The Empathy Exams: Essays, By Leslie Jamison, Graywolf Press, 226 pp., $15 paperback
Empathy is on a roll. Neuroscientists assure us that it is as real as the mirror neurons in our brains; psychologists warn that its early development is crucial to later success in life; social commentators argue over whether the Internet is making for more or less of it; animal behaviorists have identified it in elephants, dolphins, and bonobos; and self-help gurus offer “empathy training” workshops to corporate managers. Thanks in part to all of them, the notion that the ability to feel other people’s pain is crucial to being human, and that the Golden Rule was a good idea all along, is emerging from the long shadow cast by the I-got-mine, tough-luck-for-you nonethics of the free market.
There are many reasons to be hopeful about this development, not least the possibility it holds out that the ethics of care will trump utilitarian calculus, and that we will finally know what to do with all the suffering a networked world delivers to our screens. This realignment of our moral compass is bound to take more than a single lifetime, but the impatient among us, and those feeling the frustration of the appalled and powerless, can take heart from another felicitous result of empathy’s comeback: Leslie Jamison’s revelatory book of essays, The Empathy Exams.
Jamison, author of The Gin Closet, a novel published in 2010, has a fierce moral sense but prefers the story to the harangue, and her stories beg to be repeated at length. Here she is on a trip to Tijuana.
I think maybe if I walk the streets where someone was afraid, where an entire city was afraid, I’ll maybe understand the fear a little better. This is the grand fiction of tourism, that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it. It’s a quick fix of empathy. We take it like a shot of tequila, or a bump of coke from the key to a stranger’s home. We want the inebriation of presence to dissolve the fact of difference. Sometimes the city fucks on the first date, and sometimes it doesn’t. But always, always, we wake up in the morning and find we didn’t know it at all.
Negative capability, aphorism, the easy flow from deft metaphor to big idea, and high prose style—the range of Jamison’s talent is on display in this paragraph, as in many others in the book. In essays about topics ranging from her experience as a medical actor paid to simulate illnesses so that doctors-in-training can sharpen their diagnostic skills (and bedside manner), to an ultramarathon taking place in the Tennessee woods into which James Earl Ray fled in his prison break, to her Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, she proves herself at once unreliable and commanding, showing us her own queasiness in a way that can only inspire our confidence.
And, of course, our empathy. When she gets punched in the nose in Nicaragua or plummets to the floor of a Costa Rican forest, when she loses a boyfriend, when she worries that she will contract the rare disease she is reporting on for a magazine, you can’t help but feel her pain. But she isn’t bidding for your empathy, or at least if she is, she is also aiming to educate it. Writing about saccharin and sentimentality, she recalls her own cravings for sugar and those of Félicité, Emma Bovary’s maid, who steals sugar nightly from her mistress’s sideboard and eats it after her prayers.
How could sugar still be necessary after prayer? It offers salve to the physical body, immediate comfort, something the flesh can trust while the spirit is being patient. … I know I’d find something to steal from Emma’s sideboard, if given the chance. I’ve always tucked indulgences away from others’ sight. I spent years bending over my lattes so that nobody could see how many packets of aspartame I’d shaken into them.
From Madame Bovary’s sideboard to Starbucks—Jamison jumps across gaps that a reader didn’t even know were there, and you’re glad to take the leap with her.
But I’m not sure her central preoccupation is empathy so much as the suffering, psychic and physical, that demands it. “Wounds suggest sex and aperture,” she writes. “A wound marks the threshold between interior and exterior; it marks where a body has been penetrated.” In passages like these, she presses relentlessly, and sometimes pitilessly, on the primal and inescapable experience of suffering that holds us together as a species. The Empathy Exams is a welcome, if disquieting, reminder that we ignore or anesthetize pain—our own and that of others—only at great risk to our humanity. It beautifully embodies an alternative—the careful, fearless exploration of suffering and the claims it makes upon us.