Book Review: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
The Empathy Exams
Essays by Leslie Jamison
Graywolf, April 2014
Reviewed by B.J. Hollars
Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams features essays that explore the ways in which we feel—or try to feel—the suffering of others. Though as Jamison makes clear, empathy takes practice, and rarely do we get it right the first time. This theme hits its pitch in the title essay, in which Jamison recounts her experiences as a “standardized patient”; that is, an actor who embraces hypothetical illnesses for the sake of practicing medical students. Yet the essay takes a dramatic turn when the hypothetical situations turn real, creating a fractured state for the reader, one in which our own empathy is suddenly demanded. Likewise, in “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison once more transitions from observer to subject, though in this instance, the ailment she fears—a delusion-induced disease known as Morgellons—affects her reliability as well. After attending a conference on the mysterious disease, Jamison soon finds herself exhibiting the same skin-crawling symptoms previously noted by her subjects. Thus, she begins understanding the pain of others by understanding her own, a journey that eventually leads her to the essay’s resonant question: “Is it wrong to call it empathy when you trust the fact of suffering, but not the source?” Indeed, Jamison’s essays document suffering in many forms—murders, muggings, incarcerations and adventure races—but her through line remains constant: a clear-eyed, eloquent examination of what it means to be both human and humane. Perhaps Jamison’s greatest strength is her willingness to immerse herself into her work, even at the risk of jeopardizing her objectivity. But we forgive the trespass because it is not a trespass; merely a reminder that the best way to understand anything is to feel it—or try to feel it—firsthand.
B.J. Hollars is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, and a collection of stories, Sightings. His latest work, a hybrid text entitled Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction, is forthcoming in the fall of 2014. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.