on The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison puts her personal anguish on display in her debut book of essays, The Empathy Exams. She doesn’t shy away from the suffering of others, either. This focus on pain may be the collection’s most obvious feature, but it doesn’t strike me as its most important. As Jamison says of herself, the “desire to be loved motivates the writing, and then haunts its execution.” Perhaps this desire is what gives the essays such life and focus. She wants the reader’s wholehearted attention, and she approaches her subjects with the same level of commitment. In fact, I would argue that the essays are more about love than pain, or that they are about love and pain, which is of course an intersection from which empathy is born.

Empathy implies a relationship with someone or something that is suffering. These essays revisit well-documented agonies like the broken body of Frida Kahlo and collective sore spots like addiction, working-class poverty, and incarceration. But Jamison is brilliant at fanning out from her starting points to places of unpredictable, resonant connection: a political irony, a personal revelation, or maybe a tangential allusion that loops one of her literary influences into the mix. For example, in the complex and valiant final essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison considers Stephen King’s blood-soaked Carrie alongside the sculptural imagery in an Anne Carson poem, and later quotes the self-conscious agonies of memoirist Lucy Grealy. She even throws in lyrics by pop musicians Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos. 

Jamison is expert at building bridges between odd shores. She welds theories of eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke onto the slurred words of an alcoholic on a reality tv show; she associates the structure of the Chinese character for “listen” with what she sees as the architecture of empathy; she compares the curtains of highway trees that hide surface mines in West Virginia to the deceptions of a Russian prince, calling them “Potemkin forests.” With these leaps, Jamison shows herself to be both ambitious and vulnerable. Much of that vulnerability pours out of her constant, probing self-questioning. Am I doing this right? Could I be writing this differently? How will this be judged? So, what about this essay collection breeds such anxiety in its author? Voyeurism, exoticism, privilege: Jamison acknowledges the potential for rubbernecking, wallowing, or exploitation that arises when a writer (and her readers, by extension) drops in on the lives of those less fortunate. In “Pain Tours (II)” she cites the emotional ordeal of James Agee as he wrote his Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. She admires (and perhaps emulates) Agee’s ability to match the form of his writing to its subject: “poverty pulls apart consciousness—dissolved into bodily necessity and stricture—and Agee pulls apart narrative. Drawn and quartered.” To her credit, Jamison successfully employs fragmented meditations and patched-together story elements throughout the collection.

She earns more of the reader’s good will through a willingness to detail her own suffering: aspartame addiction, a mugging and a broken nose, literal and metaphorical heart trouble. Woes. Jamison’s not complaining, or even pushing an agenda, except maybe to assert that there’s plenty of human hurting going on, and literature has a responsibility to pay attention and talk about it. As she writes: “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 give?”

Jamison gives, and gives generously. Her curiosity propels her to investigate dark corners (an oppressive silver mine, a drug-war-ruined border town) and sad people (hypochondriac face-pickers, white collar prisoners). She does well to acknowledge and explore the “hot blush” of her privilege, dwelling remorsefully on her actions in relation to a penniless street kid she tutored in Nicaragua. He slept on her doorstep and she never invited him inside. Should she have? If not, then what could she have done—other than write about him? Jamison implicates the reader in this self-doubt; I know I was infected by it. To borrow her phrase, “empathy is contagion.”

Jamison brings her erudition and academic breadth to lighter topics, too, the kind that might get traction at a dinner party among a certain educated set. “In Defense of Saccharine” studies the history of artificial sweetener and analyzes our simultaneous disdain for and attraction to its symbolic equivalent in literature: melodrama and sentimentality. “The Immortal Horizon” chronicles the rituals and reasoning behind an extreme sporting event, a survivalist ultra-marathon done backwoods style. 

Jamison points out that ultra-marathon runners are often former addicts, still looking for a high through pain. (Some lucky folks have to go out and generate suffering for themselves; their comfortable lives don’t provide enough of it.) One of these masochistic ultra-runners lands in federal prison for mortgage fraud, and Jamison follows him there, if only for an afternoon visit. She tells us that the prisoner, Charlie Engle, practices a mental technique he calls “inner mobility.” Akin to fantasy, it involves using his imagination to go “somewhere else when he’s not allowed to go anywhere.” Charlie makes himself “follow the trail wherever,” Jamison explains, “not just someplace good.” He imagines that he falls in love, for example, or eats some cake. But suppose he loves the wrong person, or eats so much cake that it makes him sick? Jamison emphasizes this “double-edged” interplay between “opportunity and consequence.” She often engages in it herself, in both the style and content of her writing. More freedom and more privilege bring more choices—and more responsibility.

And if our enclosures are suggested by the flights of our imaginations, then perhaps Shame, with a capital S, is Jamison’s restraint. “I feel like an idiot,” she writes in one essay, and, in another, when she is talking with a group of Mexican writers, she says, “my Spanish is embarrassing, and this embarrassment starts to shade into a deeper sense of political and national shame.” For though Jamison’s reach is grand, much remains beyond it. In “Pain Tours (I),” she takes a guided bus trip through Watts, the embattled Los Angeles neighborhood, not too far from her own childhood home in Santa Monica. Reflecting on the cruel class divide between the two areas, and the violent childhood of the reformed gang member who arranged her tour, she admits: “self-reflexive anguish might feel like the only thing you can offer in return.” Of course, the gift is not adequate.

The essays in The Empathy Exams are beautifully arranged and organically connected through the tight weave of Jamison’s sensibility and observational choices. By the time we near the end of the collection we have been taught to weigh human suffering with Jamison’s scale, so we’re ready when she ventures out into a different kind of essay. “Lost Boys” explores the nonfiction films that both documented and altered the fates of the West Memphis Three—boys accused of murdering boys and thrown into prison for almost twenty years. Here, Jamison takes empathic cues from the filmmakers. She follows their editorial presentation of pain in a world peopled, in her words, by “boys who hang out at convenience stores and break into trailers with their girlfriends and mothers with hair gone crunchy from gel and mothers with pill habits and everybody with crooked teeth.” Jamison points to emotional markers in the films: the pet iguana of one of the accused, the particulars of the autopsy reports, the on-camera performance style of a victim’s father. As she says, “Empathy is easier when it comes to concrete particulars,” and by now, we can empathize with the best of them.

But Jamison suggests that it’s not enough to simply sharpen our “empathic acuity.” She envisions a shift from empathy to a more enlightened, communal perspective on pain. In the last words of the book’s closing essay, she makes a brave plea—almost with surprise—for the possibility of opening our hearts. If we take Jamison, or at least her voice in these essays, as a model, the deeper embodiment of empathy demands immersion, personal investment, even a suspension of disbelief. She may package hardship into smart, self-conscious stories, but only because she wants us to pay attention to it. She also wants us to warm it between our hands and feel its heartbeat. Sympathy says, I feel for you; empathy says, I feel with you; open-heartedness says, we are one, we are the same. This kind of ego-melting selflessness could radically change the way we tell stories to ourselves and to others. Jamison might be striking out into new territory with this intellectual narrative of the opening heart. I like where she is going.


Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2014. 256 pp. $15.00, paper.


Elizabeth Trundle is a novelist, short-story writer, and blogger. She has published her work in Prairie Schooner, the Nervous Breakdown, Statorec, Local Knowledge, and the Brooklyn Rail. As Boo Trundle she has recorded three albums, released through Caroline Records. She gathers her thoughts and other fleeting things at www.itchybanquet.com.