Title: The Empathy Exams: Essays
Author: Leslie Jamison
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Note: Portions of this post appeared at Book Riot as part of the Best Books We Read in April.
Review: I love to read personal essays, but it’s been awhile since I found a collection that knocked me back on my heels like The Empathy Exams. Because thinking about this collection makes my brain feel a little skewed, in the best possible way, I’m going to have to rely on a publisher’s summary to set the stage here:
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain — real and imagined, her own and others’ — Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory — from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration — in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.
Leslie Jamison’s writing is elegant and honest, and reflects a person who is profoundly curious about the world around her, especially the world of pain and suffering. One of the things that made these essays so wonderful was the way that Jamison could slip effortlessly between the personal and the academic, never making it feel like one was out of place in a single essay or in the collection as a whole.
In the first piece, “The Empathy Exams,” Jamison ties together her experiences as a medical actor and evaluating doctors on their ability to vocalize empathy while working with fake patients to her actual experience with doctors when she had abortion followed by heart surgery. The parallel experiences become part of a larger piece pondering how we demand empathy from others and the way empathy is a choice each of us actively makes when facing another person.
Jamison is also never content to choose an easy answer. Every essays weaves in and out of itself, coming at it’s central topic from several different approaches. The final essay of the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, does this beautifully and is, I think, the essay that really made me feel like my brain was bending in a new way. Starting with the great “wounded women” of literature, she goes on a meandering path to explore how female pain is often dismissed, how women use or reject pain in their identity, how pain is an almost inevitable part of being a woman, and how pain of any kind still demands we approach it with an open heart. It’s just remarkable.
Throughout the collection, Jamison is always interrogating herself and her conclusions in a way that made me feel like I was thinking and exploring along side her as she took a question apart and put it back together again. If you are skeptical about an essay collection, you can read versions of the first and last essays of the book (my favorites) at the links I shared above. This is a beautiful, thoughtful, smart collection that I can’t recommend highly enough.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!