46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2014
Leslie Jamison's "The Empathy Exams" has deservedly been praised by critics, but that's not what brought me to buying and reading it. I'd read some of the essays here in various publications. Before you buy the book, I recommend a quick Google search to find one or two of the essays floating around the 'net; read those and you'll get a good idea if you want to continue with Jamison for a full book. I hope you do; it's a terrific collection, as I said.
54 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2014
The more concrete essays (like the one about Morgellons disease or the one about the Barkley Marathons) are quite good. The rest of them are well-written, but I couldn't get past the author's tone. And I can't even quite put my finger on it, but let me try.
Jamison says, "Part of me has always craved a pain so visible--so irrefutable and physically inescapable--that everyone would have to notice."
Pain is a very personal thing, and these are a bunch of essays about different kinds of pain. And no matter whose pain it ultimately is, Jamison finds a way to turn it around and bring it back to her. Even in the Morgellons disease essay, she ends basically wondering if she herself has Morgellons. I didn't care for this. It feels like appropriation.
Sure, Jamison addresses this almost directly in her last essay, and sure, maybe I'm one of those people who don't feel comfortable with the expression of pain, but all that means is that I didn't find the book as enjoyable as I wanted to.
74 of 87 people found the following review helpful
This quote by Susan Sontag serves as a central tenet of this book of essays. Jamison's intent is to explore the ways that empathy allows each of us to understand the pain of the other as a part of your own. In accepting that merging of her boundaries, she learns the underlying unity of pain. "No trauma has discrete edges" within the person. But also trauma cannot occur in isolation.
I respect the underlying premise of these essays, and I think the goal is reached in pockets of Jamison's prose. However her line of thought is often distorted or too broadly amorphous. The language is not easy to read in a sitting. Ease of transition is not a necessary element for me in judging writing, however she can be just too confusing. I understand the trope she is painting as the observed sufferers are seen as part of the observer, but it is often done in too abrupt a transition. Although her intent is clearly not to offer her own pain as primary or unique, it appears often enough to be tiring and ultimately overdone.
The topics of the essays are in fact quite fascinating in scope. She explores such diverse topics as those people who act as patients to train medical students to sufferers of the rare and controversial Morgollons disease in which people find crystals and threads emerging from within them. The chopping of the chapters with her philosophical musings tend to lead the mind off the frame of the topic rather than more deeply in exploration. All in all it felt as if she just couldn't get out of her own way which is a shame because this book held a lot of promise..
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2014
It is all too common for even the most honest of writers to slip in to their work a certain amount of self-praise and narcissism veiled only as skillfully as they are able to write, and their readers are willing to overlook (if not accept outright).
This is not that.
It should never be mistaken for that.
Separating oneself from the mistakes, the suffering, the lesser-nesses of others-- to write about human tragedies from a safe distance-- is to coddle oneself and one's readers with security that is is unkind and insulting to everyone involved.
Leslie Jamison does the opposite of this. This is what courage looks like. It is tragic when it is so rare that we're suspicious of it, and don't recognize it when we see it.
She exposes herself-- so nakedly, so bravely--and at such personal cost. She shares with us--as she has shared with her subjects-- that which is endlessly painful and personally precious, and unfailingly honest. That's the point. Make no mistake: this is hard.
Who among us has dared to expose his or her most secret self? How often do we make naked the parts of ourselves we so painstakingly hide? Naturally, we conceal the raw places that do not/ will not heal. We hide what we fear is ugly-- or what we know is hideous. Who doesn't understand the shame of wishing to either heal or die (sometimes one doesn't care) without the sharp scrutiny and judgment of others?
Jamison was not *unafraid* to be naked in all the most terrifying ways--but make no mistake: she was fearless. She did it anyway, and only because it was necessary. She did it not because it was gratifying to expose herself-- but because it is among the hardest things one can do. Readers can *feel* that. That's the idea. Hers was a conscious choice to violently destroy the remove that insulates us from feeling about others as we do AS others-- rather than as we feel for ourselves.
This is no easy task-- and she has accepted great costs to herself to do so. Jamison gives us insight into everything we have no right to know about her. Can you really conceive of doing that yourself?
What we are seeing here is very unusual, and very important. Leslie Jamison evinces truly exceptional generosity of spirit-- the willingness to share the experience of wounds we all have (however much we choose to feel or share them). She invites us to experience empathy--and to witness our limitations.
This is so uncommon-- so unusual-- so rare-- that it is almost impossible NOT to mistake it for something else.
We only see what we already know (Goethe?). Typically people have shared their most private pain for altogether different reasons: as confession-for-manipulation, as excuse, as salacious self-promotion. We have too little experience with what "The Empathy Exams" offers. Jamison's is a very important and rare kind of honesty.
Leslie Jamison's subject, her approach, her goal-- her very style-- is the exception to the rule. What she is sharing with us is bound to make us uncomfortable-- and that is precisely the point. It is a courageous invitation to empathize-- and very much an experiment for everyone concerned.
It is dangerous and threatening to allow ourselves to feel for another person as we would feel for ourselves. Our empathy is designed with limitations. If all these pains were our own-- if we had felt them as acutely as by the author and her subjects-- and for the author and her subjects-- we might be destroyed. As self-protection, of sorts, we cannot feel that fully. But we need not find ourselves at the opposite extreme.
If no one believed that the worm living in your ankle was real-- if you barely believed it yourself (Good god! What a ridiculous idea! You must be crazy!)-- and then that worm prairie-dogged, and peered-out from your own flesh... How would that *feel*? Can you even imagine it?
This is among the many complex challenges of empathy: to feel for someone else as if we are part of the same, seamless soul. Because we are. Nothing about that is uncomplicated or easy.
The author is not exposing or analyzing herself because she is luxuriating in some form of indulgent narcissism. No. Emphatically: NO. We don't recognize the opposite of extreme narcissism when we see it-- perhaps, because it is just too rare. This is something special, here. We might not see the likes of it ever again.
Leslie Jamison has taken great pains to invite us (in spite of valid fears, serious personal risk, and how much it dearly hurts her) to apprehend empathy and where our limitations lie. We should pay attention. Few people will ever risk so much to tell us something so important about ourselves.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2014
I read a lot, mostly fiction, short stories, and essays. Some favorite: David Sedaris, Oliver Sacks, Unaccustomed Earth (Lahiri), Welcome to the Monkey House (Vonnegut).
This book held a lot of promise on the cover, in critics' reviews, the title, and, most of all, the first essay. Sadly and surprisingly, it was a let down. I now wish I had not bought it.
I read the first page before buying the book - after skimming the description and reviews that's usually how I make a final decision on whether or not to buy - and the first essay is about people whose jobs are to be fake patients for medical students so that the students can practice being doctors. Fascinating subject matter! I bought the book right then, thinking it would have me diving curiously into a world I know nothing about. But, instead of an engrossing and entertaining story where all the insider details are lain bare, a la David Sedaris, only the first few pages were actually about the medical patient actor profession. The rest were about her and her own musings about life and the human condition and such, which could have been good as well except that her insights are plainly told as herself (as opposed to being woven into the story and allowing the story to illustrate the point) and so came off self aware and preachy. As for the insights themselves, I liked the first essay's, the rest fell flat.
Here's an example of a self insight from the first essay:
"I heard 'making this up' as an accusation that I was inventing emotions I didn't have, but I think he was suggesting I'd mistranslated emotions that were actually there, had been there for a while - that I was attaching long-standing feelings of need and insecurity to the particular event; exaggerating what I felt in order to manipulate him into feeling bad."
The rest of the book follows this same formula: a fascinating topic matter is introduced, a couple pages are dedicated to talking about it, and then the author inserts herself and her "philosophical" musings. Her writing style is convoluted. It takes effort to understand her writing, and not because the topic matter is complex, but because she tries too hard. Her prose doesn't flow naturally.
The first essay is the best, and the first few pages of the first essay are the best pages in the whole book. I feel like the book's title and essay order was strategically crafted to maximize sales.
26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2014
Very thoughtful reflections on the various aspects of empathy - on the self and the other in a recursive dialogue of compassion. I shall use quotes from it for my graduate students in marriage and family therapy. Empathy is a complex thing ... it is not easy, it is very difficult and bears a great cost to attempt to step into the pain of others. It is quite necessary for our personal and professional and spiritual development.
35 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2014
Seriously lacks any sort of insight into empathy. There is no depth to these essays. The author starts each essay out in a way that will grab the readers attention, then quickly uses circular language to turn the essay into a story about herself. She casually drops personal information like getting an abortion, drinking problems, drug use, cutting, anorexia, and promiscuity into the conversation, leaving out all of the details and insight into how they behaviors came into play. The entire book felt like a desperate cry for attention, with it's main purpose being to evoke empathy from the reader for herself.
The lack of detail and information in each essay is mind boggling. A lot of rambling and over-explaining of mundane details, with very little conversation into the stuff that actually mattered.
I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how anyone gained any sort of insight into empathy at all from these essays.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2014
We all carry emotional burdens and scars. What does it mean to identify with and acknowledge that pain in others? Is it like being a tourist in a foreign land, with aspects of immersion and voyeurism? In The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison tackles these questions and more through essays that chronicle her encounters with people dealing with physical or emotional pain, as well as her engagements with larger cultural traumas and their constructs.
The essay as a literary form is underrated, and I really wanted to love this collection. By its very nature, the essay is grounded in the personal, which can make for evocative writing in the right hands. But Jamison's collection veers into self-obsession in too many places, and what is strutted out as deep analysis comes off as nothing more than sound and fury. The writing in The Empathy Exams isn't consistent and some essays careen into a hodgepodge of digressions and confessions. I'm fine with Jamison revealing her guilt and anxieties—it's a book of essays about empathy after all—but Jamison lays it on thick.
What I hoped to find in this much-hyped collection was intellectual honesty and emotional truth. What I got was something of a mixed bag. Jamison's writing is a blend of the journalistic and personal, with a heavy-hand on the personal. She seeks to understand—so I think the intellectual honesty is there—but her earnestness feels strained, like a singer hitting high notes she has no business hitting. In fact, I cringed every time Jamison tries to paint experiences, which are obviously grounded in realities far removed from her own, with poetic, hazy brushstrokes to make them her own. Ugh. Like a form of appropriation. The sad irony: This kind of writing actually screams a lack of empathy.
In the title essay, one of the better ones, Jamison tells of a time she worked as a medical actor portraying 'patient profiles' for doctors in training. She alternates fictional case profiles with profiles of herself and recalls the time she got an abortion and the emotional fallout from that. It's poignant. In "Devil's Bait" Jamison examines Morgellons disease, a mysterious condition that has baffled the medical establishment and has become a catchall for people who develop skin ailments like lesions and growths that can't be explained. Jamison enters the tight-knit community of Morgellons sufferers and documents her conversations with them. It's a look at the pain and shared bonds of their collective hysteria. By far, this foray into medical anthropology was my favorite.
In "The Immortal Horizon" Jamison meets a group of wilderness ultra-marathon runners and explores their drive to push their physical and mental limits. Jamison is piercingly insightful here. She notes how one runner describes his motivation for participating in the Barkley races:
"He wants to achieve a completely insular system of accountability, one that doesn't depend on external feedback. He wants to run a hundred miles when no one knows he's running, so that the desire to impress people, or the shame of quitting, won't constitute his sources of motivation. … When it's midnight and it's raining and you're on the steepest hill you've ever climbed and you're bleeding from briars and you're alone and you've been alone for hours, it's only you around to witness yourself quit or continue."
In that single epiphany, Jamison zooms in on the irony of reaching that physical nirvana from a state of isolation. It's empathy and anti-empathy juxtaposed together. In the concluding essay, "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain," Jamison goes full feminist tilt and delves into how women and their pain have been depicted in literature and popular culture. Very smart writing here.
Unfortunately there are also essays that fall flat. These, I noticed, are the ones that chronicle her experiences abroad. One describes her meeting with the Mexican literati and considers the violence inflicted by the drug cartels and how the trauma of that has been channeled through art and poetry. Another discusses an assault Jamison experienced while teaching in Nicaragua. The writing gets thin here.
Overall, The Empathy Exams is just more style than substance for me. Sometimes I wished she focused more on the reporting in her essays; when she does her writing is illuminating. It shouldn't be about doing your utmost to analyze and understand and filter, but doing more to listen to others and the world around you. That's true empathy.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2014
Yesterday I finally read "The Empathy Exams" by Leslie Jamison. First, I am a hard read these days. As I've gotten older, it takes more and more to catch me as a reader, but once caught, I usually devour the book in a day. I've bought (downloaded) a number of books recently just to keep myself up with the current state of publishing and what is considered good/great. Kudos to Jamison because her book not only snagged me, it kept me reading until through at one in the morning.
In this book Jamison not only provides a continual stream of unique topics, but does so with an intelligence that I miss in so many other books. Perhaps it's the "literary" choice, but those books often fail to interest me as well. I'm not in the space anymore where I will see a book through despite a poor first chapter. Jamison, as solipsistic as many authors of essays are (and perhaps must be) nevertheless adroitly pulls together this collection in her quest to dissect empathy. Full of personal experiences and deep mots justes, Jamison often left me with the kind of "aha" delights in thought or reflection that just don't come along every day.
Some of her personal thoughts come across as shallow- this is where the solipsism arises- but she juxtaposes these by drawing on formidable writers past and present to blend her contemplative ingredients with a generally seamless effect.
Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and a Harvard and Iowa Writer's Workshop graduate, Jamison is currently earning her Ph.D. at Yale. Jamison, here in "The Empathy Exams", while displaying some of the intrinsically entropic symptoms of the MFA world, manages to break out from the MFA Chinese finger trap to write an engaging and relevant book. More importantly, her writing is the result of adept critical thinking and the ability to conceptualize and synthesize seemingly disparate ideas, events and people. The result is an apt model for the new essay standard.
To see her own thoughts on similar matters, one need only go the following article, by Jamison herself, published in February. You can find it here. [...]
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2014
Dull, tedious and uninspired. I get the sense that the author really wants to write a book that matters, and that she wants to glean something, anything, from her experiences, to make them matter, but she just doesn't find anything particularly insightful or interesting in her experiences. She writes about a few other subjects, but, if she had any actually meaningful interaction with or connection to them, it doesn't show. The stories are superficial and concerned more with her personal perceptions. It feels insincere, as though she were approaching the people and situations solely from the point of seeking material for her essays. The essay on sentimentality was especially painful to read - a mess of quotations and false dichotomies. Throughout this book, I couldn't help picturing someone's college roommate returning from Philosophy 101, getting high, and just drowning everyone around in "deep-thought" diarrhea.