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Book review

‘The Empathy Exams’ by Leslie Jamison

‘My job is medical actor,” writes Leslie Jamison at the start of her new book’s title essay, “which means I play sick.” The job requires Jamison to assume the role of a patient — memorizing an imaginary person’s biography and complaints, answering medical students’ questions, offering only what is asked of her — so that future doctors can better inhabit their own roles.

There was a checklist to fill out afterward to grade them; number 31 on the list, Jamison writes, was “generally acknowledged as the most important category: ‘Voiced empathy for my situation/
problem.’ ”

Each of the 11 essays in this brilliant collection touches, in one way or another, on ideas of empathy (which implies pain, victimization, sensitivity) and voice (which implies creativity, agency, expression). Both are compli-cated topics, fraught with potential minefields especially if the writer is a youngish woman, as Jamison is.


In the book’s closing essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” she confronts the idea, in literature and life, of the wounded woman, acknowledging the risk of cliché inherent in its tropes: the bloody first period, suffering in childbirth, the cries for help in anorexia or self-cutting: “How do we talk about these wounds without glamorizing them?”

Women’s wounds are an old story: “They summon sympathy. They bleed enough light to write by. They yield scars full of stories and slights that become rallying cries.” Jamison charts the bloody parade in the works of Charles Dickens and Stephen King, Anne Carson and Kate Bush.

For women of Jamison’s generation, whose formative soundtracks include Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, one way to avoid sentimentality is to become “post-wounded,” like the women on TV’s “Girls” — “sarcastic, apathetic, opaque; cool and clever” — but Jamison plants her flag squarely in the middle ground: “I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it.”


In the end, she writes, “[t]he wounded woman gets called a stereotype and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true.”

It’s a rallying cry, almost a manifesto, for the idea of both/and, rather than either/or. Jamison wants us to pay attention to both heart and head, to feeling (in all its messiness and pain) and truth-telling (in all its qualifiers and inadequacy).

Not every essay in the book is as ambitious, nor are they all equally successful. Jamison’s visit to a friend in prison (chronicled in “Fog Count”) feels a little perfunctory, and her close reading of the “Paradise Lost” films (which follow a notorious child murder case in which three teenagers were possibly falsely convicted) in “Lost Boys’’ relies too much on the source material for its power.

That said, it takes guts to quote Truman Capote, Oscar Wilde, and Joan Didion when musing on murder, false imprisonment, and our fascination with crime.

If Jamison is ever so slightly upstaged by these writers in “Lost Boys,” she proves herself their equal elsewhere. “Devil’s Bait,” in which Jamison visits a conference held by people who identify themselves as having a disease that may or may not be an illusion, is long-form journalism as philosophy, both sharp-eyed and sympathetic.

Jamison exhibits a powerful ability to dwell in uncertainty while still training rapt attention on these people — they believe they are plagued by parasites, evidence of which they see in tiny fibers working their way out from under the skin.


In the ad copy for a microscope raffled off at the conference, Jamison provides a decent working definition of her own writing style: “examined close-up, our most ordinary parts — even the surface and abrasions of our skin — become wild and terrifying.”

There’s something old-fashioned about the idea of an essay — a form we remember writing for school assignments or required reading from musty library books. But it’s been clear for a while now that we’re in a new golden age of the essay — informed by memoir, long-form journalism, even the epigrammatic style of social media — and in “The Empathy Exams” Leslie Jamison has announced herself as its rising star.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.