The Empathy Exams

By Leslie Jamison

This collection of essays explores the ability to build connections across suffering through empathy, taking on and trying to understand someone else’s experience. Taking its title from the first essay in which Jamison acts out various maladies and complaints as a standardized patient during practical exams for medical students, Jamison then branches out into myriad other forms of suffering. From the chosen suffering of running an ultramarathon with no trail and an abysmal finish rate, to the forced suffering and immobility of incarceration, to the protracted and potentially infinite suffering of seeking firm explanations, answers and closure where none exist, Jamison looks for a diversity of human experience to examine under a microscope in some effort to make sense of the senseless. Jamison explores not only the suffering of others, but also interweaves her own experiences with medical complications, heartbreak, and as the victim of a crime in her quest to understand where the boundary lies between the suffering of others and the ability to understand others. Filtered through the lens of journalistic investigation and literary training, Jamison offers these stories with the hope of gaining insight into the lives of others.

“The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison describes a variety of situations in which humans hurt, but goes well beyond the expected physical pain of medical complaints or existential pain of break-us. Jamison brings diverse perspectives into the book through her own experience with international travel and seeking out information about difficulties that often do not make it into public conversation, such as imprisonment or Morgellon’s disease. Jamison has a literary background, which is evident in her loquacious descriptions. Jamison returns repeatedly to the theme of borders, boundaries, and edges when describing the limits of pain, the impact it has on the lives of the individuals experiencing it, and the ability to relate to others authentically across pain that only one of the two people is experiencing. Although elegant, her metaphors and descriptions feel contrived, negating her quest for empathy by covering authenticity with superficiality. This style also comes across as if Jamison is making a spectacle out of suffering. Rather than exploring pain with respect and gentle curiosity, Jamison seems to present it as something remarkable in how different it is from her own experience. Jamison makes a laudable effort to draw attention to suffering that goes largely unacknowledged and unaddressed, but unfortunately does so in a way that seems to perpetuate boundaries rather than bridge them.

There were many things I enjoyed about this book. From Jamison’s research into things “off the beaten path,” she brings public attention to many marginalized groups that experience unimaginable suffering because of their invisibility within society. However, I think these experiences could be conveyed in a different way that doesn’t seem to focus so blatantly on the unfathomable suffering that others experience. Everyone lives day-to-day in different circumstances and makes sense of their joys and hardships in their own way, and I would like to see less attention devoted to the spectacle of suffering. Stylistic complaints aside, this is still an interesting book.

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