The findings went viral as soon as they were announced last year. Reading literary fiction, researchers at the New School in New York found, improves our ability to empathize.
It was welcome news for literature lovers but sparked heated discussion on how other genres might score. Couldn’t nonfiction encourage empathy just as well?
So now we have Leslie Jamison’s nonfiction debut, “The Empathy Exams,” a striking collection of essays that makes a powerful case for its inclusion.
The title essay details the author’s stint as a medical actor, one who feigns symptoms for budding physicians to observe and diagnose. Playing a patient is itself an exercise an empathy, but the real test is for the physicians. The best doctors, Jamison discovers, ask questions with compassion and genuine curiosity.
“Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination,” she posits, and the essays that follow engage both of these points.
Imagining others’ pain is the focus and challenge of “Devil’s Bait,” one of the collection’s more provocative essays. Jamison attends a conference for sufferers of Morgellons, a controversial (and likely psychosomatic) disease. The people she meets claim to find foreign fibers poking up from their skin, painful infestations of alien matter, and Jamison probes the question of whether and why they suffer.
Her conversations with self-styled “Morgies” convince her that their pain, at least, is real.
For all her attempts to remain impartial, however, she recognizes her own tendency to code skepticism into her syntax, to render a verdict in each detail or description. That self-awareness may be the collection’s greatest strength, allowing Jamison to lay bare the insecurities and insufficiencies in how she — and by extension we — practice empathy.
Physician, heal thyself, we might think. Jamison does. Though her subjects are varied — poverty tourism, ultramarathon runners, the history of hysteria and female pain — each essay takes on the people and pain she encounters with clear-eyed generosity and prose.
“I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it,” she confesses in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” “I know the hurting woman is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt.”
“Pain Tours (I)” recalls her experiences on structured tours of Bolivian silver mines and gang-torn Los Angeles neighborhoods. Jamison resists romanticizing the scenes, instead leaning in to the discomfort of being a tourist in someone else’s misfortunes.
“In Defense of Saccharin(e)” is a collection highlight, an aching ode to artificial sweeteners and maligned sentimentalists.
“Saccharin(e)” explores our cultural tendency to self-police sentiment. “We think we should have to work in order to feel,” Jamison explains. “We want to have our cake resist us; and then we want to eat it, too.” She then launches into a defense of sentimentality to win over even the most obstinate emotional tightwads.
The essay moves us closer to empathy for Jamison herself. For all her intellectual rigor, interrogating her emotions won’t dull them; denigrating sentiment as a cloying indulgence won’t make it less keenly felt.
Empathy, she seems to suggest, thrives where those contradictory impulses — spontaneous feeling and conscious cultivation — unite. “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”
“The Empathy Exams” makes that choice a little easier.