62 The Empathy Exams

empathy-examsby Leslie Jamison, 2014

I was first drawn to The Empathy Exams when I read an article about its titular essay. In it, the author recounts her days as an actor of sorts, one who mimics ailments for medical students to diagnose in effort to improve their skills. The essay interested me because, a) I had no idea such a thing existed, and b) how else would doctors learn to listen to patients and not run them over with their own ideas of their problems? Empathy is no doubt lacking in our society…from those with privilege refusing to understand the plight of those without to those who would enact laws that have no effect on them to, yes, those who would attempt to cure a body without listening to the one inhabiting said body. Empathy is a great topic to tackle. I wish I could say Jamison did it better.

Ironically, the main issue I had with the book is that I didn’t connect much with the subjects of the essays. They’re kind of…well…boring. The initial essay is quite good, especially as it connects with Jamison’s own experiences as a patient, both during an abortion and heart surgery, but many of the later essays seem overwrought, as if written to exploit her own experience with pain. Sure, her recount of the Barkley Marathon, in which she was a witness to a purposeful sort of pain, was interesting to me as a runner, but I didn’t find it did much further her theme. In fact, her tendency to insert herself into each of the essays – her suspicion that she has caught Morgellon’s disease or her recounting of the time she was punched in the face in Nicaragua – seem less like a call to empathize with others and more like a cry for her own pity. What’s worse is that I couldn’t make much of her “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” though I very much wanted to. While the gendering of pain is a topic overripe for exploration, by constantly pulling the focus back to herself, she does the opposite of what she claims to be exploring.

Though I found her a bit detached and overly florid, I suppose Jamison is a decent enough writer. Her style might be for some, even if not for me, but I simply found little to identify with in these essays. I had so hoped that the cultural, societal, and personal implications of empathy would shed a much needed light on the unempathetic world we live in. When I read a book, I hope to come away with it understanding others, if not myself, a little bit better. For a book about just that, I sadly walked away with neither.

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