With The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison shows with grace, candor, intelligence, and skill, that it’s possible to build an entire essay collection around empathy, a concept many don’t truly understand.
The collection has been a huge success for Graywolf, the small press that published it, and has generated a lot more praise and buzz than most literary essay collections. But I really became curious about it after I read Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” online at the Virginia Quarterly Review. In it, she lists some classic examples of female suffering and pain–Miss Havisham, Anna Karenina, Sylvia Plath. Women are fragile and broken–but we are also mythologized for that pain. The pain is all a part of the pleasure–or so the canon would have us believe. Jamison then pushes into her own history of pain–a topography of various scars, some of which were self-inflicted by cutting:
I used to cut. It embarrasses me to admit now, because it feels less like a demonstration of some pain I’ve suffered and more like an admission that I’ve wanted to hurt. But I’m also irritated by my own embarrassment. There was nothing false about my cutting. It was neither horrifying nor productive. I felt like I wanted to cut my skin, and my cutting was an expression of that desire. There is no lie in that, only a tautology and a question: What made me want to cut at all?
And that’s the question–there is a kind of glory in suffering, a kind of pride in pain, but why do we do it? Why do women, in particular, seem to be cast in the role of the sufferer? But on the flip side, there’s a generation of what Jamison calls the “post-wounded,” those jaded women who won’t admit to hurting because to do so would be to admit weakness. An alternate title for the essay could be, “The Double-Edged Sword of Female Pain.”
I bought the book as a treat for myself. I bought it in the bookstore on Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg’s main drag, after a morning of crying and trying not to cry and shaking and hating being back in Brooklyn. It was the first time I’d been back, really, since I’d left, and it was hard and it made me have to confront things I didn’t want to confront. I said goodbye to one friend before she moved across the country, and had difficult conversations with other friends. I realized I’m never going to see Chief again. I dragged my rolling suitcase from the East Village to the Upper East Side to Prospect Heights to Williamsburg to Midtown and finally back to Boston, nearly never happier to be home.
And on that bus ride back to Boston, I read and read. And I thought about empathy, what it means to truly feel for someone else. Empathy is commonly confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone else, and while it’s not necessarily a bad emotion, it’s not empathy. Empathy is when you can truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes, can feel someone else’s pain and situation from their perspective. Empathy, when it comes down to it, is a rare bird indeed.
Jamison’s collection ranges from her experiences as a medical actor–a person who pretends to be someone else to demonstrate certain symptoms for medical students; to a “ghetto tour” you can take through the Watts section of Los Angeles; to being punched in the face in Nicaragua; to corresponding and visiting a prison inmate; to an exploration of Morgellon’s Disease, a mysterious ailment that plagues thousands–and no one believes them.
I find myself thinking of the essays a lot this week, reading about what’s happening in Gaza, what’s happening to refugee children on our own borders, what’s happening to people in the Ukraine–the list goes on and on and on, lately. And I wonder if something like empathy is even possible in the face of such tragedy and violence. I’d like to think it is, but most days, I’m not sure.
But the book. The book is stunning in its range, its emotion, its intelligence and honesty. It was precisely what I needed to read on that bus ride from New York to Boston. It was a reminder that there are countless kinds of pain and an equally complicated number of reactions. I can only hope that more of it is met with empathy.
I suggested Eleanor & Park for book club this month because we needed something uplifting, something light. Turns out, Eleanor & Park was not as light and uplifting as I thought, but I loved it anyway.
Park is the only Asian kid in his Nebraska high school in 1986. He wears black and listens to punk music. On the bus, that particular circle of high school hell, he prefers to listen to his headphones and read comic books than hang out with the obnoxious kids in the back of the bus. When Eleanor appears on the bus one day, no one knows her, and because she looks different, no one will let her sit with them. It’s like that scene in Forrest Gump. “Seat’s taken.” Park is so embarrassed for the girl that he lets her sit next to him, but he has no intention of ever talking to her, because that would be a way of drawing attention to himself, which is the last thing Park wants.
Eleanor is bigger than most high school girls. She has long, curly red hair and freckles. She wears oversize men’s clothing and neckties around her wrists like bracelets. She’s unlike anyone else, but just like everyone else in that she feels uncomfortable in her skin.
Eventually, Eleanor and Park form an uneasy friendship, wordlessly reading comics together on the bus until one day, they start talking and don’t stop. They trade comics and cassette tapes. Eleanor is tortured in ways only high school girls are capable of, and meanwhile, her home life is a wreck. Park is the only real comfort in her life.
I loved this book because Eleanor and Park were real people, not just caricatures of high school students in love. They have real problems and real emotions and deal with them in realistic ways for teenagers. Their love isn’t schmaltzy or cheap or based on hormones. They get confused and angry and jealous. Sometimes they do or say the complete wrong thing. And it’s lovely.
One of the hallmarks of the book is that it takes place in the 80s, and the music that Eleanor and Park share is essential. I read most of the book on a flight from Boston to Portland, listening to my 80s playlist I created on Spotify–the Smiths, the Cure, New Order, Joy Division–the music gave the words dimension. I recommend doing the same if you read the book (especially if you’re not familiar with the music of that era!). But Rainbow Rowell doesn’t hit you over the head with too many 80s cultural references. Instead, she lightly peppers the plot with tiny references to the time period, giving us just enough of a sense of the time and place without dating the book or making it seem like their story couldn’t have happened in another time. Because it could–the music might be different, and the kids would be trading mp3′s instead of cassette tapes, but the feelings would be the same.
I thought it would be fun to take a stab at Eleanor’s unique style. Here’s what I came up with:
By most definitions, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation wouldn’t truly be considered a novel. It’s 192 pages long, with little in the way of a traditional plot. It’s told in a series of vignettes, flashes and scenes with no real beginning, middle, or end.
I read the whole book on a red-eye flight from Portland to Boston, my reading light one of the only ones lit in the dark of the plane. The plane rocked and churned and shook all the way across the country and my stomach was doing too many flips to try to sleep, so I read.
Stripped to its bare bones, it’s a story of a woman meeting a man, falling in love, and getting married. They write love letters to one another. The husband writes songs for her. The wife gets pregnant and has a baby, a daughter, and falls in love with her, watches in wonder as she gets older and becomes a “being with a soul.” They live in Brooklyn. They get bed bugs.
When the husband cheats on the wife, my stomach flipped again and I had to put the book away for a little while. There were too many lines that resonated too sharply:
“People say, You must have known. How could you not know? To which she says, Nothing has ever surprised me more in my life.”
“There is a time between being a wife and being a divorcee, but no good word for it. Maybe say what a politician would say. Stateless person. Yes, stateless. Either way it’s going to be terrible for a long time, the shrink says.”
I picked up the book again after I slept for a little bit. By that time, the plane’s motion was calmer and morning light was visible through the windows with raised shades. So I finished.
It’s a not a book with an ending you can spoil, but even so, I won’t say what happens. The pleasure is in the reading, in the sentences and the sentiments. Even if you’ve never been married, maybe especially if you’ve never been married, you should read this book–it’s a well-drawn study in the many different forms human love can take–from lust to adoration to fear to protection to hate and back again. Carve out a couple of hours and sit down and be with this book.
“The thing is this: Even if the husband leaves her in this awful craven way, she will still have to count it as a miracle, all of those happy years she spent with him.”
I need your help with this one, you guys. I got my fifth Stitch Fix box last night and I’m stumped.
I have $40 in gift cards to spend from my birthday, and I don’t want to lose my stylist credit of $20, but I honestly didn’t love anything they sent me this time.
Here are some (poor quality) photos of what I got:
I like this dress, but again, it’s 100% polyester, and not the most flattering fit. It’s probably the thing that I’ll end up keeping though? It’s $78.
This dress has some cute beading on the top and a keyhole back, but it’s very sheer and flimsy, almost like something you’d get at Forever21. Not something I would keep, especially for $68.
I really like this shirt. It has a scoop-neck back, which I love (I tried to get a photo of it, but it was ridiculous), but it’s a little long and I don’t tend to wear t-shirts too often. The major problem, though, is that it’s $74. I would never pay that much for a cotton top in a regular store!
And here’s a red-orange top with blue piping that would be cute for the 4th of July, but is too plain and boring to really keep. I think it’s $64. Also, I specifically said I didn’t like the color orange in my last review, so I’m unsure why they chose this one for me.
The last thing I got was a sheer white sleeveless blouse. The note from the stylist said they knew I didn’t like sheer things (because I’d said as much from my previous box) so they included a white camisole to wear underneath, which was nice, but…they didn’t have anything that wasn’t see-through? I didn’t even take a picture because the shirt didn’t fit right either–it was way too short.
I’d asked for a printed skirt, a midi-skirt, or a fun yellow dress in my request–they said none of those items were available. Really? No printed skirts? At all? I don’t know, this box was frustrating, especially because they sent me two things I specifically didn’t like from my previous fix–an orange top and something completely see-through.
So I’m left with a choice between the $78 shirt dress, which I think would be a nice choice for the office and would transition well to the winter with tights, or the $74 t-shirt with the cute scoop back. With my gift cards, neither one will break my budget, but after this one, I think I’m going to take a long break from Stitch Fix. The quality just isn’t good enough to justify the price, in my opinion.
Has anyone else had this experience with Stitch Fix? Did you keep trying?
Also, which one should I keep??