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The Lit Show Inteview: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The essays in The Empathy Exams, the lauded debut collection from Leslie Jamison, range widely in topic – from illness to incarceration, reality television to extreme foot races, artificial sweeteners to street violence – but their subject is constant and essential. How may we understand each other? each essay asks. In Jamison’s terms, this also means, How may we share our pain? 

In an early review of the book, poet and memoirist Mary Karr writes, “Leslie Jamison has written a profound exploration into how empathy depends us…This riveting book will make you a better human.” I’m particularly taken with this endorsement, not only for its (in my opinion, totally deserved) bravado, but for its familiarity where empathy is concerned. In the 1960s, clinical psychologist Carl Rogers opined that, rather or in addition to making patients happier, therapy should help make a person better. Kinder. More patient. More forgiving of themselves and others. In other words, therapy should help a person “grow,” and could do so by cultivating an environment that encouraged honesty, offered acceptance, and, most importantly, provided empathy: not sympathy, which is too close to pity, but compassion’s piercing, more understanding cousin.

“Empathy,” Jamison writes in her collection’s title essay, “means realizing no trauma has discrete edges.” But, she concedes, it is an act that demands more than epiphany: “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, extend ourselves.” The Empathy Exams compiles works from approximately three years (2009 – 2012) of Jamison’s career, during which she did exactly that. She paid attention. And her essays, while deeply personal, extend far beyond her own life, into the oeuvre of human pleasures as well as pains. “This is the essay at its creative, philosophical best,” writes Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, and Robert Polito, the judge of Graywolf Press’s 2013 Nonfiction Contest agrees. “When we chance upon a work and a writer who summons and dares the full tilt of all her volatile resources, intellectual and emotional, personal and historical,” says Polito, “the effect is…disorienting, astonishing.”

In addition to The Empathy Exams, Jamison is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Prize. Her essays have appeared in Harper’s, Oxford Ameican, Tin House, and The Believer,where you can find the title essay of her collection in full, online. Jamison is currently completing a PhD in English at Yale University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Excerpt

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