Leslie Jamison,”Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”

Reader: Lauren Straley

While traveling through New York, I stayed with a friend in Astoria. We were tired from a day of interviews, forced smiles, coffee breath, subway stops, and landed on her couch. She poured me a glass of merlot, and on her end table I noticed a book called The Empathy Exams.

“Is this any good?” I asked as I flipped it open to her bookmark, which noted she hadn’t gotten very far.

“Yeah, but it’s really sad. My book pen-pal sent it to me, and after I read the first essay I felt so sad that I put it away for three months and just recently started it again.”

My friend’s comment struck a chord with me and made visible the very essence of Jamison’s collection: the acuteness of pain. What does it mean to say we are in pain? How is pain metamorphosed to assume varying facets of human identity? What does it mean to specify pain—to narrow (or in many ways broaden) our discussion to the pain of women? Leslie Jamison in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” one of the essays in The Empathy Exams, attempts not only to answer these questions but more importantly to call her reader’s attention to the paradox of the simultaneous desire for and revulsion against female pain. Women’s pain throughout literature, she points out, works as a way to drain women of themselves, rendering their hurt visibly opaque—not invisible but viscerally consumed, looked at, even adored.

This essay forced me to question the way I think about my personal pain. What does it mean to own pain? Jamison describes wounds in an outward and upward motion—wounds “merge” from private into public, fluidly allowing others to “peer” into them. This move forces us to question the agency of the wound—is it forcefully pushed or more gently teased and revealed over time? A little bit of both perhaps. This piece called me, as a woman, to question how I deal with the pain in my life. Often I have felt that my pain was too trivial, or I have adopted the apathetic “post-wounded women” attitude that Jamison suggests. The paradox she struggles with (and that she asks her readers to struggle with as well) is both the advocating, and the admonishing, of women’s pain. This point cannot be reiterated enough. It encompasses Jamison’s mission for her readers, her fellow empathizers, her advocates to legitimize pain.

A line that continues to haunt me is “We crucify ourselves so we can sing about it.” I paused to think about its significance in the piece. It begins with a collective “we” that is incredibly important when thinking about women and their pain felt as a unit. The crucification, the martyrdoms, the active deaths that are not done unto the “we” but unto a woman who takes it upon herself to die. This bloody death is done in order to “sing” about it.

What is the purpose of this song? There are many functions that music serves, and its placement here is perplexing. Women’s martyrdom for pain is proclaimed in a song. What comprises a song? Melody, harmony, chorus, verse, bridge, etc. A song can be used to communicate an important message to many people. It is a perfect medium to reach a wide-ranging audience, which Jamison desires to accomplish. One important musical aspect that aligns with this piece, and the act of crucifying, is dissonance. The definition of dissonance, “an inharmonious sound” or a “disagreement, incongruity,” suggests a roughness that is present in the song of pain. The strength in dissonance is its initial clash but simultaneous ability to create beauty. Many composers write dissonant chords to draw attention to a particular part of the song. I can conceptualize Jamison’s song as a blend of dissonance, a mixture of clashing and complementing, a beautiful creation meant to be shared with the world.

“Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” demands attentiveness. Its complexity becomes complemented through Jamison’s visceral documentation of pain, scars, wounds, and the collateral effect of damage and how that damage is translated in many forms, forms that have, in fact, been documented time and time again in literature: menstruation, cutting, eating disorders, abortion, rape, heartbreak, unrequited yearning. Though these topics are not all-encompassing nor describe the entire female experience, Jamison finds a way to talk about the pain behind these experiences, the scars they leave, the damage they attract, and the way they shape the female identity: “Pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness.” She interweaves accounts of the glorification of female pain throughout literature, and forces her reader to think about the balance between idolization and contemplation of that pain. This piece thrives on the constant tension between the physical and the metaphorical.

Jamison is able to construct her essay so profoundly in part because of the structure she chose. The essay is broken up into an introduction, thirteen “wounds,” and three interludes. She alludes to a parallel in Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Initially, the allusion seemed far-fetched; however, upon further consideration I saw that this model was the most appropriate way to frame her discussion. Stevens’s poem holds an inherent mystery, and searches a subject that is so entrenched in our society that it often goes unnoticed. The bird as a figure, a black bird especially, has been a symbol, emblem, or omen of grief and pain. The mirroring of Stevens’s thirteen sections is made new by the interludes that Jamison interjects. These breaks in the pattern solidify the importance of the individual experience. Though Jamison discusses the thirteen pillars of pain, she leaves room for the reader to see her own in a more lucid way through these breaks. She fulfills her request to the reader: she discusses her pain, shattering the illusions of a pain too trite or insignificant, which is what she ultimately calls on her reader to do. This form truly allowed her to convey her message in an even more powerful way.

The paradox of her work is exemplified in the title of the essay. “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” suggests that while the pain of women is universally felt, in the “unification,” it is also merely a “theory” that is always subject to critique, alteration, and addition. The most volatile word in the title for me is unified. Though the experience of pain is universal, and within that pain women can become closer, it also suggests a sameness that does not exist in pain. Jamison clearly states that her pain is different from someone else’s (her abortion is not the same as another woman’s) and yet forces us to think about ways we can solidify our individuality while becoming unified with others who have had both similar and extremely different experiences.

We will never know the same pain as another. As Jamison says, “I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy,” and we must not be reductionist in our ideas regarding empathy. Pain is universal. Pain is acute. Pain is real. Let’s talk about it.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Jamison discuss the difference between pain, wounds, and scars? In what ways does agency change their meaning?
  2. How do we fall into the trap of trivializing female pain? What are ways we can combat this “post-wounded woman” mind-set?
  3. Why is it necessary to legitimize female pain? What makes this topic so important for Jamison, and why should it also be for her readers?

Creative Exercise

Create a single scene with a protagonist that is difficult to empathize with. Home in on the importance of that character and her or his unique perspective, which is different from your own. Step out of your box and challenge yourself to write with tact and care but also honesty.

On the Reader

Lauren is a recent graduate of Michigan State University with a major in English literature, concentration in creative writing, and minor in women’s studies. She currently lives in Flushing, Michigan.