Since I’m still writing my memoir (52,050 words at last count) and my memoir is about my experience recovering from a coma and living with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), I am still not ready to read other brain injury memoirs. Yet. (I don’t want to muddy my voice by being influenced by the experience of others.) And since March is Brain Injury Awareness Month (as declared by the Brain Injury Association of America [BIAA]), I am dedicating all of my monthly features blog posts for March to the topic of Traumatic Brain Injury.
However, since I’m [currently] actively staying away from brain injury books and memoirs I sought out a book of essays on injury, recovery, illness and empathy instead of specifically on brain injury. I also decided to try out a collection of essays instead of a memoir. That’s when I found Leslie Jamison’s 2014 collection of essays “The Empathy Exams.” I’m excited to share what I thought of this collection.
“The Empathy Exams” is Jamison’s 2014 essay collection. She has written more recently and here’s a New Yorker article on her newer book. However, I was drawn to this essay collection from 2014 because it deals with pain and empathy. And since my TBI I feel that my empathy is different. It’s not gone entirely (I don’t laugh mirthfully when people fall down or anything). Yet, I was excited to read Jamison’s take on empathy because empathy as I used to know it is definitely changed after my TBI.
In the title essay, “The Empathy Exams,” Jamison writes of her experience as a medical actor. When she was a young starving writer (and graduate student) she made money by acting as a patient with various assigned symptoms to test and educate medical students. In the essay she writes of her experience playing one patient in particular. This particular patient is experiencing seizures because of depression and sadness brought on by the sudden death of her brother. Jamison connected to that character because during that time in her life she had decided to get an abortion and that decision had caused her to pay acute attention to her own emotions and the empathy (or lack of) of others. Jamison doesn’t use the abortion to get attention or be sensational. Instead she uses it as a way to analyze herself and her emotions and the emotions of others.
In a later essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison eloquently writes of how women in literature and their pain have been romanticized. She discusses a study “The Girl Who Cried Pain” (2001) that says that men are more likely to be given medication when they tell doctors of pain and women are more likely to be given sedatives. As a woman who suffered from chronic pain and migraines for nearly two decades (and is now a TBI survivor), I can see that being true. During my struggle with migraines and chronic pain, I was sent from specialist to specialist and each appointment started with the doctor displaying great self-confidence and then blaming me for my pain. It wasn’t that overt but after several times of the same pattern I felt like it was my fault I was in chronic pain. Later I made an observation that the other patients were women and each looked defeated and ashamed. I observed this in the lobby of my pain doctor. We were there because we were in immense pain and yet the feeling of shame hung in the lobby like a filmy mist. Jamison’s essay on female pain made me conjure up this image and make me analyze why most of the pain patients at my doctor were women. Was it because a woman’s pain is a condition in and of itself rather than merely a symptom that can be treated? A harrowing thought considering I wasted years of my life going to such doctors to treat my pain… or really I thought it was to treat the cause of my pain.
In conclusion, reading a collection of essays was a perfect way for me to get those creative juices flowing. I look forward to reading more from Jamison, including her other essays and her novel, “The Gin Closet.”
March is Brain Injury Awareness Month
Since March is Brain Injury Awareness Month I will be writing each of my monthly features on brain injury: book review, pop culture recommendation, essay, writing update and an extra pop culture update. There is a lot of ground to cover when it comes to brain injury, so this month will definitely be fertile ground for a lot of inspiration for my memoir. Speaking of my memoir, I don’t have a new word count to share. Still at the same 52,050 words from last week.