The Empathy Exams is an essay collection by Leslie Jamison. The title comes from the first essay, where she blurs her experience as a medical actor with her own real-life medical experiences. Other essays approach second-hand experience of pain from different angles: reality television (of the sort that focuses on shattered lives); tours through impoverished and violent neighborhoods in the U.S., Mexico, and elsewhere; grueling ultramarathons; medical delusions; imprisonment; addiction. Other pain is personal: an abortion, a break-up, an inexplicable attack in a street in Nicaragua. In some ways Jamison is within a trend of creative nonfiction that packages pain for pleasure, like memoirs of addiction and abuse or depictions of third-world poverty. I’ve heard the genre dismissively referred to as “mis lit.”
But Jamison is doing something else in these essays: she isn’t writing about misery so much as the communal experience of misery, the choice to feel what others must feel. There is a place between lurid entertainment and antipathy. She isn’t sure where it is, but it’s where she wants to be.
“What can a twenty-something writer tell grown-ups about empathy?” one friend asked on Facebook, after I joked that it was “irritating” for such a young author to be so successful (similar criticism, some of it less facetious, is all over goodreads). But now I think that youth and uncertainty give this book its vitality. Jamison isn’t sure of herself; yet she is idealistic and hopeful about the form of essay in itself. She doesn’t generally adopt that all-know authoritative “we” voice I complained about recently; she stays within herself. She is honest and thoughtful, yearning to have a deeper conversation about the role of creative nonfiction in reshaping the world, to “fill the lack or liquidate the misfortune.” (And for the record, she is at least thirty).
Jamison is interested in empathy, but she isn’t sure about its value. Maybe empathy is solipsism, she suggests in the first essay, a kind of vicarious self-pity. How does empathy enable delusions, she wonders later, or the addicted, she considers yet later. Hers is not a call for people to “be more empathetic,” like that too-neat video with the bear and the rabbit. The title takes on new meaning as she continually scrutinizes empathy, coming to at least tentative conclusions. “It might be hard to hear anything over the clattering machinery of your own guilt,” she reflects in one essay. “Try to listen anyway.”
Midway through the book is an essay about sentimentality and sweeteners. I suspect it was the first one written: Jamison overeagerly drops in literary references, as if she’s eager to prove she’s read the canon; she resorts to that prescient “we”; and she writes in almost giddy abstraction about “crashing into wonder” and “flinging [oneself] upon simplicity.” Here she takes a stance for art (even bad art) that “can carry someone across the gulf between his life and the lives of others.” If I’m right about it being an earlier essay, it seems to give her the direction that makes the rest possible. She pursues and finds a purpose for tours of pain. She finds inspiration in the James Agee’s writings about rural poverty, and in documentaries that have freed innocent men by garnering public attention.
In the final epic essay Jamison considers the pain of women, often self-inflicted, bringing in the experiences of other women among her own: cutting, anorexia, miscellaneous wounds; mixed in with allusions to Sylvia Plath and Anne Carson, a brilliant one-page critique of Stephen King’s Carrie, lyrics from Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos, and too many other sources to list. She circles around women and pain, women writing about pain, the resentment and rejection of women writing about pain. She asserts explicitly what she is trying to do in the essay: to make it OK for women to write about pain, because even if it’s trite, the pain is real. “The wounded woman get’s called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true.” It feels like she’s finally enacted a proof of concept she’s been shaping the whole time. She’s found her exact place as an essayist. She’s found her way across the gulf an into the lives of others.