The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

There are some books that are self-indulgent and boring – such as Eat, Pray, Love – and some that are self-indulgent and really interesting – such as The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison.

The book is a collection of essays around the topic of empathy (how we feel and express it). It’s been marked as a ‘get out the violins’-privileged-well-educated-white-person moans about aspects of their life. And yes, the title essay, The Empathy Exams, could stray into that territory. But that’s not all there is to the book.

“Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see. Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges.”

Jamison looks at empathy from every angle in a variety of essays that range from the title piece, where empathy is literally ‘scored’ to the piece on the Robin Hood Hill Murders where, rather than examining the actual people involved, she takes a step back and looks at how the film makers who created a documentary about the murders, Paradise Lost, cultivate empathy through their film.

“This finely textured camera work forces empathy to effuse in all directions, even where it isn’t meant to go. You get so close to everyone, you can feel sorry for anyone…. The films also do a fantastic job of capturing odd moments of triviality, the disconcertingly casual texture of being sentenced to die for a crime you didn’t commit.”

Like any collection of essays, some are better than others but Jamison has a light touch and even in the pieces that initially don’t seem as relevant, she swoops in at the end with a new angle on empathy. So clever. Noteworthy are the essays on Morgellons disease and the tourist tours of the 1992 LA Riot locations.

“This isn’t an essay about whether or not Morgellons disease is real. That’s probably obvious by now. It’s an essay about what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion.”

My favourite was the essay on the Barkley Marathon – initially it seemed so far-fetched that I wondered if Jamison was straying into fiction but the Marathon exists. It’s a race designed for ultra-runners (even the term ‘ultra-runner’ stretches my imagination…). The bizarre application process says everything about this race but if, like me, you want to know more, the NYT article tells the story (with some gross blister pictures) or, for a 22 minute time investment, the doco below.

And for all of Jamison’s critics (and she seems to have a few…), jam it – she writes beautifully.

“Our scripts are studded with moments of flourish: Pregnant Lila’s husband is a yacht captain sailing overseas off Croatia. Appendicitis Angela has a dead guitarist uncle whose tour bus was hit by a tornado.”

“When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.”

“I wonder if my empathy has always been this, in every case: just a bout of hypothetical self-pity projected onto someone else.”

4/5 Thought-provoking.


14 responses

  1. I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who didn’t like Eat, Pray, Love. It seemed like everyone I knew was raving about the book and so I read it and I thought it was really boring.

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