The Empathy Exams: Essays, by Leslie Jamison
The Empathy Exams blends memoir, literary, cultural and moral investigation, and its essays are rich, astute, and candid. This is Jamison’s second book (following a 2011 novel The Gin Closet), winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize that went on to the New York Times bestseller list. Jamison writes of her part-time job as medical actor—playing a patient for medical residents (in the title essay)—a stunning mediation on the nature of empathy. Another essay, The Devil’s Bait, is her investigation of a mysterious itching syndrome, as well as a look at the medical establishment’s treatment of patients whose illnesses can’t be “proved.” “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” is a breathtaking interrogation of female woundedness and its tropes in literature—in Miss Havisham, Anna Karenina, and Blanche Dubois, for example—all portrayals that rely on sadness, illness, frailty, and troubling metaphors:
“The old Greek Menander once said; ‘Woman is a pain that never goes away.’ He probably just meant women were trouble. But his words work sideways to summon the possibility that being a woman requires being in pain; that pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female unconsciousness.”
Jamison’s prose is original and smart and she has the authority that comes from a breadth of reading—James Agee, Lucy Grealy, Susan Sontag, Anne Carson. These extraordinary essays portray the author’s personal experience with pain—emotional and physical (as the result of a heart condition), but her larger desire is the mining of what it means to feel empathy—for others to understand her pain and her ability to understand the pain of others—all of which Jamison portrays with crisp sentences, keen perception, and scholarly care.