The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison

The essays in the book range widely in scope, from very personal to more critical to more journalistic, though a theme of understanding others’ pain loosely lassos them together. Often this manifests as her own attempt to understand, like her profile of people with Morgellons Disease, who believe that fibers are expelled from their skin and become so obsessed with the delusion they end up isolated from feeling so misunderstood. She wants to understand them, even though it’s so difficult to believe. Sometimes she even dissects her desire to feel others’ pain, as when her brother is diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, and she imagines herself in his shoes so completely that it becomes more about her than him, leading her to question whether her empathy is “just a bout of hypothetical self-pity projected onto someone else.” But other times it involves observing understanding, as in essays about poverty tourism and the essay devoted to a job she had as a medical actor, pretending to be sick for med-school students. The essay about the West Memphis Three in some moments felt like it was structured too heavily around descriptions of scenes from the documentary, though I also couldn’t help but compare it to GQ’s excellent feature from 2011.

It feels like there’s a lot of talk these days about the dearth of empathy in Western culture, and these essays delve into the question of what understanding people’s pain means in a variety of scenarios. This might be the best definition of what that really means that I’ve read:

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.