What's Wrong With Sentimentality?

A conversation with Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams
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Leslie Jamison, defender of deep feelings (Colleen Kinder)

What does it mean to be a tourist inside someone else’s suffering? Sometimes, it means taking a bus ride through Los Angeles’s gang-ridden neighborhoods, or watching a former addict bleed and sweat and grow blisters as he tries to run a hundred miles, or visiting a man in jail.

Leslie Jamison has done all that, and more.

But how does another person’s suffering affect one’s own emotional intelligence? What are you supposed to do with someone else’s pain?

Jamison does not know the answer. But she searches for it by writing about episodes of attempted empathy in her own life—for example, the time she became “obsessed” with her brother’s bout of Bell’s palsy: “I spent large portions of each day imagining how I would feel if my face was paralyzed too. I stole my brother’s trauma and projected it onto myself like a magic-lantern pattern of light.” Was that empathy, Jamison wonders, or was it a kind of emotional theft?

These questions about how humans see one another and how they treat one another, and why, are explored to great lengths in Jamison’s debut essay collection, The Empathy Exams.

The title essay, which appeared in The Believer in February, weaves together painful personal experience and incrementally detached observations about what empathy is and whether it can be taught. It’s here that Jamison’s motivations are stated plainly: “I used to believe that hurting would make you more alive to the hurting of others. I used to believe in feeling bad because somebody else did. Now I’m not so sure of either.”

Since its release on April 1, The Empathy Exams has garnered Jamison, who is also the author of the novel The Gin Closet, applause from critics and admiration from peers. Before she appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and on The New Yorker's list of Books to Watch Out For, she spoke with me about ethics and emotional expression. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Let’s talk about crying in movie theaters. In a review of the film Short Term 12 for the LA Review of Books, you call out the sort of satisfaction that people experience when they cry at the movies—and you deconstruct that satisfaction.

It’s funny, I was just speaking on a panel a couple weeks ago and that particular piece came up. Someone was asking about the intersection between being a critic and a creative writer, and how we felt about writing criticism about genres that we didn’t make ourselves. That was the first piece of writing that came to mind. I don’t make films, and because I don’t make films, I’m not an expert in the craft of bringing a film into the world, how you put its various pieces together. But where I feel like I’m an expert is my own feelings in response to a film. And so with that review of Short Term 12, I felt like, “Wow, something has happened in this afternoon in which I watched this film and I went through all of these emotions, so, let me just look at that process and those tiers as a kind of artifact in their own right and scrutinize that instead.”

What I’ve seen before is the critic accusing the filmmaker of emotional manipulation—saying, “Well, they did this, that’s how they got me to feel this way.” But instead you took all the responsibility for your own feelings, turning the review into an essay on the ethics of how we respond to art.

I think that’s right. Part of what I’m interested in interrogating is this kind of collective shame that we feel about sentimentality, and I think sometimes that shame manifests as accusation—accusing a film or a piece of art of manipulating our emotions. And sometimes it can show up as self-recrimination. Things we describe as “guilty pleasure” reads [are] things that bring us to these cheap flowings of sentiment that aren’t really “earned” or aren’t rigorous in some way.

I wanted to be analytic about the way feelings are happening in a film but also not entirely dismissive of it. I did think it was a very incredible movie. I didn’t want to just level the statement that I had cried as a fact that would relegate the movie as something lesser or limited.

You mention Oscar Wilde’s definition of sentimentality—“the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it”—here and also in one of your essays in The Empathy Exams, “In Defense of Saccharine.” Though you defend sentimentality, do you agree with Wilde’s definition?

Part of what I’m doing in that essay is trying to define what other people mean when they use that word as an accusation. So in that sense I think the definition that I’m invoking of sentimentality is, when the word sentimentality is used, it is being used as a critique of work that is overly emotional in some kind of cheap way.

But, I think the understanding of how sentimental affect can be working in art that I want to defend or make a case for, is: [When] art makes us feel deeply, often in ways we can’t explain, there can be a sort of second stage to that feeling where we reflect on why those feelings happen and how they might guide us going forth. It’s in that second stage or second layer that I want to offer something to what sentimentality can be or how it can play out.

What if, to quote from your essay again, this “strokes the ego of our sentimental selves”? How do you make sure, when you’re having this second layer of experience after feeling something, that you’re not just patting yourself on the back for having feelings?

Right, right. I quote Milan Kundera in that piece, too: “We cry one tear for the children playing on the grass, and then we cry another tear for our ability to cry at the children playing on the grass!” I think the way we escape the endless cycle of just back-patting ourselves for our own deep feelings is by being willing to be critical of what those feelings are and being willing to question whether those feelings are doing any good.

Some of that gets into the relationship between art and action. So instead of thinking of it as a kind of closed circuit where you’re like, “Okay, I had the feeling; I’m a good person for having that feeling; now I’m done with my work for the day!” To [instead] think about that feeling as kind of an open door. And if you’re going to open that door there’s some responsibility behind it.

Could it be that ultimately the most redeeming thing that this kind of art does is make us kinder to each other in the real world? Because we can go through all of these emotional exercises, or stretches, while watching movies or reading novels—and then later we can apply our imaginations in order to empathize with strangers the way we might have empathized with the fictional characters?

Well, that’s certainly a hope. And I believe that’s a possibility. But I think that sometimes people place their faith too readily in the ways in which consuming narrative or art makes us more empathetic. I feel like The New York Times puts out an op-ed every six months about empathy and reading! But Empathy and the Novel, by Suzanne Keen, basically poses a skeptical view of that and even suggests that there’s a way in which empathizing for fictional characters relieves—we feel like we’ve done our work, but there weren’t really any stakes to that work. Because empathizing with a fictional character didn’t necessitate any kind of action.

So we have to be very conscious about trying to translate the muscles that we build, because I think you’re right, I do think putting your imagination through certain kinds of challenges and engaging with art can build those muscles in a way that’s useful in creating or building kindness in the world. But I just think it has to be a more conscious process.

In each of your essays there seems to be a point, or multiple points, where you ask, “Is this how we’re supposed to feel? How do we know that we feel this way, and why do we feel this way, and is this okay?” You’re constantly questioning the legitimacy or the validity of certain emotions. The only other author I’ve ever seen do that is David Foster Wallace. He questioned those aspects of authenticity.

Yeah. Yeah. And he was a very important writer to me. I’m drawn to his work for precisely that reason—the way that he’s constantly interrogating authenticity and feeling. In terms of that idea of imagining our way into the lives of others, he has that amazing moment in that commencement speech [at Kenyon College] where he talks about, you know, life is gonna happen in these small, totally banal theaters—like if you’re waiting in line at the grocery store and a person cuts in front of you and you hate them for a moment, remember, his son might be dying of cancer, or whatever. The sense of knowing that you don’t know, and also just trusting that everybody’s lives are beyond your imagination and probably hold a lot of grief. I always thought that was such an important ethical call, but also important insofar as we constantly keep having to do that, over and over again—having to remind ourselves.

We have this idea that “authentic empathy” is the empathy that you feel immediately in response to a person or a situation, and I’m actually interested in the kind of empathy that’s willed into being by practice or intention. And I think a lot of Wallace’s writing, especially in Infinite Jest—I think he’s really interested in intentionality and action as routes to authenticity as well.

In “In Defense of Saccharine,” you say we have this fear that our feelings will resemble everyone else’s. But then there’s that Kundera quote, and there’s also our strange satisfaction of collective crying in movie theaters. So which is it: Do you think we like being affected emotionally the same way as everyone else, or do our egos necessitate the illusion that our individual emotions are somehow more sensitive or more sophisticated than everyone else’s?

That’s a fascinating question. It makes me realize that sometimes I’m guilty of using a “we” that actually applies to a very small, self-aware, artistically inclined subgroup where I think privileging singularity of feeling is really huge. Like, there’s a certain kind of person that I went to Harvard with that wouldn’t want to cry at Titanic, you know? They’d want to be the person in the theater who wasn’t crying at that film. So I think sometimes I use the word “we” in that sense, and it’s actually a problematic use of the word! Because I don’t think it applies to everybody. 

Probably every person is some mixture of wanting to feel a sense of commonality and shared experience with others but also wanting to feel completely singular and unique. And I think those desires are both really basic, and in a really basic way always in conflict. On the one hand, you kind of do enjoy the experience of being in an emotionally charged movie theater but at the same time—for me, I might cry in the movie theater alongside everybody else but then I go home and write an essay about it! So I get to have my commonality put to use, or something.

The final essay in your collection is called “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” It’s organized into parts by this list of “wounds” suffered by women you know and women in popular culture. There’s so much going on there—each “wound” could really be its own essay. How did it come together?

I wrote a lot of the essays in that collection before I knew it would be a collection. But that last essay I definitely wrote as the final essay in the collection. It was touching on stuff that I’d thought about writing for a long time, but I wanted to bring it all together to kind of create this final experience for readers who had gone through the entirety of the book. What I was trying to do was say, “In all of the essays that have come before like I’ve talked about my own pain, I’ve talked about other people’s pain, and now [let’s] take a step back and think about, What does it mean to think and talk so much about pain?

There are some people who feel like there’s something troubling about a certain sort of fixation on pain. I want to address that trouble. I want to address that critique.

On another level, I think that what was really driving me was a sense of something—a nebulous smell or feeling in the air—that I couldn’t quite put my finger on and wanted to explore. That nebulous feeling in the air [turned out to be] this kind of vexed relationship that women have to articulating their own suffering. There’s this feeling of really wanting to resist the identity of victimhood. I wanted to push on that a little bit.

I think the initial incarnation of that essay was a critique of a certain sort of female character that I kept seeing in fiction written by women. And it was a kind of jaded woman who was, like, very unsentimental, but also did seem to be claiming the position of victim, but claiming it without wanting to really own it. It was like there was some character that I felt like I kept seeing over and over again—and I totally also had written her, like many times, in many short stories, and even arguably in my novel.

Is this what you call the “post-wounded woman”?

Yeah. It’s like a version of the post-wounded woman, I think, and that was the term that I ended up settling on for it. And then I got really excited about the idea of crowdsourcing for an essay because I just have so many incredible female interlocutors in my life.

There’s a section in which you talk about cutting, and how we usually see cries for attention as such selfish, sinful things. And we tend to be dismissive of the people behind them, because  “Oh, it’s just a cry for attention” or, “She’s an attention-whore” or whatever. And then you say, “Isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human?... And isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?”

That phrase, “attention whore,” is so interesting! And I hadn’t even thought about it in relation to that moment where I’m talking about attention, because it actually does bring in gender in this really interesting way. Somehow wanting attention is being linked into getting attention sexually, or just wanting to spread yourself around in this really shameful way. And I never thought about that phrase as this weird hinge between all those ideas, so, thank you!

You divulge some intensely personal stuff in these essays, especially so in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” and the title piece, “The Empathy Exams,” which appears first in the collection.  

This essay was certainly the most grounded in memoir. Its central starting-off point was my wanting to make sense of these two traumatic experiences I’d gone through. [The other ones] bring in some aspect of personal experience, but the personal experience is in service to these larger questions. It was so clear to me that this book, structurally, the spine of it just couldn’t be memoir. I wanted it to be deeply personal, but I needed it to be grounded in these external inquiries.

In putting that essay first, I wanted to bring readers close to my life and offer exposure as a kind of opening act. Like, I’m willing to show you these things about what I’ve felt and what I’ve lived, so that you’ll feel close to me as we go on the rest of this journey into these other lives.

Was that a difficult choice to make?

Yeah... Yes. There was something difficult about writing the personal material in that essay and also a feeling of, you know, Am I flaunting my wounds? Am I kind of cashing in on certain experiences that have narrative value?

That’s part of why that final essay is really important to me as part of the book, is that it’s like, “Look, I know that people go through hard stuff and then they deploy that hard stuff to get certain kinds of credibility.”

When you’re a writer and something difficult happens to you, one of the things involved in that is this emergence of narrative potential. And there’s then a kind of self-consciousness about telling a story in which you suffered. But for me, that self-consciousness is never [a signal to] “Stay out.” Everything that I feel self-conscious about, or shameful about, is like this blaring neon sign: “If you have the strength to go here, go here. Because the fact that you have self-consciousness about it means that there’s something there worth saying.” It makes things trickier, but it also makes me feel like I’m on the right path.

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Svati Kirsten Narula is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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