What We’re Reading (Summer 2014): The Empathy Exams

ww_bannerIn this series of summer posts, MG staffer Kelly Nhan will be exploring books and music, festivals and goings-on, anything and everything Midwestern-related, and reporting her findings.


The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison’s collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, released April 2014, is just as much an exploration of that eponymous sentiment as it is of pain. Jamison is a “wound dweller”, she admits in one of the collection’s strongest pieces, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”. The “empathy” is not so often thematized, so much as enacted. Each essay in Exams is an opportunity to defend, examine, or otherwise understand the pain or pathos of another.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Jamison is also a pain tourist, reaching across into such varied experiences as a meeting of Morgollens sufferers, ultrarunners at the Barkley Marathons, the victims of drug­related violence in Tijuana, and the sites of her own lived traumas (a broken nose, an abortion). The author’s self­conscious and introspective tendency mean she constantly draws lines between herself and the external subject, mostly circumventing the possibility of exploitation without foregoing the project of understanding something outside of herself (although she edges close in “La Frontera” with a bit of undue exoticism). Jamison’s writing is earnest yet reflective, adroit without pretension, and strongest in the most risk­taking of the essays, including “Morphology of the Hit” and “In Defense of the Saccharin(e)”. The former sees the writer circumscribing the memory of her own assault within the architecture of myth, the latter a thoughtful take on sentimentality and irony interspliced with the history of artificial sweeteners. Admittedly, Exams is uneven and at times repetitive; perhaps these essays would breathe better serialized or read with intermittent stops, rather than straight through. Jamison writes big: punchy and often breath­taking, at the risk of getting lost or too seduced in the at times amorphous and impressionistic strokes she paints.

But undoubtedly, The Empathy Exams is a stand­out, marked by Leslie Jamison’s sharp insights into the treatment of pain, physical and emotional, or both. This collection is a testament to Jamison’s own understanding that empathy is a choice we make:

“The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say going through the motions—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgement of effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work.”

Ultimately, it is a careful defense of feeling, both the emotional act and the emotions themselves, bringing up questions of how we judge others’ experiences of pain, gendered stereotypes, and literary sentimentalism along the way. The Empathy Exams is deeply affecting and thoughtful, and well worth picking up this summer.

For fans of Joan Didion and Susan Sontag.

Shop for The Empathy Exams on Amazon


Kelly Nhan is a senior studying English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, and originally from Connecticut. She loves finding good coffee places, exploring cities, reading good poetry, and chatting about feminism. She is interested in going into book publishing, or eventually going to grad school to study post-colonial literature and feminist theory.

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