Review | The Empathy Exams

by Arielle Bernstein

In the final essay of Leslie Jamison’s phenomenal book, The Empathy Exams, Jamison asks the reader to think of the seemingly timeless and cross-cultural obsession with female suffering in its many manifestations and how the modern woman is both drawn to and repelled by female pain in its many iterations.

It’s an interesting choice for a final essay. Throughout The Empathy Exams, Jamison covers a range of issues about how human beings relate to one another. In the opening essay, she recounts her experience working as a medical actor, where her job was to describe imaginary symptoms to doctors-in-training, whose job in these situations was not merely to diagnose, but also to offer adequate emotional support by consoling and relating to their patients. Jamison is interested in the boundaries between us—between people of different genders, mental states, cultures and communities—and whether we can cross these borders to reach one another. In order to explore the complexities of human connection, Jamison traverses different places and times. She travels to Mexico, she considers her love of artificial sweeteners and her distrust of all things “saccharine”, she interviews sufferers of an illness that may or may not be imaginary.

One of the reasons that Jamison’s essays ring true is that the desire to connect is timeless. But another reason I think Jamison’s book is so important now is that we live in a time where technology renders patterns of intimacy more visible than ever before. The 2010s have been a time of chronicling how far apart we are and how close we want to get. We share everything from adorable kittens to heart shattering stories of isolation, depression and abuse.
We build connective networks with each other, and section off into groups based on political affiliation, our shared traumas, joys, fears. We can join a hashtag cause from the other side of the planet and can ignore an issue we don’t care much about by simply turning to another screen. We bond over extremes, the things we must love and the things we viscerally hate. All evidence points to the fact that we are lonelier than ever, that those who use these technologies the most are the loneliest of all, the ones who crave the most connection, the ones who are never satisfied.

Jamison’s writing is a testament to a kind of long form journalism we don’t see much of these days—these are not simple, single-issue driven pieces that have become the bread and butter of online journalism. Each essay in this collection is a constellation of feeling. In The Empathy Exams, looking away is as human as is striving for closeness, and Jamison makes few judgments about what people do when confronted when someone else’s pain. Instead, she merely pleads for us to pay attention, using the resources writers have most of—her talent for keen observation, as well as her own willingness to show her underbelly.

Jamison is haunted by a lot of the same things that haunt me, which is a lot of the same stuff that haunts all of us. That’s the point of these essays, of course. How we exist in separate skins, and how strongly we sometimes wish these skins were more permeable. While reading her last essay in The Empathy Exams, “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, I wished I were less permeable, that I didn’t understand the connective tissue of female suffering as much as I know, at a gut level, that I really do. As someone who struggled with an eating disorder, and who left a controlling and emotionally abusive relationship with a man who at one time treated me with a tremendous amount of kindness and respect, I have experienced what is commonly recognized as female kinds of pain.

But neither of these experiences has ever felt like run-of-the-mill “women’s” experience to me. I feel territorial about my pain, insistent on claiming these stories for myself, frightened to admit that my experiences might be larger than something I can directly control or fix. In Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 essay, “Welcome to Cancerland,” she feels similarly wary of the breast cancer culture she is instructed to be a part of.  She doesn’t want to bond with other sufferers. She doesn’t want to be swaddled in pink bandages. She wants to heal.

Almost all of Jamison’s essays end with plaintive calls for connection. “I want our hearts to be open, Jamison says in her final essay, “I mean it.” It’s that “I mean it”, that unnecessary embellished bit of need, that makes Jamison more than an excellent observer of the human condition. We see echoes of Joan Didion, beautiful and precise and aloof and removed, throughout the text, but it is moments like these where you know you trust Jamison, not because she is smart or has good rhetorical skills, but because she acknowledges that her own drive to connect is small, soft and human. That all our desires to connect are always a little defiant, a little imperfect, eternally young.


Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book.