The Empathy Exams: Essays

Leslie Jamieson

Granta Books
Leslie Jamieson


Two terms glint out at me over an endless horizon of essays, art exhibitions, political think pieces, cultural reviews, and books from the past two years. The words are empathy (more prevalent) and narcissism. They are locked into an intermittent flashing spin, as that of a lighthouse lamp, because they are two words that function as a kind of alarm signal, manifestations of confusion in the current climate. From Pokémon Go to Trumpian speech, from filter bubbles to safe spaces, there is a sense that the shared public space of politics is more and more evacuated each day, and so we are left with an endless succession of overlapping realities that do not always care to meet each other, or do not even notice that they don’t. The current interest in empathy comes from a fascination with the terms of the self, and the regard or disregard for the selves of others, witnessed in a return to the politics of identity, and in the empathetic failures that have arisen in response to movements such as Black Lives Matter. In art (as in literature, television, and so on) there has been a deepening interest in the micro-nuances of the ever-changing self, and the attendant realms of the confessional and the autobiographical: the hard-to-reach edges of the self that reveal themselves in times of pain, heartbreak, desire, and confusion. The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison’s best-selling essay collection, is particularly germane to personal confession and care, and to a current interest in the furthest reaches of empathy’s affects. Jamison’s essays are an empathetic attempt in and of themselves—writing through subjects such as a friend in prison, the author’s experiences as a medical actor, and conferences for sufferers of unrecognized illnesses—as she questions how genuine empathy might be possible—if it is at all. Staying at Lawson Park provides occasion for raising questions that feel relatable - how to live and work together well, where our boundaries of tolerance lie, and what we might actually be capable of, when working in the context of a place that challenges reliance on the usual antiquated power structures and the jump-hoops of institutional validation.