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May 30, 2014

Book Notes - Leslie Jamison "The Empathy Exams"

The Empathy Exams

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Leslie Jamison's essay collection The Empathy Exams is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in years, a book both daring and profound.

The New Yorker wrote of the collection:

"Jamison writes with sober precision and unusual vulnerability, with a tendency to circle back and reexamine, to deconstruct and anticipate the limits of her own perspective, and a willingness to make her own medical and psychological history the objects of her examinations. Her insights are often piercing and poetic"

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Leslie Jamison's Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection, The Empathy Exams:


The essays in this collection span such a wide variety of places and subjects—from silver mines to ultra-marathons to surgical suites to prison cells—that researching them meant driving to all different corners of America: a prison in Fayetteville, West Virginia; a Baptist Church on Austin's Slaughter Lane; a place called Frozen Head State Park, near Wartsburg, Tennessee. I associate those songs with the gritty practicalities of reporting: buying Cheez-It's and Red Bulls from gas stations on lonely interstates, writing notes in my car while the scene or landscape is still fresh in my mind's eye; feeling so full of a story I want to burst—and belting out some lyrics in the privacy of my Toyota just to let some of that psychic steam escape. Certain songs stand out in memory from those road trips: Elvis's "Marie's the Name (His Latest Flame)" and "It's Now or Never,"; Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash's "Girl From the North Country"; Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee," (the heartbreak of realizing we're not talking about a lost love but a six-year-old daughter). Those songs immediately summon the sense memory of tracking down a story and getting lost in its pulse and vistas. The collection is really about pain: how we try to understand and honor what hurts for other people. The essays are about the perils of that process—how it can come to look like voyeurism—but they're also a coaxing and a battle-cry: keep trying anyway.

As a soundtrack, I thought I'd offer some of the songs about pain that have been important to me through the years, songs that don't feel ashamed of their own wounds.

"Fade Into You," Mazzy Star

At the bakery where I worked while I was writing these essays, pulling ten-hour shifts a few times a week, my boss used to play something she called "The Wounded Mix." Mazzy Star was one of its key voices. Why was the wounded mix so brilliant? I think it was partially because we were a bunch of competent women in the kitchen, getting shit done in a major way--everything from cookie-frosting to pulling espresso shots to straight-up mopping the floors—and it felt beautifully indulgent and honest to play songs that just let us daydream about men who had hurt us, or wounds that were still festering. We felt the contrast between the blunt, brute facts of working—carrying on, keeping things together, getting by—and the tiny women inside us who were still losing their shit—just a little bit, quietly. "I want to hold the hand inside you" hasn't gotten old yet. I don't think it ever will. Our appreciation was ironic but also absolutely not.

"Blood Roses," Tori Amos

Tori was one of my goddesses growing up—and though I have mixed feelings about how pain appears in her songs, sometimes glorified or fetishized, I still have an obscene desire to honor her voice and what it seems to demand: Listen up! I hurt. Some lines in this song I love because they feel edgy and inscrutable at once: Amen! and also WTF? I'm talking about lines like: "When chickens get a taste of your meat girl." I feel like she's speaking my mind but I'm not entirely sure what she's saying. Or when she just says "blood roses blood roses blood roses" over and over again: it's about hurting, and beauty, but how? There's some kind of demand embedded in that mantra, some kind of urgency, but a certain bloody opacity as well.

"Swan Dive," Ani DiFranco

I'm gonna do my best swan dive
Into shark infested waters
I'm gonna pull out my tampon
And start splashing around

Will any menstruation lyrics ever be better than these ones? As a girl who read Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in fifth grade and spent what felt like an eternity afterward waiting for my first period, I listened to Ani singing about splashing around with sharks and thought it was the most bad-ass thing I'd ever heard. I loved the idea that blood could become a weapon; that something we associated with weakness might actually become a battle cry, a sign of strength.

"Experiment IV," Kate Bush

I love a good narrative song, and this is one of the best ones out there. It's about an experiment, mad scientists, a dangerous plan: "Then they told us, all they wanted / Was a sound that could kill someone." There's a kind of test tube energy driving the production:

"From the painful cries of mothers

To the terrifying scream

We recorded it and put it into our machine."

All the while Kate Bush's incredible banshee voice is making you hurt and thrill at once, which is the point of the experiment as well, its holy grail fatal song:

"It could feel like falling in love
It could feel so bad
But it could feel so good
It could sing you to sleep"

When I first read Infinite Jest, and thought about people watching a video that makes them never want to do anything else—how that kills them, that circumscribing of desire—I thought of this experiment. I thought about how we get addicted to what's terrible for us—the pleasure embedded in certain kinds of pain.


Leslie Jamison and The Empathy Exams links:

the author's website

Boston Globe review
Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Times review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Slate review

The Atlantic interview with the author
Books and Authors interview with the author
Flavorwire interview with the author
Harper's interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author of The Gin Closet
Longform Podcast interview with the author
The Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author
The Millions interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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