The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Leslie Jamison


When Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams appeared last spring, it sparked in me a moment of artistic recognition at once thrilling and distressing. Thrilling because, through this set of linked essays exploring the functions of empathy through everything from an extreme ultramarathon to the case of the West Memphis Three, Jamison was able to stitch together such smart, compassionate, and fearless arcs of imaginative thought. Distressing because hot on the heels of that thrill came the awful realization that she’d written the book I didn’t even know I had wanted to read, let alone write.

In particular the essays that bracket the book tickled a nerve, because they tapped into ideas about intimate writing and the fear of embarrassment and exposure it fosters that I’ve been turning over and over the last few years. Her take was, to me, audacious in its scope and honesty. The titular “The Empathy Exams,” while nominally about her experience working as a medical actor, unpeels to examine her confusion and grief around an abortion. And the lyrical closer, Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, is an expansive examination of—and protest against—the ways shame and suffering can be gendered, fetishized, and dismissed.

“I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy,” she writes near the end of that piece. “The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”

When I heard Jamison would be speaking at the Chicago Humanities Festival this fall, I jumped at the chance to interview her. But … what to talk about? The Empathy Exams hit the New York Times bestseller list as soon as it was published, and in the wake of the book’s wild success she has been interviewed extensively, including here at the Rumpus.

A few days before Halloween, and our scheduled phone call, I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen brainstorming questions when her 8-year-old daughter wandered into the room. Somehow we got onto the subject of Frozen. “You should ask Leslie Jamison what she thinks about Frozen,” said my friend. “There’s an allegory of female shame for you.” So, I did.


The Rumpus: Happy Halloween!

Leslie Jamison: Thank you! My Halloween has gotten a little less Frozen than it was going to because for months and months my stepdaughter was going to be Elsa and then she made a last minute game-time switch to Dracula instead. So we’re celebrating Halloween partially with an unused Elsa costume in the corner.

Rumpus: What made her change her mind?

Jamison: Well she’s been into Frozen for a while now—she’s almost six—so think it’s partially that the love may have played its course. Also I think because EVERYBODY is going to be Elsa this year, so there’s this critical mass of Elsas.

Rumpus: I was talking to a friend of mine who has an eight-year-old daughter about the ubiquity of Frozen and why it struck such a chord with people. [Ed: Here, for the four of you who don’t know it, is a pretty good, editorialized synopsis of the plot.] And then I went and watched it, and I feel like the first 20 minutes of that movie are incredibly powerful in a way that as an adult I was completely not expecting. It sort of went downhill for me from there, but those first 20 minutes dealing with Elsa’s loneliness and her ostracization and her shame, were really powerful! And it definitely did make me think of some of the ideas you were working with.

Jamison: I also was very moved by the whole “Do you want to build a snowman?” arc. When you first see that the whole room has turned to ice around her? There’s this tension between these two characters, and one of them is the more traditional princess character—I mean she is often a badass and she goes on an adventure but her arc is normal, she starts off as a girl and she ends up happily paired off—but then there is this other character, who has these powers and she has the awesome dress and the awesome castle, but she also has all the hurt. She has to be lonely and isolated, and she doesn’t get the traditional resolution.

Rumpus: She remains exceptional at the end, but she doesn’t get the prince.

Jamison: Right. In a way it allows Disney to have its cake and eat it too, in terms of the traditional marriage plot ending—it gets to both break it and conform to it, by splitting it between two characters. But I think that really most girls are drawn not to the princess who gets the guy but to the princess who is somehow extraordinary, even if that extraordinariness is difficult. She has this extraordinary capacity, but it gets her in trouble and gets her labeled and….

Rumpus: Well, it causes her a lot of pain. I mean, she feels like she can’t tell anyone how extraordinary she is because it will hurt a lot of people. So it’s about self-censorship and repression as well. You could map a whole lot of things onto it. For me, I was also mapping puberty onto it. Which ties in with the whole thing you say about Carrie in the book. [Ed: From “Grand Unified Theory”: “The premise of Carrie is like porn for female angst: what if you could take how hard it is to be a girl—the cattiness of frenemies, the betrayals of your own body, the terror of a public gaze—and turn it into a superpower?”]

Jamison: Absolutely. And the one thing that I thought was cool about the movie was that there is a way in which this destructive or isolating power also gets to turn her into this creative power. Like, when she’s on that mountain and …

Rumpus: … she builds this fabulous castle!

Jamison: Right. And she makes this incredible dress. And the big swelling crescendos of the big song are kind of this culminating moment when she gets rid of this oppressive thing that’s holding her back.

Rumpus: Well, yeah. It’s this amazing empowerment power ballad, but it also means that she’s decided that she’s giving up on being connected to other people, and not just in the sense of being romantically alone. She’s isolating herself from her family and her friends and her society, because she decided she didn’t want to compromise anymore. So that’s interesting too—and that ties into something related, that I was also talking to my friend about—about this whole idea of exploring pain through songs. You talk about this in the final essay of the book, in the context of singers like Tori Amos or Mazzy Star—these tortured songstresses of the 90s. But now there’s this whole trope of these girl-power pop ballads that are all, like, Sia singing, “I’m going to swing from the chandelier,” because “party girls don’t get hurt.” In other words: I’m going to be alone and I’m not going to care who I screw over. That’s interesting to me as well, because, well, that’s what the 8-year-olds seem to be listening to these days.

Jamison: Have you seen the video for Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off? It’s this whole playas gonna play, people gonna hate, people call me a bimbo, people say I break up with men. All that. But in the video she’s doing all these kinds of dance—like at one point she’s in a ballet costume, but the point is she’s doing ballet badly. She’s dancing awkwardly and falling down … so the whole message is, “Don’t feel crippled by other people’s expectations, just do what you wanna do.”

It’s like, having the right or the liberty to fuck things up is how some women imagine empowerment. It’s one strain in popular culture of what empowerment might look like: not giving a shit, doing things badly. And I think some of the fatigue around the figure of the wounded woman shares something with the fatigue of thinking about empowerment in terms of dysfunction. Like when I sent that email out to my friends asking what does this idea of “wounded womanhood” mean to you, [Ed: This also from “Grand Unified Theory,” whose first line is, “We see these wounded women everywhere.”], one of the responses I got back that was really striking was from a friend of mine who said “I’m so sick of dysfunction being seen as the most interesting narrative material—women who drink too much, or cut themselves, or sleep with the wrong guys. There are all these other interesting ways in which women shape and form themselves, why do we keep returning to that kind of pained, angst-ridden version so much?” And that pained, angst-ridden dysfunction is a different sort of dysfunction from this whole “I’m fucking things up and I don’t care!” thing, which is more celebratory.

Rumpus: And what seems to go unexamined is the idea that pain might not always be redemptive. It’s not something that you always find yourself through. It might just be … painful. Forever. And that falls out of these discussions about suffering and empowerment.

Jamison: Yeah. That’s part of where the urge to honor what other people might call “wallowing” comes from—it’s to push back against the idea that every narrative of pain has to find resolution quickly enough. This idea that if a woman is telling the narrative of something that’s painful to her, unless she also takes that narrative to some place of redemption, or “getting through it,” or “getting past it” somehow, it’s not worth talking about.

Rumpus: I definitely felt that throughout the book—that you were pushing against that; that you were saying we should keep talking about it. That—and I’m going to mangle this quote—“I haven’t had anybody else’s abortion.” [Ed: Actual not-mangled quote, again from “Grand Unified Theory”: “It’s news whenever a girl has an abortion because her abortion has never been had before and won’t ever be had again. I’m saying this as someone who’s had an abortion but hasn’t had anyone else’s.”] That all pain is pain, whether or not it’s trite or whether or not we’ve heard this story before, and it’s worth honoring. But how do you do that? There’s a way of honoring it personally, and then there’s also the question of exploring it and honoring it through art, and writing, and that may have a different texture.

Jamison: Right. And I think the idea that a subject is “worthy” or worthy of some constructive representation is itself a kind of honoring. I think that’s kind of the soundtrack effect. The way that sometimes, if I’m going through an experience, or reflecting back on an experience, I can turn it into a scene in my head. Like, here’s a movie, starring Leslie, and here’s the music that’s playing for this particular scene in the life of Leslie.

Rumpus: Like, in that essay [Ed: “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”—in which she argues for the utility of sentimentality and emotion.], when you talk about playing Buffy Sainte Marie over and over again.

Jamison: Exactly. That binge consumption of a particular song is a way to ingest this chosen soundtrack over and over again. And I really do have a double-bladed feeling about that. Because on one hand, there can be something indulgent and claustrophobic about getting so deep into some groove of pain that you can’t see a way outside of it. And I don’t want to glamorize that. I’m a big believer in recovery. You know, suffering is interesting but so is getting better. My mom always says that.

Rumpus: Is that why you dedicated the book to your mom?

Jamison: Ha! Well, yes. She is a lot of other things but she is a figure in my life who exemplifies the balance between respecting pain but also finding ways—for herself and for other people—to go beyond pain. And I think that’s one of the most important balances, and I think it gets into so many of the deepest questions of the book. How can we both respect suffering and what suffering is, but also not just rest in it in a way that ratifies or perpetuates it. So yeah listening to the same sad song over and over again can deepen the sadness, and I’m aware of that peril, but I also like the way that sometimes it takes you outside yourself. Like, my own life is so trivial and petty, but here’s this music that’s mirroring it, and by doing these crazy internal acrobatics, it can feel meaningful again.

Rumpus: I was going back through the book this morning and re-reading the saccharine essay, and I think you really get at that tension in that piece. That our aversion to sentimentality, or “wallowing”—they’re not the same thing but they’re next-door neighbors—is about our fear of being unexceptional. The terror of recognizing that your pain is exactly the same as everyone else’s on some level. It’s my heartbreak, or my abortion, but there’s a lot of heartbreak out there in general and tapping into these larger cultural experiences—popular music, or, say, Frozen—is a way of resolving that tension a little bit.

Jamison: Well, yeah—think it’s a way that commonality can be elevating, rather than degrading.

Rumpus: Like, hooray! I am like everybody else!

Jamison: Right. And like, how in addiction and recovery narratives, something being said and acknowledged as a common experience is a way for that story to be meaningful to you. [Ed: Jamison is also a grad student at Yale, and writing a dissertation on recovery narratives.] Telling someone a story they’ve heard a million times before isn’t an insult, like it would be in an artistic context, where originality is the Holy Grail. It’s actually a deeply affirming thing to say, “Your story is just like everybody else’s.” And I’m just so fascinated by that. We are so hardwired to not want to be alone in what we feel, but also have a deep hunger to be exceptional and different.

It’s funny I was finishing writing a New York Times column yesterday and it was about clichés. And, you know, sometimes I do feel like I have this big aesthetic program and I just announce it in different ways, like: “It’s great that we’re all the same!” “Respect everybody’s pain!” I keep repeating these things, in a nuanced way … I hope. But I was thinking, there are good reasons to hate on clichés. We don’t want to banish complexity, or not make room for the particulars of any one experience, and clichés can wrangle everything into this oversimplification. But I think there are also bad reasons to resist cliché, which is wanting to be so exceptional that you think the clichés don’t apply to you. When in fact …

Rumpus: … they do.

So there were two other things that stuck in my mind from the book, and they both sort of leap off from here. One of them is, where are the places that empathy fails? Like, in the sections that have to do with El Salvador and the Mexican drug wars [Ed: I’m referring here to two sets of fragmentary pieces titled “Pain Tours.”]—basically everything that happens in Central America—it feels to me like an exploration of the limits of empathy. Because lets face it, you’re not creating common ground between an El Salvadoran guerilla and me, the reader. And it comes back in a sense to this stuff about “relatability” that’s been in the popular media later, with Ira Glass and King Lear and all that. If there’s no relatability, what’s the function of empathy? That’s complicated, sorry.

Jamison: No, no it’s good. There are so many different things I want to speak to. But I think that one of the core subplots of the book is the way that empathy isn’t just this fountain of saving grace; that it’s a totally flawed and impossible thing. I feel like it’s—this is weird—but it reminds me of the British announcements on the subway, “Mind the Gap.” I feel like it’s essential to always remember what the difference is between my experience and someone else’s. I think there’s something that is really important about trying to get as close to someone else’s experience as possible, especially if you are doing that to try and help them or express concern for them. But it can become arrogance, or it becomes like the worst form of tourism. The idea that you can help someone through the power of your own writing, or the power of your pocketbook, if you’re a tourist.

In a way the kind of traveling that pursues authenticity so rabidly—the person that has to go to the town that doesn’t have lots of tourists in order to convince themselves that they’re having a more authentic experience—it’s like, what are you having an authentic experience of? You’re still having the authentic experience of being somebody who doesn’t belong there.

I’m thinking about tourism because I did this travel assignment where I went to Sri Lanka in August, and it was for this glossy magazine that does this feature where you give them a week of your life and they send you somewhere, but they don’t tell you until a few hours ahead of time where you’re going, because they don’t want you to research something as a journalist. They just want you to experience it.

So I was going as a tourist and I didn’t know that much about it, I didn’t have any larger understanding of the civil war, which had just ended in 2009, so it was still such recent history. And I wound up planning to go to the north rather than the south—the south being where all the tourism is and the north being where the civil war had been. And I think in a way that is precisely the kind of travel experience some people would think of as more “authentic”—you’re not going to the beautiful places that have been tailor made for your pleasure. But at the same time, I have traveled quite a bit and I have never felt more visible as a tourist as I did in northern Sri Lanka. Because there are no other tourists there! So, as opposed to making me feel less like a tourist, because I wasn’t where the other tourists were, I felt more like a tourist because I wasn’t where the other tourists were.

Rumpus: There wasn’t this established context for you to be there.

Jamison: Right, and it didn’t resolve the gap at all.

Rumpus: It probably forced everyone you came in contact with to stop and figure out who you were and what you were doing there. Whereas in a tourist environment you’re just taken for granted. So it’s more disruptive.

Jamison: It’s like it’s a more self-aware experience but that’s not going to guarantee some sort of authenticity. It’s just guaranteed to be a more authentic version of your outsiderhood. So it makes me feel the need to claim my lack of authority. It’s not about self-awareness for it’s own sake. It’s about “I was here, but I need to delineate what my relationship to ‘here’ is.” I had to think about it a lot and not be grandiose about my claims about what it meant to be there.

Rumpus: You talked a bit about the Sri Lanka thing at the Humanities Festival talk, but the other thing I remember from that talk was the whole idea of “exploring the flinch.” The idea of sitting in the moment when something repels or disgusts us. Which, I don’t know … maybe the flinch is related to the gap?

Jamison: Well, certainly the flinch connects back to the idea of where does empathy fail or falter. One thing I think about when I think about flinching is in the first essay, where it talks about how if you see another arm getting wounded you pull your own arm away reflexively. [Ed: Jamison is actually quoting Adam Smith here, as quoted in “The Empathy Exams”: “When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or arm.”] I think that’s one version of the flinch. Seeing things that are difficult or hard about other people’s lives can make you kind of pull back in self-protection. And part of my urging of myself to look at things is about trying to figure out what is or isn’t voyeurism, because I do think there can be something good about looking. And another thing about flinching is that it is where you become aware of your own body. Like, if you’re just looking at something and immersed in it then you’re not aware that you’re looking at it. And then you flinch and you’re aware of your own subjectivity again.

Rumpus: Yeah, that’s how I interpreted it. So the other sort of side note to all of that—and I’m sorry if this seems super disjointed—but if there are these ways in which empathy can fail, is it possible to have empathy for other people’s joy, or for their pleasure? Does that have its own communicative power, or is empathy specific to pain?

Jamison: I love thinking about that. It’s something that came up in conversations over the past months with Paul Bloom, the Yale psychologist who sort of has this reputation now as “the empathy guy,” because he wrote this piece “Against Empathy.” One of the things he talks about is how empathy isn’t just about how can we get closer to another person’s physical experience, it has variations all across the emotional color spectrum. I think sometimes I go there less quickly, because when somebody’s happy they don’t need as much from you. Of course you want people to share in your happiness, and want to share in other people’s happiness, but when someone is in pain they have more need.

Rumpus: You need to be held up when you’re in pain, and happiness buoys you all by itself.

Jamison: There’s something insulating about happiness, because it’s harder to articulate in language. I’ve had a couple crash classes in how to write about happiness, and it’s hard because we so easily gravitate toward generalities or things that feel trite. One of the things that I find when I’m talking to a friend and trying to get some purchase on their happiness or trying to understand a happy moment in my own life—like, I recently got married and I’ve been trying to explain what that feels like to people—particularity is a better entry than just trying to explain the feelings themselves. Like, “These are the things I saw, or ate, or heard.” Those can be little sparks or charges that illuminate the happiness, rather than saying, “I was overjoyed and then I was delighted and then it was awesome!”

So, don’t describe what the happy person feels, describe what the see, or what they do.

Rumpus: OK, well here’s a way of bringing it all back together. Maybe happiness is your own personal flurry. [Ed: Here we are back at Frozen again, and the character of Olaf the snowman, who longs to experience exotic sensations like “fire” and “sunshine,” but is in mortal peril if he does. So Elsa magically creates a tiny snowstorm that follows him around just over his head.]

Jamison: EXACTLY. The conditions under which you can thrive and get the things that you need.

Rumpus: The way that you can travel through the world feeling safe and taken care of and loved, and still experience all the things that you want to experience without getting hurt.

Jamison: Right, right. And part of what’s so beautiful about the idea of the personal flurry is the idea of particularity, like, this is a specific gift that this person, or snowman, needs.

Rumpus: And a different snowman might need a different gift, or a different kind of flurry.

Jamison: And I would also say that out of Elsa’s creative potential and destructive power, Olaf was born.

Rumpus: Yeah. He was her creation. But, you know, he’s kind of a messed-up snowman.

Jamison: I know. I always find it really jarring whenever his carrot gets put back in his head.

Rumpus: It’s penetrative!

Jamison: I love that. I feel like this conversation has had it’s own whole little ecosystem.

Rumpus: I didn’t plan it that way.

Martha Bayne is a writer and editor in Chicago. She is editor-in-chief of Belt Magazine, an ensemble member with Chicago's Theater Oobleck, and author of Soup & Bread Cookbook: Building Community One Pot at a Time (Agate, 2011), a narrative cookbook drawn from the long-running community meal project she organizes at Chicago's Hideout bar. For more go here; find her on Twitter @marthabayne. More from this author →