Leslie Jamison’s arresting collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, graced more than one “best of” list at the end of 2014. After reading it, I can see why. It’s original, often challenging, and ultimately thought provoking.
Not surprisingly, the quest to understand empathy – what it really means and how we come to experience it – ties all the pieces together here. What’s interesting is the way Jamison approaches it through her writing, coming at the topic from multiple angles. And given the fact that the essays included here were all published elsewhere prior to appearing in this book, the nature of empathy and our expression of it is seems to be something that preoccupies her.
In the opening essay, which gives the book its title, Jamison describes her experience working as a medical actor. These are people who pretend to have symptoms and illnesses so that doctors in training can practice both diagnosing them and interacting with patients. The actors are instructed to grade the doctors on how much they felt they empathized with them (which ultimately tends to be the doctors saying some of the same rote phrases again and again). But Jamison uses this as a jumping off point to write about some of her own actual medical history and the way she felt doctors responded to her with empathy, or a lack thereof.
The landscapes in The Empathy Exams are expansive, taking the reader from the hills of northern Tennessee for an ultra-marathon to the gang-addled neighborhoods of south central Los Angeles to a violent night in Nicaragua and beyond. We learn, in an uncomfortably up-close and personal kind of way, about Morgellons disease and the plight of people suffering from something that many in the medical community aren’t convinced really exists. We hear about inmates and crime and also about the suffocating existence of Bolivian silver miners, working twelve-hour shifts in mines beneath in the highest city in the world.
Jamison takes us to these places and introduces us to these people in an effort to answer what I see as her primary question: how can any of us truly know and feel what it’s like to be another person? We can talk about it with them, we can try to imagine ourselves in their circumstances, we can draw on the repository of similar experiences from our own lives, but we’re never quite sure we’re getting it right. That’s no reason not the try, though. As human beings, we owe that to one another. I believe that’s the overarching message of this compelling book.
— LouAnn Lofton, firstname.lastname@example.org
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