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The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison
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The Empathy Exams: Essays (2014)

by Leslie Jamison

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I devoured the first two essays in this book and turned the page to begin the third essay with rapid expectation and....met with a brick wall. The rest of the book (save for the essay on the Barkley marathon) was like slogging through sludge - extremely well written sludge, but sludge nonetheless. Jamison is painfully well-read and a fantastic writer, but the more self-reflexive the essays became, the less I cared about what was being so elegantly written. I mean, reading this made me wonder if I seriously lacked empathy because I couldn't help but shrug and tick the boxes in my head as she revealed her own pains - of course she's promiscuous, of course she has an eating disorder, of course she cuts, etc. She writes in the last essay (the one meant to absolve herself of her own navel-gazing) that "Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain." All true, but that doesn't mean consuming essays on trite pain is altogether enjoyable. I still look forward to what she will produce in the future because she is obviously a good writer and the essays wherein she was most removed from the subject matter were wonderful and struck exquisite notes. ( )
  ToniTrap | Aug 20, 2017 |
I hated this book, specifically I hated the tone of its self-important author.
  marlizzy | Jun 2, 2017 |
Unique experiences delivered with insight and excellent storytelling. Sometimes too heavy and difficult to digest, but thought-provoking and intelligent. Looks at empathy from many different angles and through a variety of people. ( )
  TheLoopyLibrarian | Dec 28, 2016 |
Leslie Jamison is truly a remarkable writer; in THE EMPATHY EXAMS she explores a wide variety of situations and, more importantly, the people who occupy those situations. Through these investigations, she enters the waters of empathy - sometimes only stepping in her toes, other times diving in head-first. No matter the subject matter of the essay, the writing is engaging and well-crafted.

In the title essay, the author takes on a kind of acting job where she is given a lengthy character bio, and then has to play that character for medical students to diagnose. These 15 minute "patient encounters" are part of the medical training, and the actor is given a post-interaction questionnaire, to assess the quality of the student's work. One of those questions asks about whether the student voiced empathy for the character. The author parallels her experiences as a medical actor with her real-life medical experience of having an abortion. On one hand, the author analyzes how she (the actor) was treated by the medical student with how she (Leslie Jamison) was treated by the medical community before/during/after the procedure. On the other hand, she explores the idea of creating a life. When she's working as the medical character actor, she is given a rather lengthy (~12 pages) biography from which to draw, but one cannot contain the entirety and detail of a life in a few pages. Therefore, she has to be able to embody the person to the best of her ability. In comparison to this, she draws in relevant life experiences and relationships from her past and present to explore the creation of Leslie Jamison, especially as it involves her multiple medical experiences. It really is a fascinating and heartbreaking essay, and is a perfect lead-off for the collection because it discusses the term "empathy", its source and implications.

While the writing is well-crafted and the author's voice is clear throughout, I found that I connected more with some essays than others. I think it was tied to my impressions of how much empathy she demonstrated toward her subjects. In essays like "The Empathy Exams", "Devil's Bait", and "The Immortal Horizon", it seemed that the author went through much effort to understand the experiences of others. In some of the other writings, I found that this level of effort was much less, or the work was more focused on the author's own life experiences than those of others.

The theme of empathy runs throughout the essays, even though the particular topics diverge from one another quite significantly. In each of the entries, there is an attempt by the author to see life through the eyes of the people she encounters, no matter how different their experiences have been from hers. I found that some essays were more successful in this endeavor than others, but overall THE EMPATHY EXAMS was a satisfying reading experience. ( )
  BooksForYears | Nov 6, 2016 |
An uneven collection, some essays seem extemporaneous and insufficiently honed. There are points where the author's interrogation of her own guilt/shame/self-obsession overwhelm her subjects (judged as journalism, many of these pieces fail). Despite relentless dissection, sometimes her internal battles don't bear fruit; rather than reveal interesting questions or insights, we're only left with the insularity or banality of her personal experience.

While a reader might prefer an invisible narrator, the author can't help but insert herself as a character in every story she encounters. The problem at the center of this book is that she can't help but do so; that for her this is a prerequisite for empathy: not just sympathizing with the pain of others, but imagining possessing the pain herself. The battle between her complicated neediness (as accurately criticized by her lovers) and her desire to be present for others can be hard to watch, and one wonders about her ability to preserve boundaries - how porous is the frontier between an "open heart" and a broken one?

Still - the best pieces are deeply felt, deeply thoughtful, and explore little known extremes (of endurance, of confinement, of belief...) in a way that makes the book very much worth your time.

Jamison almost always avoids cliche, and resists the urge to gloss over or explain away discomfort or uncertainty. She doesn't shy away from sentiment, emotional or moral (after all, these two may be connected).

While not as ruthless or thorough, at times her method reminds me of Knausgaard (in My Struggle) - they both explore their own weaknesses in a way that serves to disarm potential critics (by acknowledging, without quite wallowing in their imperfection), and as a means of universalizing the difficulty and value of engagement with others. ( )
  augustgarage | Aug 28, 2016 |
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Epigraph
Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto

I am human: nothing human is alien to me.

-Terence. 'The self-tormentors'
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For my mother,
Joanne Leslie
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My job title is medical actor, which means I play sick.
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A collection of essays explores empathy, using topics ranging from street violence and incarceration to reality television and literary sentimentality to ask questions about people's understanding of and relationships with others.

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