Leslie Jamison, author of 2016 Summer Read The Empathy Exams, on how she relates to her unlikely subjects, and the give and take between writer and reader.
The Whitman Summer Read Program assigns incoming first-year students a book to read prior to their arrival on campus. The Class of 2020 will discuss Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams during Orientation Week and in classes on campus. The Empathy Exams takes as its starting point the author’s work as a medical actor—someone paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose. The book explores issues of illness, injury and empathy, spanning topics from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television.
Whitman Magazine: This is a very different project than your first novel, The Gin Closet. Did you always envision The Empathy Exams as a series of essays, or did it evolve over time?
Leslie Jamison: The structure of the book is so different from The Gin Closet—and that difference says a lot about how I changed as a writer during the years between them—but it’s fascinating to me that some of their core questions are absolutely shared: What do we do with the pain of others? Can we ever understand it, or fail better at failing to understand it?
The essays began as individual essays—rather than seeming destined for a collection from the outset—but at a certain point, I realized that bringing them together into a unified whole might create something larger than the sum of its parts. Writing the title essay made me start thinking about the essays as a collection. It was the first time I’d consciously articulated to myself that empathy was something I was really interested in—the first time I started thinking about everything I could gather around that word.
WM: You bring together what appear to be very disparate subjects: medical acting, the border, extreme marathon runners, gangland tourism. How did you decide what to put in the book?
LJ: Well at first, because I was simply pursuing subjects that fascinated me—from my own life, and the lives of others—I wasn’t circumscribed by trying to figure out how each topic related to the larger keyword of “empathy.” Which was a blessing for the collection, I think. It meant it didn’t suffer from a kind of intellectual heavy-handedness. It actually became harder rather than easier to write the collection once I knew that it would be a collection, and once I knew what its guiding inquiries were meant to be. The piece on Morgellons disease was the first essay I wrote consciously knowing it would be part of a collection. I wrote it without a magazine commission, and knowing that it was going to have a home—no matter what—made it easier to take some logistical risks in writing it, but it also meant that I was battling against a sense of thematic over-determination. I was so consciously bringing in these questions of empathy: How do I relate to these people's pain? How do I relate even if I disagree with their narrative? In other essays, it was easier to come at empathy through the back door.
WM: You’ve shied away from memoir as a medium, but sections of the book are still deeply personal. How did you find the right balance?
LJ: So much of the subject matter of the book is committed to examining and dramatizing the vexed task of understanding the lives of others, so I knew my life couldn’t be the only life in these pages. I also know that my own experiences feel like a deep resource—not necessarily because they are so fascinating, or even particularly unusual, but because I have a certain kind of access to my own consciousness that I don’t have to anyone else’s. The question of access runs throughout the pages of this collection, and it’s also manifest in the structure—which allows for a tremendous amount of variation between pieces: What kind of access is possible in an encounter between journalist and subject? Between tourist and silver miner? Between documentary and viewer? Between writer and reader? All of these relationships—and the ethical and imaginative questions they raise—are at play; and it would have been impossible to explore them if all the essays were straight memoir, or—at the other end of the spectrum—if none of them involved personal experience.
WM: Are you always thinking about how to convey what you’re experiencing in writing, or is that a secondary impulse?
LJ: There’s always a part of me that’s trying to figure out how to make sense of an experience, or how to describe it. That’s how my mind is built, even if it’s not happening in the formal context of imagining a piece of writing that might emerge. I also don’t think it’s necessarily something that compromises experience—to be imagining how the experience might get told. Sure, there’s the danger of the perpetual photographer effect—that you’re so busy taking photos of the moment you never actually live in the moment—but I also know that imagining writing about something has made me take risks, or engage more actively with a place or a situation or a person than I might have otherwise.
WM: As a young author, did you expect this level of success, or did it come as surprise?
LJ: It’s been an incredible journey with this book, and from the very beginning my expectations were blown away. Nobody had any idea the collection would strike the chord that it did; and most people in publishing were inclined to think that an essay collection was a kind of kamikaze mission, sales-wise. So it was nice to see that people were interested in reading things that “the market” didn’t necessarily think they were interested in reading.
WM: You’re an avid reader yourself. Any recommendations for those of us who enjoyed The Empathy Exams and are looking for our next book?
LJ: There are so many great books I could recommend. One is a recent novel called Grief is the Thing With Feathers, by a British writer named Max Porter—a truly wild, beautiful book about loss and family that’s also about form and language and delight and the spirit of play. (Quite literally: it’s about a mother dying, and a giant crow coming to stay with the family she left behind.) The other book is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, which is a deeply important consideration of the War on Drugs and its legacy of racialized mass incarceration.
WM: There’s also been a lot of talk in recent years about prestige television. Does that type of storytelling appeal to you?
LJ: I love that you asked about television shows! Recently, I have really enjoyed The Leftovers and The People vs. OJ Simpson. The Leftovers is such a strange, thrilling ride—an exploration of how various people attempt to make sense of tragedy and loss. The People vs. OJ Simpson is about celebrity culture and sensational judicial journalism; it’s about how people love to watch a train wreck. I grew up in LA, so it was like revisiting some of the major buzzwords of my young life.
WM: Your book will be read and discussed by the Class of 2020. What advice do you have for them?
College is such an important theater for developing both sides of ourselves—thinking about what makes us unique, but also thinking about ourselves as part of a larger community. I think that part of what’s powerful about college is the way it brings you into contact with people whose lives have been very different from yours—and you don’t know much about them as you start living your lives side by side. It’s so powerful, that opportunity for shared life, and for learning so much about the world beyond what you’ve known so far. What do I know about how to do it well, really? But I’d say: Listen hard. Ask questions. Don’t assume.