A Review of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays

August 24, 2015 § 5 Comments


By e.v. de cleyre

empThe only seat left on the bus was half-occupied by a guy who was man-spreading. One thin thigh spilled over two seats, and I squeezed myself onto the last bit of real estate, cursing him.

He said, “Watch out” and pointed to his elbow, where the skin was scraped to expose red road rash. He sat stiff, uncomfortable, trying not to touch me or the seat.

I mumbled, “No worries,” and opened the book I brought for the evening commute, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays.

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make; to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”

My seatmate cringed each time the bus swerved or bounced over potholes. It seemed I had a choice: engage this human being, pay attention, extend myself, empathize, or stick to reading about and intellectualizing empathy.

“Did you fall off a bike or something?” I asked.

He explained, the bicycle shop where he worked faced the train tracks, and when he left, his tires snagged on iron and steel. He pointed to where it hurt: left elbow, bandaged right hand, knees.            

All I could say was, “That sucks.” Two hundred pages of essays on empathy, pain, sentimentality, human suffering, and all I could conjure were two measly words.

The bus stopped. People left. “I’ll give you space,” I said, and switched seats.

To expect The Empathy Exams to equip me with a deeper sense of humanity is to expect a lot from a book—maybe too much. Still, I found myself staring at the words but not understanding them—instead, wracking my brain for something of solace to offer this man. The Empathy Exams is not a practical guide on how to live an empathetic life, but an intellectual exploration of the subject from a range of angles. My wanting to act with compassion and empathy was a byproduct of excellent writing.

The book, I thought. I could give him the book. But is that what he wanted? To read about pain while he was in pain? And would it only increase his suffering to subject him to my marginalia, my underlined passages? I’m not sure solace would be the result of reading a piece about a conference for a phantom disease or a mugging in Nicaragua—two of a rich tapestry of essays that blend research, reporting, and personal experience. The best books are the ones that alter your habitual patterns—that break you out of your routine (in my case, my evening commute), cause you to question how you participate in the world, and urge you to take action. Was what I defined as an empathetic gesture the kind of sentimental or saccharine (or worse, romantic) thing Jamison writes about? “When we hear saccharine, we think of language that has shamed us, netted our hearts in trite articulations: words repeated too many times for cheap effect, recycled ad nauseam.”

What get-well-soon-sentiments could I write that wouldn’t be cheapened by overuse? I scribbled be well on the inside of the cover. The bus reached my stop—his stop too, and he hobbled off the bus in front of me, onto the sidewalk.

“Hey,” I said.

He turned.

“Here,” I said, and shoved the paperback into his hands. He took it. I turned and walked away, feeling not proud but quite trite. I allowed myself to look back only once. He limped up the street with the book in his right hand.

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e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

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