The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison follows her debut novel, The Gin Closet, with an essay collection that has earned her the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The Empathy Exams opens with Jamison's experience as a medical actor. In this role, she is given a character complete with not only symptoms, but behaviors like failure to make eye contact and dishonesty. Through her portrayals, Jamison contemplates what it is to feel, how we communicate what we feel and what we do with these communications.

While all her essays are linked by the topic of empathy, the subjects range widely, though injury and chronic illness receive repeated treatment. The Barkley Marathon, a grueling, almost unfinishable race through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, is presented both as a subcultural phenomenon and a subtext for pain. Jamison attends a conference for Morgellons patients--who believe they are infested with fibers and foreign matter crawling out of their skin--and the few doctors who will take them seriously; she finds herself responding with such empathy that she is in danger of catching the disease herself.

Throughout, Jamison makes references to many thinkers and influences, such as Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), Susan Sontag and Frida Kahlo, as well as her own friends. Her essays often dwell in the theoretical and the academic. She is interested in philosophies, and admits to difficulty experiencing, recognizing and sharing her own emotions--a difficulty which occasionally manifests in pedagogy. However, readers will finish with no doubt that she is sincere in her quest to own, identify and comprehend empathy. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

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