The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison 2014

Intense, non-stop, deeply moving, unsettling, beautifully written—-take your pick since all of these adjectives apply to Jamison’s collection of essays.  Emerging as one of America’s new, young, and startlingly self-analyzing writers, I attended a recent interview at Harvard where Jamison and James Wood discussed writing and reading, and I was spellbound.  She’s articulate, insightful, and totally unembarassed by her history of anorexia, drug and alcohol dependence, promiscuous and sexual experiences, and failure, and, as a result she can write about these experiences with candor and insight.  This collection of essays begins with her experience as a ‘model-patient’, a patient actor playing a role so medical students can learn how to take a history and do a physical exam, a process designed at least in part to develop the empathy of the title of the book.  Other essays explore the weirdness of Morgellon’s syndrome, the strange and danger-filled towns along the US/Mexican border, Jamison’s experience of being slugged in the face and robbed while doing a teaching stint in Nicaragua, the strange Barkley Marathon near the Tennessee prison where James Earl Ray escaped in 1977, and on and on.  Strange, weird, unreal but all true experiences that Jamison has subjected herself to or at least observed up close and personal in an attempt to understand how empathy develops, how we can put ourselves into the shoes of our less fortunate neighbors and feel their pain.  And she does a fine job of expressing that pain in this volume.  It’s  not light beach reading but one can’t help but admire her skill and commitment, a skill recognized by her being named the editor of the 2018 Best American Essay volume.  Her new book, ‘Make It Scream, Make it Burn’ is high on my list to read next.

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