The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison
2014 • 256 pages • Graywolf Press
I do hope that all fans of Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar, and Tiny Beautiful Things have discovered the existence of Dear Sugar Radio. That’s right, dear readers, Sugar has taken to the airwaves—both of them, in fact, as original Sugar Steve Almond is along for the ride. Together, and usually with the help of a colleague over the phone, they tackle exactly the same kind of letters people sent to Sugar during her original run.
It’s a wonderful podcast and a regular part of my podcast rotation, but I find myself missing the conspiratorial, motherly, and challenging tone of the original (alright, semi-original) Sugar, who shared her hard-earned wisdom with us just as much as she shared the things that she was still struggling with.
In that light, Leslie Jamison, whom you may know from her searing “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” reads like a younger Sugar, one with harder, pricklier edges. (Which makes perfect sense, given that The Empathy Exams were recommended on a recent episode of Dear Sugar Radio.) Jamison’s theme, as you might be able to guess, is pain: the pain of understanding, not understanding, and not being understood, the pain of suffering an illness that doctors dismiss, the voluntary pain of extreme runners, the involuntary pain of the incarcerated and the wounded, and the pain we co-opt for our own purposes and pleasures. And, with the welcome inclusion of “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in this volume, how to actively engage with female pain when it has been turned into flattening, dehumanizing metaphor for centuries in media.
The Times of the Eighties edited by William Grimes
In 2005, MTV ran a program, undoubtedly influenced by the success of That 70s Show, called The 70s House. It was a reality competition where twelve contestants parted with the modern world, lived in a simulcrum of the seventies 24/7, and competed to see who could be “the most 70s”. I never saw it, but when I heard about it, as a tender, awful-haired fourteen-year-old, I daydreamed about the possibility of a The 80s House, which I would undoubtedly dominate. Such a show never surfaced, of course, but something like The Times of the Eighties would have been very useful to prep for my audition. When I saw it on NetGalley, I couldn’t hit the request button fast enough.
Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly
Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days is a really fantastic piece of nonfiction—the kind that’ll make you gasp out loud, even though you know how this race between two lady journalists in the 1880s is going to turn out. I’d heard of Nellie Bly in passing before (something something asylum something something), but Eighty Days introduced me to her in her entirety, from birth to death. Naturally, despite Goodman’s warnings about Bly’s subpar attempts at writing novels, I was interested in what put Nellie Bly on the map: Ten Days in a Madhouse. While it was originally published as a series of articles in The New York World, it was collected into a book the same year (1887), making it eligible for my establishment.
Deep Secrets by Niobe Way
Do you have a favorite quote from a book?
I have a lot of favorite quotes; my room at my parents’ house actually has them taped up. But, at the the moment, two quotes leap to mind.
From Natalie Angier’s Woman:
Stride away in full strength, but remember that time and space are curved and you will come back to talk again to me, your friend, your daughter, your mother, your love. (366)
This one has stuck with me ever since I read the book; I know Angier’s poetical approach to the book makes it a hit or miss, but it works for me, and I adore the idea of someone yelling this at someone as they leave.
From Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre:
“I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.”
I’m rereading Jane Eyre for my senior thesis. I reread this bit on Tuesday and started bawling a bit; I’ve been feeling all warm and fuzzy since I saw Rock of Ages on Friday (if you’ve seen it, the reason involves Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin), and this was kind of perfect.
- Angier, Natalie. Woman. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999. Print.
- Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London; Service & Paton, 1897. Project Gutenberg. Web. 1 March 1998.
Straight by Hanne Blank
The reason I picked up this book is very simple: in reading an interview with Hanne Blank (which is, by the way, one of the coolest names ever), she casually mentioned the fact that, despite scientists trying to prove the existence of a “gay” gene, there’s no such thing as a “straight” gene. Afterwards, I realized the implications this had for certain scientists’ bias, but as I read it, I was absolutely stunned by both this idea and the fact that somewhere, lurking deep within even a queer woman like me, the idea that to be queer was to be markedly different had soaked in. And that’s exactly the sort of thing Blank does in Straight; calm and logical destabilization.
Whipping Girl by Julia Serano
In my middle school health class, there was a day that was going to be “boys versus girls”—a dialogue, if you will, between the two genders. I, of course, butched up as much as I could under my mother’s supervision and spent the entire class period siding with the boys; I remember rocking back and forth going, “Yeah, I don’t get that, why do you do that?”. I cringe to look back on it now, because it’s sort of the moment that captures how sexist I was and how much I hated femininity. To be fair, part was backlash against being forced to present against my own gender presentation (I’m about fifteen degrees butcher than the average Jane), but a lot of it was exactly what Julia Serano discusses in several of the essays in Whipping Girl—hatred and fear of the supposedly mystical and artificial feminine.
Has a book ever inspired you to change anything in your life, fiction or non-fiction alike?
Oh, yes. Books constantly inspire me to be a better person and pursue my goals in an efficient way. Immediately rising to the top of the heap at the moment are Natalie Angier’s Woman, which really made me rethink aging in a female body and actually embrace it, and This Book is Overdue!, which made me seriously consider librarianship, to the point that if I attend grad school at all, it’ll be for library science. But every book inspires me in small ways, whether to be a better person or just never to write like that.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
As I’ve mentioned here before, I enjoy volunteering at my local library in my hometown. (Even if other volunteers keep scheduling themselves over my hours, exactly how our supervisor asked us not to. Ahem.) Over the summer, I came across The History of White People, which I was putting on hold for a patron. After encountering the antiquated concept of “white races” in Kathy Peiss’ Hope in a Jar, I was intrigued by the construction of race. On top of that, my school is offering a class on constructions of race in antiquity, which I cant’ take because it conflicts with another class. But it sounds so interesting! I’ve realized how important it is to see your own culture and experiences through someone else’s lens, and this seemed like a fantastic place to start.
As I mentioned in my review of Jan Morris’ Conundrum, my female gender identity is rooted in connotations and images, not in my actual sex (though I am cisgendered). My gender identity is elastic enough that being read as male doesn’t bother me a whit, although it’s less common now I’ve got the princess hair (which handily turns into Legolas hair in a pinch). So you can imagine that gender essentialism gives me acid reflex. So today, we’re going to look at two books—one that looks at the supposed differences between the sexes, and one that looks at the social construct of gender.