The Art, and empathy, of Brooklyn author Leslie Jamison
For Leslie Jamison, the written word is a safe and risky place.
“So much of writing that has felt alive and electric is because I grant myself permission to write about what’s obsessing me,” the author of the best-selling “The Empathy Exams” said during a recent interview in the living room of her Brooklyn apartment.
At age 30, Jamison has achieved commercial success not through dystopian fiction or visions of the afterlife, but through a collection of poetic, painfully searching essays about violence, sex, illness, self-esteem and self-expression. “The Empathy Exams,” published by the Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press, has caught on almost entirely through strong reviews and word of mouth.
“I’m not sure I’m capable of recommending a book because it might make you a better person,” New York Times critic Dwight Garner wrote. “But watching the philosopher in Ms. Jamison grapple with empathy is a heart-expanding exercise.”
Jamison’s essays were completed over a period of six years, but read as a unified story of the author’s quest to relate as strongly as possible to her subjects, and to herself, while standing back just enough to enable her to write.
Life has blessed her with natural curiosity — on her left arm she wears a tattoo reading “homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto,” Latin for “I am human: Nothing is alien to me” — and tested her with physical and emotional hardship. When she isn’t learning about the suffering of others, she is opening up about her own: her abortion, heart surgery, being punched in the face in Nicaragua — experiences so haunting that writing about them was not a decision, but a necessity.
“I didn’t feel like I was dragging myself back into it; it actually felt like the opposite,” she says. “It felt like it was so present to me and hard to shake. This was a process of not sloughing it off, but through the process of writing kind of making sense of it.”
Her essays are officially “nonfiction,” but they’re admittedly selective accounts born out of the conflict between what she wanted to write and what the subjects wanted. At one point during the interview she referred to the people in her work as “characters,” as if she were crafting protagonists for a play.
“I don’t mean to imply that they’re not a person in real life,” she says. “For me, it’s a way of acknowledging that when I take actual people and put them in an essay, I’m choosing what to leave in and what to leave out.”
In “Fog Count,” Jamison profiled an ultradistance runner and family man imprisoned for mail, bank and wire fraud. Jamison noted during her interview that the runner, identified as Charlie, wanted to talk about his legal battles. Jamison wanted to know about his many worlds and identities, leading to a “pull and tug” with her subject.
When writing about her abortion in the book’s title essay, she consulted with her boyfriend from that time.
“Some of that editorial work was a product of those conversations where we saw the gap between our remembered versions,” she says. “The version that ended up in print is not the way he would tell the story, but it is different because of the way he shared those memories.”
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Los Angeles, Jamison has been telling stories since she was little and writing actively since high school. She majored in English at Harvard University, received a master’s from the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop and is working on a Ph.D. at Yale University. She has written for The New York Times, Harper’s and Tin House, among other publications.
Her resume is elite, her imagination beyond category. Jamison’s first book was “The Gin Closet,” a novel published in 2010 about a young woman attempting to know her long-missing aunt, who is living in a Nevada trailer park and drinking herself to death. Some of the story’s outlines are close to real life, including the estrangement of an aunt, but the aunt’s experiences in “The Gin Closet” are entirely made up.
“I’ve still never met that aunt,” Jamison says. “So often for me fiction is not a vaguely distorted version of what happens, but an imagining of what could have happened that didn’t happen.”
Jamison’s essay collection ends with “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” a manifesto for how, and whether, women should write about pain. She notes the risk of being labeled self-indulgent, of “wallowing,” suffering for its own sake. Writing, ideally, is the means and the end to reaching a greater, more hopeful place.
“The wounded woman gets called a stereotype and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true,” Jamison writes. “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.”