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The Empathy Exams
By Leslie Jamison
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
At first, this collection's title struck me as an ironic way to quantify the unquantifiable, but Leslie Jamison makes it clear fast that she is out to interrogate empathy: the empathy of society, the empathy of the reader, and her own capacity for it. The Empathy Exams, then, is a remarkably good nonfiction collection. All good collections, genre aside, should strive for thematic coherency, but The Empathy Exams attains it with a remarkable force. Jamison uses each essay to expand and complicate the others, weaving self-induced pain and guilt in with examinations of power and privilege. There's even dialog across essays: a character whose quest to run extreme marathons, chronicled in "The Immortal Horizon," returns as a convict in "Fog Count." The real-life friendship he developed with Jamison is used as a personal entrance point into a study of the American prison system.
What struck me, about this one, was how well Jamison made me feel her words. The title essay, about the strange practice of medical acting - where people are paid to pose as patients for young doctors - creates a palpable awkwardness. "The Immortal Horizon's" description of a racecourse down a mountain is exhausting, while "Lost Boys'" analysis of the much-publicized West Memphis Three is vivid and visceral. Most horrifying is "Devil's Bait." This essay concerns the controversial condition known as Morgellon's Syndrome, which makes its sufferers believe they're infected by parasites; the way Jamison describes the disease might make you paranoid. Her efforts to bring you into her writing enhances the empathy aspect; the reader is made to feel alongside Jamison and her subjects.
This collection is most frustrating when Jamison's empathy seems to fail. There are moments, especially in "Devil's Bait" and "The Immortal Horizon," where it's hard to tell how seriously Jamison takes her subjects, whether the empathy filter is valid or an excuse to write about the central figures as weirdos. It's easy to imagine that Jamison intended this as a way of interrogating her own empathy; however, I don't think this aspect was fully explored, as its deliberateness isn't as strong as it could've been. Still, it's hard to argue with a collection this vivid and fully conceived.
Out of 10: 9.0