The Empathy Exams (Jamison)

Mary Karr, no stranger to excellent non-fiction writing herself, has a blurb on the cover on this collection of essays. She says, “This riveting book will make you a better human.” She’s right on both counts. As a book of essays, as any kind of essays, it is remarkably riveting. I was absolutely hooked. And it will go high up on the list of books that have changed the way I see the world which will, I hope, make me a better person.

The notion of empathy is an elusive one, so Jamison is wise to start “The Empathy Exams.” For $13.50 an hour, Jamison volunteers to be a mock patient in order to evaluate the empathy of prospective doctors. Item #31 on her evaluation asks her to what extent the doctor-in-training “voiced empathy for my situation / problem” (5). This allows Jamison to set the terms for her collection. What is empathy? And what is it that we empathize with?

The essays are consistently excellent and, well, riveting. Jamison weaves strands of stories (including her own) together in order to explore the meaning of pain and empathy in the world. After a first reading, I think “Pain Tours (II)” is my favorite. In it, Jamison starts with the life (and pain) of Frida Kahlo to explore the role of observers like Joan Didion and herself. And she realizes (154):

Irony is easier than hopeless silence but braver than flight. The problem is that sometimes your finger shakes as you gesture, there is no point to point to, and maybe you can’t point anywhere – or at least not at anything visible.

Reflecting on her time in Bolivia, Jamison offers this (155):

I look back at my notes: canned salad and powdered pumpkins. I have trouble remembering the point. Metonymy shrugs its shoulders. So does metaphor. The white space between details overwhelms whatever significance they were supposed to bear, whatever pleasure they were meant to provide.

In her final essay, a brilliant and necessary manifesto, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison asks (191):

How much do we choose to feel anything? The answer, I think, is nothing satisfying – we do, and we don’t. But hating on cutters insists desperately upon our capacity for choice. People want to believe in self-improvement – it’s an American ethos, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps – and here we have the equivalent of affective downward mobility: cutting as a failure to feel better, as deliberately going on a kind of sympathetic welfare – taking some shortcut to the street creed of pain without actually feeling it.

Before you get lost in the surgical and provocative insights, note the writing – not a wasted or wrongly chosen word. These essays are compact.

I’m not sure I’ve done this book justice. Perhaps I’ll come back and edit this. I’ve noticed that I want to hold on to this book, to keep it close to me. I will share some of the essays with my students in order to return to them myself. There’s an urgency about this book. It’s the kind of guide we need that will never be found in the self-help section. To live up to it would be to live completely. I can only hope.

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