Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: The Empathy Exams

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Despite the hectic nature of these past few weeks - what with my Daffodil judgeship and newspaper coverage, my UW research team, and juggling responsibilities in household full of other busy people - I was granted a brief respite by way of my younger siblings' Spring Break, and a week-long trip to Oregon. 

Once I had finally gotten work squared away, I had the chance to really get down to some relaxing reading, and try to play catch-up with my Goodreads goal! Which meant picking easy, fun reads, and... lol, no. 

I dove into an exploratory collection of literary essays about how we communicate human pain. 

From gang turf tours and prison visits, to medicalized experiences of personal pain, to the cross-media interpretation of documentary subjects and reality-TV struggles, no lens of human interaction and suffering is beyond the scope of Leslie Jamison. This extraordinary selection of essays finds its grounding in life experiences of its author - in its inception, Jamison's work as a paid medical actor, testing wannabe practitioners on their ability to compassionately treat patients; hence the title, The Empathy Exams - and bolsters conversations pertaining to not just the topic of pain or how it is felt, but how it is communicated so to be felt in others. 

A New York Times Best Seller and Winner of the Graywolf Press Prize for Nonfiction, you're prepared for the tone of Jamison's essays before you've cracked the spine: with dense diction and winding theoretical language, she takes the tone of an academic, even when exploring her own personal experiences and feelings.

As a result, her tone is a little self-aggrandizing in parts, which is enough to drive any reader up the wall. Whenever anyone discusses the subject of their own pain, it's bound to get a little trying after twenty pages, especially when, due to the nature of the book itself, the discussion is an exploration - which can easily transmute into reveling, or in the author's own words, "wallowing" - and its subject, someone whose personal nature is lost in the inflection of personality: she gets wrapped up less in the pain itself, but in the fact that it's hers.

However, in a way, the somewhat alienating tone might just be one of the most central points to Jamison's work, as the performance of pain was a strong underlying current throughout the collection.

Particularly in chapters about Jamison getting assaulted during a mugging in Nicaragua, or in the interpretations of documentary subjects in the series of films about the West Memphis Three, it isn't just about her understanding of others' pain, but at the degrees at which it could be experienced and demonstrated. 

In some depictions, this takes the form of her comprehension of the scope of her own personal pain, like in the opening chapter, in which she discusses both an abortion and heart surgery that took place within the space of two months, and how she subconsciously chose to share that individualized struggle with others; particularly, her family and boyfriend. In others, the distance between human contact is mediated by a television screen, translating experience into feeling through other forms of stylistic, performative choices, like music and coverage.

The chapters involving her travels - primarily to Central and South America - are particularly interesting, as they explore not just translation of pain or struggle across language, art, and culture, but additionally, the absolute unknowable components that gets lost in the translation. She exorcises her own guilt about the ability to "visit" empathy by travel - you leave the deadly, stuffy mine, the dangerous, gang-ridden neighborhood, the poverty-stricken village, but too many don't have that luxury - and how this temporary sense of commiseration grows greater self-impressions of empathy, without direct demonstration of insertion or effort.

The collection deliberately doesn't pit one group against another - even in essays that clearly demonstrate a sense of class division or disenfranchisement - because to do so would involve the inflection of empathy into only one side of the argument: we don't just need Team A to be empathizing with Team B for the benefit of Team B's goals, or to place Team B on equal footing for the time being, we need them to be compassionate towards each other all the time. Even when tackling taboo subjects, like abortion, incarceration, poverty, and female pain, the reader is drawn to connect with Jamison's subject not on the grounds of political lines, but because of genuine human connection.

In fact, that absence of judgement was one of the most compelling arguments for the necessity of empathy. It was reserving judgement about someone else's reality - medical reality, judicial reality - whether the components that made it up were real or not: the pain itself was not imaginary, and it was demanding to be felt. You might not feel the symptoms yourself, but you could identify with the result.

Naturally, the range of subjects around the status of empathy explored in this collection are too numerous to all tackle in one review, so let me just give a few a brief shoutout: Jamison speaks eloquently on the subjects of the fetishization of pain, discusses negative space pain, explores the condemnation of pain performance, observes the commodification of pain for entertainment and why audiences seek that secondhand empathy, as well as discusses the literary values of aspects of empathy, like over-sentimentality and "authentic" emotion.

Some of my favorite subjects had to do with completely separate conversations, from interactions with a support system for Morgellon's disease sufferers - a medical complication that is not officially recognized by the medical community, but still acutely felt by its victims - to the lengthy final chapter, a discussion on the difficult relationship the female gender has with pain, from glamorizing female suffering - be it through childbirth, eating disorders, rape and assault, or mental trauma - to the iconic "The Girl Who Cried Pain" medical bias study, to the lengths female artists go to draw closer to or distance themselves from figures of pain (like Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, etc).

As a result, Jamison undoubtedly sets herself as one of these such figures, a personification of the multi-faceted nature of how we translate the suffering of our neighbors into our own.

Final Verdict: The Empathy Exams are essential reading for anyone seeking to meditate on the status of human nature as a conduit for compassion. Despite the author's sometimes self-important tone, she attempts to communicate movingly the importance of empathetic response, and after all, isn't the point of empathy to try and understand?


What is your favorite essay collection? Would you ever read a book like The Empathy Exams? Let me know, in the comments below!

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