The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

August 12, 2016 Whitney Review 0 Comments

The Empathy Exams by Leslie JamisonThe Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison
Published by Graywolf Press on April 1st 2014
Genres: Essays
Source: Library

From personal loss to phantom diseases, The Empathy Exams is a bold and brilliant collection; winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.

Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.

First Impressions

In July my book club read The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. Outside of David Sedaris, I do not read short stories or essays. I typically don’t have the patience for them.  There is not enough meat on their bones. I prefer longer novels that give me time to sink my teeth into the plot.

Impressions on Empathy

This morning I looked up the definition of empathy. categorizes it as a noun. The definition is:

Empathy: [em-puh-thee] the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Growing up with epilepsy I experienced people being empathetic for my situation. Having empathy when you personally have not experienced it comes off as phony. In my opinion, it is a waste of breath. Therefore, because I could not personally relate to anyone in the essays I could not express the emotion the author was trying to provoke. Having said that, there were three stories that caught my attention.

Impressions on the Essays


Devil’s Bate

In Devil’s Bate, Leslie Jamison discusses a disease called Morgellons.  There is not an official, medical diagnosis for it yet. However, persons with said symptoms (ie intense itching and thoughts of being infected by parasites) have dubbed it Morgellons. Unfortunately, medical professionals have dubbed persons with this disease as delusional. This was the only story I could feel a little empathy for but not because I have Morgellons.

As stated above, as a child, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. During puberty, my seizure activity grew worse. My parents and I were convinced there was a hormonal connection. As there wasn’t any medical data supporting that fact in 1997 my doctors brushed it off. Years later, 2003 to be exact, a study came out showing a correlation between women’s hormones and seizure activity.

My point in saying this is that just because there is no scientific evidence now, who is to say that their symptoms aren’t real. For that reason, I did feel empathic. A job accomplished by the author.

In Defense of Saccharin(E)

Earlier, I mentioned my liking for David Sedaris. I particularly thought of him in In Defense of Saccharin(E). He could have turned this story of artificial sugar into an entertaining, readable essay. Unfortunately, Leslie Jamison treated this as a textbook. My eyes glazed over and had to skip over it. It was a bore.

Lost Boys

The last story, Lost Boys focused on the West Memphis Three. True the injustice of what happened to those boys (six if you were to count the murdered second graders) was utterly atrocious. Sadly, having watched the Paradise Lost documentaries this felt like a summary of what anyone following the trial already knew. For me, it felt like a waste of paper, particularly since she flat-out references the series of films throughout. Lost Boys was a story I had been looking forward to and instead encountered disappointment.

Final Impressions

I could not even make it to the last story. I was tired of Leslie Jamison telling me how I should feel. The Empathy Exams fluctuated between being chaotic and preachy, unable to make up its mind. In short, I found The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison to be a hot mess and a tedious one at that.


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