The Empathy Exams
By Leslie Jamison
April, 2014, 256 pgs
Leslie Jamison’s first book of essays covers a wide range of topics: real and imagined diseases, poverty tourism, medical actors, poetry, assault, ultra-marathons and much, much more. What unites these subject matters into a cohesive, intelligent and deeply exploratory narrative is the issue of empathy for other human beings, or rather, what we mean when we say to another, “I feel your pain.”
The first and last articles book-end the endeavor by personalizing Jamison’s query into the human heart. Mind you, Jamison’s feelings are never too far out of frame throughout the entire narrative (something I’m sure critics have noted), but in the titular first essay, Jamison introduces us to her moral nebulousness. She recounts her job as a medical actor, paid to fake pain to medical students who are in turn faking doctoral care and, of course, empathy. The “patients” grade the students on the perceived level of kindness the “doctors” have shown them. She points out MRI studies in which testers are shown images of people in pain and the experiment found that the same parts of the testers’ brains lit up as if they were actually feeling another person’s pain. It’s a perfect metaphor for Jamison’s personal battle with her own feelings: what does it really mean to feel for someone else and how can we best utilize this instinct for betterment?
Jamison is a writer who feels things deeply and has been hurt in her personal life. But due to what she thinks the general public thinks of young women’s troubles, she postulates that many women of her generation have developed a voice she labels “post-wounded,” meaning that sincerity and sentimentality have been displaced (necessarily) by irony, sarcasm and an unwillingness to delve into honest and intimate feelings. She mentions the television show Girls, where two female friends attack each other by accusing, “You’re like a big, ugly wound!” while the other screams back, “No! You are the wound!” It’s become a cliché to express our ugly feelings, it seems.
In her final article (an absolute gem that deserves multiple rereadings on my part), she delves into what she calls “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” citing such blood-letting female artists as Anne Carson, Sylvia Plath, Tori Amos, Ani Difranco and others of the same ilk. Why do these artists elicit such strong responses from their fans? She also exams the phenomenon of young girls who cut themselves — and just as importantly, those who dismiss that action as simply a cry for attention. “People say cutters are just doing it for the attention, but why does ‘just’ apply? A cry for attention is positioned as the ultimate crime, clutching or trivial — as if ‘attention’ were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human — and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?”
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The Empathy Exams