The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison is a collection of essays that explore how much people understand one another, how we should care for each other, and how best to share in the pain. The essays range from Jamison’s time as a medical actor for medical students to the Barkley Marathons in northern Tennessee to Nicaragua, to Robin Hood Hills, and to a Morgellons disease conference in Austin, Texas. They all ask how can we as humans better empathize with other humans; if should we have empathy for each other; and why do we need to prove that our pain is real.
The strongest essays in this collection are the ones where Jamison has taken a step back and explores the pain of those around her and questions her own pain in relation, in “The Immortal Horizon” she watches as her brother runs the Barkley Marathon, a race of five loops on a course that is probably twenty-six miles through the mountains that has no official trail outside of a list of instructions. Leslie is not running this race, but she gives the reader the history, the reasoning, and why all of these endurance runners go through with the madness. She asks herself where her place is in all of this if she is just a spectator or is she allowed to feel the same pain her brother feels as he races through the wilderness?
“There is a gracefully frustrating tautology to this embodied testimony: Why do I do it? I do it because it hurts so much and I’m still willing to do it. The sheer ferocity of the effort implies that the effort is somehow worth it. This is purpose by implication rather than direct articulation” (107).
The introspection involved in this essay, or the lack of introspection, allows room for Jamison to get to the core of why we do the things that we do and why we feel empathy for other people as they do the things that they’ve chosen to do. And in this she is able to get to what empathy asks of us, and how to be more empathetic, where our place is as the empathetic in the plight of our fellow humans.
Some of the other essays in this collection come across as being calculated, she’s trying to reach the same place by giving us a list of reasons to feel empathy for her: She was punched in the face by a stranger for no reason, they wanted to give her a pacemaker for a heart condition, and yes these are reasons to be empathetic. But each time they are mentioned she also mentions that she is a Harvard Grad, went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and is so thin that if they had given her a pacemaker it could be seen from underneath her skin. In these essays, in these moments as a reader, I find it hard to be empathetic for her. Maybe I’ve just failed the empathy exams, and maybe I didn’t pull the right lessons from the essays where she is showing us how to be empathetic, but in these essays, I am lost.
Recommendation: I enjoyed reading this collection of essays and the prose is strong, but when I sat back and started to think about what I was reading a little more critically I found some of this book wanting. For fans of nonfiction I would recommend finding and reading some of these essays, and I think Jamison is worth keeping an eye on her prose is strong, but some moments just fall flat.