Review: The Empathy Exams


The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison


2014 • 256 pages • Graywolf Press

I do hope that all fans of Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar, and Tiny Beautiful Things have discovered the existence of Dear Sugar Radio. That’s right, dear readers, Sugar has taken to the airwaves—both of them, in fact, as original Sugar Steve Almond is along for the ride. Together, and usually with the help of a colleague over the phone, they tackle exactly the same kind of letters people sent to Sugar during her original run.

It’s a wonderful podcast and a regular part of my podcast rotation, but I find myself missing the conspiratorial, motherly, and challenging tone of the original (alright, semi-original) Sugar, who shared her hard-earned wisdom with us just as much as she shared the things that she was still struggling with.

In that light, Leslie Jamison, whom you may know from her searing “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” reads like a younger Sugar, one with harder, pricklier edges. (Which makes perfect sense, given that The Empathy Exams were recommended on a recent episode of Dear Sugar Radio.) Jamison’s theme, as you might be able to guess, is pain: the pain of understanding, not understanding, and not being understood, the pain of suffering an illness that doctors dismiss, the voluntary pain of extreme runners, the involuntary pain of the incarcerated and the wounded, and the pain we co-opt for our own purposes and pleasures. And, with the welcome inclusion of “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in this volume, how to actively engage with female pain when it has been turned into flattening, dehumanizing metaphor for centuries in media.

Jamison is not interested in why pain exists, but in how pain works and what can be worked out of pain, if anything. In “Morphology of the Hit,” Jamison obsessively goes over a mugging that left her nose broken, fascinated by both her own obsession with it and the way it left her face changed and then, with surgery, not changed. “You break something,” Jamison writes, “and you steal the way it used to look” (73). Broken hearts are dissected, of course, but Jamison’s pain theory—or just its application—finds more fertile ground when she casts farther afield. “Pain Tours (I)” and “Pain Tours (II)” collect different painful experiences, from reading an author and experiencing his heartbreak secondhand or watching European tourists exoticify Los Angeles gang violence in the purest way: “Scholar Graham Huggan defines “exoticism” as an experience that “posits the lure of difference while protecting its practitioners from close involvement”” (86).

Against this backdrop, then, “The Immortal Horizon,” where Jamison accompanies her brother to the mysterious Barkley Marathons, stands out, mostly because the pain to be examined here is willful and welcome. She finds herself at camp, wondering about her brother out there in the dark, marveling at the self-mythologizing Lazarus Lake (né Gary Cantrell). Jamison is so fascinated by the mechanisms of pain that we cannot stop—like a mugger breaking your nose—that exploring the mechanisms of pain that is asked for is both familiar and strange to her. When her brother returns to camp after a brutal first leg, he says that he won’t go back for the next leg, and then he does it anyway, to his own pride. Jamison eventually asks one of the competitors why he even runs, and he answers: “He explained it like this: he wants to achieve a completely insular system of accountability, one that doesn’t depend on external feedback” (103). Pain, at least in this specific case, can be made useful.

Importantly, Jamison does not have the answers to her queries: just thoughts, just conclusions. But “just” in the sense of justly earned, not in the sense of belittlement. In “The Empathy Exams,” Jamison ravages the idea that the “confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love” (23-24). Emotional labor is still labor, and Jamison labors over her labor to show us how it works. And I find that brave. These mechanisms can be strange and terrifying, and dissecting them may not give us all the answers, but it can give us something to go on. This is something that I struggle with; I find the mechanisms of emotion gently baffling at best and enragingly frustrating at worst, even (and especially) when I am in its throes. It doesn’t make me feel better or lighter; representation of this kind never has. But it has weight, and I hope I can make use of that.

I rented this book from the public library.

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