The Empathy Exams: Essays- Leslie Jamison


“Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.”– Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

A few months ago I wrote something in my journal about the lack of empathy I was witnessing in society. It’s something that has been on my mind for a long time, as I observe how people are treated, and how they treat others that are different. I live in a very diverse city with a large multicultural population, as well as a large homeless population. In a city like mine, I believe it’s even more critical we show each other empathy. How can we live otherwise?

The essays in this book in general start from an autobiographical angle but then they delve into something more. Though the diverse situations illustrated in these essays were different from what I would have expected, it was still a very refreshing read for me. Every single one of these essays provided a lot of food for thought, so much so that I’m still thinking about them days after having finished reading them.

In these essays, empathy involves finding oneself in a novel situation, a situation where you might very well be a voyeur, a situation that you might find uncomfortable or difficult to comprehend. But instead of taking away little or nothing, you take away a lot, a deeper understanding of the situation; an understanding of what it might be like to be a prisoner, a prison guard, a doctor, a young adult accused of murder, an artificial sweetener addict, or a self-harmer.

One of the most poignant essays for me was the depiction of the American inner city. I didn’t even know they had “hood tours” and to be honest I found that fact too voyeuristic for my liking, but at the same time I realized I enjoy television shows like “The Wire”, so in a way wasn’t I benefiting from the “allure” of the inner city, albeit from my safe vantage point?

“Scholar Graham Huggan defines “exoticism” as an experience that “posits the lure of difference while protecting its practitioners from close involvement.” You’re in the hood but you aren’t- it rolls by your windows, a perfect panorama of itself. We don’t do drive-bys. You just drive by.”

“You feel uncomfortable. Your discomfort is the point. Friction rises from an asymmetry this tour makes plain: the material of your diverting morning is the material of other people’s lives, and their deaths.”

These essays changed my way of thinking; in fact they changed my image of what a literary essay is as well. I found Jamison to be very insightful, very well-informed, and with a unique voice. Her essays were filled with interesting facts and musings. For example, cutting, or self-harming, was something I wasn’t even aware of until a few years ago. It’s obviously something I don’t understand myself but Jamison calls the whole phenomena of hurting oneself “substituting body for speech.” I found that to be a revolutionary way of looking at it. She went on to say:

“I wish we lived in a world where no one wanted to cut. But I also wish that instead of disdaining cutting or the people who do it—or else shrugging it off, just youthful angst —we might direct our attention to the unmet needs beneath its appeal. Cutting is an attempt to speak and an attempt to learn.”

I also liked her willingness to be open and transparent, even about personal and often tragic things that she herself had experienced.

I can’t even do this book justice. I look forward to reading more of Jamison’s work. Highly recommended.

I’ve added a link to her essay The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain here. Very timely read considering some of the misogyny that is going on.



3 thoughts on “The Empathy Exams: Essays- Leslie Jamison

  1. Rowena, another thoughtful book review. Thanks for the link – I’ve been interested in this book since I first heard about it.

    Another book of essays I think you would appreciate is “No Man’s Land” by Eula Biss. It’s a collection of essays about race, written by a white American woman. The essays are brilliant, brave, and unpredictable. They draw surprising connections and provocative conclusions about everyday American life and the hidden and overt dynamics that bind us together and tear us apart. I think you would learn a lot about racism and race consciousness in America which, of course, is closely related to the issue of empathy.

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