With The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison shows with grace, candor, intelligence, and skill, that it’s possible to build an entire essay collection around empathy, a concept many don’t truly understand.
The collection has been a huge success for Graywolf, the small press that published it, and has generated a lot more praise and buzz than most literary essay collections. But I really became curious about it after I read Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” online at the Virginia Quarterly Review. In it, she lists some classic examples of female suffering and pain–Miss Havisham, Anna Karenina, Sylvia Plath. Women are fragile and broken–but we are also mythologized for that pain. The pain is all a part of the pleasure–or so the canon would have us believe. Jamison then pushes into her own history of pain–a topography of various scars, some of which were self-inflicted by cutting:
I used to cut. It embarrasses me to admit now, because it feels less like a demonstration of some pain I’ve suffered and more like an admission that I’ve wanted to hurt. But I’m also irritated by my own embarrassment. There was nothing false about my cutting. It was neither horrifying nor productive. I felt like I wanted to cut my skin, and my cutting was an expression of that desire. There is no lie in that, only a tautology and a question: What made me want to cut at all?
And that’s the question–there is a kind of glory in suffering, a kind of pride in pain, but why do we do it? Why do women, in particular, seem to be cast in the role of the sufferer? But on the flip side, there’s a generation of what Jamison calls the “post-wounded,” those jaded women who won’t admit to hurting because to do so would be to admit weakness. An alternate title for the essay could be, “The Double-Edged Sword of Female Pain.”
I bought the book as a treat for myself. I bought it in the bookstore on Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg’s main drag, after a morning of crying and trying not to cry and shaking and hating being back in Brooklyn. It was the first time I’d been back, really, since I’d left, and it was hard and it made me have to confront things I didn’t want to confront. I said goodbye to one friend before she moved across the country, and had difficult conversations with other friends. I realized I’m never going to see Chief again. I dragged my rolling suitcase from the East Village to the Upper East Side to Prospect Heights to Williamsburg to Midtown and finally back to Boston, nearly never happier to be home.
And on that bus ride back to Boston, I read and read. And I thought about empathy, what it means to truly feel for someone else. Empathy is commonly confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone else, and while it’s not necessarily a bad emotion, it’s not empathy. Empathy is when you can truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes, can feel someone else’s pain and situation from their perspective. Empathy, when it comes down to it, is a rare bird indeed.
Jamison’s collection ranges from her experiences as a medical actor–a person who pretends to be someone else to demonstrate certain symptoms for medical students; to a “ghetto tour” you can take through the Watts section of Los Angeles; to being punched in the face in Nicaragua; to corresponding and visiting a prison inmate; to an exploration of Morgellon’s Disease, a mysterious ailment that plagues thousands–and no one believes them.
I find myself thinking of the essays a lot this week, reading about what’s happening in Gaza, what’s happening to refugee children on our own borders, what’s happening to people in the Ukraine–the list goes on and on and on, lately. And I wonder if something like empathy is even possible in the face of such tragedy and violence. I’d like to think it is, but most days, I’m not sure.
But the book. The book is stunning in its range, its emotion, its intelligence and honesty. It was precisely what I needed to read on that bus ride from New York to Boston. It was a reminder that there are countless kinds of pain and an equally complicated number of reactions. I can only hope that more of it is met with empathy.