I just finished Leslie Jamison’s collection of confessional essays, The Empathy Exams. It took me a while to get through the dense, informed, and emotionally exhausting essays but once I did I was glad i took the time to go through them slowly. I have a few clear favourites, and some I skipped because they didn’t grab me, but on the whole I thought The Empathy Exams was a well written and thoughtful collection that every girl and woman should read.
One of the things I loved most about Jamison’s writing is its present tense narration. That definitely grabs you – it’s something that many a creative writing professor has discouraged my M.A. peers and I from using, but I found it brought the reader very close to the moments Jamison was recounting. It is this closeness she both evokes and writes about. In her final essay, undoubtedly the strongest and most meaningful, she discusses feminine pain at great length, but never once (in my recollection) talks about catharsis. I see catharsis as a mirror of empathy, a selfish and selfless experience of pain.
I spent a long time searching for catharsis. I found it in odd places – books, films, songs, other people. We talk of things speaking to us – and we use that word for a reason. In the final essay of TEE I found myself enthralled in catharsis – feeling closer to my own pain, and also to that of the women Jamison writes about. Her insistence that women’s pain not be fetishised nor trivialised is something we still seem to be arguing about, on a macro-political scale, and a micro one as well.
“I think dismissing female pain as something overly familiar or somehow out of date – once told, twice told, 1,001 nights told – masks a deeper accusation: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self indulgence over bravery.”
Her essays about medical pain – her own broken nose, her brother’s extreme running – also linger in my mind for their beautiful intertwining between medicalisation of pain. We see certain types of pain as acceptable, treatable, valuable because of a physical cause or root. But other types of pain, that result in cutting or eating disorders or simply in silence, are somehow less than because we cannot go to a start point – an ‘aha’ moment that, if unraveled and understood will cure the pain.
“But to put something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and that it can be explained. And if it can be explained that it can be explained away.” (The History Boys)
The idea of explaining away women’s pain as a symptom of being a woman is something that we have battled against, and are still battling against. We have to change our Facebook profile pictures to pink, we have to stand up and demand rights over our bodies, because all physical and emotional effects of our lives stem from being female. It is the same argument that we face when we argue against mansplaining/mannterrupting/manspreading — men are allowed to take up space, and women aren’t.
What The Empathy Exams does really well is express without judgement, it provides a space for readers to critically examine and viscerally experience their own lives. Some essays shine more than others, but as a whole it is an important read for anyone who wants to examine the world around them, and themselves in it, instead of simply existing.