'The Empathy Exams' Asks the Big Questions

by Emma Cueto

What is it that binds people together? What does it mean to feel for one another? These are the questions at the heart of Leslie Jamison's essay collection The Empathy Exams (Graywolf), which explores the tangled and interconnected issues relating to our strangest and most human capacity: empathy.

The title essay "The Empathy Exams," which sets the tone for the rest of the book, interweaves Jamison's experience working as a medical actor, presenting fake symptoms for medical students, with her experiences as a real life patient. She juxtaposes the medical students who know they are being graded for empathy — some trying to hard, some just going through the motions — with a snappish doctor from her real life. She explores her conflicting feelings regarding her own health, wanting desperately at times for her boyfriend to understand, wanting at other times for her pain to be all her own. Empathy here is not only something to be graded, but to be examined. It's not about who has it and how much, but how they have it, and when, and to what purpose.

Other essays in the collection focus on a variety of other issues: public perceptions of cutting, a group of people with a disease unrecognized by the medical community, men wrongfully convicted of murder, even the tragedies of female literary heroines. But no matter what the subject matter, they all are asking about empathy.

Yet Jamison does not present herself as some sort of ultra-empathetic figure. Like most people, she's trying to figure this sort of thing out herself, and often feeling that she's coming up short. There are times she feels bad about not actually feeling bad when she's ought to. She knows she's "gone through several funerals dry-eyed." She wonders if her attempts at sympathy are actually selfish. She wonders if her version of empathy is just "hypothetical self-pity." But though no more empathetic than the next person, Jamison's clear-eyed, thoughtful examination of the topic provides intriguing food for thought, and insights that resonate.

Each essay in The Empathy Exams is complicated and meaningful in its own right; in combination they grow even more complex. But from these meditations, one gets a sense of empathy not as something that is required on special occasions, but something we reach for again and again in our daily lives. Questions of empathy are also fundamental questions about how we treat one another, how we interact with other people, and how we understand out world.

Ultimately, Jamison's exploration of the upsides, downsides, and difficulties of empathy is insightful, thought provoking, and itself empathetic. Each essay is fascinating as a stand alone piece, but taken together, they are a must read.

Image: Colleen Kinder