The Empathy Exams

By Leslie Jamison

(Graywolf, $15, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Leslie Jamison, who lives in New Haven, is an essayist and novelist. Her 2010 novel, The Gin Closet, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and her essays have been published in Believer, Harper’s Magazine, Oxford American and Tin House. Her latest book, an essay collection, won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and was named a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Essay Collection of Spring 2014.

If her work intrigues you, you can hear her talk about it on Nov. 9 at 2 p.m. at a free Authors Live!  program with psychiatrist Gary Greenberg presented by the Noah Webster Library, 20 S. Main St., West Hartford. Registration: . The library validated parking in the Isham Road garage.


What is this book about?                              

Jamison once worked as a medical actor, a job in which people act out disease symptoms for medical students, to help them learn to make diagnoses. She writes about that in this book, which explores the many aspects of pain and what it can teach us about human interactions. Can you truly feel someone’s else’s pain? Do we sometimes use empathy to judge someone? Should we empathize with imagined pain? Using her own personal encounters with sickness and injury, Jamison examines a wide range of experiences, including “poverty tourism,” real and imagined illness, violence, reality TV programs, marathon running and imprisonment, to explore the meaning and ramifications of pain and our response to those who suffer.

Why you’ll like it:

This is an intellectual, philosophical but never dry book about feelings we all have experiences and fear. Jamison writes with grace, and, yes, empathy about what pain is and more importantly, what pain means. Her explorations and insights offer valuable and provocative information for anyone suffering chronic pain or close to someone who has that problem, but her emphasis is more philosophical than practical.


What others are saying:  

From Booklist’s starred review: “Jamison wrote about “wounded women” in her powerful novel, The Gin Closet (2010), and she pursues that subject in this collection of gutsy essays. But the line of inquiry that connects these riveting works of acute description and exacting moral calculus, these amalgams of memoir and risky investigative adventures is Jamison’s attempt to discern and define empathy in diverse and dicey situations. She begins with an account of her experiences working as a “medical actor,” performing as patients with baffling ailments that medical students must diagnose, encounters that deliver the realization that empathy requires humility and imagination. She discloses her own medical travails and asks, “When does empathy actually reinforce the pain it wants to console?” Jamison’s mission to put empathy to the test is more covert and even more provocative in her wrenching chronicles of drug-war-ravaged Mexico; Nicaragua, where a man attacks her and breaks her nose; a silver mine in Bolivia; and a “Gang Tour” in Los Angeles—explorations that inject guilt into the equation. A tough, intrepid, scouring observer and vigilant thinker, she generates startling and sparking extrapolations and analysis. On the prowl for truth and intimate with pain, Jamison carries forward the fierce and empathic essayistic tradition as practiced by writers she names as mentors, most resonantly James Agee and Joan Didion.”

“If reading a book about [pain] sounds . . . painful, rest assured that Jamison writes with such originality and humor, and delivers such scalpel-sharp insights, that it’s more like a rush of pleasure. . . . To articulate suffering with so much clarity, and so little judgement, is to turn pain into art,” says Entertainment Weekly, which gives the book a Grade: A-. “

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Novelist Jamison’s first collection of essays, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, is a heady and unsparing examination of pain and how it allows us to understand others, and ourselves. Whether she’s playacting symptoms for medical students as a medical actor, learning about the controversial Morgellons disease (delusional parasitosis), or following ultramarathoners through the rugged Tennessee mountains, Jamison is ever-probing and always sensitive. Reporting is never the point; instead, her observations of people, reality TV, music, film, and literature serve as a starting point for unconventional metaphysical inquiries into poverty tourism, prison time, random acts of violence, abortion, HBO’s Girls, bad romance, and stereotypes of the damaged woman artist. She focuses on physical and emotional wounds because, as she writes, “discomfort is the point. Friction arises from an asymmetry.” For Jamison, that friction shatters the clichés about suffering that create distance between people, resulting in a more honest—and empathetic—way of seeing.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Jamison notes that empathy is “a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” In this collection of 11 essays, which take place in many different regions of the world including Central America, Bolivia, South Central Los Angeles, and Tennessee, the author does pay attention. She writes about a variety of subjects such as reality television, Tijuana, Frida Kahlo, ultra marathons, the West Memphis Three, illness, female suffering, and working as a medical actor, examining some very difficult topics with intelligent candor. The types of empathy—self, painful, guilt, fearful—evoked when reading the pieces are as varied as their subject matter. Jamison illustrates self-empathy, for example, when openly describing traumatic events in her personal life, including when she was violently mugged in Nicaragua; cleverly woven into the retelling of this painful and terrifying ordeal is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. VERDICT Winner of the 2011 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, these essays will inspire readers to reflect on their own feelings of empathy—not an easy feat in today’s disinterested society.”

Kirkus Reviews, in its starred review, says: “ A dazzling collection of essays on the human condition.In her nonfiction debut, the winner of the 2011 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Jamison presents 11 essays that probe pain alongside analyses of its literal and literary trappings. Whether tackling societal woes such as strip mining, drug wars, disease and wrongful imprisonment, or slippery abstract constructs including metaphor, sentimentality, confession and “gendered woundedness,” Jamison masterfully explores her incisive understanding of the modern condition. The author’s self-conscious obsession with subjectivity and openness to the jarringly unfamiliar become significant themes. . . .”Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel,” she writes. “It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” Jamison’s uncanny ease in crossing boundaries between the philosophical and the personal enables her both to isolate an interiority of feeling and capture it in accessible metaphorical turns of phrase: “Melodrama is something to binge on: cupcakes in the closet.” Throughout, Jamison exhibits at once a journalist’s courage to bear witness to acts and conditions that test human limits—incarceration, laboring in a silver mine, ultramarathoning, the loss of a child, devastating heartbreak, suffering from an unacknowledged illness—and a poet’s skepticism at her own motives for doing so. It is this level of scrutiny that lends these provocative explorations both earthy authenticity and moving urgency.A fierce, razor-sharp, heartwarming nonfiction debut.

When is it available?                    

It’s on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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