A Confession: An Essay
0. A confession: this essay will be more about me than the Hungarian man I meet or the essayist I read. This is not to say that they are without import: the former is a quinti-lingual tour guide and couch-surfing host who serves the eastern side of Budapest; the latter is Leslie Jamison. It is to say that the shape necessarily begins and ends with me, that the form of the piece itself collapses if its ultimate gesture lands outside of my hands. Consider this a thesis. Or a preemptive defense. Or a point zero.
1. In the winter of 2015, I traveled through Europe, following a curved line from Berlin to Paris. It was my first time in any of these countries and I dressed my insecurities with glimmering confidence. Wasn’t there a study that said the more you smiled, the happier you felt? I willed belief that I was socially malleable, the anti-tourist who knew how to engage any given culture or personality. On train rides, I whispered greetings in German, Czech, and French until the words pressed into my dreams; on sidewalks, I walked as if the streets had been built for me or by me. I smiled. I hoped for happy.
2. Throughout The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison analyzes the overlapping space between two or more independent bodies. The intersection is hardly ever polite, and the question at stake is often underscored by ethics: how can we breach into someone else’s territory without trespassing? Crossed thresholds can yield meaningful connection just as they can herald invasion, manipulation, taking. In the first section of “Pain Tours (I),” for instance, Jamison visits a silver mine in Potosí. She comes with gifts for the miners (an offering) but immediately recognizes the actual impulse (a taking): “…they are gifts for the givers: you will give something back, as they say, and this pleases you.” She then tours the mine, listens to the way that these men pass time in darkness, and even meets the demonic statue called Tío, worshipped for his authority here. By the time she emerges into the day’s light, restored again to the world she occupied before becoming a temporary guest, she sees herself in the glass of a van. And the fact of the matter is uncompromising: she “…look[s] like a devil too.”
3. I “immersed” in Berlin, meeting a Cyprian man for a date and listening as he told me about a local sex club. When he provided a brochure for the place—a three-foot-long fold-out comprising dozens of men in assorted sex acts—I was grateful to have an artifact after putting in so little effort. It was like flicking a finger in the water and leaving the beach with a basket of fish; the paper and story were scandalized enough for retelling.
I rested in Prague, satiated with the exposure of my first few days. My friend Megan and I stayed in the apartment of another friend, Myriah, and spent our days eating trdelník—braided bread wrapped by cinnamon. On my way to Budapest, I remember thinking that the respite had been important, but that it was time I plunge back into the borderland, back into the space of others. I contacted my couch-surfing host for the night, Zoli, and arranged to meet at 5.
4. We see Jamison elsewhere. A conference for Morgellons disease in Texas. A “Gang Tour” of Los Angeles. A prison in West Virginia. She travels, talks to people, watches television and movies, speaks of her love of artificial sweeteners, and confesses herself (presumptions, selfishness, insecurity) throughout. While talking to an ultra-marathoner currently in prison in the piece “Fog Count,” she recognizes her own intentions for the interview: “…I realize my interest [in prison life] betrays the privilege of my freedom: life in here is novelty to me; for Charlie it’s day-in, day-out reality. For me it’s interesting. For him it’s terrible.” Similar acknowledgements occur throughout, pointing at the frequent disconnects and problems of living both within and outside of oneself. She is an individual who interacts with a network; and here, she is a writer who is an individual who is interacting with a network. There is folly in conversation, of course, but then there is folly in the act of writing others, of writing conversations with others. How can you shape someone into a piece without stealing something in the process?
5. Things spiraled in Budapest. Zoli was an hour late to meet me and then informed me that he had recently been mugged at that same metro stop. When we got to the door of his apartment, he turned and issued a warning: “It looks like a bomb blasted off. I have to clean.” That morning, I learned, he tried to flush some spoiled food down the toilet but it clogged; now, he had to extract it by hand. The nausea of unease swept over me and any value to the situation—Zoli, a 27-year-old who spoke five languages fluently and knew more about the United States than I did, should have seemed like the ideal talking partner—dimmed beyond recognition. I was discomfited by the neighborhood, the mess, the isolation. By the time he suggested we go out for a vodka, I was eager to move my body, to be reminded that this was not my perpetual circumstance. Zoli told me many things at the bar: he hated all Hungarian politicians, believed that gargling vodka cleared a sore throat, and was steadfast that Pest was the far more interesting side of the city than Buda. By his third drink, he was lamenting the inherited depression of all the Hungarians he knew. “They all want to leave,” he said. “To be out of Budapest. To be out of life. You know, one of my best friends killed himself last year.” I tried a lame apology but Zoli shooed my words from the table with his hand. “It is our condition to be sad,” he said. “My other friend calls me once a week and says he’s going to do it. I tell him not to but who knows?” He wiped at his eyes a few times, slapped his cheeks, tried to smile, and then forfeited to a grimace. When we walked back to his apartment, he admitted that he started hosting couch-surfers to fend off his own loneliness. It came in waves, but it had a way of swallowing him up when it did.
6. In her acknowledgments, Jamison thanks Charles D’Ambrosio for teaching her that “…the problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.” And indeed, she does not escape the traps that she encounters. She is still writing about the lives of others, still entering their space and rendering the experience artistic. What makes the essays so remarkable, though, is that she knows that there are always two simultaneous subjects to any given piece: the material and the hands holding it. This idea embraces tension rather than resolve, championing the more difficult parts of encounters to demonstrate that the subject empathy (among others) most often exists in the effort rather than the outcome. Thus, 15 distinct essays grapple with a single term without ever properly defining it: sometimes, it lands nearer to Jamison or nearer to her material; often, it falls between reaching hands; always, though, we see it plainly in this frontier because that’s where Jamison admits it being. And while it seems like this might yield a frustrating muddiness, Jamison justifies confidence in what she says by being so decisive and honest about the reality of her own position in relation to the work. In the final piece, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison struggles with the trope and truth of suffering women. As with many of her essays, there is no clear solution to the paradox presented, but Jamison offers her own resolve by means of a final confession: “Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want out hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”
7. I was supposed to stay with Zoli for another night. After he left for work, I fled into the city and booked a hostel instead. When I sent him a message—my travel plans changed and I was leaving for Vienna now, not tomorrow—he asked if I had time for a farewell drink and I told him no.
How many times did I tell this story before trying to write it? I began in Vienna and carried it with me everywhere I went, tuning the pitch of the interaction (its weather, its grime) higher and higher until its sound turned so shrill that anyone listening was amazed I’d stayed as long as I did. I needed people to laugh, cringe, and worry; I needed my departure to seem necessary and obvious, for my subject to justify its own abandon. And when I finally did go to the page, the story arced out like an ECG, rising and falling in the rhythms I had already found for it. I reached my closing scene (that triumphant escape) but when I went to punctuate the close, some beat still bristled.
8. “It might be hard to hear anything above the clattering machinery of your guilt,” Jamison writes elsewhere. “Try to listen anyway.”
9. I want to say that any given essay requires confession. This seems simple, reductive. Maybe it is. Confession, though, seems like one of the most critical components to precise thinking. What is a confession, after all? It is an admission of desire, of intention, of presumption, of guilt. An articulated awareness that the totality of what any one person can say is still translated through a mind that has its own pursuits and limitations. It is what lends the shape of an essay by being the material that points the reader to who is writing those words. I trust Leslie Jamison for her honesty. I want to trust myself.
Look: This was never supposed to end with my triumph. This was supposed to end here:
I left Zoli and proceeded to write a story wherein certain details were carved in an effort to relieve a mind that was throbbing with guilt since it bid its host farewell. I was afraid of the weight of someone else’s sadness. I didn’t like the mess of someone else’s life, the way that it seemed potentially contagious. I left. I’m sorry for that. And I still want you to tell me that I was right to do so. I’m sorry for that, too. I mean it.