In her essay, “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” Leslie Jamison concludes by referencing David Foster Wallace’s search for sentimentality in his writing. The connection is not only interesting in terms of her argument, but it is also quite valid. In fact, Leslie Jamison and David Foster Wallace are very similar; they both bleed on the page. Reading Wallace is like reading a mystery novel while knowing the ending. Although he is usually (but not always) subtle about his own pain, it bleeds through to the page. We feel his pain, and we take it on ourselves.
Leslie Jamison and The Empathy Exams are unique, but have a number of similarities to her predecessor. Although throughout her essays she is very open about her own experiences and pain, it is in her moments of vulnerable pondering that she truly becomes the new Wallace. Both writers share a need to find substance in their words, to find the sentiment in their lives. There is something very painful in this. But it is incredibly powerful.
The Empathy Exams is a collection of essays that explores how we as humans truly connect and support one another. These pieces range in topics, including questions of medicine to poverty, but they hinge upon an uncomfortable question: Can we accept another’s pain as our own?
Jamison’s two essays, “The Empathy Exams” and “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” offer an interesting (and possibly troubling) distinction. “The Empathy Exams” states that empathy is not only a feeling, but also a conscious action to be vulnerable, to let ourselves truly understand the pain that another is feeling. This is noble, something everyone should follow. However, “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” complicates this narrative, as it studies our fear and resentment of sentimentality. In a realistic perspective, we view sentimentality as a weakness, a defect that clouds logical judgment. Jamison explains that she herself attempted to hide her sentimentally and create characters that were hardened to the world. And although she refuses this, it leaves an uncomfortable undertone. We should not let ourselves be vulnerable. We should be hardened to the world.
An Anecdote––An all male high school is a temple of machismo (As an alumni of an all male high school, I can attest to this). One may be surprised at the amount of affection that male students may have for one another. But in fact, it is common for men to freely give hugs, put one’s arm around another when in a relaxed state, and even the occasional slap on the behind. In a physical sense, these all male environments are amiable and friendly.
That isn’t to say that during a game of baseball in gym class the athletic students won’t hit the ball directly at those who can’t catch worth a damn. There is a fine distinction between amicability and empathy in the same way that one may choose to give an acquaintance a quick hug but not divulge his or her entire life story with no problem. On the surface, the students at an all male high school are friendly, but they know to keep their embarrassing or painful secrets just that (I once again am referencing my own high school environment). Much like the kid with baseball deficiencies, one cannot be sure that their openness will be met with empathy, or abuse.
Leslie Jamison understands that we are most vulnerable when we are empathetic and open with one another. For a teenage boy in an environment of only teenage boys, it is extremely difficult to openly share because it connotes weakness. In a similar way, being empathetic to another’s pain would involve feeling it, putting oneself in that position, and taking that pain on for oneself. To a teenage boy, this is weakness too.
This scenario directly highlights a societal reality. While I can’t say that we as a society are at the same level of “survival-of-the-fittest” of an all male high school, the undertones remain the same. In her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” Jamison expresses her own shame of being overly sentimental and emotional because she viewed it as weakness.
I would argue that as a collective, we are stuck on a very fragile scale between empathy and the negative sense of sensitivity. For example, we applaud the idea of the hero, someone who comes to the aid for others because he or she has a duty for the lives of others. We view the professions of doctors, police officers, and firemen highly because their responsibilities are closely tied to empathy: to uphold another’s dignity, to preserve lives.
But to be truly empathetic, at least in a strict sense, we must truly allow ourselves take on someone else’s pain and truly understand another’s position and background. This is why much training for taser and tear gas courses (at least at one time or instance) requires that trainee be subjected to it. In order to wield the power, a person must know the pain it can inflict upon another.
As a collective, I don’t think we want 100% empathy all the time. We don’t want to think that the man who just saved a baby from a burning building is a raging alcoholic. Knowing this would require that we ourselves make a choice: to actively make the choice to be empathetic or not. To be empathetic to that alcoholic hero is the conscious choice to care fully about his pain and his struggle, and not just his achievements.
But no, we don’t want to know the dark side of our hero. We just want the feel good story.
So our alcoholic hero will receive the praise and be perceived as invincible. We will continue to live our lives remembering (but actually probably quickly forgetting) that nice story. And our hero will go to his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The somewhat redeeming thing about this is that he can be in an environment where people will support him because they have experienced the same thing and therefore are empathetic. But to the rest of the world, sharing this part of himself is a risky choice to be vulnerable.
This is a pretty depressing way to view the world. However, it is the reason we do not share our secrets to people we just meet. It is also the reason we choose carefully who we get close to, and why it is so painful when that trust is broken.
Leslie Jamison directly addresses her own fears of over-sentimentality. Jamison explains how in fear of coming across as overly sentimental, she created characters in her fiction that were incredibly cold and unlikeable.
Jamison indirectly states that she fell into what David Foster Wallace would describe as the trap of postmodernism, or literature and society’s recent tendency to towards irony and coldness as opposed to sentimentality. Throughout his writing career, Wallace attempted to expose the dangers of irony and find a way to return to emotional, connected, and empathetic messaging (“This is Water” is a call to never become cold to the world).
David Foster Wallace begins “The Depressed Person,” like this:
“The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror,”
–Brief Interview With Hideous Men pg 37
To be very simple, Wallace recognized our fear of sentimentality/vulnerability and our desire for empathy. And he recognized that it is slowly strangling us. It’s one of his most common and powerful themes.
I think this is why I was so drawn to The Empathy Exams. Jamison understands, just like Wallace understood, that we crave empathy but many times cannot achieve it. In light of this, we need to be constantly reminded, no matter how uncomfortable or painful it may be. Our empathy lies in our ability to be vulnerable, and our ability to be vulnerable lies in seeing it in action. Leslie Jamison necessarily takes up Wallace’s mantle on this. And in The Empathy Exams, she achieves something that few have been able to achieve. True empathy.