READ: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The honest, complicated essays in the “The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison remind me of a combination of Gilbert and Gubar’s “The Madwoman in the Attic,” Joan Didion, and Elizabeth Wurtzel. The collection reads like a really great issue of the New Yorker. Jamison delves into a wide variety of subjects that include: medical acting, Morgellons disease, abortion, West Memphis three, Tijuana, prison, crazy-ass torturous marathons, saccharine, heartbreak. You should buy this book because it is best in small doses, and each essay gets better when it is read a 2nd, or a 3rd time.

IMG_3718The first essay, “The Empathy Exams,” and the last one, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” are the standouts in the collection. The title story explores Jamison’s job as an actor who pretends to have a wide variety of ailments for medical students. More than anything, these medical students need to learn empathy and, really, is empathy teachable? Jamison weaves her experiences as a real patient with anecdotes from her acting job. The essay beautifully captures how hard it can be to have empathy, and yet, the importance of it can NOT be dismissed.

The last essay probes the idea of the wounded female by invoking famous characters in literature, authors and memoirists, and popular culture. Periods, pregnancy, childbirth, rape, eating disorders…Jamison writes, “We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, but we miss the sympathy when it doesn’t come. Feeling sorry for ourselves has become a secret crime…” It is important to keep in mind, that the wounded female Jamison describes is mostly a certain kind of female – a youngish, middle-class, educated, white, American female (because that is what Jamison is). Her portrait is not entirely identifiable, but it strongly argues for an overarching plea for compassion – and that speaks to me. I really love this collection.

“Heading south down 1-79, I feel the border between Maryland and West Virginia as a smooth highway turning to sandpaper. The land is beautiful, really beautiful – endless lush forests, pristine and unblemished, countless shades of green on hills layered back into drifts of fog. I start thinking maybe coal mining is just a notion someone had about West Virginia; or something they like to talk about on NPR…because this place seems phenomenally unscarred, phenomenally pure.”


Last weekend, in one day, I devoured “A Three Dog Life” by Abigail Thomas. So, so good – I am surprised I just discovered her! Thomas reminds me of Anne Lamott, but calmer and less religious. In this memoir Thomas describes creating a life for herself after her husband is in a horrible accident and suffers brain damage. Guilt and regret are such hard emotions to get past, but Thomas keeps moving forward with the hand that she has been dealt.

We all have such crazy, beautiful, and often f-ed-up lives. Thomas captures this in an honest, immensely readable way. I read books and novels to escape reality, but I also read to learn how others navigate through the wonders and horrors of life. Thomas, with the assistance of her three dogs, creates a life for herself that is not what she anticipated, but nonetheless, it is a good life.

Thomas has a new memoir called “What Comes Next and How to Like It” that will be published  March 24, 2015. I already have it reserved at the library.


Check out the Dear Sugar Podcast with Cheryl Strayed. If you are a fan of Wild, you’ll love these hour-long discussions.

3 thoughts on “READ: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison”

  1. Thanks for the recommendation. Will suggest to my book club. I am also a fan of A Three-Dog LIfe. My recollection of it is that it is painfully honest without sliding into sentimentality or “woe is me” attitude.

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