Review by Rebekah Hoffer
Pain can take many forms: childbirth, self-harm, a swift punch to the nose, an obscure illness, heartbreak, loss. Leslie Jamison writes about all these things and more in her collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, published in 2014 by Graywolf Press. The essay that gives The Empathy Exams its title is about Jamison’s experience as a medical actor, as well as the heart surgery and abortion she endured. Most of all, it is about empathy. That is the subject that binds all of Jamison’s adventures and musings together, from gang violence to Frida Kahlo to getting mugged in Nicaragua. Empathy is a kaleidoscopic thing to write about; The Empathy Exams is a kaleidoscopic book.
Jamison’s writing style is reminiscent of David Foster Wallace in that she enjoys long, convoluted sentences — readers should approach these essays with a big appetite and a strong set of teeth. You will encounter lines such as, “affective conviction thrust against epistemological uncertainty,” and, “a kind of masturbatory double negative” (which both make sense in context). You will also encounter some heavy subjects. This is a book about suffering, after all: how we think about it, how we should think about it, how we’re changed by it, and the great variety of suffering that exists. One essay is about the hardest ultramarathon in the country. A couple of others are about prison, a few are about poverty, and the final essay is about female suffering in particular. Jamison’s verbosity is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, her countless literary references, long-winded introspection, and somewhat highbrow word choice seem necessary when writing about such complicated ideas. On the other, I breathed a sigh of relief every time I came to a sentence without a comma.
The other main issue I had with Jamison was her tendency to stray into hypotheticals. She asks a lot of rhetorical questions, often in lists of several at a time. There are also times when she squeezes a topic so hard it feels like it has nothing left to give. Her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” for example, stretches on for 22 pages in which there doesn’t seem to be a plot or even any real protagonist. It’s a nonfiction essay, you might think — it shouldn’t have to have plot or characters. Perhaps you’re right. But, they do help. I found that my favorite essays in this collection were the ones that had a definite setting and story to tell, such as “The Immortal Horizon” (about the super-ridiculously-hard marathon and the interesting people involved with it), “Fog Count” (about Jamison’s friendship with one of those marathon-runners, who ended up in prison), or the titular essay, “The Empathy Exams." The essays that dealt with abstract concepts seemed more like they were searching for direction: “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” and “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” especially.
Leslie Jamison has some profound ideas about empathy, and she communicates them with sophistication and emotion. The Empathy Exams will make you think hard about how we feel pain and how we feel others’ pain. However, I can’t help but imagine what this book could have been if only it contained more humor, less pedantic self-consciousness, and a sharper sense of direction.