I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac. In fact I have a distinct memory of being called a hypochondriac by my mother and the word was new to me. Finding a new word is delectable, a mixture of sounds you already know combined by your tongue to make a word you don’t. I can tell you exactly where I was, who I was with, what I was wearing and how old I was when first I heard the words ‘fuck’, ‘suicide’ and ‘hypochondriac’.
I was 33 and a third years old, by myself in my white A-frame bedroom, wearing a white slip and nothing else when I first read the word ‘Morgellons’ in the essay “Devil’s Bait” from the book The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. Oh Morgellons! Sweet Morgellons! A new word. Mor-gel-lons. Easy to say, although I had never heard or read this word anywhere before. I googled like a crazy person for hours. I googled ‘Morgellons disease,’ ‘Morgellons images’, ‘Morgellons fibres’, ‘Morgellons contagious’. The joys of finding a word connected to a disease that I had never heard of! Being a hypochondriac, I am always on the lookout for new diseases.
Jamison describes her perception of Morgellons: “For me, Morgellons disease started as a novelty: people said they had a strange disease, and no one - or hardly anyone - believed them.” I was hooked from there on in. Morgellons was a fake illness? Jamison had researched the disease well: “Their illness manifested in lots of ways: sores, itching, fatigue, pain...the sensation of crawling insects. But its defining symptom was always the same: strange fibers emerging from underneath the skin.” W.T.F? Is this a real thing? According to the internet and doctors in general, No, it is not. “The bottom line? Probably nothing there.” But, after reading this essay, I felt that if I concentrated on my skin hard enough, the sensation was most definitely crawling. Unfortunately, like Jamison, my concern was that I did in fact think I had Morgellons after reading too much information on the subject. What if I have Morgellons? A fake disease? But what if my Morgellons is really real and no one will believe me? Jamison gets it: “I buffered myself before the conference: “If I come back from Austin thinking I have Morgellons,” I told my friends, “You have to tell me I don’t have Morgellons.” Oh well, I thought, Jamison is just like me - a hypochondriac - so at least I’m not the only crazy person around here.
The other thing I googled that day was Leslie Jamison herself. Klaus explains that “the voice in a personal essay often seems so engaging that it leads one to feel in touch with something animate and sentient beyond the essay - a human presence.” I felt Jamison’s presence. David Shields tells us “The essay is personal,” and “Essays, unlike novels, emerge from the sensations of the self.” Jamison gives her readers her sensations as a gift: “The disconnect felt even worse than the worm itself --- to live in a world where this thing was, while other people lived in a world where it wasn’t.” She awoke my curiosity. I felt it unfurl from within me and my eyes become brighter. She made me want to learn more.
Another thing I’d never heard of before I picked up Jamison’s book Empathy Exams, which houses the essay ‘The Immortal Horizon’, was the Barklay Marathons. Even though ‘The Immortal Horizon’ and ‘Devil’s Bait’ are about different subjects they are both written by someone who has a profound interest in people. People are interesting. Jamison knows this. “I discover that the people who can’t hep whispering during lectures are the ones I want to talk to,” and Gutkind tells us that “Truth is often more compelling to contemplate than fiction.” The ordinary doesn’t need to have added meaning when it is so interesting in itself. Jamison is able to set the scene: “On the western edge of Frozen Head State Park, just before dawn, a man in a rust-brown trench coat blows a giant conch shell.” We learn of the runners who come to compete in a 100 mile race over rugged terrain that only eight people have ever finished since the race began over twenty years ago. “The day before the race, runners start arriving at camp like rain-bowed seals, sleekly gliding through the air in parti-coloured body suits.” Through the use of this metaphor, I felt I was there with them.
Jamison writes with a respect for her subjects. She doesn’t make fun. It’s easy to make fun of people. It’s not easy to paint a realistic picture of someone while being respectful, which Jamison manages to do in both of these pieces of writing. One thing I can struggle with is when people are having the piss taken out of them. An example of this I’ve read recently is Steve Braunias’s On my way to the Border: “He wore a faded pink T-shirt. It mocked him; it read, COOL GUY.” I don’t like that uncomfortable feeling I get in my stomach when someone is being made fun of - especially when they don’t have a forum of their own to stand up for themselves. Even though Jamison writes of an imaginary illness and an insane endurance race in which she could easily have painted all the subjects with the “crazy” brush, she didn’t. I never got that weird feeling in my stomach when reading her work. However, I still felt that I got to know the characters well. “When I look at him I can’t help thinking of Heart of Darkness. Like Kurtz, Laz is bald and charismatic, leader of a minor empire, trafficker in human pain. He’s like a cross between the Colonel and my grandpa.” I guess empathy is not judging someone unless you have walked a mile (or a hundred miles) in their shoes.
The use of lists in Jamison’s essays are interesting. She uses parallel construction. “He needs a compass. He needs pain pills and No-Doze pills and electrolyte pills and ginger chews for when he gets sleepy and a “kit” for popping blisters that basically consist of a needle and Band-Aids. He needs tape for when his toenails start falling off. He needs batteries.” Harvey tells us that “What makes writing - writing of any kind - an art is not invention but shape. Shapeliness.” This shapeliness is evident in Jamison’s lists and also in the construction of ‘Devil’s Bait’ where Jamison has built the essay in segments - ‘Introduction,’ ‘Methods’, ‘Results,’ ‘Discussion’ and ‘Acknowledgements’.
Gutkind explains: “Another technique that helps writers create scene may be described as “intimate and specific detail...By intimate, I mean ideas and images that readers won’t easily imagine - ideas and images you observed that symbolize a memorable truth about the characters or situations about which you are writing.” Creative nonfiction allows us to enter into a world that we do not know or belong to. I don’t have Morgellons (hopefully) and I don’t plan to run the Barkley Marathon. Ever. But I get to know about these worlds through Jamison.
Despite being a world away from the Barklay Marathon, I could relate this essay back to myself. I once participated in the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker (never again). My friend Lisa asked me to do the walk with her. Coincidentally, I was with Lisa when I first heard the word ‘fuck’. We were in her bathroom. She saw a big spider. I was five and wearing an olive green corduroy dress. After she said that beautiful, caustic word at the top of her lungs, her mother’s pale, freckly arms reached inside the door and wrenched her out of the bathroom. I watched as Lisa was dragged into the kitchen and hot mustard was put into her mouth. She cried. Lisa did not cry on the 100km walk but I did. My body is capable of walking 87km exactly. The last 13km were done on determination alone. So I get why these people want to run the Barklay Marathon. Once you’ve done something so hard that not everyone can do, you feel you can take on the world. You are strong. Jamison delves into trying to relate to why these people do it and finds “the idea that when you are alone out there, someone back at camp is thinking of you alone out there, is, of course, just another kind of connection.”
I recently watched the movie ‘Everest’ about the infamous mountain’s 1996 disaster where eight people perished. The accompanying journalist’s question to the people climbing the mountain was “Why?” People want to get inside other people’s heads and find out their reasons for doing things. Solnit’s view is that “empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art and then a way of traveling from here to there.”
I did wonder why I was so drawn to Jamison’s writing. Obviously she is intelligent, uses clever structure, interesting lists and engaging metaphors, and I was intrigued by her exploration into empathy, but it was more than that. It wasn’t until I read her essay ‘’In defense of saccharin(e)’ that I clicked. She writes at the perfect level between being sentimental and not sentimental. She’s afraid of being too sentimental but afraid of not being sentimental at all. “I’m afraid of its inflated gestures and broken promises. But I’m just as afraid of what happens when we run away from it: jadeness, irony, chill. I’m not immune to the siren call of either pole.”
This to me is where her writing has managed to find a balance. Gutkind reminds us that “In creative nonfiction, writers can be creative and journalistic simultaneously.” Through Jamison’s essays, my interest, on an emotional as well as intellectual level, was piqued.
I know I don’t have Morgellons but for a moment it was exciting to wonder. My life doesn’t involve Morgellons or 100 mile endurance races but for a while it did. From pages 27 - 56 and pages 91 - 109 of The Empathy Exams I was a part of those worlds. I didn’t have to fly anywhere or even talk to anyone. I could just lie around in my white slip with nothing on underneath and I could just read.