2016 Reading Challenge · Book Reviews · Conferences

The Empathy Exams

I’m a little late to the game on this book. I finally got a copy while I was at AWP and managed to get Leslie Jamison to sign it (don’t worry, I’m totally not freaking out about that still). I had pretty high expectations for this book, since I had heard so many good things and I was not disappointed.

As a lit student, I’ve heard over and over again that one of the primary reasons that literature exists is to teach readers sympathy and empathy. I wrote about empathy as part of my senior thesis and I was really eager to hear what Jamison had to say. Her first essay blew me away. In the first few pages, Jamison defines the empathy that she explores throughout the essays.

“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 realizing no trauma has discrete edges. … It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query” (5-6).

Jamison spends 218 pages exploring what it means to extend this kind of empathy to others, even hard others. How do we show empathy to those in prision, those who are different, those who have been hurt so many times? For her, empathy means unleashing your own vulnerability, keeping your heart open. While this idea isn’t explicitly stated until the very end of her last essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” it’s traced all through the book.

empathy-exams-book-coverIn her essay “Lost Boys,” Jamison writes about the West Memphis Three, the story of three teenagers accused of killing three younger boys. Three films were made about the story, trial, and appeal and Jamison explores empathy through the films. She shares that “Empathy is easier when it comes to concrete particulars” (166). How can we display empathy to victims and perpetrators? The line isn’t clear—”This finely textured camera work forces empathy to effuse in all directions, even where it isn’t meant to go. You get so close to everyone, you can feel sorry for everyone” (176).

It’s this idea of difficult empathy, empathy that goes to those it “shouldn’t,” empathy towards those who we don’t want to give it to, that has remained with me. I think this is the most important questions readers should ask: Who am I giving empathy to and why? Is this being manipulated out of me by the writer, or am I being taught to be compassionate towards those who are different?

Jamison closes her book simply—”I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.” I want to read with my heart open, willing to give empathy to those I might not be inclined to, eager to hear stories from viewpoints or beliefs that I might not agree with. This collection of essays has challenged my perception of the world in a way that not many books have before. This bears reading multiple times over.



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