The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize
My review: 4 of 5 stars
Empathy is a quality I admire and of which I wish I possessed considerably more. Often confused with sympathy which is pity or concern, empathy is more about the ability to walk in another person’s shoes. I scored low on the empathy vs sympathy test. The score disappointed me but did not surprise me. Perhaps it’s because I grew up an only child and spend most of my time in solitude. I suspect that whatever empathy I do possess, I have gained from books. I read avidly precisely because I want to walk in other people’s shoes. Empathizing with characters in books, as it turns out, is considerably easier than empathizing with living people.
The Empathy Exams explores, in a deeply personal way, what it means to be empathetic. Each essay looks at empathy from a different angle. Mostly, the essays explore other people’s pain. Physical, emotional, psychological or circumstantial pain.
In the process of her explorations, Jamison places herself in unique situations with a wide variety of people and always comes away with new insights about herself and others. The storytelling is excellent with thought-provoking ideas, intelligent writing, and philosophical and enlightening explorations. Jamison is brutally honest, examines herself while searching her soul. She’s obviously well-read and cites many excellent works relating to her subject. Jamison also possesses an impressive vocabulary and has a strong command of language.
Ironically, I struggled to empathize with Jamison the character. She spouts a liberal ideology, lives in a way I can’t relate to, and uses foul language despite having an excellent vocabulary from which to draw. Perhaps this dichotomy between Leslie the character and me the reader makes the book all the more compelling. If we were more alike, I’d find it easier to empathize with her and perhaps, would not have even noticed my need to grow more in this area. Jamison’s essays made me want to work harder at developing the trait of empathy that is not large enough in me. My inability to relate to her personally put that need in stark relief.
The Empathy Exams is rich (sometimes too rich) and takes time to process. Each essay, each angle presents more to consider. I spent months reading this book. I’d read one essay or two, then pick up a novel. Later, I’d return to this book and read another essay. I’m still assimilating all the information and ideas from these essays, and I suspect I’ll be doing so for some time to come.
“Empathy isn’t just remembering to say ‘that must be really hard’ – it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all” (p. 5).
“Whatever we can’t hold, we hand on a hook that will hold it” (p. 11).
“Melodrama is something to binge on: cupcakes in the closet” (p. 114).
“A space isn’t the same for a person who has chosen to be there and a person who hasn’t” (p. 148).
“Irony is easier than hopeless silence but braver than flight” (p. 154).