Morgellons-19: Empathy and Epidemics

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Morgellons, the controversial disease at the heart of Leslie Jamison’s essay “Devil’s Bait,” differs from COVID-19 in significant ways. And yet Jamison’s central question seems usefully relevant to the current pandemic and its concomitant quarantine measures. She writes:

This isn’t an essay about whether or not Morgellons disease is real. That’s probably obvious by now. It’s an essay about what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion. It’s about this strange sympathetic limbo: Is it wrong to call it empathy when you trust the fact of suffering, but not the source? 

I’ve been thinking about empathy quite a bit in relation to social distancing. On the one hand, social distancing is a selfish act: it keeps me safe from infection. On the other hand, though, social distancing is an ethical duty. It’s as much about protecting others—others I may not even know—as it is about protecting myself. Part of what enables me to make the sacrifices required of social distancing is empathy, much like the empathy Jamison comes to feel for the sufferers of Morgellons disease. And empathy hasn’t simply enabled social distancing; it’s also engendered prolific acts of kindness in response to the pandemic.


What I like about using Jamison in this context is that her essay offers a kind of limit case for empathy. With COVID-19, the suffering is all too real, all too visible. But Morgellons is a disease that may not be a disease. As the quotation above makes clear, Jamison works from the reality of suffering to formulate an empathetic response and that’s a useful maneuver for students to consider.


There are, too, some other interesting connections between Jamison’s discussion of Morgellons and the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Like Morgellons, some still insist that COVID-19 is a hoax or caused by 5G cellular towers.
  • Like Morgellons, there currently is no cure for COVID-19
  • Like Morgellons, the pandemic has prompted dangerous bogus treatments, including zinc and tonic water, colloidal silver, and, sadly, fish tank cleaner. Jamison’s experience with sufferers of Morgellons, like so many people in the pandemic today, reminds us that fear and desperation are themselves contagious and deadly.


Here are some writing assignments you might consider:

  • Using Jamison and one other reading (from class or that you have located on your own), write an essay about the role of empathy in mitigating epidemics and pandemics.
  • Considering the ambivalent report about Morgellons from the Centers for Disease Control and the self-activism of those with Morgellons, write a paper about the respective responsibilities of governments and individuals in response to disease.
  • What are the best strategies for distributing reliable information about a disease? Use Jamison and any research you might want to do on COVID-19 to support your response.
  • How is the experience of dealing with a chronic disease different from other kinds of disease? Use Jamison, and if you have a chronic disease yourself, your own experience.


Empathy is one of the core concepts in this edition of Emerging. It’s times like these that really demonstrate the value of thinking and writing about it.

Emerging Intelligence 



Image Credit: Pixabay Image 4939288 by geralt, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.