'The Empathy Exams' Author Leslie Jamison Stands Up For Younger Generations' Voice In Memoir


Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams isn't exactly entirely memoir; there's some of her life mixed in with investigative journalism and meditations on human nature. But Jamison, who is 31, is advocating for voices like her own and many, many (many, many!) others who feel that they are valid voices in memoir, despite their young age. It's long been a debate in the literature community whether there should be an age requirement to write a memoir — not officially, of course, but to be taken seriously in publishing and in the community. Jamison says absolutely not, and saying otherwise is detrimental.

Jamison's push for the validation of what she calls "young memoir" began after reading 2014's Washington Post review of her friend Will Boast's memoir Epilogue, written by Jonathan Yardley. Boast was 34 when his book was released, relating his life experiencing the deaths of his entire family. Yardley's review was negative, but it was his comments toward the end that hit a nerve for Jamison:

If you can pick your jaw up off the floor after reading that Yardley called a young man losing every member of his family not "interesting" enough, you'll agree with Jamison at how he takes one memoir to make a generalization of every young person's memoir. It's a dismissal, an invalidation. Your stories are not and never can possibly be interesting or instructive.

Never mind that it's not clear what exactly is "young" in memoir, there are plenty of examples of people 40 and under that have not only written memoirs, but have written acclaimed ones.

Augusten Burroughs wrote Running With Scissors when he was 37. Elie Wiesel published Night about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps when he was 32. Mary Karr published her first memoir The Liars' Club when she was 40. Piper Kerman wrote Orange is the New Black, which HBO thought was pretty interesting, when she was 40. And Ishmael Beah wrote A Long Way Gone about his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone when he was 27. But Jamison comes in with the clincher:

Jamison put that one down like a boss.

She's quick to say, however, that making this argument isn't just about listing exceptional young memoirs. It's about validating all voices who have something important to say:

She's not saying, of course, that all young memoirs are good (and hey, neither are all older generation memoirs), Jamison instead is defending the idea that some might be and are. And that removing an entire section of memoirs purely based on age is a mistake.

Not only do young people have life stories to share, Jamison argues, but they are able to tell an entirely different type of story, one told in immediacy and emotion. And to disregard that is a shame not only to young writers, but to the reading public.