Charming a Cobra With a Stethoscope

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Reviewing Leslie Jamison's essay collection for the New York Times, Olivia Laing – who'll be in conversation with Jamison here at the Bookshop on Tuesday 8 July – described her work as "extraordinary and exacting . . . It’s not surprising that Jamison is drawing comparisons to Sontag . . . It’s hard to imagine a stronger, more thoughtful voice emerging this year." Here's a small snippet from the titular essay.

Empathy isn’t measured just by checklist item 31—“Voiced empathy for my situation/problem”—but by every item that gauges how thoroughly my experience has been imagined. Empathy isn’t just remembering to say That must really be hard, it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see: an old woman’s gonorrhea is connected to her guilt is connected to her marriage is connected to her children is connected to the days when she was a child. All this is connected to her domestically stifled mother, in turn, and to her parents’ unbroken marriage; maybe everything traces its roots to her very first period, how it shamed and thrilled her.

Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries. Sadness becomes a seizure. Empathy demands another kind of porousness in response. My Stephanie script is twelve pages long. I think mainly about what it doesn’t say.

Empathy comes from the Greek empatheiaem (“into”) and pathos (“feeling”)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border-crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?

Leslie Jamison will be in conversation with Olivia Laing at the Bookshop on Tuesday 8 July. The Empathy Exams is out from Granta, and available from our website and our Bury Place shop. You can read the full essay on The Believer magazine's website.

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