How to describe how amazing and perfect this book is? The art of the essay–of observing our nature and that of others, of finding universal truths in deeply personal experiences–is alive and well, thanks to Leslie Jamison and The Empathy Exams.
The essays in this book all discuss, directly or indirectly, the topic of, you guessed it, empathy. From training doctors to empathize with their patients to visiting some of the poorest and most dangerous places on the planet, Jamison dissects how we feel and how, ultimately, we get to feel for and with others in different situations.
The book is thoughtful and smart. These are not commonplace platitudes: Jamison truly digs deep with personal experiences (an abortion, being punched in the face, getting heart surgery) and pulls out little diamonds of insights about the human capacity to share emotions.
Although all essays are pretty much amazing, I especially enjoyed “In Defence of Saccharine”. Maybe it’s because it’s among the most academic of the book (but still accessible), but maybe it’s because I can easily be overtaken by the kinds of emotions that Hollywood movies and “sentimental” literature can provoke. I admit to having cried at the end of A League of Their Own as a teenager at least the first 3 times. I also cried when I finished Daniel Deronda (don’t ask).
The last essay, about female pain, definitely tickled my feminist side. (I rephrase: tickled ME. I’m a WHOLE feminist, not just part of one. Anyway.)
The insight that female pain is dismissed more readily than male pain is not new. But she breaks it down in different kinds of pain, and uses plenty of academic, philosophical and pop culture references to make her point. Here’s a bit from this particular essay:
I knew better–we all, it seems, knew better–than to become one of *those* women who plays victim, lurks around the sickbed, hands her pain out like a business card. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think this was just me. An entire generation, the next wave, grew up doing everything we could to avoid this identify: we take refuge in self-awareness, self-deprecation, jadedness, sarcasm. The Girl Who Cried Pain: she doesn’t need meds; she needs a sedative.
And now we find ourselves torn. We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, but we miss the sympathy when it doesn’t come. Feeling sorry for ourselves has become a secret crime–a kind of shameful masturbation–that would chase away the sympathy of others if we ever let it show.
Jamison has insight that cuts through all the bullshit and goes right to the heart of the matter. Why can’t women admit to their pain? Why do we enjoy poverty tourism? Why do some people run marathons that even ultra-marathoners think are crazy? How do you know if your doctor really empathizes with you–and does it matter if he or she does? Should we embrace or reject the easy emotionality of Hollywood romances?
These are all interesting questions–and there are no easy answers, either. Although Jamison takes her own stand on things, she never shuts the door to the other side. Human emotions are complex, and so are her investigations of them.
To be honest, I’m a little jealous. I wish I had written these. Finishing this book actually made me question a bunch of things about my life, like “have I lived too much of a privileged, middle-class life?” “Can I be a good writer if I don’t have extraordinary experiences?” “WHY THE FUCK AM I NOT WRITING THIS SHIT RIGHT NOW?” And also the less comforting: “where has my sharp mind gone?”
Personal fears and confessions aside, if you want to read amazing non-fiction, pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll come out a richer, better person on the other side.
5 AWESOME stars.