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on August 21, 2014
What really is empathy anyway? Can it be taught? Can humans really feel what its like to be in another person's skin, feel her suffering, and understand her pain? These are some of the questions explored by Leslie Jamison in her book: The Empathy Exams. Jamison uses examples from a cross section of stories from her own personal experiences and in doing so, she shows the reader, in addition to telling, what it is like to have empathy. With trauma comes detachment, with detachment a woman can learn to have empathy even for herself, and the person who she used to be. When Jamison speaks of her abortion, she stays detached, not drawing the reader into emotional discourse, but presents the cold hard facts of what it was like to be young, in love, and facing a life and death struggle alone. Her admission that she felt like she was killing another living thing growing inside of her is raw, and revealing a startling thought process that she had to learn to cope with. Jamison reveals changes in her attitude that would have impressed Louise L. Hay and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. without saying so, Jamison walks the reader through several anecdotes of her life revealing her capacity to change the way she thinks in order to survive, after a revealing inner dialog simulating, perhaps unintentionally, the seven stages of grief. Jamison's distorted thinking is examined when she tries to use magical thinking in trying to control how others perceive her, particularly the father of the child she chose to abort. Having been raised to believe and think her worth is based on how well she can make others love her, she evolves throughout her story in different periods of her life, and attempts to show empathy for men and women who run an impossible race, with no hope of doing more than setting personal goals. the suffering endured brings the reader to understand the correlation between a woman's internal struggle, and individual's personal struggles to tie together the experience of what its like to be human and have empathy for each other. Well done, Jamison, well done. I highly recommend this read.
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on January 12, 2015
I had high hopes for this book. It received much praise in the popular press, started off with an exceptionally strong essay, and explored an important theme, but I found that--with few exceptions--it was so amorphous and ambiguous that it was difficult to get through. Some of Jamison's points were profound and truly thought-provoking; for instance, she highlighted our need to observe others' pain, to dissect and classify others' painful experiences as being part of the mind or the body, or our need to feel truly seen by others in our own suffering. But then she also lost me at other points; she overemphasized her own experience of pain, to the point of often appearing whiny and "why me" about her own woes (which struck me as a bit naive and immature given her privileged upbringing, objectively not-that-bad set of problems, and young age). I guess I would recommend selectively reading a few of the essays (e.g., the first and second were good) and skipping the rest. I think the reviews printed all over the cover far over-promised the content.
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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.
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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. [...]
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on July 5, 2016
This collection is stunning. Jamison has a talent for delving into the cues and contradictions of human interactions, all with a tender degree of honesty. The best moments of this book are the simple, understated ones, and while Jamison sometimes inserts wordier constructions, the tone of her essays are unified. She arrives at brilliant moments of clarity even amidst the complexities of the pain, illness, trauma, and oddity she explores. Jamison experiments with form in many of these essays, and for the most part her experiments pay off wonderfully. She presents a tremendous range of experiences in this collection, from working as a medical actor, to travelling through Central America, to attending unique events such as a conference for people suffering with Morgellon’s disease and the Barkley Marathon at Frozen Head State Park.

I would like to briefly address the major issues I see other reviews have had with this book. I think what Jamison did here—relating what she experiences to her own state of mind—quite intentionally matches her theme of empathy. Empathy can border on appropriation. Jamison says it herself when she writes, “When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.” This collection benefits from a highly involved (and highly honest) author. To me, a writer of creative nonfiction is definitely within their bounds when they insert themselves into stories they tell about others. The most revealing pieces of creative nonfiction in my experience track the movement of a writer’s mind as they examine some nagging question or idea in their lives. I see Jamison doing this here, and I think it works brilliantly.
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on March 29, 2016
Two words. "Poor Me"...
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on April 10, 2014
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..
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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.
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on December 24, 2014
I enjoyed this loosely connected essays. The writing is quite polished, and several of the essays rise to the level of the best of what's out there, including the first one, which gives its name to the book. Jamison has a clear eyed way of tracking through the miasma of her experience to get at a point, for the most part. She is most engaging when she is wholly curious at things outside of her own head; occasionally she slips into solipsism when navigating her mostly uninteresting medical history, and into narcissistic terrain when speaking of her former lovers and her own writing. Its a bit uneven as a result. She over relishes the idea that she has certain eccentric charms, and its this attempt to charm us with her quirkiness that gets tiresome.
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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.
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