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The collection seamlessly interweaves personal experience, journalism, and cultural history, and it offers a fresh perspective on a well-worn subject. Jan 07, Jennyb rated it did not like it Recommends it for: Insufferable Narcissists. Shelves: unreadable. I do not count myself among that number of fans. In fact, after reading something more than half of the book, I feel something curiously close to rage, and definitely identifiable as disgust.

Here is a woman who has led a life of incredible privilege — growing up in a glass house in Santa Monica, attending Harvard as an undergraduate, spending a couple of years at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and topping things off with a graduate degree from Yale. And yet, here we read again and again about the deep psychic pain and misfortune she suffers Really, Jamison? You should be ashamed of yourself. There is not, of course, any shame in having enjoyed such advantages in life.

What is shameful, however, is failing to acknowledge such incredible privilege, and instead focusing on the small measures of pain or disadvantage which one has encountered. It is solipsistic. It is childish. And it is, ultimately, repellent. You got mugged once, a broken nose and a stolen wallet? How unspeakably awful. Good thing there was no weapon, no life-threatening gun shots, no sexual assault. And that sort of event — where in the grand scheme of a charmed life, even minor mishaps become sources of exaggerated psychic anguish — happens again and again.

Witness: Oh my god, this one time, I was running around in Bolivia, and when I came back, I had this parasite! And then this other time? I went to this gathering of people who suffer from a disease that may or may not be imaginary. Oh my god, and after? I even imagined I HAD this disease!! Crazy, right? Then there was this other time I had to have an abortion, and I was like so sad and upset, I totally drank away the pain.

For real, I did! You get the idea. The subject of herself is so fascinating, she can hardly turn her gaze away. And truthfully, that kind of makes me want to punch her, and tell her to pull her head out of her ass. By parsing figurative opacity, close-reading metaphor, tracking nuances of character, historicizing in terms of print history and social history and institutional history Did no one edit this? No note in the margin suggesting this might be a bit thick for a non-academic essay? What IS this woman talking about? View all 5 comments. Aug 30, Lee Klein rated it it was amazing Shelves: potential-conflict-of-interest.

The author is a grad school friend who a mutual friend once playfully nicknamed "Exegesis ," since LJ reeled off workshop critiques like a supercomputer emitting reams of intriguing data. I was about ten or 12 years older than Leslie when we were at MFA school. Her critical voice at the time maybe sometimes seemed to me like it ran too quickly down the furrows of an elite English Lit education -- you know the way young folk straight outta college sometimes unfurl thoughts in loaded academic The author is a grad school friend who a mutual friend once playfully nicknamed "Exegesis ," since LJ reeled off workshop critiques like a supercomputer emitting reams of intriguing data.

Her critical voice at the time maybe sometimes seemed to me like it ran too quickly down the furrows of an elite English Lit education -- you know the way young folk straight outta college sometimes unfurl thoughts in loaded academic language not yet burned off by exposure to post-school existence in a way that older folks -- even those with PhDs -- rarely do?

Her stories seemed semi-autobiographical at the time, from what I remember often involving young women in trouble -- I think there was a nose job, anorexia, definitely a story involving nonconsensual groping in an alley. I thought she put up perfectly good early drafts of stories etc, but I didn't feel like her fiction at the time fully reflected her intelligence -- it felt like she was out on the highway in second or third gear, when it was clear to anyone who talked to her for a second that she had an intellectual overdrive that once engaged would lay some serious rubber upon ye olde literary speedways.

I remember I gave her The Last Samurai because I was like "Helen DeWitt is a supersmart woman who wrote a really good smart novel and might be a suitable role model for LJ" but it's since become clear to me that LJ was always on another sort of track -- one more interested in bodily pain than purely intellectual pleasure and one that saw beyond simple binaries like body vs mind etc. A year or so after Iowa she killed it with this story in A Public Space -- she'd figured out what she was trying to do, was making great progress down her path.

Her writing now seems inhabited by totally individuated intelligence, but also there's a balance of ironic and poetic sensibilities, and a balance of book learning and life lessons. Yeah, there's thematic coherence around empathy , but other than the first essay I didn't feel hit over the head with it -- more so, for me, it was about accompanying LJ, often in journalistic mode, as she wielded considerable powers of perception to bat around varied elements of existence that interested her her health issues, a syndrome whose primary symptom is formication, an ultramarathoner, Mexican NarcoFlarf poetry, a Bolivian town so high up some people's hearts collapse upon arrival, teaching Spanish to native speaker schoolchildren in Nicaragua, an awesome discussion at one point in the final essay about post-woundedness in "Girls," among a thousand other worthwhile perceptions, including descriptions of food trucks in Austin, Texas.

Honestly, I didn't pre-order these essays as soon as I heard about them to learn something about the perma-popular literary buzzword "empathy" in lit, I find contempt more compelling than compassion. I expected these essays to be pretty great because I'd read a few when they came out and I knew that LJ would be someone whose thoughts -- more so, thought processes -- would be worth following -- her furrows branch all over the place yet things seem irrigated, fruitful, organic -- that's a good word for this, too.

She's willing to get out of the way and let the language go where it needs to go. Something I also really liked: she's willing to focus on her awareness of what she's doing without falling into annoying meta loop-de-loop vortices. Ultimately, it's more about valences than vortices for LJ. She's bonding disparate bits, proposing a grand unified theory of female pain as perception-enhancing textual experience, a shattered window looking out on the world as a whole.

The Empathy Exams: Essays

Mar 31, Tara deCamp rated it it was ok. Something that's been weighing on my mind for the past few years is the severe lack of empathy I see in the world - just observing how people treat and think about others. This book seemed great. I'm not sure this collection of essays was about empathy, though.

Every one of these essays is about pain. But no matter whose pain it is, the author turns it around and makes it all about her. To Jamison, empathy is about interpreting someone else's story by inserting one's own pathetic life experiences Something that's been weighing on my mind for the past few years is the severe lack of empathy I see in the world - just observing how people treat and think about others. To Jamison, empathy is about interpreting someone else's story by inserting one's own pathetic life experiences and injecting it with narcissism.

The narcissism I can deal with, but claiming that to be empathy really grated on me. Maybe it's just because I tend to be empathetic to the extreme, but I did not see anything that constituted empathy in the author's writing - just claims of it. Jamison is a very talented writer, no doubt, and the book started off okay. Then she butts in with her first instance of "You know, I suffered too.

Summaries and Excerpts: The empathy exams : essays / Leslie Jamison.

The rest of the book is littered with more stories of the author's hardships. Did you know that the author is skinny? Because she is, and she totally suffered for it. She was also promiscuous, and life was so hard. Et cetera. There were so many missed opportunities within each essay's subject to have meaningful conversations about empathy, and it was irritating to recognize those missed opportunities and instead read as the author made everything about herself.

Dec 07, Thomas rated it it was amazing Shelves: own-electronic , five-stars , nonfiction , read-on-kindle , 2nd-favorites. War is bigger news than a girl having mixed feelings about the way some guy fucked her and didn't call. But I don't believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think that paying attention yields as much as it taxes.

You learn to start seeing. I came in as a skeptic: how could this one person, Leslie Jamison, capture the essence of "Sure, some news is bigger news than other news. I came in as a skeptic: how could this one person, Leslie Jamison, capture the essence of empathy? How could she manage to write about such a mysterious, powerful, and often misconstrued emotion, even with her Harvard degree and her MFA from Iowa? As an aspiring psychologist who values empathy more than anything else, I wanted so much from The Empathy Exams , so much that I curbed my expectations even before starting the book. But I ended the book with only good news: that Jamison delivers, and she does it well.

It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it's asked for, but this doesn't make our caring hollow. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love.

But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones. She analyzes these experiences with a powerful blend of fierce insight and vulnerability. Jamison approaches tough topics - Morgellons disease, imprisonment within the justice system - in a way that shows her intellect while honoring her humanity. The theme of empathy soaks into each of these short essays, the emotion sometimes small, sometimes large, but always there.

Empathy isn't just listening, it's asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Her last essay about her grand unified theory of female pain blew me away, as it integrated feminism, history, empathy, literature, and so much more into a painful and poignant message of hope. And when she quoted Caroline Knapp, whose memoir about anorexia tops my favorite list, I knew Jamison had her bases covered. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to be a better human, to anyone who wants to read about a woman's attempt to be a better human. I will end this review with the closing lines of the collection, just because I hope the strength of Jamison's conclusion will motivate someone to read the book in its entirety.

But sometimes she's just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliche and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it. View all 4 comments. Apr 30, Julie Ehlers rated it it was ok Shelves: essay-collections. There are so many things wrong with The Empathy Exams that it's hard to know where to begin.

No matter what topic she chooses, Jamison reveals herself to be either out of touch or out of her depth. A nearly pointless essay on the Barkley Marathons expects us to be equally as interested in the runners as in whether Jamison's laptop battery will last long enough for her to watch an episode of The Real World: Las Vegas. These are the annoying but essentially harmless essays. They would have been helped by lovely prose, I suppose, but this book doesn't have that either.

In another category are the many essays where Jamison dabbles in other people's pain: In Mexico, where she writes about dangerous areas she's never been to and behaves as if rumors are facts. On a "gang tour" in Los Angeles, where she observes herself observing parts of the city deemed violent. At a conference for sufferers of Morgellons, where Jamison fails to navigate the rocky territory of sympathizing with and respecting someone even as you disbelieve what they're telling you. I guess I have to give Jamison credit for constantly giving herself such fine lines to walk, but it's difficult to do that when she fails to keep her balance every time.

Two essays in particular really bothered me. In "Fog Count" she visits a man she knows slightly, who's in prison in West Virginia for some kind of financial fraud. What Jamison hoped to get from this visit is unclear, but she spends a disproportionate amount of the essay talking about the vending machines in the visitors' area and what she and the man she's visiting buy from them. There's the search for quarters for the vending machine, the list of perfectly standard vending-machine snacks that are eventually purchased, the fact that a machine accidentally dispenses two soft drinks instead of one.

Those of us who live in the real world where vending machines exist would find all of this unremarkable. Jamison clearly finds it significant, but who knows why. On this same West Virginia trip, Jamison alludes to the ravaged countryside, where the coal industry once dominated but where coal miners are now increasingly irrelevant, but she doesn't examine this countryside, and she doesn't talk to any miners.

Instead she repeats a few rumors she's heard a "Cliffs Notes" version, if you will , talks about vending machines and the Chex Mix and Cheez-Its they dispense, and then leaves with the deluded sense that she's really given us something to think about. All I could think about was the missed opportunity to say something actually meaningful. The absolute worst was "Lost Boys," about the West Memphis Three—three teenage boys who were wrongly convicted of murdering some other boys, and spent nearly 20 years in prison before finally being released.

Jamison makes much of the fact that West Memphis is an economically depressed town at the intersection of two interstates. Isn't it ironic, she says? There are two interstates running through this town, and yet its residents are going nowhere! As someone who grew up in a depressed former coal town where two interstates meet, I can tell you that this supposed irony might make for a fantastic theme for a paper, but it has nothing to do with real life. No one who actually lives in one of these towns considers the presence of interstates ironic.

Interstates are everywhere. Further, not everyone in these towns feels trapped. Some expect to leave one day. Some actually do leave. Some are gasp!

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Jamison would know this if she had talked to some residents of West Memphis. Which she didn't do. Because the entire essay is just a response to watching documentaries about the West Memphis Three. Which she watched as a teenager. While drunk. She seems to be drunk a lot, generally speaking. I gather that's the subject of her next book. My head hurts just thinking about it.

Jamison's problem, which she is weirdly unable to self-diagnose, is that she wrote these essays in her 20s, when she had never done anything in her adult life but go to prestigious schools for undergraduate and graduate degrees. I'm not knocking higher education at all—I'm a fan of it, in fact—and I'm not trying to say that people who've spent a lot of time in school can't have life experience as well. All I'm saying is that Leslie Jamison doesn't seem to have much life experience.

That she has chosen other people's pain as her subject matter is problematic. That this essay collection has received so much praise is nothing less than bewildering. View all 14 comments. May 20, Melanie rated it it was amazing. Imagining the pain of others means flinching from it as though it were our own, out of a frightened sense that it could become our own.

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She says that she feels heartened by this "She wants an empathy that arises out of courage, but understands the extent to which it is, for her, always rooted in fear. She says that she feels heartened by this instinctive identification, but wonders what it might finally be good for. She flinches, and then she explores that flinch with a steady gaze. If the main theme is that of empathy, there is also a constant search on her part for absolute truthfulness in her accounts of encounters, emotions, events and intellectual musings.

The level of observations and reflections, of intellectual and emotional involvement in the stories of others, is on par with the few essays I've read by Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Mark Slouka, George Packer and Rebecca Solnit. A book that defies characterizations. A book that is relentless in its honesty and willingness to dive in, to go deep, to dwell where it hurts, whether real or imaginary.

Trust the words of Mary Karr: "This riveting book will make you a better human. View all 26 comments. Jun 12, Nethra Ram rated it did not like it Shelves: female-authors , wtf , essay-collection , notforme. The first chapter of this book is sublime. The medical acting part of it, and the actual context of empathy reach out to you and make you think from different angles.

Then, the author steps in and tells you 'You know, I suffered too Maybe chapter 2 will rectify that, you assume. Chapter 2 stuns you, the concept and the facts, the writing not so much, but it is atleast understandable. Again, the author butts in, telling you she's worried she might have the The first chapter of this book is sublime. Again, the author butts in, telling you she's worried she might have the disease she just wrote about. You smell smoke and you are annoyed with her. What's her problem, you wonder. Then chapter 3 happens and all goes to hell.

She drags you through Dante's version of thesaurus hell, using every trick in her book to tell you she's been to Harvard, Yale, the Iowa Writer's workshop and hence the need to write in such a way that makes no sense, leaves every single sentence independent of each other and the entire content pretentious, insincere and incomplete.

Does this stem from a need to be rash and abstract in order to make people go hunting after meaning and hence achieve immortality in prose? If these are non-fiction accounts, why not make them sensible? Why make them hazy and stranded somewhere between comprehension and poetry? Add to all this the author's chronic need to insert herself into every story and tell you she suffered.

Its her suffering too. Too much she has suffered and hence please excuse the rambling. Well, my bad for expecting something good. The book has absolutely no structure and the title does not map to the themes discussed. They are not clearly presented anywhere except for the 1st half of the 1st chapter. They do pop in now and then everywhere like a kaleidoscope pattern rearranging itself, but have no impact and make no sense. Put your time to better use. View all 3 comments. Apr 02, Oriana rated it it was amazing Shelves: zeitgeist-y , read This book was kind of a big deal last year, receiving glowing accolades from everyone from NPR to Flavorpill to Slate to the New York Times , so I was well primed to love it.

This is a wildly varied exploration of really diverse topics by an incredibly smart writer and thinker. I was nearly as awed by her choices of subject mat This book was kind of a big deal last year, receiving glowing accolades from everyone from NPR to Flavorpill to Slate to the New York Times , so I was well primed to love it. I was nearly as awed by her choices of subject matter—bizarre ultramarathons, the time she was mugged in Nicaragua, a defense of saccharinity, diseases that may or may not exist, and medical acting, to name only a few—as by the connections she draws and the thoughtlines she pursues.

Leslie is incredibly well read, quoting everyone from Carson to Tolstoy to Didion to Vollmann. She brings in so many disparate sources, finding material to riff off of from obscure neuroscience journals and Ani DiFranco albums and a documentary about murdered children in Arkansas. She says things like: "Sentimentality is an accusation leveled at unearned empathy" and "I wish I could invent a verb tense full of open spaces—a tense that didn't pretend to understand the precise mechanisms of which it spoke" and "The grand fiction of tourism is that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it.

I loved it so, so much. Sep 06, Debbie "DJ" rated it it was ok Shelves: non-fiction. Yup, I'm going to do it. Two stars. I just cannot wrap my brain around many of these essays. I struggled through the other essays, and liked the last, but the rest hurt my head. Here's an example from an essay on sentimentality Is the problem of sentimentality primarily ethical or aesthetic? Solomon paraphrases Tanners argument that 'sentimental people indulge their feelings instead of doing what should be done' and cites the example of Nazi commander Rudolf Hoess, who wept at an opera staged by concentration camp prisoners.

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Perhaps this wasn't simply ironic but casual:" I see a lot of good reviews for this one, so maybe it's just me. While I do find the topics interesting, I have no desire to dig so deeply into them. View all 10 comments. Jun 16, Cheryl rated it really liked it Recommends it for: Lovers of truth delivered artfully. Shelves: non-fiction , memoirs , literary-essays. 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.

Ad nauseam: we are glutted with sweet to the point of sickness. There are writers who have the gift of the essay gab, words strewn together into the kind of texture that produces hard-hitting language. Such writers have the talent to continue this personal-philosophical literary tradition started by the likes of Fitzgera 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.

Such writers have the talent to continue this personal-philosophical literary tradition started by the likes of Fitzgerald, Turgenev, Montaigne, Orwell, Borges, Hazlitt,Didion, Baldwin, and Ginzburg. Leslie Jamison is that writer. I daresay that one of these essays will be published in the next highly acclaimed personal essay anthology hopefully one akin to The Art of The Personal Essay??

If sentimentality is the word people use to insult emotion--in its simplified, degraded, and indulgent forms--then "saccharine" is the word they use to insult sentimentality. If she isn't defending saccharine, she is taking pain tours or examining empathy in this book. Empathy: that thing that society seems to have trampled upon and called weak. Must we only empathize when others endorse it?

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Shall we choose to like or understand someone simply because the crowd has deemed it appropriate to do so? Can we try to understand the pain of others? Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia--em into and pathos feeling --a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person's pain as you'd enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query. I love reading personal essays because it is an art form that is memoir, yet distinct in its tone and structure. The essayist is a philosopher, a whiner, a searcher, an educator, and a person trying to make meaning of this thing we call life.

What's intriguing is that all of this meaning sought is mirrored in the form of this literary art: it starts strong, wavers a bit as the essayist searches for truth, and it doesn't seek to give you any answers. The anti-sentimental stance is still a mode of identity ratification…it's self-righteousness by way of dismissal: a kind of masturbatory double negative. Jamison goes to the core of empathy in this book, delving into the good and bad kinds of empathy.

It is contemporary philosophical meandering. It was the power of those beautiful words that made the other essays pale in comparison. I needed people to deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible. Which is a superlative kind of empathy to seek, or to supply: an empathy that rearticulates more clearly what it's shown. Classic in its delivery, modern in its form, quirky in its appearance. I had the chance to hear Jamison read from this work and as I stood in line to talk with her and get my copy signed, I remember thinking to myself, she is about as quirky this is a good thing , kind, inquisitive, approachable, and unapologetic as her collection.

I want us to feel swollen by sentimentality and then hurt by it, betrayed by its flatness, wounded by the hard glass surface of its sky. View all 19 comments. Jan 07, Rebecca rated it liked it Shelves: travel-books , medical , essays , uncategorizable. I liked the medical-related pieces — attending a Morgellons disease conference, working as a medical actor — but not the Latin American travel essays or the character studies.

The overarching theme of empathy was not as strong as I thought it would be; really, the book is more about how experiences mark the body. Jul 26, Jo rated it did not like it.


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Every essay felt like an attempt to show off how smart she is. She's much better at writing about feelings than actually feeling them. Which would have been fine if her thoughts weren't so vague and scattered. She uses a lot of words in such a circular way that by the time you've finished the pages you've read only a tiny bit of actual information on a lot of different subjects.


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Most "I want to show off my knowledge of something. This idea of pain or suffering giving value to both an activity and to the person undertaking it is raised again in "The Immortal Horizon," the tale of the brutal one-hundred-plus mile unmarked trail race that almost nobody finishes. There is a gracefully frustrating tautology to this embodied testimony: Why do I do it? I do it because it hurts so much and I'm still willing to do it. The sheer ferocity of the effort implies that the effort is somehow worth it.

This is purpose by implication rather than direct articulation. Pain, in its way, acknowledges value. Some people in Jamison's essays -- like the marathoners -- seek pain as a measure of self worth. Others she meets elsewhere want confirmation of the validity of their illness. Her exploration of the interaction between pain and attention is fascinating, and deepens in scope with each essay.

In "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain," Jamison takes on the images of suffering women in literature, and challenges the notion that female characters need be reduced to simpering hysterical beings because of their pain. But she also refutes the idea that if something is emotional, it is not academic or good.

She explores our distaste for those who tip too far from needing into being needy. A cry for attention is positioned as the ultimate crime, clutching or trivial -- as if "attention" were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn't wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human -- and isn't granting it one of the most important gifts we can give? Here, as in "In Defense of Saccharin e ," Jamison is able to hold two opposing thoughts in the same essay. As a society, we disdain those who are trying too hard to get attention, or that which is too sweet.

Yet we all want attention, and we can't get our fill of sweetness. Jamison's thoughts on the issue of attention-seeking and its relationship to suffering bring her to label modern women as "post-wounded":. The post-wounded posture is claustrophobic. It ' s full of jadedness, aching gone implicit, sarcasm quick-on-the-heels of anything that might look like self-pity.

I see it in female writers and their female narrators, troves of stories about vaguely dissatisfied women who no longer fully own their feelings. Pain is everywhere and nowhere. Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood.

Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, apathetic, opaque; cool and clever. They guard against those moments when melodrama or self-pity might split their careful seams of intellect. She challenges, then, both the impetus toward needing emotional attention and of using emotion to respond to a creative work. Is the idea that feelings are not enough, that they will fail us if we rely on them too exclusively for ethical decisions or milk their excessive impact too shamelessly for aesthetic value? Or is the idea that our language is often not enough for feelings themselves, that sentimentality forces them into artificial vessels or cheap bulk-good volumes?

Are there right and wrong ways to experience emotion in response to aesthetic work? This is the question we have to ask ourselves as we read Jamison's book. And it raises the question of all reading, in general. We experience emotion as a natural response to aesthetic work, and yet that reaction is seen as somehow less worthy. Why is this? Jamison presses for an answer. The Empathy Exams is polished, interesting, and compelling.