How ‘The Empathy Exams’ Bent My Brain (In a Good Way!)

by Kim on May 8, 2014 · 19 comments

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Title: The Empathy Exams: Essays
Author: Leslie Jamison
Genre: Essays
Year: 2014
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Acquired: Purchased
Rating: ★★★★★

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.

Other Reviews:

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!

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Vasilly May 8, 2014 at 8:16 am

You wrote a fantastic review, Kim. I can’t wait to read this collection now.

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Kim May 8, 2014 at 6:34 pm

Thank you! I hope you really enjoy it.

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Meg May 8, 2014 at 8:21 am

Sounds like a very different, compelling read — not my usual fare, which is something I’m seeking these days. Great review. Will have to look for this one!

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Kim May 8, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Even for a collection of personal essays, this one felt a little different. I’m not sure if it was because Jamison’s voice is so strong or what, but it’s great.

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Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) May 8, 2014 at 8:43 am

What a great topic! Reading your review, I realize I’ve been interested in this topic for a while but never consciously understood that it was empathy that I was wondering about.

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Kim May 8, 2014 at 6:36 pm

The collection is really good at looking at empathy from many different angles, some that I wouldn’t have considered if I sat down to write on the topic.

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Shannon @ River City Reading May 8, 2014 at 9:11 am

I’ve started to find that, while I don’t do so well with short stories, essay collections around a specific topic tend to be pretty perfect for me. I feel like I’ve heard nothing but great things about this and I’ve been itching to read it. You definitely moved it up a notch in the TBR!

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Kim May 8, 2014 at 6:36 pm

I struggle with short stories too! I’ve been enjoying BJ Novak’s collection, but most of the time I can’t seem to get into them.

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Sandy May 8, 2014 at 11:23 am

I don’t think I’ve every read a collection of essays in my life (at least not willingly) but I would definitely read these, especially the one about female pain which is very different from male pain. You write a very compelling review!

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Kim May 8, 2014 at 6:36 pm

Thank you! I hope you’re able to give this one a try.

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Kelly from Readlately.com May 8, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Wow! I can’t wait to read this now! Wanted to let you know, too, that Brad Listi has an interview with her today on his Other People Podcast.

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Kim May 13, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Thanks, I will have to look for that!

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Words for Worms May 8, 2014 at 7:59 pm

This sounds fantastic!

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Trisha May 8, 2014 at 8:49 pm

This sounds remarkably awesome. What a fantastic point of view from which to write.

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Jenny @ Reading the End May 8, 2014 at 8:55 pm

The Millions had wonderful things to say about The Empathy Exams too. I haven’t heard a bad word about it yet!

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Jeanne May 9, 2014 at 7:34 am

I think the doctor who performed my hysterectomy had thought about some of these issues because almost every time I saw him he asked me about how I was feeling in a way that didn’t allow me to dismiss or minimize the pain (which otherwise I would have), and he talked a little bit about how much women can bear, and said it amazed him. All of this resulted in me being more honest with him about how I was feeling than I sometimes was even with myself.

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Kim May 13, 2014 at 8:28 pm

That’s so interesting to hear! I think you’d find a lot to think about in that last essay — she has a lot of cool literary references too.

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Katie @ Doing Dewey May 11, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Wow, this sounds incredible! I don’t read many collections of essays, but I’d like to give this one a try.

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