The Empathy Exams is a collection of essays that explore how we react to pain – our own pain and the pain of others. Drawing on personal experiences, Jamison builds her essays around stories: the time she was violently mugged while living in Nicaragua; the time she worked as a medical actor, posing as a sick patient to test student doctors’ skills; the time she visited a friend in prison.
These stories provide a framework for Jamison’s nuanced and philosophical explorations of aspects of human suffering and human empathy.
Jamison’s writing is extremely assured and often striking. For example, in an essay titled “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” she writes: “Honeymoon means days that are too sweet to last, to be real or deep in the ways we are accustomed to understanding depth or reality – in terms of nuance and continuity, the inevitable chiaroscuro of highs and lows.” There is a density to her writing – each sentence so packed with meaning that nothing can be skimmed without losing something valuable. After finishing, I wanted to start over, to read again more carefully and understand more fully Jamison’s complex arguments and thoughts.
One of the things I enjoyed most about The Empathy Exams was the integrity of Jamison’s approach. She discusses empathy and also demonstrates it, treating the subjects of her essays with openness and compassion and willingly exploring the complexities of her own reactions. She resists judgement and seems to be looking less for answers than for a way of always, always asking questions, and asking the right questions, and asking the hardest ones.
Jamison draws on the work of many writers and philosophers. Readers who enjoy The Empathy Exams may also be interested in reading some of the works consulted, such as Joan Didion’s Slouching towards Bethlehem and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.