Six Questions — March 28, 2014, 1:05 pm

The Empathy Exams: Essays

Leslie Jamison on empathy in craft and in life

Leslie Jamison © Colleen Kinder

Leslie Jamison © Colleen Kinder

In her debut collection of essays, Leslie Jamison investigates what it means to be an outsider. She interviews an incarcerated man and implicates herself as a voyeur, tries to contextualize the broken heart that led James Agee to write Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, examines the limits of a tourist’s understanding after being violently mugged in Nicaragua, and probes the psychological mysteries of Morgellons Disease (in an essay that originally ran in the September 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine).

In a publishing industry dominated by the novel, it’s rare for a marginalized form like the essay collection to receive as much attention as The Empathy Exams has, and it’s rarer still when it’s a young author’s first collection. Jamison and I talked about her book at a hotel bar in Seattle, then corresponded about empathy in craft and in life, tragedy and trust, and their functions in fictional and nonfiction narratives.

1. Your essays consistently demand readers’ participation by trusting them to make logical leaps with you. What advantages does an active readership give an essayist? And when is it important to let the reader make the connections?

Trust always matters, but it especially matters when you’re writing about pain. You’re trusting your readers with the story of something that hurt you — or something that hurt someone else — so you also trust them to follow, to push back, to connect. Trust keeps preaching at bay: juxtaposition and subjective confession are alternatives to polemic.

When I wrote “Indigenous to the Hood,” my essay on the Los Angeles Gang Tour, I didn’t want to issue a verdict on the tour, I only wanted to dissect all the ways I’d felt uncomfortable when I was taking it. I wanted to bring my readers into the heightened pulse and nervous voice and sweaty palms of that discomfort. Assuming an active readership is also part of thinking about my essays as chapters in ongoing conversations, rather than entirely autonomous units of thought. They’re provocations, responses, and catalysts — necessarily incomplete, open to the responses of other minds. They can’t and don’t hold everything. There is so much they inevitably leave out; I want readers to be thinking about those gaps as much as they think about what they find.

A few months after I wrote “Lost Boys,” my essay about the West Memphis Three, I got to see Jason Baldwin speak. This was shortly after he was released from prison, having served almost twenty years for a crime he’d essentially been acquitted of. I stood up to tell him how much I admired his capacity for forgiveness — I was thinking of his seemingly intuitive ability to forgive the people who’d assumed his guilt — and I asked him where that forgiveness had come from. I was thinking about the stuff I’m always thinking about: webs of empathy, forays of imagination, all the systems by which we inhabit the minds of others. But Baldwin said something quite different, and much simpler: his faith in Christ.

His response made me think about how many things my essay had missed: Christian faith had supported Baldwin’s entire experience of incarceration but was entirely absent from my account of his experience of incarceration — which was only ever an account of my experience of his experience of incarceration anyway. The journalist’s story about her subject will always be different than her subject’s story of himself. Baldwin’s assertion of faith made me aware of what I already knew about essays, and still know about essays, but manage to forget each time I write one: they are shaped by absence as much as presence.

From “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”:

For long time I have hesitate to write a book on women, is how de Beauvoir starts one of the most famous books on women ever written. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new.  Sometimes I feel like I’m, beating a dead wound. But I say: keep bleeding. Just write toward something beyond blood.

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 out hearts to be open. I mean it.

2. In several pieces in The Empathy Exams, you explicitly remind your readers that you are writing an essay. The tradition of self-referential essays goes back to Montaigne, but why use it in the places you do? When does an essay need to call attention to itself?

This question also comes back to trust. I acknowledge the craft of my essays when I want to remind readers that everything is being constructed and arranged for them; that things are being connected and stitched together and left out; that this essay is a made thing — not a pane of glass — and they should trust me even more (ha!) because I’m saying that. Often, my confession of the essay — its dirty glass — is also an attempt to fight the delusion that I’ve been able to fully access someone else’s experience: Nothing human is alien to me is what the book’s epigraph says (and also a tattoo on my arm) but the truth is — things remain alien. Inevitably. Insolubly. In “Fog Count,” I describe quite a bit of the process of visiting Charlie Engle — an incarcerated long-distance runner — and part of that confession was driven by a deep need to acknowledge that I had only been a visitor to his confinement. I left him in prison so I could turn his imprisonment into art. 

3. Your collection examines the way our culture sometimes receives individuals’ pain with apathy, or by dismissing it as melodramatic and whiny. How do you avoid the tropes of self-pity when writing about personal wounds?

At one point, when I’m writing about James Agee, I say, “It doesn’t seem right to say Agee risked sentimentality. Better to say he could smell it from a mile off and clawed his way into it anyway.” I’ve been inspired by that fearlessness. Often I talk directly about the specter of melodrama — the varieties of shame it can produce — rather than pretending it isn’t in the room. I want to fight whatever voice in us feels automatically self-conscious at the notion of discussing our pain.

I think self-pity gets destructive (“whiny”) when it produces tunnel vision, when it makes you forget the lives of others because you’re so focused on your own. My hope is that the structure of the book can fight that tunnel vision by twining together so many lives — my own among them but only one of them, just part of a chorus.

4. Essays in The Empathy Exams vary in approach from critical to personal to journalistic, with the linked essays “Pain Tours (I)” and “Pain Tours (II)” employing elements of each. How do you determine which approach is best?

I’d characterize the collection as a refusal to choose between these approaches — criticism, confession, journalism. This refusal feels less like determination and more like surrender: I seek the energy in every story, and I do whatever it takes to bring that energy onto the page, whether that involves personal narrative or critical analysis or getting on a plane or a train or a subway and doing some reporting; often it means letting all these kinds of inquiry bleed into one messy offering.

When I visited Charlie in prison, I was doing some version of reporting, but in the essay I’m also peeling away the skin of journalistic objectivity to show raw flesh underneath: all my anxiety about asking the right questions, following the prison rules, abandoning Charlie to return to my own freedom. I want to show what the reporting found, but I also want to show how it happened, and what kind of emotional web it emerged from. Personal experience is often a root structure beneath other kinds of inquiry: driving the questions, the curiosity, the encounters. Confessing to that root structure isn’t just a way of confessing bias — I’m a subjective observer — but a way of connecting to investments, of saying, This was the engine; this got me aching, and then later, This hurt to discover.

5. Essay collections map not only the consciousness of the author but also a personal narrative. How did the experience of crafting a narrative in this essay collection differ from the process of writing your novel, The Gin Closet? 

As I was arranging the essays in the collection, I wanted to offer movement between introspection and outward vision — the outward gazes entailed by literary and cultural criticism, travel, journalism. Both the opening and closing essays contain highly confessional moments, and I mean those confessions as affirmations of presence: Reader, I’m joining you on this journey. In this sense, I offer my own story in order to offer myself as companion for the encountering of others’ stories.

Perhaps, then, the most enduring relationship of the book is the one that gets forged between the reader and my narrative voice — this voice that’s alternately confessing and reporting, showing wounds and wielding stethoscopes. I can’t think of any journey — including the journey across the arc of a book — without thinking of the relationships it creates or implies. My novel, The Gin Closet, is centered on the relationship between two women, and this relationship also begins with a journey: a road trip across the desert. The novel’s narrative is plumbing resonances between their lives — moving back and forth in time to find these echoes — and also follows the intimacy that grows between them, the ways they try to heal each other’s damage. This essay collection is much less dyadic: its relationships are much more multiple and kaleidoscopic: the relationship between two lovers; between journalist and subject; between patients with the same illness; between runners running the same impossible distance; between women who are strangers but part of the same zeitgeist.

If The Gin Closet is about feeling trapped inside pain — exploring pain as a kind of claustrophobia — then this book returns to that confinement by fighting it, struggling against that isolation in pretty much every way it can.

6. Do you think your book offers a defense of empathy? Does it find anything dangerous or troubling about empathy?

Yes, and yes, and yes. All three. I’m interested in everything that might be flawed or messy about empathy — how imagining other lives can constitute a kind of tyranny, or artificially absolve our sense of guilt or responsibility; how feeling empathy can make us feel we’ve done something good when we actually haven’t. Zizek talks about how “feeling good” has become a kind of commodity we purchase for ourselves when we buy socially responsible products; there’s some version of this inoculation logic — or danger — that’s possible with empathy as well: we start to like the feeling of feeling bad for others; it can make us feel good about ourselves. So there’s a lot of danger attached to empathy: it might be self-serving or self-absorbed; it might lead our moral reasoning astray, or supplant moral reasoning entirely. (See this fantastic piece by Paul Bloom in The New Yorker.) But do I want to defend it, despite acknowledging this mess? More like: I want to defend it by acknowledging this mess. Saying: Yes. Of course. But yet. Anyway.

Share
Single Page

More from Jeffery Gleaves:

Six Questions October 1, 2014, 8:00 am

Discussing On Immunity: An Inoculation with Eula Biss

Eula Biss discusses vaccinations, motherhood, and metaphors

Six Questions November 5, 2013, 1:29 pm

The Disaster Artist

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell on life inside “The Room,” the greatest bad movie ever made

Six Questions August 8, 2013, 12:40 pm

The Faraway Nearby and Unfathomable City

Rebecca Solnit on how personal stories can fail to satisfy, the architectural space of the book, and the pleasures with which the landscapes of our lives are salted

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Article
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
Article
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Amount of aid Connecticut agreed in May to provide Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund:

$22,000,000

A survey of national narcissism found that Russians see themselves as responsible for 61 percent of world history, whereas the Swiss put themselves at 11 percent

Marvel Entertainment's CEO exerts influence over the VA; Mike Pence lays out plans for The Space Force; Paul Manafort's trial reveals his tax evasion (and much more)

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today