Over the borderline: migrant activists on the US-Mexican border near Campo, California hold a minute's silence to remember those who have died trying to cross. Photo: Getty
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Feel my pain: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

If Jamison is an experienced emotional traveller, then these essays form a rough sort of guide to the human experience. Ideas about empathy seep into every one.

The Empathy Exams
Leslie Jamison
Granta Books, 240pp, £12.99

The 11 essays in Leslie Jamison’s extraordinary new collection, The Empathy Exams, are about pain. Her own – a heart condition, an abortion, struggles with alcohol, a violent attack on a darkened street – or that of others, such as sufferers of Morgellons, a disease that many doctors dismiss as psychosomatic; or a trio of boys wrongfully imprisoned for decades. And, in the astonishing title essay, perhaps something approaching a combination of the two, when Jamison works as a medical actor at a teaching hospital, internalising the pain of fictional patients and weaving their narratives with her own.

When Jamison is told by a boyfriend that she is a “wound dweller”, the implication is that she is a self-pitying wallower, forever picking at scabs. By the time we reach this phrase in the final essay, the wrenching “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, we are fully aware that Jamison does dwell in wounds, but not quite in the way her boyfriend was suggesting. She hovers just past the edge of comfort; she is willing to push the knife in deeper, inch by inch. Jamison shows how, if we can attempt to understand and practise empathy, we can feel others’ pain, too.

Jamison’s first novel, The Gin Closet, was published in 2010. The Empathy Exams, which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and has already been hailed as one of the best books of the year by American critics and readers. There is a sense that the appeal extends beyond the quality of the writing, or the individual subjects of the essays. Do we feel our daily lives lack empathy? Is it easy to understand another’s story, but much harder to empathise with the teller? The Empathy Exams is a blueprint, perhaps; a difficult book about a difficult prospect, but one that readers feel they need.

Jamison breaks down the concept of empathy, and then, poetically, builds it up again: “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?” Themes of penetration and crossing borders crop up throughout the essays: a tense stretch of time spent on the southern side of the US-Mexico border, or a journey deep into the silver mines of Bolivia, or the worm that buried itself beneath the skin of Jamison’s ankle and rode with her back up to the Northern Hemisphere.

If Jamison is an experienced emotional traveller, then these essays form a rough sort of guide to the human experience. Ideas about empathy seep into every essay. It is “always perched precariously between gift and invasion”; it “requires inquiry as much as imagination”. As author, Jamison occupies a curious position: she is always present, even when writing about others, and when she turns her gaze inward she is never alone on the page. Friends and strangers, together with an impressive range of literary references, help give her stories thematic structure. Susan Sontag makes frequent, welcome guest appearances. Jamison talks about her subjects with sensitivity but she doesn’t sugarcoat her perceptions of them. She also acknowledges the limits of an essay’s lens. In a recent interview, she said, “I’m pleased by the fact that my work has been called both ‘flinching’ and ‘unflinching’, which I took to mean something like: I’m willing to look at difficult things, but I’m also willing to transcribe my own shivering and stuttering as I look at them.”

It’s easy to see the essay, in Jamison’s hands, as an inherently empathetic form: it requires the author to travel frequently into another (real person’s) perspective and to set up camp there, for the space of a few pages. The collection arrives at a time when essays, particularly by women, seem to be flourishing: offerings from Roxane Gay, Rebecca Solnit and the late Marina Keegan, among others, are out now or in the coming months. Jamison writes of the female inclination towards empathy; the worry that one feels too much for another. But it is precisely this abundance of feeling – and the way she constantly calls it into question with intellectual rigour – that makes these essays feel so fresh. If this is the new age of the essay, Jamison is one of the form’s most compelling voices.

The Empathy Exams is a challenging book, pushing the reader forward even when the subject matter grows gruesome or difficult. It gives us a map, drawn in fits and starts, for navigating human interaction. Perhaps it’s a comfort to remember that we are wired to want to try to understand each other, as Jamison’s epigraph from the Roman playwright Terence implies: “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for the online magazine the Millions

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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