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The Empathy Exams

3.66  ·  Rating details ·  13,736 ratings  ·  1,665 reviews
From personal loss to phantom diseases, The Empathy Exams is a bold and brilliant collection; winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.

Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How sho
Paperback, 230 pages
Published April 1st 2014 by Graywolf Press
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 ·  13,736 ratings  ·  1,665 reviews

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Oct 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is a really thought provoking essay collection. I particularly appreciated how each of the essays took up empathy in different ways and articulated the challenges of being human while recognizing the humanity in those around us. The last essay, about women and expressions of pain, is a stunner--uncomfortable in its truths, comforting in its empathy. Whether you agree or not with the ideas expressed across these essays, their intelligence and grace are indisputable.
Apr 08, 2014 rated it it was ok
I cannot recover the time I wasted on this book, but I can make sure I never read another book by this author.

The book starts out great, and the first 20% or so of it is has me seeing myself writing a review that says "This book nourished me and made me feel more human." But, before even another 20% had gone by I was ready to throw the book against the wall. Instead of helping me to better understand empathy, it is the most self-serving piece of shit I've read in a long time. The author loves to
Am I the only person who didn't like this? The more concrete essays (like the one about Morgellons disease or the one about the Barkley Marathons) are quite good. The rest of them are well-written, but I couldn't get past the author's tone. And I can't even quite put my finger on it, but let me try.

Jamison says, "Part of me has always craved a pain so visible--so irrefutable and physically inescapable--that everyone would have to notice."

Pain is a very personal thing, and these are a bunch of e
Apr 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essays, psychology
“Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.” - Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

A few months ago I wrote something in my journal about the lack of empathy I was witnessing in society. It’s something that has been on my mind for a long time, as I observe ho
Jan 07, 2015 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: Insufferable Narcissists
Shelves: unreadable
Readers seem wild about Jamison’s collection of essays, heaping all sorts of extravagant praise upon this collection. I do not count myself among that number of fans. In fact, after reading something more than half of the book, I feel something curiously close to rage, and definitely identifiable as disgust. Here is a woman who has led a life of incredible privilege – growing up in a glass house in Santa Monica, attending Harvard as an undergraduate, spending a couple of years at the Iowa Writer ...more
Dec 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018, recs
Sharp and incisive, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams charts the boundaries of pain and feeling. The collection consists of eleven fast-paced essays, each of which explores different existential, ethical, and aesthetic questions surrounding empathy. Whether considering the affective power of saccharine art or reflecting on the uses of women’s sadness, Jamison is consistently engaging and witty, and her observations on empathy are clever and attentive. The collection seamlessly interweaves perso ...more
Lee Klein
Aug 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The author is a grad school friend who a mutual friend once playfully nicknamed "Exegesis 3000," since LJ reeled off workshop critiques like a supercomputer emitting reams of intriguing data. I was about ten or 12 years older than Leslie when we were at MFA school. Her critical voice at the time maybe sometimes seemed to me like it ran too quickly down the furrows of an elite English Lit education -- you know the way young folk straight outta college sometimes unfurl thoughts in loaded academic ...more
Mar 31, 2014 rated it it was ok
Something that's been weighing on my mind for the past few years is the severe lack of empathy I see in the world - just observing how people treat and think about others. This book seemed great.

I'm not sure this collection of essays was about empathy, though. Every one of these essays is about pain. But no matter whose pain it is, the author turns it around and makes it all about her. To Jamison, empathy is about interpreting someone else's story by inserting one's own pathetic life experiences
Julie Ehlers
Apr 30, 2018 rated it it was ok
"I have often found myself in the role that Didion casts aside—the aisle-wandering, detail-pillaging self, who comes for water-purifying tablets and leaves with the price-tagged Cliffs Notes of a country's suffering."

Yeah, no kidding.

There are so many things wrong with The Empathy Exams that it's hard to know where to begin. No matter what topic she chooses, Jamison reveals herself to be either out of touch or out of her depth. "In Defense of Saccharin(e)" and "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pai
"Sure, some news is bigger news than other news. War is bigger news than a girl having mixed feelings about the way some guy fucked her and didn't call. But I don't believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think that paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing."

I did not love every essay in this collection, but the ones I did love, I would give six, seven, or ten stars. I came in as a skeptic: how could this one person, Leslie Jamison, capture the essence of
May 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
"She wants an empathy that arises out of courage, but understands the extent to which it is, for her, always rooted in fear. Imagining the pain of others means flinching from it as though it were our own, out of a frightened sense that it could become our own. She refers to psychological studies in which fMRI scans have observed how the same kind of brain activity is provoked by the observation of other’s physical pain as by the experience of one’s own. She says that she feels heartened by this ...more
Nethra Ram
Jun 12, 2014 rated it did not like it
The first chapter of this book is sublime. The medical acting part of it, and the actual context of empathy reach out to you and make you think from different angles. Then, the author steps in and tells you 'You know, I suffered too...' and you feel something going wrong. Maybe chapter 2 will rectify that, you assume. Chapter 2 stuns you, the concept and the facts, the writing not so much, but it is atleast understandable. Again, the author butts in, telling you she's worried she might have the ...more
Apr 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book was kind of a big deal last year, receiving glowing accolades from everyone from NPR to Flavorpill to Slate to the New York Times, so I was well primed to love it. And while that often ends very badly for me (looking at you, Swamplandia and Woke Up Lonely and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake ), for once thank god it did not.

This is a wildly varied exploration of really diverse topics by an incredibly smart writer and thinker. I was nearly as awed by her choices of subje
Debbie "DJ"
Sep 06, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
Yup, I'm going to do it. Two stars. I just cannot wrap my brain around many of these essays. It started out really good, but fell off the edge for me around 20%. I struggled through the other essays, and liked the last, but the rest hurt my head.

Here's an example from an essay on sentimentality...
"In another 'In Defense of Sentimentality' philosopher Robert Soloman responds to thinkers like Jefferson and Tanner, testing out the differences between distinct critiques of sentimentality that often
Jun 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Lovers of truth delivered artfully
When we hear saccharine, we think of language that has shamed us, netted our hearts in trite articulations: words repeated too many times for cheap effect, recycled ad nauseam. Ad nauseam: we are glutted with sweet to the point of sickness.

There are writers who have the gift of the essay gab, words strewn together into the kind of texture that produces hard-hitting language. Such writers have the talent to continue this personal-philosophical literary tradition started by the likes of Fitzge
I didn’t enjoy this essay collection nearly as much as I expected to. I liked the medical-related pieces – attending a Morgellons disease conference, working as a medical actor – but not the Latin American travel essays or the character studies. The overarching theme of empathy was not as strong as I thought it would be; really, the book is more about how experiences mark the body. In Jamison’s case, these include an abortion, heart surgery, and a broken nose from a mugger’s attack in Nicaragua. ...more
Jul 26, 2014 rated it did not like it
"I want to show off my knowledge of something.Anything."

That one sentence pretty much sums up the whole book. Every essay felt like an attempt to show off how smart she is. She's much better at writing about feelings than actually feeling them. Which would have been fine if her thoughts weren't so vague and scattered. She uses a lot of words in such a circular way that by the time you've finished the 218 pages you've read only a tiny bit of actual information on a lot of different subjects.

Apr 03, 2014 marked it as did-not-finish
Recommended to Suzanne by: the general buzz
Shelves: essays, non-fiction
I gave this every opportunity to win me over, but at 120 pages out of 218, 6-1/2 essays out of 11, I’m throwing in the towel. I was slogging through, hoping at least one of these essays would click with me, and might have finished the collection if I’d had any encouragement at all, but this completely failed to impress, entertain, enlighten or stimulate me. I have to say I'm puzzled by the accolades and acclaim. Her prose isn’t bad, she can turn a phrase, but too often those phrases didn’t seem ...more
The Empathy Exams: EssaysReview to follow by Leslie Jamison is a collection of essays examining empathy-what it is, what its risks may be (for example: is it empathy or is it stealing someone else's feeling?), what prevents it ("They don't have much energy left over for compassion). Jamison freely draws on her own life experiences.

My overall sense of the essays is that they are astounding-enlightening and exciting. There were some I liked better than others but all of them had striking moments.
Apr 10, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: owned, non-fiction
4.5 stars

Leslie Jamison pokes and prods at empathy from a variety of angles in this collection of essays. She examines how we ignore others' pain, how we erase others' voices, how we need to listen, how we fail at recognizing our own pain at times even when it's right in front of us.

What I find so enjoyable about these essays were their ability to completely entrance me. Jamison writes on a variety of rather obscure or oddly specific topics at time that would seem uninteresting or irrelevant if
McKenzie Richardson
I got my hands on an Advance Reader's copy of this book and words can almost not describe how thrilled I am that I did. Beautifully-written as much as it is thought-provoking.

I will confess that I hate emotion; I hate expressing it, I hate the awkwardness of not knowing how to react when others express it, and most of all, I hate reading about it. However, Leslie Jamison completely changed my response to emotion. This compilation of essays takes emotion and empathy and spins it in a new way, de
Rachel Aloise
Apr 13, 2014 rated it liked it
Disappointed to be more annoyed than anything else by Jamison’s explorations into empathy. Her understanding of pain seems to concentrate largely on her own physical injuries and on each and every slight she has suffered in her personal life. The sense that empathy requires a minimum of humility appears to be entirely absent from these essays.

During the final piece, the ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’, I found myself repeatedly leafing through the pages to see how many numbered #wounds we
Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac)
First, the good news: Leslie Jamison is an amazing writer. There are literally hundreds of breathtaking sentences, passages, and insights here. She's also a talented essayist: her essays about being a pretend-patient-actor for med student training, about attending a conference of Morgellons sufferers, and the one about the bizarre Barkley Marathon, were as polished, memorable, and brilliant as any I've read in years and years and years.

The bad news is, I join the sizable minority of readers who
Mar 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Empathy is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. One of my favorite quotes from Riot Grrrl extraordinare Kathleen Hanna is "be as vulnerable as you can stand to be," which is sort of the core of empathy but also speaks to how it can be a double-edged sword. By being open you can see and accept the flaws of others much more easily, but you're also making yourself more exposed and easily hurt.

Leslie Jamison's essays expose over and over again that core truth. She comes at it from a numb
Marjorie Ingall
Oct 01, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: grownups
The first essay, about being a medical actor, is a tour de force. WOWZA. It truly is about empathy, and human interaction, and literally embodying someone else's suffering, and it's told with humor and compassion. It was a serious BOW DOWN MOTHERFUCKERS feat of writing.

But then the conceit that each section was about empathy started to feel increasingly forced to me. As the book went on it seemed like a strained framework serving only to keep the book from being straight-up memoir-meets-stunt-j
Dec 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library, essays
I missed the buzz on this book back in 2014, and came to Jamison through her contribution to an amazing anthology I read (and adored) last fall, Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak from The Atavist Magazine. Her essay in that book was so brilliant that I sought out more work by her.

This thread of empathy, pain, and loss is palpable in each piece. I read this one relatively slowly, contemplating the essays, and sharing the themes with some of my friends, spurring some inter
Jan 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Here's the thing essayists everywhere: Jamison is either wiping the floor with your ass right now, or she's coming for you. This woman can write. ...more
Apr 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essays
war is bigger news than a girl having mixed feelings about the way some guy fucked her and didn't call. but i don't believe in a finite economy of empathy; i happen to think that paying attention yields as much as it taxes. you learn to start seeing.
leslie jamison's the empathy exams is an absolutely remarkable collection of eleven essays. through subjects as varied as medical acting, morgellons disease, poverty tourism, a 100-mile marathon of sadistic proportions, the west memphis three, pr
Lyd Havens
Oct 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I don't know if I can say that I've read "a lot" of essay collections in my life so far, but right now I feel confident enough to say that The Empathy Exams is one of the best I've ever read. It feels bizarre to praise a nonfiction author for being honest (like... duh?), but empathy as a concept can be a slippery slope & Jamison isn't afraid of attempting to slide all the way down. Jamison is okay with letting readers know when the empathy she exhibits for people involved in these essays (such a ...more
Connie G
Aug 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
The Empathy Exams: Essays is a collection of intelligent, thoughtful essays about understanding pain in ourselves and others. Leslie Jamison writes about a wide range of physical and emotional suffering with great insight. Essays include subjects such as her experiences as a medical actor training medical students, observations in impoverished communities, abortion, incarceration in the West Memphis Three case, the ultramarathoners at the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee, a Morgellon's convention, ...more
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“Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.” 105 likes
“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. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it's asked for, but this doesn't make our caring hollow. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.” 67 likes
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