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The Empathy Exams

By · 02 March, 2017 · Book Club, Features

“Metaphors are tiny saviours leading the way out of sentimentality, small disciples of Pound, urging “Say it new! Say it new!” It’s hard for emotion to feel flat if its language is suitably novel, to feel excessive if its rendering is suitably opaque.”

― Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams: Essays

How do you explain what empathy is? What empathy feels like? Somehow Leslie Jamison has done just that. She has constructed a metaphor for empathy in each chapter. Empathy is training to be a doctor, diagnosing a fake illness in a scripted scene. Empathy is watching a documentary about boys wrongly convicted of murder. Empathy is going to a medical conference and seeing people who lives are ruled by illness. Empathy is what you feel as you read each essay.

In Defence of Saccharin(e) is a chapter that falls in and out of sentimentality. A retelling events from childhood is interrupted by a discussion of the similarities between sentimentality and artificial sweeteners. Unearned emotion. Throughout it, Jamison continuously asks what makes this bad. In the end, it leaves you with the emotion and in this she is saying that there is no justification that emotions need. Like empathy, to feel it is enough.

Admitting that you are feeling in the first place though is not always easy. Jamison recognises this in her final essay on the Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain. This essay captures the best of Jamison’s skill in a grand mosaic of anecdote, literary critique, history and social commentary. Throughout it, she grapples with the paradox of wanting to yell to the world that she feels pain, while at the same time does not want to romanticise it. She is scared of her pain being simultaneously all too much and not enough, and her honesty resonates with an audience that is too used to being told to hush.

The Empathy Exams is a lesson on being human, but it leaves its readers with a final test. It asks, if now knowing all of this, can you be kinder? Can you be gentler? Can you have a more open heart?

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