Book Review: The Empathy Exams

My job title is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a standardized patient, which means I act toward the norms set for my symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips.

imgres-1So begins the title essay of Leslie Jamison’s collection, The Empathy Exams, which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize in 2014. Over eleven gorgeous essays, Jamison takes us through Iowa City, to the Westoak Baptist Church in Austin, Tijuana, Calexico, Nicaragua, Bolivia, South Central LA, The Barley Marathons in Wartburg, Tennessee, and a Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia. We see love, heartbreak, abortion, physical violence, extreme marathon challenges, a disease that is yet to be substantiated by medical science but which its victims dare you to say is not real, the West Memphis Three. We examine saccharine, sentimentality, privilege, endurance, and the wounded woman. Inevitably, by the end of easy essay, we are left slightly altered. 

The title essay, like all of the subsequent essays in the collection, explore the role of empathy in our modern lives. Jamison explores how we can care about one another enough to feel each other’s pain. (Empathy is contagion, she writes in Pain Tours (II).) If this sounds easy, (how easy it must be for a white girl of privilege to talk about caring for one another!) it is not. Instead, it is a deep exploration into Jamison’s own pain, as well as that of others’, and the firm rootedness of her place of privilege is made evident; she is nothing if not sharply self-aware. This gives the essays anchorage. 

The essays do not rely, but are often shaped by setting. Jamison is very good at givingIMG_2675 us a strong sense of place, and this is something both important yet subtle in each essay. It supports the collection overall by giving us a feeling of universality; we’re not stuck in Jamison’s own world, we’re instead seeing the world with her as our guide who’s just off to the side, just slightly out of the frame. Our thoughts and opinions are our own. She does not tell us what to think, merely presents the information with the appropriate context. This, it can be sure, provides the deepest emotional excavation. We’re doing the work on our own, she just shines a light to help us along our way.

Try reading the second essay, Devil’s Bait, as Jamison does exploratory research on Morgellan’s disease at a conference in Texas, and not feel convinced that the victims of the condition are true victims, even if their claims of finding “threads” in their skin are medically unfounded. (A note to DFW fans, this essay in particular feels reminiscent of Wallace’s explanations of AA meetings in Infinite Jest – you can’t help come away feeling something viscerally for the sufferers.)

In Pain Tours (1), moral pain is inflicted upon the reader in a way that does not “other” the sufferer and the observer, but instead draws the observer into the world of the sufferer. The essay concludes:

What good is this tour except that it offers an afterward? You’re just a tourist inside someone else’s suffering until you can’t get it out of your head; until you take it home with you … Your own embarrassment lingers. Maybe moral outrage is just the culmination of an insoluble lingering. So prepare yourself to live in it for a while. Hydrate for the ride. The grate shame of your privilege is a hot blush the whole time … It might be hard to hear anything above the clattering machinery of your guilt. Try to listen anyway.

One of the most poignant essays for me is the final essay in the collection, The Grand IMG_2676Unified Theory of Female Pain, which struck me so much I kind of can’t stop thinking about it. This was the first and last essay I read: while on residency I spent time with an essayist from LA with whom I shared many conversations about writing. She recommended this essay after hearing about the novel I was finishing. I was writing, among other things, about women who hurt. I was worried about bordering into a trope–how easy it is to write about female pain, how common to think of a pale, consumption-stricken woman in literature, or a woman starving herself, or cutting herself, or suffering through heartbreak–but still wanted to tell the truth of women who suffer, even in subtle ways.

Through thirteen provocative images of “wounds,” Jamison battles with this herself. She has been a wounded woman. She has seen the wounded woman trope. She has written about wounded women. She has seen others, both men and women, write about wounded women. She has noticed the push to not wallow, to not demonstrate an ounce of self-pity or performative pain, when what these women (or women characters) experience what is real. She explores this, Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, apathetic, opaque, cool and clever. They guard against those moments when melodrama or self-pity might split their careful seams of intellect.

And somehow, Jamison notes, we are meant to no longer write about wounded women, as though she is a stereotype no one needs to hear about anymore. Like somehow our task is to inhabit the jaded aftermath of terminal self-awareness once the story of all pain has already been told. Because it’s true that women still hurt. In large ways, in subtle ways, and just because it’s been written about in ways that become stereotype does not mean they do not still happen. She concludes, Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliche and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. 

The Empathy Exams is a marvelous, compelling collection that will have you examining not only the world around you, but deeply within yourself. I can only hope many people read these essays and feel, even the slightest bit, changed for the better for reading them.

Comments are closed.