Read The Empathy Exams Online

Authors: Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams (22 page)

Frida kept a collection of ex-votos, paintings offered in thanks to saints. These small scenes show angels hovering over the infirm and the saved, their tiny bodies curled in prostrate postures of gratitude or suffering. Cursive captions offer summaries so brief they seem like gags clamped over the full stories (“I was crushed by a horse; the horse was startled by a snake”). Ex-votos are full of Frida’s hope, and her stubbornness: hers was a body pulled almost gravitationally toward injury, but her paintings point ceaselessly at grace.

Two facing pages of her diary show a pair of matching goblets, each bearing the face of a woman: full lips, broad nose, fixed eyes curling tears from their corners. One face is angry, purple and red, bruised and bleeding shades, captioned,
no me llores.
Don’t cry for me. Don’t weep to me. The other face is alabaster pale with blushing stains on its cheeks:
sí, te lloro.
I cry for you. I weep to you. I leave weeping. I’m just kidding.

Don’t weep to me.
The wounded one will not permit herself. And yet, does.

Servicio Supercompleto

Near the beginning of
, Joan Didion’s 1983 account of a repressive state in the thick of civil war, Didion goes to the mall. She’s looking for the truth of a country held in its aisles, and also tablets to purify her drinking water. She doesn’t find the tablets, but she does find everything else: imported foie gras and beach towels printed with maps of Manhattan, cassette tapes of Paraguayan music, vodka bottles packaged with stylish glasses. She writes:

This was a shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved, and I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “color” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in that kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details, that this was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all.

Her intelligence excavates a truth at once uncomfortable and crystalline: In the middle of a war you can’t see, you still want to look. You want to squint your keen and cutting eyes at whatever you can find. Because your subject is fear, and fear isn’t something with a particular scent or tint, only something in the air that makes it difficult to breathe. It won’t respond to any name when you call it into the light.

Every night in El Salvador, people were being picked up in trucks and killed. Their bodies were being thrown in landfills while Didion stood looking at a row of imported vodkas, thinking,
Just pointing at them, because they were there, and what right did they have?

Irony is easier than hopeless silence but braver than flight. The problem is that sometimes your finger shakes as you gesture, there is no point to point to, and maybe you can’t point anywhere—or at least not at anything visible.

I have often found myself in the role that Didion casts aside—the aisle-wandering, detail-pillaging self, who comes for water-purifying tablets and leaves with the price-tagged CliffsNotes of a country’s suffering. More specifically, reading her, I find myself in a Bolivian supermarket in 2007, taking notes:

Beatles playing dubbed on the loudspeakers: Hola, Jude. An aisle devoted entirely to canned milk. Bella Holandesa with a ruddy Dutch farm girl. Cereals made especially for old people and athletes—ancianos and deportistas—and a box of estrellas de avena, like the Cracklin’ Oat Bran I used to eat endlessly in college, except: Stars! Bags of mayonesa as large as infants, twenty-nine hundred cubic centimeters, and a box of Sopa Naranja made of powdered pumpkins and carrots. An entire row of canned salads: Ensaladas de California and Rusa, both full of “aromas naturales.” Anything that advertises salsa Americana contains white wine. From the personal ads in
Correo del Sur:
Yosselin is thin and discreet. Janeth offers “servicio supercompleto con una señorita superatractiva.”

Two months later the same newspaper,
Correo del Sur
, ran a piece on a group of sex workers on strike in El Alto, the sprawling city of brick shacks on the altiplano above La Paz. The bars and brothels where these women worked had been vandalized. They sat in protest for days outside a local health clinic.
Servicios supercompletos.
They sewed their lips together with thread.

I look back at my notes: canned salad and powdered pumpkins. I have trouble remembering the point. Metonymy shrugs its shoulders. So does metaphor. The white space between details overwhelms whatever significance they were supposed to bear, whatever pleasure they were meant to provide.

We can declare the facts. We can turn away from the beach towels and say: the Salvadorean army killed a thousand people in the village of Mozote. Or, four church workers were raped. Or, the US government gave the army that did these things $1.5 million a day. But these facts are lined on shelves as well, necessarily chosen and arranged, assigned value by explanations neatly stuck where prices might have been.

So we persist. We say, once more: those Bolivian women sewed their lips shut for days. They threaded needles through their skin to stop their speech, to show what good speaking had done them.

A thousand meters below El Alto—in La Paz, during January—the Bolivians hold a traditional festival called Alasitas. For three weeks, markets around the Parque Urbano are full of tiny objects, tiny everything: tiny horses, tiny computers, tiny diplomas, tiny houses, tiny Jeeps, tiny llamas and tiny llama steaks, tiny passports. People buy models of whatever they need most: a new house, a new farm animal, enough food to last the year. They offer their miniature figurines to a miniature man—Ekeko the midget, the Aymara god of abundance, a smoking doll cloaked in bright wool. They pin their miniature desires to his miniature poncho.

We often mistake the shrunken for the cute, but there is nothing cute or quaint about the force of what is requested here, what is given shape. I imagine the contents of Didion’s mall arranged like one of these displays, objects pinned to a vast poncho spread across wide shoulders of sky, bright cloth stuccoed with vodka and foie gras.

It would be a panel of material dreams, or dreamed materials—
the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved
—an impossible horizon of luxuries at the end of deprivation. It would be an unbounded map, this spread of yearning, too broad to see in its entirety. Except, the thing is—you
see it here, in the Parque Urbano, because it’s small. It’s just ordinary objects you can hold in the palm of your hand. No irony for miles. These details of desire don’t offer illumination so much as insistence—on dream, or delusion, or both: a dwarf god with his freight of tiny prayers, a boundless longing finally visible in full, in scale.

The Broken Heart of James Agee

Many nights that autumn I went to a bar where the floor was covered with peanut shells, and I drank, and I read James Agee. Liquor carried his vision of trauma all through me, twisted me pliable to the loss, and I wasn’t afraid to think like this—
pliable to the loss
—because I was drunk, and drunk meant sentiment was not only permissible but imperative. It was boundless.

Turns out
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
wasn’t about famous men. It was about bedbugs and mildewed bridal caps and farmhouses like cracked nipples on the land. It was about how Agee wanted to fuck one of the women he was writing about. Also, it was about guilt. Mainly it was about guilt.

Originally, it was a magazine article gone rogue. In 1936,
magazine told Agee to write a journalistic piece about sharecroppers in the Deep South, and he gave them a spiritual dark night of the soul instead. They rejected it. He wrote another four hundred pages.

It’s a hard book to classify: it’s got sections that don’t seem to belong together: discussions of cotton prices and denim overalls and the soul as an angel nailed to a cross: it uses colons somewhat like this sentence does: rabidly. It’s so long-winded and beautiful you want to shake it by the bones of its gorgeous shoulders and make it stop. But the difficulty of closure is one of its obsessions: the endlessness of labor and hunger. It’s trying to tell a story that won’t end.

I was trying, at the time I read it, to tell a story of my own. I’d recently returned to America after living in Nicaragua, where I’d been robbed and punched in the face one night, drunk. My nose had been broken, then partly fixed by an expensive surgeon in Los Angeles. I’d moved to New Haven, where it seemed like someone was always getting mugged. I was afraid to walk alone in the dark. “Nearly all is cruelly stained,” Agee wrote, “in the tensions of physical need.” There’s a notion we absorb about suffering—that it should expand us, render us porous—but this didn’t happen to me. I felt shrunk. Damage became fear. It became an insistence. I read Agee thinking about his own guilt when he was supposed to be thinking about three Alabama families, and I thought about myself when I was supposed to be thinking about Agee.

Or else, I thought of everyone who wasn’t me, back on the streets of Granada. I thought of the boys I’d tutored some afternoons—glue addicted and homeless, with their runny noses and loose pants—catching them as they prowled the cantinas of Calle Calzada looking for money and company. I thought of Luis, who’d fallen asleep on the steps of the home where I lived—and how I hadn’t invited him inside at night, only woken him up, nudged his shoulder, because he was blocking the door. I inspected this memory for the shown seams of a moral: What should I have done? Maybe Agee kept writing because he was looking for the stitching of a moral, too. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t stop.

I loved getting sad about Agee because his sadness wasn’t mine. My face was claustrophobic and Agee was something else. He was something I wasn’t.
Tragedy is second-hand.
Faulkner wrote that. Which meant, to me: families in Alabama hurt more than I ever would, and I could show up at a dingy bar and admit that. This wasn’t enough but it was something. Agee felt this about his own book: it wasn’t enough but it was something. He writes of a woman’s daily work in the cotton fields:

… how is it possible to be made clear enough … the many processes of wearying effort which make the shape of each one of her living days; how is it to be calculated, the number of times she has done these things, the number of times she is still to do them; how conceivably in words is it to be given as it is in actuality, the accumulated weight of these actions upon her; and what this cumulation has made of her body; and what it has made of her mind and of her heart and of her being.

Empathy is contagion. Agee catches it and passes it to us. He wants his words to stay in us as “deepest and most iron anguish and guilt.” They have stayed; they do stay; they catch as splinters, still, in the open, supplicating palms of this essay. If it were possible, Agee claims, he wouldn’t have used words at all: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.” In this way, we are prepared for the four hundred pages of writing that follow. “A piece of the body torn out by the roots,” he continues, “might be more to the point.”

Agee doesn’t offer actuality. He only wonders what this actuality might look like—an adequate description,
what this cumulation has made
—and suspends that possibility in the margins of his book: everything he can’t manage. On the question of poverty and its effect on consciousness, he is merciless: “the brain is quietly drawn and quartered.” His book does the same to its story, slicing it to pieces and putting it back together in fragments: the house, the dawn, the animals, the men, Communism, children. He calls his work “the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.”

What is
, it seems, was broken, so Agee broke his book to fit. Subject holds structure in its thrall. Poverty pulls apart consciousness—dissolved into bodily necessity and stricture—and Agee pulls apart narrative.
Drawn and quartered.
He doesn’t think he’ll do his subjects justice: “I feel sure in advance that any efforts, in what follows, along the lines I have been speaking of, will be failures.” He chokes on his words, interrupted by the commas and clauses of his own apologies. He stutters here. He stutters often.

I found it hard to talk about getting hurt. I kept trying to make it something larger than itself, that single moment in the street, to make it part of a pattern. The easiest pattern was guilt. My hand had been on a sleeping boy’s shoulder, shaking him awake. What does concrete make you dream? I dream of that boy in circles. I dream of where my hand was. I could think forever about the man who hit me—how little he had, most likely, and how big a difference it might have made to him to sell my little digital camera wherever he sold my little digital camera, that camera I would have given him easily just to keep his hand from striking my face.

Agee went somewhere to look at poverty, and tried to take the damage onto himself, to strip away its metaphors and get to some clean, torn truth beneath—“the literal feeling by which the words a broken heart are no longer poetic, but are merely the most accurate possible description.” What was broken in me that fall wasn’t poetry. My face wasn’t useful as metaphor or aperture. It was only the accurate description of where a hand had been.

It doesn’t seem right to say Agee risked sentimentality. Better to say he could smell it from a mile off and clawed his way into it anyway. He thrust it before him like an obscenity, forcing everyone to see how his outrage had driven him to the embarrassment of such hyperbole. I felt infected by it.

What good is guilt? Agee asked. We ask. We like the sound of the question. It puts a crude finger on a heartbeat in us that won’t stop racing, a pulse broken in sympathy. It makes us talk. It makes us talk about ourselves. It makes us confess. We want to purge something that even confession won’t justify. That sleeping boy. Agee drank when he wrote and I drank when I read him. Agee threw himself at the feet of his subjects and I couldn’t even bring myself to walk alone at night, with my bone-broken nose and my vodka-flung and fluttering heart. You get drunk and then you get sentimental, or else you get drunk and get hit. I told myself there was something dense and meaningful in my fear—an earned experience, the residue of contact, a cruel radiance—but truly there was nothing but my arms crossed over my chest, as I walked on empty streets, and no one coming after me in the dark.

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