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12 June 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:45am

Feel my pain: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

If Jamison is an experienced emotional traveller, then these essays form a rough sort of guide to the human experience. Ideas about empathy seep into every one.

By Elizabeth Minkel

The Empathy Exams
Leslie Jamison
Granta Books, 240pp, £12.99

The 11 essays in Leslie Jamison’s extraordinary new collection, The Empathy Exams, are about pain. Her own – a heart condition, an abortion, struggles with alcohol, a violent attack on a darkened street – or that of others, such as sufferers of Morgellons, a disease that many doctors dismiss as psychosomatic; or a trio of boys wrongfully imprisoned for decades. And, in the astonishing title essay, perhaps something approaching a combination of the two, when Jamison works as a medical actor at a teaching hospital, internalising the pain of fictional patients and weaving their narratives with her own.

When Jamison is told by a boyfriend that she is a “wound dweller”, the implication is that she is a self-pitying wallower, forever picking at scabs. By the time we reach this phrase in the final essay, the wrenching “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, we are fully aware that Jamison does dwell in wounds, but not quite in the way her boyfriend was suggesting. She hovers just past the edge of comfort; she is willing to push the knife in deeper, inch by inch. Jamison shows how, if we can attempt to understand and practise empathy, we can feel others’ pain, too.

Jamison’s first novel, The Gin Closet, was published in 2010. The Empathy Exams, which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and has already been hailed as one of the best books of the year by American critics and readers. There is a sense that the appeal extends beyond the quality of the writing, or the individual subjects of the essays. Do we feel our daily lives lack empathy? Is it easy to understand another’s story, but much harder to empathise with the teller? The Empathy Exams is a blueprint, perhaps; a difficult book about a difficult prospect, but one that readers feel they need.

Jamison breaks down the concept of empathy, and then, poetically, builds it up again: “Empathy comes from the Greek empatheiaem (into) and pathos (feeling) – a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” Themes of penetration and crossing borders crop up throughout the essays: a tense stretch of time spent on the southern side of the US-Mexico border, or a journey deep into the silver mines of Bolivia, or the worm that buried itself beneath the skin of Jamison’s ankle and rode with her back up to the Northern Hemisphere.

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If Jamison is an experienced emotional traveller, then these essays form a rough sort of guide to the human experience. Ideas about empathy seep into every essay. It is “always perched precariously between gift and invasion”; it “requires inquiry as much as imagination”. As author, Jamison occupies a curious position: she is always present, even when writing about others, and when she turns her gaze inward she is never alone on the page. Friends and strangers, together with an impressive range of literary references, help give her stories thematic structure. Susan Sontag makes frequent, welcome guest appearances. Jamison talks about her subjects with sensitivity but she doesn’t sugarcoat her perceptions of them. She also acknowledges the limits of an essay’s lens. In a recent interview, she said, “I’m pleased by the fact that my work has been called both ‘flinching’ and ‘unflinching’, which I took to mean something like: I’m willing to look at difficult things, but I’m also willing to transcribe my own shivering and stuttering as I look at them.”

It’s easy to see the essay, in Jamison’s hands, as an inherently empathetic form: it requires the author to travel frequently into another (real person’s) perspective and to set up camp there, for the space of a few pages. The collection arrives at a time when essays, particularly by women, seem to be flourishing: offerings from Roxane Gay, Rebecca Solnit and the late Marina Keegan, among others, are out now or in the coming months. Jamison writes of the female inclination towards empathy; the worry that one feels too much for another. But it is precisely this abundance of feeling – and the way she constantly calls it into question with intellectual rigour – that makes these essays feel so fresh. If this is the new age of the essay, Jamison is one of the form’s most compelling voices.

The Empathy Exams is a challenging book, pushing the reader forward even when the subject matter grows gruesome or difficult. It gives us a map, drawn in fits and starts, for navigating human interaction. Perhaps it’s a comfort to remember that we are wired to want to try to understand each other, as Jamison’s epigraph from the Roman playwright Terence implies: “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for the online magazine the Millions