Part memoir, part travel narrative, part cultural theory, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams is a masterful compilation of essays that resists categorization and reinforces a gritty kind of love. Jamison begins her ‘exams’ by relaying her time as a medical actor, a job where she was given a script with symptoms that she had to play out for medical students, and then rank their ‘diagnosis’ based not only on accuracy, but also on empathetic capacity. Did they make her feel heard? Cared for? Comfortable?
This part-time college job was the catalyst for an exploration in how we relate to each other’s pain, both emotional and physical. Jamison has undergone an impressive list of surgical procedures and sustained many injuries throughout her life. She is preoccupied with personal bodily experience, and how our geographies of privilege influence our worldviews. In “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” she recalls a passage she wrote to a friend:
“I’ve got this double-edged shame and indignation about my bodily ills and ailments—jaw, punched nose, fast heart, broken foot etc. etc. etc. On the one hand, I’m like, why does this shit happen to me? And on the other hand, I’m like, Why the fuck am I talking about this so much?”
Why do we talk about it? I think because otherwise, hurt is often invisible. No one will stop to look or ask or help unless you’ve just emerged from a burning vehicle. Chronic pain and illness reside in an internal world, remaining hidden until the external layers are peeled back one by one. Jamison is wary of the romanticization that invades classic literature on female pain in particular, and I am similarly annoyed at ‘emotionality’ being equated with ‘irrationality.'
Jamison references a 2001 study called “The Girl Who Cried Pain,” which found that when reporting pain to doctors, men are more likely to be given medication, but women will be dismissed with sedatives. The Victorian image of the hysterical woman is apparently alive and well. When medical professionals don’t trust women’s interiority, they can be left to seek out alternative avenues of healing and support.
I won’t spoil all of The Empathy Exams for you, but I will say that Jamison doesn’t baulk at putting herself in harm’s way, in the hope that she’ll get it. “It” spans a whirlwind of topics, from mysterious diseases to impoverished Mexican border towns to murder scenes. The essays that most resemble travel writing take poverty tourism as their subjects, asking how to best reconcile empathy with the embarrassment that accompanies placing yourself within someone else’s sorrow in a temporary way.
“In Defense of Saccharin(e)” is the essay I wish I wrote, a brilliant extended metaphor that links artificial sweeteners with cancerous cells: “Saccharine is our sweetest word for fear: the fear of too much sentiment, too much taste. When we hear saccharin, we think of cancer: too many cells congealing in the body…” There’s no way I could do this essay justice in one measly paragraph, except to say it is a smart, soaring accomplishment that calls for cautious sentimentality as an antidote to cold irony. I can’t disagree with Mary Karr’s front-cover review of The Empathy Exams: “This riveting book will make you a better human.”