. [The Advocate] was this community where people loved to sit on ratty couches and eat Entenmann’s donut holes and smoke endless cigarettes, and just talk about stories, and talk about writing and what it could do. People got really passionate about stuff, and the stakes felt really high—even though they weren’t—and that was awesome. I remember those conversations.
I was on the poetry board and the fiction board, and I was the editor of the fiction board. That role was really important to me because when I first joined, I felt simultaneously that I loved the space but that it was deeply intimidating. When I ran the board, I at least fancied myself ushering in this era of social inclusion and kindness. I wanted that to be my legacy. My sophomore year, I was also the publicity manager, which meant early-morning poster runs on whatever days the college would tear down the posters.
B&W: Oh yeah, we have that here too.
LJ: I’m so curious, is it different now? With the internet? I mean it’s not like I was in college a million years ago, but in 2001 I think postering was a bigger deal.
B&W: No, flyering is a huge deal here, weirdly.
LJ: It’s so competitive! People were just cutthroat with their flyers! We were out there at like seven AM... It’s just this crazy rat race!
B&W: Your writing is, by its nature, very intimate and raw. Do you ever feel overexposed?
LJ: No. The texture of rawness is really interesting to think about—what makes a piece of writing feel raw? How much does that have to do with the subject matter, and how much with the tone? But, for me, form and craft is always such a huge part of how I work, especially with deeply personal material, that when a piece is out in the world I’ve gone through so many drafts of it that it’s very cooked—not raw at all.
I am very interested in creating a texture of intimacy between author and reader. The experience of drafting and re-drafting is about getting to a version of the story that can hold the kind of complexity that I want it to, but it also ends up creating a distance between me and the piece. By the time it goes out into the world, it’s just a version of the experience; it’s never the whole experience. I’m always aware of the thousand things that are not in the piece and that the readers don’t know, whereas somebody reading the piece has more of a feeling of absolutely knowing this experience in my life. For me, it’s so evident that this is a partial and crafted version. It’s so fascinating to me, though, as a reader and a writer, that desire to be close to an author, that impulse towards access and proximity.
B&W: Do you think there’s a kind of voyeurism at play there? Do you encourage people to be voyeurs of your
life when you share experiences that are intended to create intimacy between you and the reader?
LJ: I believe in the inherent interest in other people’s lives. I love hearing secrets, I love hearing other
people’s shit, you know? I think narrative, as a form, inherently has propulsion and draw to it. One of the
things I use as a resource when I write is the inherent way that personal narrative can draw people in, but
I’m also keenly aware of using experience to get at certain questions rather than just revealing experience
for its own sake.
B&W: A friend of mine recently shared with me the idea of weaponized vulnerability, and I’m curious as
to how that might play into your work? The idea of posturing a kind of rawness or weakness as a means
to strength and confidence and self-expression...
LJ: I’m definitely interested in vulnerability and certain ways of performing vulnerability. One of the
things I keep finding myself coming back to is the way in which articulating some experience of vulnerability or need or pain can be performed and authentic at once. Those aren’t mutually exclusive. In the last essay in my book, I quote my friend Harriet, who said that performed pain is still pain. I used that quote because I think that about sums it up. Like, that’s all that needs to be said on that subject. That holds
a kernel that feels durable to me, and that I can keep coming back to as a touchstone. Have you read Chris Kraus?
B&W: I haven’t.
LJ: She writes at one point— I’m going to paraphrase it wrong, but—“Why do people not understand when vulnerability is examined like philosophy, with some remove?” I like that idea of examining vulnerability at some remove; treating vulnerability as a state that can be approached and documented, rather than just some binary where either you are vulnerable or you’re not. Certainly, uncoupling vulnerability as subject from vulnerability as posture. That idea of weaponized vulnerability is interesting. I think there’s a negative connotation that can attach to that—vulnerability as a form of manipulation. It plays into the taboo around cutting that I write about, performing your sadness for attention.
B&W: That that makes it less genuine.
LJ: Right. I mean, manipulation and attention are words that attract a negative baggage, which is interesting to me: aren’t we all always manipulating everyone? You know what I mean? By saying something, I want you to say something back. By saying something, I want you to say, “Oh, that’s so smart.” It seems like manipulation is one way to talk about what it means to engage in a way that’s desirous of a response.
B&W: I don’t think I’ve ever read the word “feminist” in your writing, but it seems like a lot of what I’ve read is an attempt to negotiate between different modes of being feminine— the strength and the vulnerability, and whatever is in between. Is that fair to say?
LJ: Yeah, I don’t directly tackle feminism, as such, in my work, but one of the moments where it comes up
most directly is the last essay in my book, [The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain], where I talk about the resistance that certain women have to articulating pain. It’s the idea that articulating pain would necessarily mean disempowering oneself, which would be some kind of feminist failure. I’m interested in a negotiation that understands articulations of pain as assertions of strength rather than assertions of weakness. But in a non-static way. Not as in, “I am woman; I am pain; I am forever in pain; this is an intrinsic part of my being; being disempowered is an intrinsic part of my cultural position.” Those kinds of things don’t have to be asserted as inevitabilities of the world, but that’s the peril considering articulations of pain as inherently disempowering gesture. That feels so dangerous to me; it feels like it asks for a certain kind of silencing.
B&W: In The Grand Unified Theory, you talk about the idea of women today being “post-wounded.” The impression I got there was that there’s a muting or a shallowing of the expression that you’re allowed if you don’t allow yourself to be wounded.
LJ: Right, or if the only tone in which it’s acceptable to talk about wounded-ness is full of scare quotes. I was just re-reading some David Foster Wallace for this project I’m involved in, and I’m interested in a lot of the points he makes about irony as a way of ground-clearing. You have to find some mode of positive assertion that can do the work that irony can’t.
I would be really interested in revisiting that last essay in my book, The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, in terms of intersectionality. The title is definitely tongue-in-cheek, but it surprised me how many people read that piece as aspiring to some sort of total offering. I don’t even know what a unified theory of female pain would look like that took itself fully seriously...I’ve done a lot of thinking in the years since I wrote that essay about race and class, and how they inflect what sorts of pain can be spoken and how the pain that’s spoken gets received. I don’t know if you know Margo Jefferson, who teaches here, but her memoir Negroland talks about the prerogative of white women getting to articulate angst as an identity, and that prerogative not being available to black women in the same way.
B&W: Just to backtrack to David Foster Wallace for a second—his whole thing was irony, which he used a lot of the time to mask the pain he was in. In some ways, I think that’s the exact opposite of what you try to do; your vision of empathy stands in exact antagonism to the endlessly self-referential, self-indulgent ironies he plays with.
LJ: At least insofar as I understand him—and I’m very much aware of myself as part of a generation of people who love projecting onto him and turning him into what we need him to be—the things that were deeply important to him are North stars that I share. I think he was really interested in the ways in which we can battle against an intrinsic absorption, and I think empathy itself is intrinsically interested in overcoming self-absorption. His idea of how to offer a humane gaze to others... His mode and my mode are different, though. I think that how he fought against irony involved engaging a lot of irony and creating these vast, elaborate force fields, and my mode involves a lot less convolution. Some of his convolution, though—it’s almost like he wanted to make a really complicated case for simplicity. His case looks different from my case, but I think some of our aspirations are really similar.
I’ve been reading a lot of scholarship on Infinite Jest and one of the debates there is whether or not he succeeded in writing an unironic novel. Because he very much wanted to write an unironic novel, but it’s also a novel that’s deeply and explicitly engaged with irony. Just because a novel is engaged with irony, doesn’t mean it’s ironic; it can be a sincere treatment of the way irony is permeating a culture. There are critics who feel that he wanted to write this deeply unironic work, but that what he created ultimately collapses under the weight of its own virtuosity. Its aspirations towards humanity are overshadowed by all the games that it plays.
B&W: Do you think empathy needs pain?
LJ: A lot of the case studies I use in the book are about empathizing with someone who’s in pain, but I absolutely think that pain isn’t the only thing that can be empathized with. Any emotion you can have is a potential site for empathy. Part of why I think pain and empathy tend to come up together is that pain is more often a state of need than, say, bliss. There’s more urgency around empathizing with somebody in pain than with somebody in a positive state.
B&W: Especially with pain there’s an impulse to confess; would you say that confession begets empathy?
LJ: Yeah, yeah, it can create an avenue by which one could be empathized with. There’s the diary effect where bad stuff gets reported more. I, at least, feel more of a need to share the stuff that’s hard. Happiness is its own closed circuit; it doesn’t need to be witnessed in the same way that pain sometimes does. The bad parts want to get heard more because they want something back—they want recognition. I’m really interested in the question of how to write well about happiness, because happiness can be one of the toughest things to write about.
B&W: Would you say that happiness isn’t a narrative the way pain can be?
LJ: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. Happiness is the end of a lot of our received narratives. It universalizes; it blands out. Happiness writes white truths.