- Inter-ReviewTalk with Each Other about Their New Books
minneapolis: graywolf, 2014. 248pages, paper, $15.00.
new york: scribner, 2014. 240pages, cloth, $26.00.
You’ve written an incredible book, Jen. Your writing is gorgeous and the world you’re examining—soldiers who understand their PTSD as a demon to be exorcised—is deeply moving and deeply powerful, a way of looking at the cost of the wars we’ve waged that I’d never quite imagined. You illuminate the complexities of your subject in a way that honors them without needing to dissolve them—because it doesn’t need to dissolve them. I was also just in awe of the reporting that went into this piece: not only your ability to develop trust, to speak to people about incredibly sensitive material, but also your willingness to implicate yourself—to make yourself subject to what you found, vulnerable to its possibilities. It’s a kind of affective immersion journalism.
I want to ask you more about that immersion—specifically, your relationships with various subjects. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Caleb? How do you think it ended up changing the shape of the [End Page 193] book that you developed such an intense—and somewhat fraught—personal dynamic with him? What kinds of choices did you make around including this dynamic as part of the book itself? Does this happen to you frequently with subjects in your journalism? Do you often find yourself having to negotiate these kinds of fraught and/or charged relationships?
Thanks so much, Leslie. I think my project was a unique case. It’s not every day you come across a subject who believes he’s haunted by demons. Even more, my subject—a vet from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—believed these demons were also interfering with the process of writing the book. And this, of course, is rather disconcerting when the subject pins his own neurosis on you. Rarely did Caleb want to talk only about himself. It was a fascinating dynamic and something I’ve never encountered (and hope never to encounter again). So what’s to explain this? I think Caleb felt alone in his pain. By labeling my trauma with his own language (in this case, religion) he felt a connection. Writing about it wasn’t enough. He actually wanted to pull me completely into his world, not by letting me label his world, but by labeling mine. Also, I think he wanted to get rid of any one-upping—which was really surprising. It’s hard when people put their pain on a pedestal, make it precious. We might call it a hierarchy of grief. I thought he would do this. But he had this great line: “My trauma isn’t greater than your trauma.” That statement always stayed with me. I liked the idea that a special-ops soldier who had lost all his friends in the war and had suicidal thoughts would tell a civilian that his or her trauma is equally important. It’s beautiful. It made me think a lot about why we have (if we do at all) trouble imaging atrocity. It felt like an invitation to engage with his grief via whatever means I had.
I’m really curious to hear you talk about hierarchy in The Empathy Exams. First, it’s such a powerful and important book, and I’m so grateful you wrote it. I also love that we knew each other for so many years while we were each struggling to complete these projects. I’m curious to hear you talk about gender and pain. In a way, we have both created categories. I wrote about civilian and soldier, and you wrote about male and female pain. Ultimately, I think we wish we could simply talk about human pain. What are the dangers of these categories? What kind of questions came up when you were thinking specifically about female pain? [End Page 194]