The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Leslie Jamison on Charles D’Ambrosio

June 27, 2023 The Point Magazine Season 1 Episode 8
Selected Essays | Leslie Jamison on Charles D’Ambrosio
The Point Podcast
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this episode of The Point podcast series “Selected Essays,” Leslie Jamison joins us to discuss Charles D’Ambrosio’s 2002 essay “Documents” and her essay “The Empathy Exams,” which appeared in The Believer in 2014 and was the title of her first collection.

Jessica Swoboda  00:05

Hey everyone. Welcome to Selected Essays, a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read, but probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one on their own. My name is Jess Swoboda, and I'm here with my co host Zach Fine. 

Zach Fine  00:23

Hey everyone. Today we have Leslie Jamison. On the podcast, we spoke with Leslie about Charles D'Ambrosio's 2002 essay "Documents," which was published in the New Yorker, and also about Leslie's essay, "The Empathy Exams," which originally appeared in The Believer magazine, and was the title for her first collection published in 2014. Leslie is a professor at Columbia University, and she's written for Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Oxford, American and elsewhere. We had the chance to talk with Leslie at the end of our conversation about her next book Splinters, which will be out in early 2024. 

Jessica Swoboda  00:56

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments, or anything else, send an email to selected essays at the point We'd love to hear from you. Hey, Leslie, thank you for joining us on selected essays. We're really excited to have you here. 

Leslie Jamison  01:26

It's great to be here. I love any excuse to talk about essays in general, essays in particular, Charlie D'Ambrosio, to talk to you guys. I love The Point, so I'm happy to be here.

Jessica Swoboda  01:43

Great. And so we're talking about D'Ambrosio's “Documents” today. And can you tell us when you first read this essay and a little bit about your relationship with him as well?

Leslie Jamison  01:55

Yeah. So I read this essay around the time that I was getting to know Charlie as a teacher, which was in spring of 2006. I was in my last semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was studying fiction, and Charlie was my last and most important workshop teacher there. So we we got to know each other in the context of a fiction class, I was writing fiction then. (He writes both fiction and nonfiction). And I was learning a lot from him in the classroom. But I was also kind of trying to get my hands on as much, Charlie on the page as I could. And I remember the first time I read this essay, “Documents,” I was just spellbound by how a piece of writing could bring together close critical attention to language and syntax and the rhythms of of how somebody expresses themselves with language on the page that that kind of close attention could be, essentially a portal or a gateway into all of these deeply emotional, almost unspeakably emotional subjects: deep family rupture, suicide, mental illness, the ways that the kind of wounds of his family had impressed themselves differently upon all of the survivors in that family, so. What I felt like I was witnessing on the page was also something I was witnessing in the classroom because part of Charlie's philosophy as a teacher is really that you can diagnose the the deep, I guess I don't want to say failures, maybe that's too pejorative. But the deep unfinished business of a piece of writing can be diagnosed through very close attention to its sentences. So he'll get very specific, often in workshop about moments in the language where he feels the language faltering, or ringing, hollow or falling back into cliche, or euphemism. And he'll look to those moments as moments where you can almost diagnose what the what a piece of writing wants to be doing and isn't yet doing or where it's shying away or what it's turning away from. So I felt like in this essay, he's directing that close attention to language on his own family, but in the classroom, he was directing it on us but it was clearly the same mind and psyche that believed in that kind of diagnostic work.

Zach Fine  04:40

For someone who hasn't read the essay before, how would you summarize it? 

Leslie Jamison  04:45

So documents uses a series of artifacts, textual artifacts from Danbury, she has family starting with a poem that his father, his like business Professor father, wrote when Charlie was a boy and including a letter from one of Charlie's brothers, who struggles with schizophrenia, his youngest brother's suicide note and a series of letters that the narrator of the essay Charlie exchanges with his father, and it sort of uses each of those different kinds of textual artifacts to explore the complicated dynamics within this family and the kind of legacy of one brothers mental illness, another brothers suicide, a father's kind of estrangement from the entire family, but it gets at those big painful family dynamics through these very specific textual objects.

Jessica Swoboda  05:50

And you can even see those textual objects already emerging in the first passage of this essay, which I'm wondering if you can read out loud for us, a would absolutely love to.

Leslie Jamison  06:04

So the essay begins with a section called poem by Father 1970 to one Sunday morning when I was a boy, my father came out of his office and handed me a poem. It was about a honeybee counseling a flee to flee a doggy and see the see. The barbituates my father took to regulate his emotions made him Insomniac, and I understood that he'd been awake most of the night, laboring over these lines, listing all the words you could think of ending in a long EA. This meant using many adverbs and the elevated v as a form of address. My father was a professor of finance, who wrote fairly dry textbooks, where the pros marched in soldierly fashion across the page, broken by intricate formulas, calculating risk and return. And this poem was a somewhat frilly production for him. The poem was an allegory about his desire to leave our family. Like a lot of people my father felt a poem was a bunch of words with a tricky meaning deeply buried away, like treasure below a surface of rhyming sounds. I was 12 years old, and I understood the sense of the poem instantly. But this strange mixture of childish diction and obvious content silenced me, I was ashamed. That Sunday morning, I was sitting on the living room floor on a tundra of white carpet, my father considered elegant, the drapes were closed, because he worried that son would fade the fabric on the furniture, but a bright bar of light cut through a gap in the curtains. And that's where I sat, since it was warm there in a house where we were otherwise forbidden to adjust the thermostat above 62 degrees. 

Zach Fine  07:57

That's great. Um, you were talking at the beginning a little bit about how this essay is in many ways about writing. So it's about family and death, but it's also about writing, not only the writing done by a family, so the dad's amateur poems were the brothers letters, but also the specific quality of that writing, writing, like the bad rhymes, the syntax, the spelling, I'm wondering why D'Ambrosio draws attention to those details particular.

Leslie Jamison  08:25

Yeah, I mean, I think, I think in part because he believes you can see various forms of desire encoded in syntax and language and so that close attention becomes a way of looking at or trying to look at what what the writer wants. And I think here, in this first passage, you can see Charlie using that, you know, close attention to these absurd rhymes with this sort of childish allegory to look at his father's desires to, you know, express the desire for, for freedom for freedom from the kind of claustrophobia that he experienced in their family and their domestic environment. Charlie is one of, I believe, eight children. He grew up, you know, in a big family, but also a kind of desire to like achieve a poetic voice like poetry with a capital P and what a poem is, is, you know, an allegorical meaning buried under the surface of language. What a poem is, is rhyming rhyming language that obeys like particular lockstep rhythms and rules. And so you see, Charlie, reading his own father's desire to establish himself as a certain kind of like literary voice or a certain voice of authority. But I think part of what's beautiful about the construction of this opening paragraph in the essay is that you see the, the ways the father wanted to construct himself through the poem. But you also see Charlie, even as a child reading these other kinds of texts in the world around him, like the text of the home itself becomes a kind of object that can be read for more information about the Father, the fact that the father needed to control the environment, the fact that the father kept a kind of climate of austerity by keeping the house very cold. And you see this, you know, you see the the sensibility of the adult man who can look back and read these dynamics, read the father's poem, read the father's desires encoded in the poem, but you also see the body of the boy kind of like a Russian nesting doll inside the retrospective voice of that essay narrator and the body of that boy is like looking for warmth in a very cold house. So you see, like, the, the, the object that the father put forward and asked to be read the poem, that kind of slightly public performance, but you also see another text being read, which is just like the way the father lived in the world and the way he kept their house. 

Jessica Swoboda  11:04

There's one detail when he's talking about the bedsheets of his father's and so much is couched in that and it feels it packs this really intense emotional punch. For me, it was really gut wrenching when I read that scene. And I'm wondering, what is it about his style that he's able to convey so much emotion and feeling and very few words, it's not like there's it's there's not a lot of words that he's using to capture the scene, but yet you're still enmeshed with it. You're feeling with him feeling with the, with his father in this in this essay as well? 

Leslie Jamison  11:42

Mm hmm. Yeah, I think I think there is a real economy in this essay, I don't know exactly how many words are in it. But it's, I'm always shocked by how short it is when I read it, because it's not, it might somewhere probably between three and 4000 words. It's not like a micro essay, but it does so much in such a kind of compressed way. And I think part of how it does that is with sort of pivots and contrasts and so I think there's the the ways that the essay pivots, allows it to achieve this kind of stark impact. Like in the passage that I read out loud. I'm thinking about the pivot from the kind of singsong rhythms of the you know, flee fleeing the doggy to see the see all those long “e’s” and then you pivot into like the the next sentence is like the barbiturates. My father took to regulate his emotions, like it's like, you know, suddenly, we're in the kind of like, harsher clarity of that retrospective voice. But I think there's a kind of force that rises just out of that jarring turn from the kind of undulating sing-song rhythms to the stark truth of like, my father was like, desperately unhappy, and his unhappiness made other people around him unhappy. And I think even there, kind of these structural contrasts were like, to me, one of the most powerful parts of the essay is actually one of the parts of the essay where there's the most restraint where Charlie's voice is the most absent. And that's when he quotes without annotation and in its entirety. A letter from his brother, Mike, who struggles with mental illness and the kind of an annotated presence of that letter in the text is all the more powerful for me, because all the other texts he's annotating, he's sort of giving us his read on his father's poem, his youngest brother's suicide note his correspondence with his father, but Mike's letter, he just lets it stand. And we see and his decision to reproduce it, but not really comment on it a kind of deep veneration for his brother's voice and for what the the object of this letter means to him. And actually, several times I've seen Charlie do events where the the only thing he'll read of his own prose is just that that letter from Mike actually, which is this kind of creates an experience of exactly that sort of like putting another voice there, but not cluttering it with his own that I think, again, achieves that part of its force, because you're looking at it in contrast to the way he treats these other textual artifacts in the in the essay. 

Zach Fine  14:37

It's such a moving part of the essay, and I've returned to that letter a couple of times, just because the turns in logic are kind of so foreign in so many ways. You know, the leap from one moment to the next, as Mike is writing, but also I love I love how you've drawn attention to within the sections. I think I was thinking about stylistic changes happening between the breaks but you Even from the kind of sing-songy of the flee and whatnot to like barbituates, that kind of crunchy or Word, it really is within the sections themselves. There is this kind of shifting set of registers. But I was hoping if we could turn out to the passage you chose the, in the middle of the essay, and if you could read it for us, and then tell us why you chose this passage out of any other one. Yeah.

Leslie Jamison  15:23

So just to sort of situate it in relation to the the opening passage that I read earlier. After that opening passage, there was another section called Letter from younger brother 1997, where Charlie reproduces the letter from Mike with those kind of beautifully moving, like leaps in logic that you were describing. And then the essay turns to its third section, which is the one I'm going to read from called “Letter From Youngest Brother, November 26, 1986.” That's the one section that has a precise date rather than just a year attached to it. And the reason for that becomes clearer almost immediately. My brother Danny wrote his suicide note in my bedroom. And then, after a pleasure that I know exists, because he had to put down the pen in order to pick up the gun, he shot himself. For some reason, I've always been concerned about the length of that lapse, whether he reread what he'd written or stared dumbly at his signature, his name, the final piece, in a puzzling life, he was about to end before he pressed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Most suicides go about the last phase of their business in silence, and don't leave notes. Death itself is the summary statement. And they step into its embrace hours or days before the barrel is finally raised to the roof of the mouth, or the fingertips last feel the rough metal of the bridge rail, they are dead, and then they die. But Danny wrote a note, or not so much a note as an essay, a long document full of self hatred and sorrow, love and despair. And now I'm glad that I have it. Because this way, we're still engaged in a dialogue. His words are there, and so is his hand, a hand I'd held, but more important, one that left words, like an artifact that are as real and physical to me as the boy who, at 21, in November long ago, wrote them.

Zach Fine  17:41

So why, why this, this passage in particular?

Leslie Jamison  17:44

Yeah, it's so I have probably read this essay. I don't know 30 times, 40 times so many times, and it never stops. Just being so deeply moving to me and really moving to hear it aloud, in part because so much of its force and expressive substance, just dwells in its rhythms. Even like that, just, you know, reading the last sentence of that paragraph aloud with all of its comments, you feel a voice, really struggling to speak and to say something that is very hard to say, even as it's glad to be saying it, I find that to be one of the most moving parts of that passage, and really the whole essay that this idea of engaging with the word someone left behind as a way of staying in conversation with them, and and, in particular, in this case, a way of staying in conversation with the dead. I think I chose this passage because to me, it encapsulates this great tenderness at the heart of the essay, and it's a a tenderness that is like, bound up in that kind of close critical textual attention. I think there's a way that sometimes we can think about archival engagement or treating life as a kind of text to be close read or treating, you know, the whole premise of treating very, very personal objects as as if they were texts as if one were almost like a literary critic of one's own life or one's family history, that that there's an idea maybe that that would be a kind of distancing or clinical approach. But here, it's so absolutely the opposite. This close textual attention to his youngest brother's suicide note becomes not only the the words themselves, but the conjuring of the process of writing them and its temporality and its physicality and its beat by beat, putting down the pen, and picking up the gun, the pause in between. Like all of that close the tension comes so clearly from love and from grief and from the way that grief and love produce a desire to understand a desire to kind of do the impossible, which is to be with his brother in that moment. To be with him kind of even feeling just the texture or the chill of the of the gun or feeling what it felt like to write his name one last time through trying to feel what it felt like to be bewildered by the life that had like delivered him to that moment, that kind of eking movement self summoning towards an impossible proximity is, is just a tremendous a tremendous act of emotional expression. And, and it's happening right there in that paragraph. It's happening in its words, and it's happening in its rhythms. And to me, it's like, yeah, that's, that's what writing can, can be. And it's kind of what calls me back to like, even this belief and writing as a kind of sacred task, I get so just impossibly sincere. Really, I'm never not being just ponderously sincere, but this essay really takes me deep into the thick of that tone. And, you know, sometimes Charlie was a very harsh teacher, and it took me a while to understand that his exacting his exacting,I don't want to call them standards, because they weren't programmatic or rigid like that. But his, his ferocity as a teacher, I guess, really came from a belief in what writing could be and what our writing could be, and really wanting writing to, like, go for the most ambitious, meaningful things that could possibly say every time and and when I read this essay, I was like, okay, no wonder, you know, what are you believe writing can be this kind of extraordinary thing, because that's how you practice it like that, when you write your writing is so. So kind of rich and daring and deeply felt, then kind of it's doing what writing can do when it's like, at its most meaningful, so I was like, Okay, I guess you can try to ask that of us as well.

Zach Fine  22:38

I'd love to hear and you read it out loud. Because I've read it a few times. Now, I don't think I caught all of those commas and the pauses. And it was only in the kind of cadence of, of the kind of oral delivery of it that I could actually see how that was mirrored in the in the construction of the sentences. But I'm I'm now also I'm kind of noticing, I didn't notice reading it the first time that he goes from describing it as a note to an essay to a document, there's that line. And just seeing that kind of that movement, from note to essay to document and wondering if you would think of this as an essay, or whether this is a collection of documents, and how you think of genre and relationships.

Leslie Jamison  23:20

Yeah, I think that's a really interesting observation, the kind of turning from note to essay to document and you know, I think yeah, I mean, one of the things that I was thinking about as I was reading it out loud this time is just that, anytime you deploy the title of a given work inside the work, you're, I think implicitly asking your reader to pay particular attention. Um, I think I think about that when I try to figure out titles in my own work and when the title is going to appear in the text. Like it, there's, there's such a pressure on it. And I think here, it's like, when we come across the word “documents” inside the essay itself, it's a moment where it's saying, "okay, this, this is a moment in the essay that matters so much that it's giving you some way to understand like, the, the purpose of the of the whole thing we're inside of, which is to like, hold these documents up to the light and like see what can be found in them.” And, to me, the turn from kind of note to essay to document is also a turn, like speaking to the levels of like deeper and deeper inquiry into this like single text. So to see it as a note is sort of in that framework that we're most familiar with, of like the suicide note as the genre of thing left behind, but then to reframe it, okay, a suicide note kind of also be an essay and what does it mean to take this note seriously enough to call it an essay. And, you know, I'm sure you guys have been into this on this podcast before, it's like one of everybody's favorite things to do with the genre of the essay is get into the etymology of the word essay itself. But here, I actually think it's worth doing like, you know, essay comes from the French (Old French) esai to try. But I think here that idea of trying has a particular and kind of new poignancy to me when you're thinking about the suicide note as an essay, because he's pointing to this note, as a, as his brother's, an attempt, probably not entirely successful attempt to make sense of his own life, or just sort of figure out these like jumbled puzzle pieces of his own life. So to call it an essay, I think, is also to sort of subtly, not just back to that idea of the kind of like attempt to understand in addition to just like taking it seriously as a piece of thinking and writing. And then to look at it as a document, I think, is to put it in that more archival framework of like a thing left behind, that is being scrutinized, held on to you asked to bear some kind of weight, or yield some kind of meaning. But I think there's a kind of democratizing of the voices in this essay that happens through some of this genre work, like calling a note an essay, rather than just a note, or even treating his correspondence with his father, which is the kind of final section of the essay and a much more antagonistic engagement, like he's arguing with his father, he has a lot of anger towards his father. He's sort of fighting with his father, as he engages with his father's letters and his father's language. But there's also a kind of taking seriously, that's embedded in that textual engagement. So I think calling the suicide note, an essay is also a kind of micro moment of what's happening throughout the essay, which is like I'm taking the voices of my family members seriously. And these acts of textual engagement.

Jessica Swoboda  27:22

Leslie, as you were talking about the close textual attention that D'Ambrosio plays, pays, and how it comes so clearly through love and grief. And that itself is this pursuit of understanding, I was reminded of your introduction to your interview with him, where you write "D'Ambrosio follows the wondering rather than trying to resolve it," and so I'm wondering if you can talk a bit about how this comes to the fore and documents and what else about his writing and style leads you to this conclusion?

Leslie Jamison  27:57

Yeah, um, I think there's an insistence, I think, often in Charlie's work and in his thinking and in his speaking and in his like, being in the world…I’m wrestling with rather than resolving and I think here, you know, in his engagement with his youngest brother, Danny's suicide note, you see, exactly that kind of turning towards like, you know, what I call in that introduction like following the wandering rather than resolving it or you know, sometimes it may be the texture feels more like wandering, sometimes the texture feels more like wrestling, sometimes the texture feels more like asking, sometimes the texture feels more like bewilderment. But all of these are sort of different effective textures that can come attached to like the act of sitting with questions rather than answering them and I think his brother's death is a is a is a question. It's a question he won't ever be able to answer. I mean, it's a it's a lot of questions. I guess the question of, what did it feel like to be alive for his brother? Why did his brother kill himself? What it what is it mean to how does one live with that grief? How does this narrator live with that grief? And so I think there's a there's again, I kind of respect for the unanswerable like that's, that's embedded in that turning towards like wandering or wrestling rather than resolving and I think, often and in Charlie's essays, I see just like, clearer and clearer and more and more nuanced statements of questions rather than then attempt to answer them or there's maybe an attempt to there's like a refusal to kind of arrive at adefinitive answer. Like, you know, I was thinking actually about Charlie's like mode of thinking and modes of wandering maybe when I was teaching Augustine's confessions this semester. And there's this amazing passage. I mean, many amazing passages in Augustine, but a passage about stealing pears, and I don't know if you guys are familiar with it. But you know, Augustine has like many sins of the flesh to choose from when he's like reckoning with his own past, but I love that he really bears down hard and this time that he and his friends like stole some pears from a pear tree. And he says, you know, they weren't even like, delicious pears. They weren't even pears that look good. Like, and he's he's really just breaking open this question like, why did I, why did I steal the pears? But what makes me what reminds me of Charlie, or I guess what Charlie reminds me of Augustine, is that there's it's not like he's going to answer the question of why he stole the pears. The question is just getting more and more kind of complicated as he brings in new layers and motivation. Well, I, you know, stole the parents because there was a feeling of camaraderie in the theft. Well, I stole the pears because like transgression itself was like, sweet to me was like an appealing thing to me. Well, I can't ever fully figure out why I stole the pears, because that's only for you God to know. He's like ostensibly talking to God, but he's really talking to us, I think. But this idea of like, how can one keep following a question towards revelation and sort of intellectual suspense or unfolding without either doing two things that I think both feel like stalemate or like cul de sacs and one is just like, calling the calling the question unanswerable in some way that seems like an alibi or refusal or sort of ceasing to be in motion saying, well, we can't really know. And I think that rhetorical move in an essay always feels unsatisfying, and like, frankly, a little cowardly, to me like to call a question unanswerable just in a way that sort of like stops thought. But I think to answer a question is also a way of stopping thought. And I think both Augustine and Charlie in their different ways, are engaged in that like continued wrestling that just feels like it's bringing more and more illumination. It's bringing insight, it's bringing new ways of thinking about things. But it's not doing that by resolving a question. It's doing that by kind of like moving deeper and deeper into the question. In the second paragraph of the section, which you didn't read. There's a moment where Charlie tells us that Danny did not want the the letter that he's written or no, not the letter, sorry, he doesn't want the way that he's died to be disclosed. And I was trying to figure out as I was reading this about what Charlie was doing there about whether he was why he was disclosing this to us, and whether it was something about writerly transgression, or about feeling conflicted about telling the story and how you interpret that choice to tell us that. Yeah, I mean, I do think that his decision, in a way in that moment, his decision to offer us the means, or the information with which we might indict him or accuse him of something, it's important to recognize that as a choice, right, like he could have told us about Danny's suicide note and engaged with Danny suicide note and never mentioned that Danny had expressed a desire for the mode of his death to remain secret. So it's like we might, in that moment, Judge Charlie judge, the writer of this essay for like exposing the secret that Danny didn't want him to expose, but we're only able to judge him because he's given us the means by which to judge him. And I think so often that can get lost in I don't know all kinds of personal narrative nonfiction, where it's, it's like there can be a reader really feeling of wanting to judge or indict the narrator that also forgets that it's the narrator who has sort of supplied the reader with with…enough material about him, for the reader to have those judgments. And so, yes, I think Charlie has made a choice to create a work of art that does disclose an aspect of his brother's life and death, which has, of course, also now become a part of Charlie's life, that his brother asked him not to disclose but he's also giving us he's givingI guess those additional layers of complexity, he's giving us the fact that there is a kind of transgression or betrayal involved in the act of writing about it at all. And, you know, so much of writing from life does involve moments that many people think of as betrayal, the people who are being written about people who are reading it from the outside. And, you know, I think, to me, that doesn't mean that I wish that art didn't exist, or I wish it didn't say what it did. It just…it's a complexity that I think you can't turn away from. And here, I think Charlie is just asking us to sit with, to sit with the idea that like, in addition to the other, that there's a kind of damage being done by His act of writing in the same way that he's asking us to look to this, the kinds of damage that are done by other texts that he's writing about, specifically, I guess, his father's letters, which are also become a sort of, they have a kind of violence to them. But I think Charlie's also like turning the gaze there on himself and saying, right, there's a kind of violence in in some of my texts, as well as some of my acts of writing as well. 

Jessica Swoboda  36:15

So Leslie, we asked you to choose one of your own essays to discuss in relation to “Documents" and you've selected the “Empathy Exams?” How did documents help you think about your approach to the “Empathy Exams”?

Leslie Jamison  36:30

So yeah, there were a couple of reasons I wanted to talk about these two essays together. And The Empathy Exams just like brief capsule introduction is an essay that departs from a narrative about my experience working as a medical actor. So basically, I was paid by the hour to pretend to have all sorts of different ailments, everything from appendicitis to a kind of something called a conversion disorder where I was basically having these seizures that resulted from unprocessed trauma. But in one case, I have to pretend to be pregnant and have preeclampsia. Anyway, I basically get paid by the hour to pretend to be sick, and all of these ways to help medical students in their training. And I and one of the things that the medical students evaluated me on, or I evaluated them on, sorry, was how well they had demonstrated empathy in our interactions. So I sort of start from thinking about my life as a medical actor to a broader thinking about empathy. What do we mean when we use that word? What what are the kinds of futility and impossibility embedded inside empathy itself? And part of, but formally and structurally, the essay…starts to use the genre of the medical script, which is what I used when I was medical actor, I use these medical scripts that basically told the kind of presented these characters who I would portray, and presented like their symptoms, their backstories, how they were supposed to conduct themselves, I ended up using that as a kind of textual genre embedded inside the essay to tell some of my own much more personal story about experience of undergoing heart surgery and the experience of undergoing an abortion, which happened in like very close succession. So I sort of turned myself and my own experiences into a medical script. And I think, for me, one of the ways that as a text, “Documents” was helpful in writing the Empathy Exams was that it offered a model for how one might use textual engagement and like close textual engagement to like break open, a deeply emotional subject matter and actually penetrate the deep emotionality of that subject matter more fully than if you just tried to come at it straight without that textual mediation. And it's different kinds of textual mediation, like Charlie is looking at these family artifacts. I'm sort of turning my own life into an artifact by turning it into these medical scripts. But in both cases, it's sort of like taking what might be potentially as sort of clinical endeavor, or a kind of clinical form of engagement and almost like breaking open that clinical engagement from the inside and letting it be like deeply emotional and messy, em. So I think there's a sort of way that formally and structurally, “Documents” was a good an invitation to basically play around with form and structure and play around with form and structure as ways of kind of getting more deeply into purpose. An old narrative that I had in early drafts of the essay just been kind of like skimming along on the surface of, um, but I also wanted to talk about it in relation to documents because Charlie was my most important reader, as I was working on that essay, “The Empathy Exams,” he read a very early draft of it. And the feedback he offered me on that draft, like not only kind of fundamentally changed that essay, but it like fundamentally changed the way that I write essays at all. And the way that I've written like, every essay I've written in the decade since I wrote that one. So I he was he was such a force in that editorial process, but he, it felt right to bring that is the entire conversation with this one.     

Zach Fine  40:56

We can you say what that intervention was that he made in the essay that was so important? 

Leslie Jamison  41:02

Yeah, I really built it up. He, um, yeah. So in the first draft of the essay, I narrative my life as a medical actor, but I didn't really narrate my life as a medical patient, I made these brief sort of glancing allusions to, you know, various things that things in my life that I had, at some point either wanted empathy, around or had kind of like, felt ashamed of my own desire for empathy around but, you know, if there was a kind of ironic tone at work in early drafts, where I would mention, you know, I'd mentioned heart surgery, I'd mentioned abortion, I mentioned cutting, I mentioned an eating disorder. But I didn't really go into any of them. And there was something happening in the tone that was quite evasive. It was like, as if I was saying, look, like you don't really want to hear I know, you don't really want to hear about that, like who really wants to hear, you know, a 20, something narrator going on and on about her eating disorder going on and on about how she cut herself when she was a teenager going on and on about her heart surgery, like this kind of way that it was like, I felt ashamed to be writing about painful experiences in a way that seemed as if I was asking a reader for sympathy around those experiences in a way that was directly related to the content of the essay, which was so much about the shame of desiring empathy at all, or the shame of asking somebody to come inside of a hard experience with you. And when he read the, when he read the essay, when he read the first draft of the essay, which did not, by the way, include any of this like writing my own life, as if it were a medical dossier or a medical script, it was, you know, was just a kind of a structurally more straightforward essay, where there was some writing about my life as a medical actor, some brief glancing references to my life as a medical patient, and then some broader considerations of empathy as a concept. When Charlie read it, he said, um, and I actually brought up one of his old emails. Can I just read a little bit from it, please? Yes. Okay. Um, he says, um, he said that he wanted a version of my I, my first person narrator that was at quote, scrubbed clean of the protections irony provides. He said, “throughout you're juxtaposing two narratives, those the assigned role of a medical actor and then there's your own messy life whose disruptive narrative sits in sharp contrast to the scripted stories of a standardized patient.” (The roles I played as a medical actor). “I love this, and I encourage you to trust the tension. It creates the very real threat your personal narrative poses to that other standardized story. My concern in this draft is that you aren't delivering the crucial half of the equation: the disruptive you. Whenever we turn to the subject of you, we mostly get a treatment similar to the dossier of an eye of an S.P.” (a standardized patient), “a sketch of itself a gesture in the direction of a life, the general contours of a character without a fuller sense of the fleshed out thing. Without this missing, you scrubbed clean of the protections that irony provides the contrast between the two competing narratives isn't quite there. Maybe the difference that needs to be maintained is the one between you as a character and you as a narrator. The character would carry a lot of vulnerabilities and a flawed presence, but the narrator will tend to be knowing cool distanced. I feel that too much knowing acts like an inoculation against character, prevents that ignorance that blindness and confusion that crossed and conflicted human thing from happening. It stops the outbreak of character.” And there's so much in there that I love and that I needed to hear. I think that I was trying to kind of bring this ironic, cool, detached narrative self, to kind of use it to contain the character of myself. And the character of myself was something that was messier and more vulnerable and full of desire and needy, you know, and I was at a moment in my life, maybe still am where I was, like, desperately afraid of being too needy, from people from readers from boyfriends from whoever. And so I think here, this idea, first of all, of irony as a protective force, and then I needed to stop it from being such a protective force was quite powerful. And then the idea of like, allowing the kind of outbreak of character was was really powerful to me. And when he said, you know, it, you're treating your own life as if it were a dossier, he meant that obviously, as a kind of critique, like, don't do that, because you're stopping the outbreak of character, you're stopping that conflicted and flawed and messy and confusing human thing from happening on the page. But actually, that observation was what gave me this idea. Oh, what would it be like to sort of formally embrace this protective mechanism, basically, as a means of subverting it? Like, what if I were to write myself my own story as if it were a medical dossier, but do that invoke that kind of genre turn, in order to allow the outbreak of character in order to basically allow a very messy human presence to sort of erupt from inside the clinical distanced strictures of the kind of dossier form. And so that's ultimately what I ended up doing in revision, is sort of making this formal turn towards telling my personal narrative as if it were a dossier, but kind of to allow that dossier to be a bit of a Trojan horse, like, you let it in the gates thinking that it's one thing thinking it's this is sort of contained, cool, detached voice, but then actually, you know, all the soldiers spill out or like the outbreak of character spills out, or like the messy conflicted human things spills out. And so it was, you know, it was at the core of what he was saying was something I needed to hear about letting that messy human thing be present. But there was also a kind of formal breakthrough that he led me toward without even quite knowing he was leading me towards it. And, yeah, and I think he also to your question earlier, just about wondering, and my own admiration for his fidelity to that state of wandering and his own work. Um, I think he said something to me in the process of working on that piece where, you know, because when he said, You know, sometimes the problem with an essay can become a subject. And in that case, I think the problem that I had been identifying to him was that I felt myself turning away every time I got close to the heat of my own personal material. And that I think he in, in asking me to think about the ways in which that problem might not just be like an obstacle I needed to overcome, but actually be a kind of site of meaning inside the essay itself. I think he, he helped me get to that revelation, that part of what the essay was getting at was like the shame of kind of confessing one's own pain, or confessing a desire for somebody else to listen, really. And that that shame was like, producing that problem inside the essay, but that shame could also be one of the essays subjects.

Jessica Swoboda  49:13

Now, this is a bit of an aside, but I had this moment when I was rereading the Empathy Exams last week, where I was like, Oh, my friend who's a doctor, and her research is on empathy. And patient care really needs to read this. And so I text her and like, have you read Leslie Jamison's Empathy Exams? She's like, actually, it's something I teach it when I'm training residents about empathy and patient care. And so I just wanted to mention that because I thought this was a cool overlap between like, the work that I'm doing here and talking to you, and then also the work that your essay is doing in the medical world, as my friend is training physicians because she's like, No, it's perfect. It's like the things I'm fighting against. She's talking about experiencing as both the medical actor and as patient so wanted to mention that. 

Leslie Jamison  50:01

Thank you so much for that. Yeah, it's really it's so cool to hear about your friend and, and awesome to hear that she teaches teaches the essay and yeah, in the I mean, it's been, I guess it's been almost a decade since the essay was first published in The Believer. And then it was published in my first essay collection, Just a Name. And yeah, I've like I, you know, I've definitely I've, like spoken in a bunch of medical schools where it's taught, or have you heard from doctors and residents, and, and it just kind of blows my mind, you know, I always have like, a little bit of a feeling of imposter syndrome around that. (Another problem that ultimately became a subject of mine). But um, I think, you know, the idea that just to, you know, because I think well, what do I have to teach a doctor? And there are a lot of things that I don't have to teach a doctor is part of the answer to that question. But I also really believe that just kind of inquiring deeply of one's own experience and kind of following that experience back into the world like can can yield insight. And if it doesn't, like, why are any of us doing this at all? So it's always cool to hear about it getting invoked…in medical contexts, or really any, any, any context. It's all these little lives out there in the world and many of them I know, I don't even know about, which is exciting. I mean, what more could you want from an essay to find all these different pockets? 

Jessica Swoboda  51:29

So you did mention that it's been almost 10 years since this essay came out? And looking back on it, is there would you approach it differently? I know for me, the your discussion about your abortion hit differently now in a post roe world than it did when I first read it back in 2014. And so I'm just wondering how you view this essay. Now, if you might approach it differently, what you might change, if anything?

Leslie Jamison  52:03

Yeah, um, you know, I think it's a great question. There are a couple different parts of it. I mean, I think I do. I certainly think about the experience of that abortion differently in, in an era where reproductive rights are more imperiled and, and more overtly imperiled and reproductive justice is full of injustice, and all sorts of even starker ways than it has always been. But I also think there's Yeah, I also, I mean, there are lots of ways in which I think about reproductive justice differently, like, now that I'm a mom, I have a five year old and, you know, I think I've never, you know, believed in the importance of access to reproductive care, including abortion, like more fully, like, you don't really understand how much having a kid changes your life in every way. So there are lots of ways that I kind of, look at the things I'm talking about in this essay different differently, or just with, like, more layers of living and more layers of history kind of embedded in my gaze. But I also, it's like, I don't, I'm sure I would write it differently if I were to write it today. But I'm also would never want to write it again, like I, I am, I, I believe in every piece of writing as like emerging from the particular era, both like intellectually and experientially that it emerges from and it's almost like it needed it needed to emerge from that era, in my living and in my thinking, and I would I it's like, not only would I write it differently, but I couldn't actually reproduce it from this state of living like, I think I would. I feel that way about a few different essays. And my first essay collection, actually, including this essay called “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” I knew I knew, like that essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” I would write it, I would write it differently now. I'd write it almost like more responsibly, I would like qualify certain statements, I would maybe put certain contexts around it, but I'm like glad that I can't do that, like, because I'm glad for it to just live in the world. And it's more sort of, like, reckless form maybe. And, and, and my job now is to figure out the things that I can write, like, more recklessly from this era in my life. So yeah…there are a lot of pieces of writing where I think, Oh, if I were to somehow try to write into those questions, again, I would write them differently. If I were to write that experience. Again, I would write it differently. But I also feel glad that I wrote it in that way at that time. I don't know if that makes sense. Or if it sounds like kind of like a 2am like stoned series of thoughts, but um, but I do and in a way sometimes I think, you know, my editor at Greywolf where I where I publish that essay collection, The Empathy Exams the amazing Jeff Shotts said, he said to me once, like, oh, like, probably your next book is going to be called, like “More Empathy Exams” or something like that he meant it tenderly. But basically to be like, this is like your lifelong subject. And I was like, yes, in fact, like, every book I write will just be like, you know, like that series, like scary stories to tell in the dark or whatever. It's just like, even more scary stories to tell in the dark, like, even more Empathy Exams. So in a way, it's like, I'm still writing that essay, because I think my writing is still interested in so many of the same questions like, how do we witness one another's interior lives? Or like, how do we kind of fail to witness one another's interior lives? What is that like impossibility of ever, completely knowing, identifying with sharing somebody else's, actually psychic experience? I think I'm like, still wrestling with those questions. But just with like, a different set of materials, like a different set of experiences for my own life and other people's lives. So in a way, it's like, the work I make now is like me trying to write “The Empathy Exams” now, except it's, it's like, you never step in the same river twice. So like, the water samples is different. Um, and I mean, you know, my…my questions evolved too. I have a friend who talks about, like, getting sober is like, he still has problems, but they’re like, slightly better problems and the ones he had before. And so I think that I think that questions shift and, and that's a truth of life, too. But, um, but I, I, I see this essay, and I know that I wouldn't write it today. But I'm glad that it exists, exactly as it does.

Zach Fine  56:40

Even though some of the questions have stayed the same, thinking about style. I'm wondering, looking back now, you know, going back to that comment about tone that Charlie made in the email, or the way you were thinking about tone, how is your your style and your tone as well changed in the past decade if you if you read the Empathy Exams now, but you know, that the voice there? How are essays now? 

Leslie Jamison  57:04

Um, you know, I think that I feel like every project I write I, I summon, you know, a slightly different, I don't want to even say self, because I never believe in the singular self, even in even in textual form, I summon…a slightly different set of selves for every work of personal narrative, and I summon a slightly different tonal range, maybe. And the project to some extent, dictates, like, what is the, what is the tonal range here, I think, with many of the essays and Empathy Exams, and each one of the essays in that collection, I think, has a slightly different voice. But there's, among other things, what I think of as a kind of extravagant or insistent sincerity, like a, like a, you know, the last lines of that collection are like, "I want our hearts to be open.” I just wrote that. I mean, it you know, like, there's a kind of like, I know, you're out there critics of sincerity and I'm here like voice of sincerity, you know, and it's like, it's sort of a little knowing, and it's like a little tongue-in-cheek, but it's also just like doubling down over and over again. And I think I'm still as sincere as ever, but I think my writing over the past decade, has gotten a little bit sharper and a little bit more, right. I was, I've been working for the past four or five years on memoir that's coming out next spring called Splinters and the, it's one of the, it's probably the only book that I've written the majority of it like straight onto the computer rather than writing by hand and then transferring it onto the computer, which is my more typical mode. And at first, I was a little bit afraid, I've always been a little afraid to write straight onto the computer like I would like lose some part of my voice. But actually, at least with this project, what happened was I like discovered this slightly different voice when I started writing straight to the computer and, and I think it was also connected to sort of finding this form that that is the form of the book, which is what I think of as these kind of textual splinters. That's not a revolutionary form. Plenty of people have written in fragments before but to me that the title of the work, Splinters, is both about a kind of emotional experience of like what gets stuck under the skin, but it's also about these like small kind of one, two, three paragraph units like vignettes meditations, with which I'm invoking a particular area of my life: early motherhood, divorce, pandemic. Um, but I think there was something about that form that the the form of the splinter and something about writing straight to the computer that made my voice in that project, just a little bit more jagged, like it's a little bit, it's like a little bit more shocking, it's a little bit more dry, it's a little bit harsher in certain moments. Its grief is like, also quite sharp. So it kind of creates this, like splintery feeling in the voice as well…that voice to me feels like miles away from the voice of Empathy Exams, and I'm glad for that they're trying to do different things and speak different experiences. But I should say, you know, sometimes I know when I talk about voice, when I hear other people talking about voice, it's like, it's the same way that it's like, can be with photographs where like, you look at two photographs of yourself, and you're like, in this one, I'm like, the hottest person in the world. And, and in this one I'm, like, you know, look deformed or something like that. But like to other people, they look at those two photographs. They're like, you just look exactly like yourself in both of those photos. You don't look different at all. And I think sometimes it can be that way with voice where it's like, oh, this is my voice over here. And here's my voice miles away and somebody else reads them. They're like, sounds like Leslie Jamison. I also want to be humble about those things that feel like that's divergences in the self, but from the outside. People can can can feel that it's come from the same psyche.

Zach Fine  1:01:27

Well, Leslie, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. 

Leslie Jamison  1:01:30

Yes, yeah. Thank you guys. What a delight. And thank you just for putting out such a wonderful magazine. It's thrilling to talk to you all.

Jessica Swoboda  1:01:42

Thanks, everyone for joining us for this episode of selected essays. We'd like to thank Joe Coleman for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy have hand habits for contributing the original music. We hope you'll tune into our next episode, we'll be talking with Leo Robson and Rosa Lyster about Martin Amis's "In Praise of Pritchett" and "the American Eagle." As always, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and if you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to selected essays at the point We'd love to hear from you. Until next time, listeners.

When Leslie first read "Documents" and met Charles D’Ambrosio
Summarizing "Documents"
Leslie reads the opening passage
D'Ambrosio's attention to detail
Economy of style?
Leslie reads another passage
The structure of the essay
Following the wondering
"The Empathy Exams"
D'Ambrosio's influence
Looking back at "The Empathy Exams" ten years later