Leslie Jamison at Duke University

Leslie Jamison doesn’t smile, or so it seems looking at photos on her book jacket, her website and on the event posters that hung like breadcrumbs that led me past a slouching statue, up a musty stairwell and into the intimacy of Nelson Music Room.

After being introduced by writer-in-residence, Duncan Murrell, Leslie Jamison took the stage and during her applause, attempted to adjust the microphone over the podium. She never quite got it right and instead stood slightly bent at the waist, leaning her chin into the mic. To me, her stance looked uncomfortable, so instead of listening to her opening remarks I looked for the AV guy, hoping he might give her a hand.

Jamison was invited to Duke as part of a visiting writers series organized by the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Center for Documentary Studies. I was introduced to her 2014 book, Empathy Exams by Scott Korb, a professor in my MFA program. Scott knows I run ultra marathons, and one of Jamison’s essays in Empathy Exams deals with a 100-mile event held annually in Tennessee. I promptly read it cover to cover, thus affording me the luxury of enjoying more than the content of the night’s reading.

The first excerpt Jamison read was from “Devil’s Bait.” She back-storied the piece to familiarize the crowd with Morgellon’s Disease, a strange condition that modern medicine deems psychosomatic. The diseased are often covered in scars resulting from having removed mysterious threads from beneath their skin. Jamison’s delivery of prose highlighted her masterfully crafted lines, rich with musical devices. I found myself thinking, “damn, this essay is a fantastic poem!”

As she concluded the first reading, she addressed the unbelievable nature of this syndrome then asked the crowd, “What do we demand from people before we choose to be empathetic? And why do we do this?” Jamison, who obviously understands the power of a well-placed caesura, let the question hang uncomfortably in the silence.

Before reading from “The Broken Heart of James Agee,” Jamison explained that this piece was inspired by her (often drunken) exploration of Agee’s 1936 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book wasn’t about famous men, mainly it was about guilt.

Jamison admitted she was addicted to this book—and this comment distracted me into thinking about my days in academia when I was so involved in the content of my work that everything seemed to be connected: the political ecology of Papua New Guinea somehow enlightened my ability to throw a clay pot in ceramics class. It was a time unlike any other. A time, similar to Jamison’s account of Agee, when my subconscious unveiled itself and made me look at things differently. I longed to again experience this state of mind.

I suppose I read her book the first time and interpreted it as reportage. But the reading at Duke changed things. I felt lucky to feel her violent passion for the subject matter, her honesty conveyed in delivery and tone, and her powerful interruption of our peaceful little paradigm. I didn’t know it, but that’s what I came here for.

She wrapped up the presentation by taking a few questions (paraphrased below).

Q: Where and how did you land the job as a medical actor?

A: In Iowa City during grad school. I lived in a unique community that was filled with struggling writers and took the job because I needed money. I was surprised how easy it was for me to get into the roles—something happens when you lock eyes with another person and you both fully commit to pretend. I was struck by how much I could “go there.” Empathetic behavior can be taught.

Q: Can you tell us about your relationship to your subjects?

A: There’s a fine line between empathy and exploitation. I always feel anxiety and concern about its effect. There’s a constant tension between wanting to present the people while still honoring them in the telling of their story.

Q: You write in both genres. How different is your approach to them?

A: I find them both freeing, but in different ways. In fiction, there’s no way to get the consciousness wrong, you created it after all. There’s an embedded permission that takes the pressure off. I find nonfiction freeing even though it’s constrained by facts. The freedom, in this case, is embedded in the process. It gets me out of myself. It’s very much a constructed artifact. Having an outside world that can’t be controlled is liberating.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently I am working on a book on addiction recovery. It’s my dissertation material [Jamison is in a PhD program at Yale]. It’s similar to Empathy Exams in that it brings together different kinds of encounter with the same subject.

As I watched Jamison thoughtfully answer, I thought about how it would feel if I were in her place. What would I do with questions about my work? Would I construct my answers in a way that sounded academic and smart? I decided I’d probably just try to be myself. Jamison was a perfect example of real being more interesting. She grinned ear to ear as she left the stage—and you know, she’s got a great smile, after all.

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