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Meditation on Leslie Jamison’s THE EMPATHY EXAMS (and beyond) (Part Three of Six…)

(Continued from Part Two)

Ultimately, Jamison gets so much about West Virginia right: the spellbinding beauty “honeycombed” with corruption beneath its surface, and how “People with political influence and powerful economic interests allow the state to be exploited by new industries in order to repair the damage old industries have caused” (142). One of these new industries, a prison, is Jamison’s portal into the state from outside, and she uses the prison and West Virginia as metaphors for one another in this essay—a funhouse mirror of a metaphor that breaks my heart even as it reveals some truths. It is painful to confront such faults, and the closer one is, or feels, to the state, the harder it is to see them. Easier to say “Montani semper liberi”—the state’s motto, meaning “Mountaineers are always free.” Easier to sing our pastoral ideals: “Oh, the West Virginia hills! How majestic and how grand / With their summits bathed in glory, Like our Prince Immanuel’s Land!”

But even that song (“West Virginia Hills,” one of our three official state songs) gets honest with itself after a while, allowing that there may be some small cracks in the veneer. Here’s the third verse:

Oh, the West Virginia hills! How unchang’d they seem to stand,
With their summits pointed skyward To the Great Almighty’s Land!
Many changes I can see, Which my heart with sadness fills.
But no changes can be noticed In those West Virginia Hills.

I’ve heard this song many times but I’ve never noticed until now the strained, almost corporate, rhetorical contortions of passive voice in this stanza. “Many changes I can see” but “no changes can be noticed.” Consider the distinction between “see” and “notice,” and all the implications latent in the words “seem” and “can be.” Consider the implied separation of heart from mind. This song presents a textbook example of the limits of the insider’s point of view; it seems wiser than its singer.

“In the false American imagination,” Jamison writes, “West Virginia is a joke or else it’s a charity case; but more than anything it is unseen, an invisible architecture of labor and struggle; and incarceration shares this invisibility, hidden at the center of everything” (142). I’m grateful that Jamison focuses her attention on West Virginia, and particularly for how she shows that the state’s struggles are not merely an aberration, but rather symptoms of a much larger national and global system. As West Virginias, we have our blind spots—and we sing around them operatically—but the fact that we exist in a broader foggy American blind spot is not all our own doing. Our struggle to be seen truly is a failure of both imagination and empathy on the part of outsiders, as well as ourselves. In their times of crisis, our American hearts go out to Appalachia and other hurting places, but the muscle of our minds usually keeps its distance.

So, even as its precision breaks my heart, I am grateful for Jamison’s outsider’s perspective. The painful shock of recognition is necessary and meaningful. That said, there is one point in this essay where one of Jamison’s own blind spots is revealed. On one hand, this little glitch is no more than a fact-checking oversight or typo; it’s not fair to call it a “blind spot.” On the other hand—well, it’s still clutched in the other hand. I can’t let it go…

…continued in Part Four.