Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams: A Medical Actor Writers Her Own Script” in The Believer
In Leslie Jamison’s brilliant (seriously, please go read it right now) essay “The Empathy Exams: A Medical Actor Writes Her Own Script,” Jamison compares and contrasts playing a patient (as a medical actor) with being a real one (describing her abortion and heart surgeries).The piece is overtly about empathy, but that’s only a starting place; other words unfurl like tentacles out from that one. There’s care: the kind given by doctors and loved ones, the kind we give ourselves and others (or not). There’s pain: what part is wholly personal and what part, if any, can or should be shared with another. She considers these tricky boundaries in the context of her unplanned pregnancy.
I remember wanting Dave to be inside the choice with me but also feeling possessive of what was happening. I needed him to understand he would never live this choice like I was going to live it. This was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself.
By the end of the essay, though, Jamison is less interested in keeping score of how Dave shares her various pains than the irrefutable fact that he keeps showing up to be by her side. And so we have yet another word (and there are many more) to apply to this expansive piece: love.
Jenny Diski’s “I Haven’t Been Nearly Mad Enough” in London Review of Books
This is a very unusual first-person essay by Jenny Diski, a mainstay of the London Review of Books. It’s an extroardinary read about the other side of loony bins in London, from a brilliant writer who once lived in one – for all the right reasons. It’s a plea for compassion for those who need asylum from normal life, conveyed in a highly charged artful style. — Helen
Maria Konnikova’s “Why Are We Still on Facebook?” in The New Yorker
In one dizzying week, we read Dylan Farrow’s open letter to Woody Allen and Stephen King’s not-so-sympathetic response, saying that the letter had “an element of palpable bitchery” to it; we saw the Twitter outcry over “The Biggest Loser” and learned, once again, that if you have a woman’s body, you will never win. And we celebrated a birthday. Facebook turned ten years old this week. The event prompted the company to send a “personalized” video card to each user, and—inevitably—a few brave souls to reflect on the Facebook phenomenon.
Maria Konnikova is one of those writers who, like Zadie Smith, came of age where Facebook did, at Harvard. She joined the social media site “fifteen days after it launched” and remembers its earliest incarnations. Konnikova wonders why people have stayed wedded to the site. The reason lies, she says, in our need for performance: we don’t just want to stay connected, we want to broadcast those connections. At the same time, we’re broadcasting connections to an increasingly larger set of people, and this makes us tired.
Konnikova ends her short piece by citing research that explains why Facebook users are dialing up their privacy controls or leaving the site altogether. Konnikova’s article is a kind of anti-birthday gift, which Zadie Smith foreshadowed a few years ago.
In what has to be the most thought-provoking article on Facebook to date, Smith’s 2010 “Generation Why?” points out that some of our social media software is dull. We are “more interesting” than it is, she says, so why do we put up with it? With deceptively simple precision that gets at the deeper question of mattering, Smith comments:
World makers, social network makers, ask one question first: How can I do it? Zuckerberg solved that one in about three weeks. The other question, the ethical question, he came to later: Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way?
She roots the “why” of the site in Zuckerberg’s character, which she finds immature, selfish, and boring. The form and function of the site are that of a college sophomore. Her biggest criticism is the flip side of Konnikova’s: Facebook may expand our connections, but it reduces us. “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced,” says Smith. And then she reminds us that we have a choice: “Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees. Fiction reduces humans, too, but bad fiction does it more than good fiction, and we have the option to read good fiction.”
Sara Finnerty’s “I am a Godmother, but do I Even Believe in God?” in Role/Reboot
Sara Finnerty’s essay is concise but poignant. Reflecting on the birth of her best friend’s child, Finnerty meditates on what it is to be a “godmother” and what that relationship means when considered as a sum of its parts: “god” plus “mother.” Weaving examples from her own childhood, Finnerty states “I wanted to be [a] godmother because I love my friend, and I love her children, and I wanted a tangible connection to them. I wanted a label. I wanted to be part of their family.” What makes this essay beautiful is the quietness, Finnerty’s desire to nurture and mother her friend’s children not in an abstract way, but in the way she herself was nurtured and mothered by her own godmother, Aunt Danny, a woman who “had wild, tight curly hair” and who died in 2001. This essay, while seemingly about religious belief, is more than that—for Finnerty “belief” is a tangible connection to a child, a shared love, and a name.
I don’t believe in the holiness of the water fountain the priest dunked Sasha’s head into, but I believe in my love for my friend and her daughter. And I believe that’s enough.