THE EMPATHY EXAMS by Leslie Jamison

“Creative nonfiction” might be the broadest genre designation out there. It encompasses literary journalism, personal essays, memoirs, travel writing, flash nonfiction (like that found on Brevity), science writing…basically, if it’s fun to read but it’s also true, it’s creative nonfiction. And I love it all. My personal favorite, though, are the essays that fall somewhere in between literary journalism and personal essay: essays that examine something external about the world, but in doing so, uncover a connection to something internal to the writer, a connection that will most likely resonate with something internal to the reader. This preference probably comes from my early readings of Joan Didion as a high school student. Ever since, I have always sought out and admired writers who can make me feel both as though I know them intimately and that they are much, much smarter than me, and I’m learning something just by spending some time in their company. Enter Leslie Jamison.


Jamison’s collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, is one of the most talked about essay collections that I can recall. Published by Graywolf Press (and the Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize), this collection spans a lot of the mini-genres of creative nonfiction. The pieces in this book are parts journalism, criticism, and unflinching self-examination, and these threads are woven together so masterfully that it’s hard to even notice their distinctions. Jamison is honest about herself and the world around her as she writes about topics ranging from life in a prison, extreme marathon runners, Morgellons disease, and in many cases, Jamison herself.

In one sense, the essays in this collection are linked in their exploration of pain, both the physical (and often, the very medical) pain we experience and the emotional wreckage that can cause just as much damage. Jamison explores these topics with intelligence, scholarship even. This book will certainly teach you a lot about topics you’ve probably never even thought to google. But of course, as the title suggests, simply examining pain does not seem to be the aim of this book. Jamison explores these topics not just to learn about the pain of others, but to try to understand and even sympathize with it: the book itself is an exercise in empathy, both for Jamison and the reader. It’s incredibly smart, but it’s also written with compassion, and that combination is what made me love it, what turns it from an interesting read into an artful experience.

It’s almost impossible for me to pick a favorite essay, but perhaps the one that has stayed with me the most is “Devil’s Bait,” an essay about the sufferers of Morgellon’s disease. (This essay was originally published in Harper’s and was anthologized in The Best American Essays 2014). This essay serves as a fairly decent microcosm of the book, combining Jamison’s journalistic framework, scholarly impulses, and powerful personal narrative to bring you into a world you would have otherwise known nothing about. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Jamison’s writing is how quickly she can bring the reader from knowing nothing about a subject to feeling intimately connected to it. As Mary Karr notes in a blurb on the front cover, “This riveting book will make you a better human.”

Basically, I just can’t rave enough about this book. I’m a little late to the internet rave party about it, but let me add my voice now. Go read this book. Let’s all strive to be better humans.


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