Reed McConnell ’15
Leslie Jamison is an alumna of Harvard College. Her most recent book of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” was released in April 2014 and has been generating press and discussion ever since. I sat down to talk with her about empathy, gender, and truth in the context of her essays on a rainy day this past summer, at a café in Union Square, New York City, a few blocks from where she works.
Reed McConnell: Okay, so my first big thing as I was reading this book was about the confessional as a genre of writing. As I was reading the essay “Lost Boys,” I was struck at how you were talking about confession as this important thing in the trial, right, like this Foucauldian “they [the community members] want them [the boys] to confess because they want a scapegoat,” and I was thinking about what that might have to do with the confessional as a genre of writing—do you see confessional writing as reflecting inherent truths, as sort of pulling out truths, or is it more…constructing the truths as you write?
Leslie Jamison: Well, it’s such a smart connection because I do feel like one of the things “Lost Boys” was thinking about was the way in which we were so invested in a certain understanding of authenticity, and certain forms as almost…direct avenues of access to authenticity, and that the confession is one of the things that we’re so attached to as almost an indisputable form of truth. And then it’s so destabilizing to think about the ways that the form of the confession is also so subject to context, so ultimately constructed, and so often false. We think of it as the last thing that should be false. And I feel that there’s a way that that corresponds to the confessional form [of writing]—maybe a slightly more productive, or happier way, where I do feel like the confessional form is something we like to think of in terms of revelation, or stripping, stripping away of clothing, or just kind of like the guises of civil interaction to like show our truth, when really it does feel so much more right to me, or accurate, to think of it as a constructed thing, something that is not only so subject to context and circumstance and who was being spoken to, and why someone was speaking, and all of those kind of correspond to the courtroom confession as well, or the criminal confession. But your life as you’ve lived it is not only an infinite thing because there are so many moments or experiences that could be transcribed that you’re choosing which ones to document, but you’re also choosing how to document them, and in both of those choices, something much closer to construction is happening. So in thinking about the confessional as a constructed form, or thinking about personal writing as an inherently constructed form, I’m really interested in pushing back against that notion, and sort of parting the curtain and thinking about it in other ways.
And I mean I also do think—and other people have spoken about this more than I have—I do think that the term “confessional” also implies culpability or guilt in a way that not all confessional writing is confessing guilt. Or it shouldn’t necessarily be understood in those terms. And confessional writing is often understood as seeking something from the reader, like seeking absolution, or seeking sympathy, and that’s I think A. false but B. more interestingly kind of illuminates a desire on the part of readers to think that a writer is seeking something from them, and I think it’s almost projecting a desire onto the writer that is in fact symptomatic of a desire that the reader has for the writer to need something from them, or to want something from them. And, you know, one of the many reactions that people have had to the book has to do with projecting my desire for sympathy, saying, “this author so clearly wants sympathy,” and that more than anything is really fascinating to me, that that would kind of be read into the text as somehow already existing in the text when it seems to me like something complicated happening between the reader and the text, to want to see that desire for sympathy there.
RM: Yeah, and I was also thinking about—what does the writer need from the reader, what do you as a writer need from writing? I loved your term “wound-dweller,” and I was thinking about what it means for the writer to dwell on a wound. You even said at one point that you wrote a short story [about one of your wounds, to relieve it], but that dwelling on the wound didn’t necessarily help things. But I know I feel that sometimes in my own writing—and I was also thinking about [the book] “Aliens and Anorexia,” where Chris Kraus writes about her flopped movie project “Gravity and Grace” as a failure—that it’s a way of dispensing, you know, like, “I’m writing this failure down, and now it’s physically external to me.” So I wonder if that’s also something that exists in your relationship with this kind of writing.
LJ: It’s such an interesting tension to think about because if “dwelling” in something means articulating it, or making sense of it, then there’s a way that you’re simultaneously dwelling in it and distancing yourself from it. Because the more you talk about something, or turn it into a narrative, or share it with other people, you’re sort of standing inside of it at the same time as you’re pushing it further and further away from you. I absolutely do feel like everything I write about, and every essay that exists is an artifact in a world, and there is some distance between me and that depiction of an experience. The essay is just a finite set of words, and it’s one version, and it’s one arrangement, but the experience is always going to be bigger and more complicated than what I understand, and certainly than what I’ve put down. And that doesn’t feel futile to me, it actually feels really saving, otherwise somehow I would be putting my whole life on the page. But there’s never any danger of that because life is always much bigger than what could be on the page. And I also feel like there’s a distance between me and the personal moments that show up in my writing because personally just through the process of drafting and revision, which makes you see something more as an artifact and less as something that just happened. And I mean, a lot of my writing goes through multiple drafts but I would say definitely that the personal pieces go through more drafting and revision, and more substantive drafting and revision, than the critical pieces. And part of that is that I think it takes me longer to understand myself, or that’s the stuff that’s hardest to get at, because there’s a version of it that’s so proximate, or so immediately available, and so you kind of have to get past that proximate version to the other stuff. it’s an important stage of the process to kind of distance myself from it and come to think of it as a series of aesthetic choices, with their origins in experience.
RM: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot in my own writing about the idea of aestheticization—or just how do you get at… a truth. And I think that for a while I was convinced that you could get at the truth, that if you worked hard enough you could get there, and that aestheticization always gets in the way. But maybe writing is necessarily aestheticization, to a certain point.
LJ: And what has replaced, or succeeded that sense of getting at a truth? An idea of holding multiple truths alongside of each other, or…? What’s your vision now about what writing can do?
RM: I guess I’ve started to feel that truth isn’t necessarily something that can be got at because of subjectivity. I mean—I studied anthropology at Harvard, and that was very important to me, and one of the central ideas of anthropology is that there aren’t really objective truths. There are ways of knowing, and there are systems of knowing, and there are ways we come to value things, and there are ways we understand things, and you can’t have a thing without…a way of understanding attached. And a way of understanding is always subjective. Right? So anything you write, anything you know, is a product of subjectivity. But at the same time, when I’m writing, I often find myself thinking, “I need to be more honest, and more honest, and more honest,” or, “I need to get at the kernel of truth,” so I just…don’t know. And that’s also something that I found interesting here because, especially in “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” you treat writing the body as a kind of honesty, and I found that really powerful, but I just wonder how that plays out in the long run.
LJ: Right, and that way of putting it, that everything that’s put forth is a piece of knowledge that’s attached to a system or a method of knowing, and produced as a piece of knowledge, does feel so true to me. And sometimes what essays that I love do, or what I’m sometimes trying to do in my writing is to sort of show the whole root system of a thing, not to just kind of show the carrot but show all the weird, dirty roots that made it, a compressing of the whole fundamental vision of the system that produced this thing that I’m presenting. And again, it kind of gets back to these questions of “Why do you put yourself in your work?” or, “Why do you put yourself in your journalistic work?” I’m not putting myself in it, we’re always in it, you’re in it every time you say anything, and it’s just how explicitly you want to talk about your presence in the thing that you’ve put forth. So yeah, it’s really not a matter of putting yourself into anything, it’s just how openly you talk about being in there. Which isn’t to say that I feel like there’s something sort of intrinsically or necessarily false about writing journalism that doesn’t have I in it, it’s just that the “I” not being there explicitly doesn’t mean that the “I” wasn’t there in producing the knowledge. Yeah, so in a way it feels like there’s something about that—disciplinary attention to the origins of knowing. It’s almost like truth is always something with a history, and what is the history of that, as opposed to objective truths floating in space-time, or something. So some of what can be really interesting about writing is that it can look at those histories, and how things came to be true.
RM: I definitely agree. And I feel like there’s this gap between anthropology and journalism—anthropology always recognizes the “I,” and it never seeks to trip up the subject. It’s not about revealing a thing, it’s about working with people. So reading “The Empathy Exams” was super interesting because it didn’t read to me as journalism, and it didn’t read to me as anthropology, but it did things that anthropology does that I think are really important. I never felt like you were trying to trip up [the people you wrote about], or find out some sort of hidden truth about them. It was always more like—how can I interact with these people, and what can I learn from this?
LJ: This is making me think about this conversation that I had yesterday with a friend of mine who’s a journalist where I was talking about my current project, which is about recovery, and there is a—for lack of a better word I’ve been calling it a “reported component,” but it’s not really reported, it’s like transcriptions of oral history, but it’s basically getting stories from people, in addition to there being memoir stuff in it, and critical and archival stuff in it. It’s a series of histories of people who were involved in this ramshackle recovery house in Maryland. But I was telling my friend about the weird dynamics of people who are in recovery, because things that are uncomfortable for a lot of people to talk about are stories that people in recovery have told a lot, because the point of recovery is kind of telling the stories that are difficult or shameful, and those are the very things that you need to get off your chest. I feel like the journalist is always looking for that moment of satisfaction of getting someone to say something they’ve never said before, or a moment of false consciousness where you’re seeing around somebody’s narrative of themselves, but—what I’m doing here is something different from that, because I’m not interested in exposing anything about these people, I’m not interested in being like, “Oh, this is the familiar story you tell about yourself, but here’s how it’s self-serving, or here’s how it’s self-deluded,” or something. It’s definitely much more collaborative, and it’s actually doing all these things that traditional journalism is not supposed to do, like take people at face value, or be invested in representing them in a way that they feel comfortable with. So insofar as my work is anthropological, it’s totally in an idiot savant way, because I know nothing about the discipline, but I have always felt like my relationship to journalistic practice is weird, and I’m like the weird step-cousin at the table or something. And I both feel like a fraud and like I’m doing something that treats emotional investment a bit differently, so it’s always interesting to think about how engaging in the stories of others in this particular way that happens in this book and the next book is sort of positioned between disciplines.
RM: I also felt the book did a really good job of approaching things, and making the reader feel certain things, without feeling like you had an agenda. I’ve done a lot of political stuff in the past, done feminist organizing and that sort of thing, and I feel like it’s really easy to approach…let’s say “The Pain Tours,” with the miners, or something, and I don’t know, become an advocate, and I feel like becoming an advocate in writing can be really dangerous. I was taking a class this semester where we read Errol Morris’ book “Standard Operating Procedure,” which is about Abu Ghraib, and in it he gets obsessed with this one prison guard. There’s this whole weird section where he’s defending her, and it’s clear he just got to know her as a person, and it’s really gotten to the point where he’s advocating for her in his writing. And the writing is technically supposed to be just a document of what happened. And I feel like as a reader, whether or not he’s right to do that, I end up becoming skeptical because I’m like, “Oh, he has an agenda.” And I think that’s something I worry about in my own writing, the idea that “Oh, she has an agenda.” So I guess my question is, how do you engender empathy and sympathy for people who are suffering in ways that are maybe very different from any ways that the reader has ever experienced without coming off as manipulative, like—[you’re] trying to get the reader to feel a certain way?
LJ: Right. It’s funny, because I think sometimes one of my…I don’t know what the right word is, insecurities, or one of my questions about the function of writing or the limitations of writing does connect up to the idea of advocacy in a certain way, ’cause it’s like—what is all this writing for? What’s it meant to do, or what does it ultimately stand behind? Is it ultimately proposing anything? All those questions are really interesting to me, and I feel like especially living in a world full of social and political urgency, what does it mean to be writing pieces that aren’t necessarily advocating for anything? I can feel insecure about that, so to think of the flip side of that, what remains more available to writing that kind of stays away from, I don’t know, strong agendas or advocacy—is heartening to think of, that there’s something that writing would actually relinquish the ability to do as effectively if it was motivated by an agenda. And I think some of that gets back to formal questions of what does an essay do. You know, people talk a lot about the etymology—ha, I say “people”—people who write essays talk a lot about the etymology of the essay and linking that back to essays as exploratory rather than thesis-driven, or—I was talking to Philip Lopate, I don’t know if you’ve read his work, he’s a little bit like the godfather of the essay, and he was talking about when his daughter was learning in high school about what an essay should be, it was so different from his understanding, as someone who had published whatever, ten books of essays. She was learning the five-paragraph structure, and argumentative structure, and argument as a kind of agenda, and, you know, part of what can be offensive about the apparatus of the five-paragraph essay is just how explicitly you become aware of a driving argument, and then how everything is so visibly positioned in relation to that argument. [So then I think about] how exciting it is to be reading writing where it seems to be allowing stuff into its folds that is disrupting what’s already there. That’s intrinsically interesting to me, to just sort of let things in that don’t fit but somehow feel like they belong, and then what do you do with them? They’re like little bits of irritant, or grit.
RM: I also think that it allows for nuance in a way that argumentative writing just doesn’t. Because you have to take a stance, right, if you’re writing an op-ed. The whole point is taking a stance. So you have to reduce things. You have to make things artificially less nuanced than they are. And I was struck—I think it’s at the end of the book when you’re talking about responses you had to the book, where there’s a frat brother who was like, “Wow, I feel like I’ve started to respect women more,” and I just know that if I wrote some op-ed in a feminist column about that exact thing, the guy would probably be like, “I’m not reading that, it’s a feminist column.” But because it’s presented in this way that’s just laying these things out, and doing this thing not because I have an agenda, but because maybe I have opinions on this but I’m not being so explicit about them, it ends up being accessible in a way that’s much more…functional in the end. So, yeah, I thought that was great.
And I guess I also thought a lot about—I think you said at the end of one of “The Pain Tours” that you felt guilty but you didn’t know what to do with it, and I wonder what you meant by that and where you think that guilt can take us.
LJ: I think that’s such a perfect articulation of the question—‘”Where can guilt take us?”—because even embedded in that syntax is an idea that guilt isn’t an end in itself, it’s like an engine that should take us somewhere else. I feel like that has been one of the things I’ve thought about, the danger of guilt becoming a sort of end in itself, or being delivered to the feeling of guilt, where it feels like, well, that’s self-awareness, and it’s enough. That idea of sufficiency, I think, can be really toxic, because it’s like—[Slavoj] Žižek had all these problems with Kiva because it’s giving you the feeling of doing good without actually doing good, and the feeling of doing good is just sort of inoculating you against that sort of indignation that would actually bring back more structural social change. And insofar as I feel like guilt can actually function as a palliative when it’s not spurring you on to something else, it gets dangerous. But of course I worry that that’s just what writing that articulates guilt does, sort of wrestling with the feeling without demanding more of itself. I guess part of what I was trying to get out is like, in certain kinds of situations, especially situations of like social and economic discomfort, the guilt can just get really loud, and then it can get really distracting, and you’re just so sort of focused on your own experience of guilt that it’s harder to just listen to the stuff that’s not you. And sometimes that’s a problem that people have with James Agee, and something that’s really troubling about his book is the way that his guilt starts to become… so so so loud, and it’s kind of arresting, and provocative, in all these ways because it is, you know, very much documenting his experience inside the thing rather than just representing the thing as if it was like objectively there to be represented outside of the eye of the representer. But I feel like the close of that piece [“The Pain Tours”] was kind of a call to be self-aware about your own emotional experience of a thing, but also not to stop trying to take in whatever you can from the thing itself, like other people’s stories, other people’s words, raw information—don’t become deaf to those things.
RM: I feel like guilt for me is also kind of a question of…how ins to empathy work, right, so I feel like there are people who will see someone on the side of the road and they’ll just shut down because they don’t want to have to deal with their own feelings of guilt, or their own feelings of confusion, and they don’t want to have to feel discomfort. And I feel like a lot of the ways that people try to go about dealing with that—like deploying personal stories, look at this starving child, donate this money, the attempts to provoke someone through empathy, or through sympathy, or through personal stories, through individuals instead of this general idea of, “Suffering is all around you.” I wonder about the effect of telling stories and recognizing individuals, and not just saying, “Here’s the math.” And I’m really interested in Susan Sontag’s work. I recently read “Regarding the Pain of Others” and I feel like Sontag’s so dead-set on this idea of context, like we need a person’s story, we can’t just say, “Oh yeah, bad stuff happened,” we have to say, “This specific person died, this person was injured, and this person died.” So I wonder if you thought about that as you were writing: the emotional affect of telling stories of individuals rather than looking at something as a mass?
LJ: There’s this psychologist called Paul Bloom—he’s at Yale, he does a lot of child psychology, but he’s working on a book about empathy, and he’s sort of carved this intellectual niche for himself by being against empathy, which is kind of polemical and a statement or position he deliberately adopts to be provocative, but his thoughts are really interesting. There are two pieces—a piece he wrote in The New Yorker called “The Baby in the Well: A Piece Against Empathy,” and another piece he wrote for The Boston Review that’s really worth looking at—it was sort of a furthering of this problematizing of empathy and the ways in which it’s valorized, and then responses from a bunch of people—me, and then, more to the point, Peter Singer, and Simon Baron-Cohen and [so on]. One of the things he talks about is the ways that empathy can lead us astray when it comes to decisions about policy or even decisions about ways to live in the world or donate money, precisely because it kind of skews us toward individual stories rather than systemic problems. The reason that it’s called “The Baby in the Well” is that one of his big examples is this baby, Jessica, who’s this American baby, eighteen months old, who got chucked to the bottom of a well, and within two days money had been raised to send her to college 18 times, while many other children in the world face even graver problems than Baby Jessica. So he’s really trying to lay out: okay, here’s the peril of focusing on the individual simply because that’s kind of what we’re more hardwired to do, is to get riled up about an individual story rather than about statistics, or about how many infants die of malnutrition.
I’m interested in thinking about how those modes wouldn’t have to be in competition, or how the story of the individual can be sort of brought into competition with other ways of documenting or describing systemic situations, so that we can—rather than kind of seeing our innate disposition toward individual stories as an obstacle to our moral reasoning, how can we intellectually interrogate it so it’s a tool, or so that it helps keep us invested and engaged? And it’s interesting because my dad is a global health economist, and his work is—basically he looks at how to spend money to relieve global disease burden, and so his work is deeply in the world of numbers and statistics, but looking at some of the most pressing obstacles to human life on the planet. So he’s looking at all this stuff that really matters but looking at it in a very different mode from say, the way I do, but I feel like that work has so many of the same goals in mind—the relief of human suffering. But it’s hard to see all that affective drive, because “global disease burden” is such a clinical phrase. But there’s such an important ethical imperative underneath it—so [I’m interested in] how to bring that larger statistical gaze and the individual gaze together. And it’s interesting what you said about anthropology, how there’s an understanding of complementary modes, where they are bringing together both, that’s really interesting to me.
RM: Yeah, anthropology is very much about scaling in and out, and that’s something that I really value. And I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional manipulation lately because I wrote my senior thesis on the Boston Marathon bombing, specifically on the lockdown after the bombing and the affective elements of the lockdown. It specifically had to do with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—and in “Lost Boys,” there’s this line where one of the boys is on trial and you’re saying, “He looked too young to get the death penalty, and he looked like an angel,” and that’s what I was studying for eight months. Tsarnaev is exactly my age and was a friend of friends of friends. I feel such intense empathy with this person, and I interviewed so many people who also felt this intense kind of empathy for him because they were like, “This is a child.” But they felt so guilty about feeling empathy for this person because this is a terrorist, right?
LJ: And one of the narratives of the defense was how much he had been in the thrall of his older brother, which I feel like tucks back into the youth/child idea…
RM: Yeah, and I don’t know, because I feel like the idea of feeling sorry for someone who’s definitely murdered people [is upsetting], but the idea of not feeling sorry for a nineteen-year-old who’s about to go to jail for the rest of his life or be killed… And then, on the other hand, on Facebook, I saw someone post an article and say that they didn’t believe in the death penalty, and then someone else posted as a reply a picture of the child who was killed in the bombing and said, “Look into this child’s eyes and tell me you don’t still believe in the death penalty.”
LJ: It gets deployed both ways.
RM: Yeah, and I think sometimes we feel empathy more in places we don’t want to feel it, and then feel intensely guilty.
LJ: That’s so interesting, and second-order feelings, or what I think of as second-order feelings, are so interesting to me, which are like the feelings we have about the feelings we have. And I feel like one of the biggest ones we have is shame about feeling certain things, and lack of empathy, or too much empathy. And there is something interesting about shame in misplaced empathy because it’s something that we’re so used to valorizing as a good thing, and then it shows up in some form that feels unmentionable or wrong… And sometimes I feel like second-order feelings can feel so claustrophobic or gratuitous, but there’s also this really good work that they do, which is ask us to interrogate every feeling, which doesn’t have to come back to, “Oh, that feeling is invalid,” or something, but what is the context of this feeling, or what does it mean for me to feel this connection to this person, and how can I sort of see something true in that, and also see something that I want to push back against. And then the whole idea of seeing your emotions as something that you have agency in relation to, rather than like something that you can’t choose—that’s a part of the book and something I was really interested in. I think second-order feelings are something that allow us to have agency in relation to those primary feelings.
RM: Along those lines, I guess the other big thing for me was the idea of the “post-wounded.” I really like that term and I feel like it describes something that I’ve been bothered by for a while but haven’t ever really brought to the front of my mind enough to articulate it—this idea that you are, as a woman, always acting in reaction to other things, and always being afraid of being thought of as this over-feminine woman, or hysterical woman, and doing all this stuff to avoid that that actually ends up precluding you from being honest with your feelings and the way that you interact with people because you’re so afraid of embodying the stereotype. And then also, the other part of it—being jaded about things and being afraid about having feelings about things. And, for instance, the TV show “Girls” makes me so angry every time I watch it because I feel like it’s ruled by a kind of apathy that I just can’t quite understand. But that makes so much sense with the idea that apathy extends from this sort of fear of becoming things that are really scary to be.
LJ: And I think that’s one sort of version of a second-order feeling. Almost like a preemptive fear that pushes the feeling out before it can fully come into view. And I don’t want to get into the business of mandating what anyone should or shouldn’t feel, or get into the business of creating sort of argument-resistant systems of, “If you don’t feel this it’s only because you’re afraid of your incapacity to feel it,” or something like that. I don’t want to be aggressive or tyrannical about that, but I do feel like there was something I was trying to get at in that essay that was coming from having been in a really similar place to what you describe, of like, something was bothering me and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and that essay [“The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”] was my attempt to put my finger on it. And it wasn’t one single cohesive homogenous it, but a bunch of little its that seemed to be part of a cohesive body of women articulating their own feelings in relation to these archetypes of women, and that one of the archetypes they were sort of relating to, or trying to set themselves apart from, was this wounded female archetype where there was something sort of overly aestheticized or glamorous about the way that she was wounded. I was trying to say that there’s something problematic about that, and there’s something problematic about a sort of absolute rejection of that, or the idea that in order to resist that, we cannot speak about pain. I really felt like—I’m not sure if that essay is really done, or finished, or has chink-proof armor, but I do feel it was getting at something.
I mean, the first feeling I had of, “Okay, there’s something here,” is when I did that crowdsourcing thing that I write about. And the variety of responses I got, and just the level of ferocity and investment in some of those replies made me go, okay, I’m touching some kind of nerve, here. And the varieties of ways that people have responded to the essay since it’s been published have followed up on that sense…. And I actually like a lot of things about “Girls,” and in a way I kind of like that it documents that process, but I do feel like so much of the time what looks like apathy is…is something else, or fear. When I taught at the University of Iowa, I had students where it felt like what I was getting from them was apathy, and I would look at their faces and see apathy there, but I realized that so much of the time the apathy was about fear. It was about being afraid to say things because they felt like they didn’t have anything worthwhile to contribute, or they didn’t think of themselves as the sort of people who thought smart thoughts about literature. That was such a helpful reorientation because even if it’s not always about fear, I feel like it’s almost always better to relate to people, not as if they’re afraid, but to give people the benefit of the doubt. There’s always a part of me that wants deeply to care, and just—what are the obstacles to that?
RM: And I think writing about being a woman… you write about this sadness you feel that’s impersonal, we don’t know where it comes from, it’s just there, and it’s not a logical sadness, it’s just this sadness. I was really arrested by that idea—this thing being here and no matter what I do, people are going to attach me to my body more, and expect that I am more attached to my body than a man would be, or less capable of abstract thought, less capable of doing things. I feel like it can be exhausting to never feel like I can transcend that, and I feel like in a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading lately by female confessionalist writers who specifically write a lot about the female body, there’s often a sentiment of, “I wish I could transcend this [body], but it’s so hard.” And at one point you say that you’re sick of people who are sick of female pain, but you’re also sick of female pain, and I wonder if you ever felt like in writing “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” or any of the other pieces that reflect gendered stuff, if you felt like what you were writing sort of had to be written but you didn’t necessarily want to be writing it?
LJ: That’s a great question. I think yes. And part of it is I felt like I was writing things that opened me up to a certain kind of attack, or critique, that I didn’t enjoy the thought of getting. It made me feel anxious to think of people saying, “You’re such a wound-dweller, you’re so obsessed with things that have happened to you, you’re such a narcissist, you’re so self-absorbed.” And I also believed that part of how I can speak truthfully about the world is drawing on my own life because I feel like my life is the one I’ve had the most contact with of all the lives that have ever been. So I felt in a way that this is how I do my strongest work. But I also feel afraid of not just being called those things, but of being those things. So in that sense I think I’ve had conflicted feelings about drawing on personal experience. And I also think that, you know, in writing about the dilemma of perpetuating some vision of the wounded woman, I’ve worried about that getting, I don’t know, sort of mistaken, or simply coming across as sort of perpetuating that mythology rather than critiquing that mythology, or interrogating that mythology. Which is totally true, and there are many people who have seen it that way. And in that way it does feel like writing about the thing is sort of perilously closing to enacting that thing.
This interview has been edited for length and flow.
Literature Discussed or Alluded to in the Interview
Agee, James. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. New York: Mariner Books, 2001.
Bloom, Paul. “The Baby in the Well: A Piece Against Empathy.” The New Yorker. May 20, 2013. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/05/20/the-baby-in-the-well>.
Dunham, Lena. Girls. Seasons 1-4.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Part 1. London: Vintage Press, 1978.
Jamison, Leslie. “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2014. <http://www.vqronline.org/essays-articles/2014/04/grand-unified-theory-female-pain>.
Jamison, Leslie. The Empathy Exams. New York: Graywolf Press, 2014.
Kraus, Chris. Gravity and Grace. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2000.
Kraus, Chris. I Love Dick. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006.
Gourevitch, Philip and Errol Morris. Standard Operating Procedure. [Also published as The Ballad of Abu Ghraib.] New York: Penguin, 2000.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.
Zizek, Slavoj. (Anything and everything in his enormous oeuvre.)