The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison – Literary Analysis

According to Leslie Jamison, the defining symptom of the disease known as Morgellons is the emergence of strange fibers from the skin. Like the aberrant fibers that pinprick their bodies, patients with the disease, also known as Morgies, are also perceived as strange, obsessive hypochondriacs emerging from the general population. Often ostracized and ridiculed for their preoccupation, Morgies gather together, collectively searching for both empathy and the understanding of their disease. In her powerful essay, “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison’s visit to a Morgellons conference is imbued with sincerity and curiosity as she navigates through the lives of several Morgies patients to understand their pains and sufferings. Although she enters with unwavering commitment in fully empathizing with their problems, she gradually finds herself conflicted.

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American novelist Leslie Jamison and her acclaimed novel The Empathy Exams

In the concluding paragraphs of her essay, believing in patient Paul’s and others’ sufferings but disbelieving in the existence of their disease, Jamison reflects on her conference experience and her cognitive dissonance with empathy and its exercise. Through this reflection, Jamison crafts an uncertain yet investigative persona, determined to explore and understand empathy in both herself and others and ultimately engage readers in the realities of pain and suffering – visible or invisible.

* * *

“I went to Austin because I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment. But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so. Paul told me his crazy-ass symptoms and I didn’t believe him. Or at least, I didn’t believe him the way he wanted to be believed. I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he hurt like there was. Which was typical. I was typical. In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal? I want to say, I heard you. To say, I pass no verdicts. But I can’t say these things to him. So instead I say this: I think he can heal. I hope he does.” ~Leslie Jamison

 

* * *

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I went to Austin because I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment.

Immediately, Jamison does not reflect that she goes to the conference but rather announces that she “went to Austin,” evoking a specific sense of destination and purpose. The word “because” accentuates the aim of her expedition – that she “wanted to be a different kind of listener.” By desiring to “be a different kind of listener,” Jamison distances herself from the “kind these patients had known,” the ones “winking,” “biting their lips,” and “smiling in smug bewilderment.” The doctors are not nodding but “winking,” suggesting a condescending doubt of the Morgies’ unreal pains. Others are not smiling in optimistic hope but grinning “in smug bewilderment,” further underlining these patients’ encountered ridicules. Even friends are “biting their lips,” through which Jamison highlights that even familiarity through kinship could not prevent these friends from disbelieving the Morgies. Through the doubtful and almost sneering connotations of these listeners, Jamison depicts the magnitude of the smirking disbelief that the Morgies encounter.

At the same time, she utilizes this disheartening portrayal to emphasize the magnitude of her desire, her “want,” to be “different” and empathetically understand their sufferings, visible or invisible. By doing so, Jamison’s constructed persona of determination to be “different” begins to unfold. However, her usage of past tense, such as in the verb “wanted,” hints at her foreshadowing failure to “be different.” By in no means does this discredit the determined aspect of her persona. Instead, the past tense’s suggestive nature exposes a more nuanced dimension of her constructed self, her persona of conflicts and uncertainties.

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But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so.

Jamison’s “want,” her desire to “be a different kind of listener” juxtaposes with her true response that “doesn’t make [her] so.” Coupled with the capitalized conjunction “but,” this juxtaposition fortifies the conflicted persona that Jamison chooses to present. Consequently, through the conflicting dichotomy of her intention and reaction, Jamison underlines the difficulties of empathy as both an aim and practice. Jamison’s exploration of empathy allows readers to engage as well. Her changes of pronoun usage from first person to second person “you” in her observation that “wanting to be different doesn’t make you so” produces the effect that the readers are also a part of her empathy journey in Austin. Her “want” begins to dissolve into the readers’ “want” and their struggle to “be different” and feel emotionally engaged for the Morgies.

Paul told me his crazy-ass symptoms and I didn’t believe him. Or at least, I didn’t believe him the way he wanted to be believed. I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he hurt like there was.

Compared to her general usage of “patients” in footnote one, Jamison now specifically pinpoints a man with the Morgellons disease, “Paul.” By directing her attention to “Paul” rather than just a patient, Jamison conveys a more intimate portrayal of her relationship with Paul and the Morgies in general. She suddenly becomes an insider of the Morgies group, empathizing and understanding them through her similar parasite experience. Yet, just as quickly as she becomes an insider, she becomes an outsider – “I didn’t believe him.” Added to her various conflicts is now her struggle to reconcile the pressures as both an insider and an outsider.

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The outsiders vs insiders mentality.

Jamison employs the use of “or at least” to qualify her statement of disbelief. She progresses from a broad simple topic, “I didn’t believe,” to a more narrow comprehensive response, such as “I didn’t believe…the way” or “I didn’t believe there were…parasites.” She uses this gradually narrowing scope to focus on and investigate what specifically makes her not believe or empathize, and in doing so, her investigate nature emerges. Moreover, the three repetitions of “I didn’t believe” are sharply outlined against the one “I believe.” Jamison’s disbelief of the presence of physical “parasites” clashes with her belief of Paul’s internal “hurt,” further suggesting the conflicted uncertainties in her responses and constructed persona.

Ultimately, she creates these cognitive disparities to challenge and invite readers to immerse themselves in close reexamination of empathy. Despite disbelieving Paul’s “crazy-ass symptoms,” Jamison continues to ask herself the compelling question of to what extent is she responding with empathy, moving from “I didn’t believe” to “I believe.” As her explorative investigation progresses, she departs readers with more and more questions about the role of empathy in givers and receivers, insiders and outsiders, and we readers become increasingly entangled into that.

Which was typical. I was typical.

Referring to the fact that she does not believe in the existence of parasites but believes in Paul’s “hurt,” Jamison moves from “which was typical” to “I was typical.” Through this transition, she uses the powerful pronoun “I” to admit, acknowledge, and almost seemingly claim possession of this typicality. She closes the gap between the reader and herself by emphasizing that she is “typical.” She is in no way different or elevated from her readers, and her investigation subsequently becomes more realistic and allows readers to become closer and engaged in the empathy exploration.

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However, at the same time, Jamison’s attribution of herself as “typical” widens the gap between the Morgellon disease patients and herself. Once again, she becomes a typical outsider of the atypical Morgies group. Jamison’s cognitive dissonance resurfaces, drawing parallels with her earlier conflict between “I didn’t believe” and “I believe.”  She straddles between identifying with her readers and identifying with the Morgellons, but her response of typicality betrays her intention of fully understanding the Morgies’ troubles. Through her constant deviations from intentions and “typical” reactions, Jamison is thrust into a paradoxical outsider-insider mentality. Yet, it is this recurring mental conflict that Jamison continues to pursue the understanding of empathy and its complex exercise.

In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal?

Her question, “How am I doing something…,” illuminates the investigative quality of her persona. She interrogates the capture of Paul’s pain in words, in her limited “essay,” struggling to not reduce or exaggerate his suffering. In her hardships to bring out the most accurate voice and suffering of Paul, Jamison thus uses the word “betrayal” and its harsh connotation to perhaps compel readers to explore ways to perceive and understand the realities of others’ pains and sufferings without underestimating or overestimating them.

I want to say, I heard you. To say, I pass no verdicts. But I can’t say these things to him. So instead I say this: I think he can heal. I hope he does.

From footnote one to footnote six, Jamison gradually progresses from past tense to present tense. Combined with the transitioning tense usage, her movement from absolution, “I heard you [and] pass no verdicts,” to uncertainty “I think…I hope” also becomes evident. Thus, creating this sense of progression, Jamison suggests that the exploration of empathy is an ongoing process from the past and present to even the future.

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Additionally, Jamison does not simply state that she knows “he can heal,” but rather says that “I think” and “I hope.” Her “I think” and “I hope” further reinforces the uncertain nature of her presented persona. Yet, by choosing to portray her conflicts with empathy and the uncertainty in her persona, Jamison implicates that empathy is not a simple concept but like her uncertain persona, is riddled with many ambiguities and complexities. Through this, she again challenges readers to rethink about empathy in themselves, Paul, and others.

Lastly, Jamison utilizes her uncertain yet engaging, investigative voice to envelop others closer in empathizing with the visible and invisible, real and unreal pains of people. Throughout the essay, from Paul’s visible pain in his external scars to his invisible “hurt,” Jamison struggles to reconcile her sympathizing belief for his suffering with her disbelief of the disease. However, by ending the essay with a positivity of “hope” and “heal,” Jamison ultimately shares the idea of continuing to exercise empathy for others’ pains, even the unreal and invisible.

 

Works Cited

Jamison, Leslie.  The Empathy Exams. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.  Print.

 

© Copyright 2016 Moosmosis – All rights reserved

All rights reserved. This essay or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher. 

2 thoughts on “The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison – Literary Analysis

    1. moosmosis says:

      Thanks so much, intrepid8! There are so many nuances with empathy that the mastery of understanding and performing it is often so difficult. I’m glad you enjoyed the analysis! Many thanks and hearts 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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