The Empathy Exams

The Empathy Exams
Leslie Jamison
"Extraordinary . . . she calls to mind writers as disparate as Joan Didion and John Jeremiah Sullivan as she interrogates the palpitations of not just her own trippy heart but of all of ours. . . . Her cerebral, witty, multichambered essays tend to swing around to one topic in particular: what we mean when we say we feel someone else's pain. . . . I'm not sure I'm capable of recommending a book because it might make you a better person. But watching the philosopher in Ms. Jamison grapple with empathy is a heart-expanding exercise."—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

An Entertainment Weekly "Must List" Pick

About the Book

From personal loss to phantom diseases, a bold and brilliant collection, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor, paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about one another? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace. The Empathy Exams is a brilliant and forceful book by one of this country’s vital young writers.

Additional Reviews

A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
"[A] stunning collection. . . . A profound investigation of empathy's potential and its limits."Cosmopolitan, "10 Books by Women You Have to Read This Spring"
"If reading a book about [pain] sounds . . . painful, rest assured that Jamison writes with such originality and humor, and delivers such scalpel-sharp insights, that it's more like a rush of pleasure. . . . To articulate suffering with so much clarity, and so little judgement, is to turn pain into art."Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A- 
A Publishers Weekly Top Ten Essay Collection of Spring 2014
"Extraordinary and exacting. . . . This capacity for critical thinking, for a kind of cool skepticism that never gives way to the chilly blandishments of irony, is very rare. It's not surprising that Jamison is drawing comparisons to Sontag. . . .  There is a glory to this kind of writing that derives as much from its ethical generosity, the palpable sense of stretch and reach, as it does from the lovely vividness of the language itself. . . . It's hard to imagine a stronger, more thoughtful voice emerging this year."The New York Times Book Review
“Jamison writes with sober precision and unusual vulnerability, with a tendency to circle back and reexamine, to deconstruct and anticipate the limits of her own perspective, and a willingness to make her own medical and psychological history the objects of her examinations. Her insights are often piercing and poetic.”The New Yorker, “Books to Watch Out For”
"[The Empathy Exams] deserves as big an audience as it can get. At 30, [Jamison] could be a granddaughter of Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, whose nonfiction debuts first stirred up readers nearly half a century ago. They set a daunting standard for the power of alert nerves, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and of fierce thoughts, in Against Interpretation. The Empathy Exams is their descendant, yet Jamison’s blend of wit and brainy warmth is completely distinctive."The Atlantic
"The Empathy Exams contains universes. . . . So memorable."—NPR, "The Best Books Coming Out This Week"
"A virtuosic manifesto of human pain. . . . Jamison stitches together the intellectual and the emotional with the finesse of a crackerjack surgeon. . . . The result is a soaring perfomance on the humanizing effects of empathy."—NPR
“[A] lush, erudite collection. . . . One could say about Jamison, as she says here about Joan Didion, ‘Her intelligence excavates a truth at once uncomfortable and crystalline.”The Washington Post
"Poetic, painfully searching essays about violence, sex, illness, self-esteem and self-expression."—Hillel Italie, Associated Press
"[A] thoughtful collection of essays interrogating the physical and metaphorical meanings of pain. . . . Jamison is compassionate without being partial."The New Yorker
“Jamison weaves philosophical contemplations and literary references in with personal observation and experience to create a deeply insightful work. With her career just beginning, she seems poised for greatness; don’t miss out.”The Huffington Post, “9 Contemporary Authors You Should Be Reading”
"A heady and unsparing examination of pain and how it allows us to understand others, and ourselves. . . . Jamison is ever-probing and always sensitive. Reporting is never the point; instead, her observations of people, reality TV, music, film, and literature serve as a starting point for unconventional metaphysical inquiries into poverty, tourism, prison time, random acts of violence, abortion, HBO's Girls, bad romance, and stereotypes of the damaged woman artist."Publishers Weekly, starred review
"[Jamison] writes consistently with passion and panache; her sentences are elegantly formed, her voice on the page intimate and insistent. Always intelligent, self-questioning, willing to experiment with form, daring to engage with the weird and thrust herself into danger spots, a patient researcher and voracious processor of literature and critical theory, she is the complete package: state-of-the-art nonfiction."—Phillip Lopate, San Francisco Chronicle
"A brilliant collection. . . . We're in a new golden age of the essay. . . and in The Empathy Exams Leslie Jamison has announced herself as its rising star."The Boston Globe
"Remarkable. . . . [Jamison] combines the intellectual rigor of a philosopher, the imagination of a novelist and a reporter's keen eye for detail in these essays, which seamlessly blend reportage, cultural criticism, theory and memoir."Los Angeles Times

"Extraordinary. . . . Much of the intellectual charge of Jamison's writing comes from the sense that she is always looking for ways to examine her own reactions to things; no sooner has she come to some judgment or insight than she begins searching for a way to overturn it, or to deepen its complications. She flinches, and then she explores that flinch with a steady gaze. . . . [A] beautiful and punishing book."Slate
“If aliens came down to earth and needed a book, they’d take this one, as Jamison, eloquently, beautifully, and urgently dissects just exactly what it’s like to have eyes, ears, and a working heart (that beats too fast), and what that means in regards to living a life. It asks important questions and it changes how you look at other people’s misery as a result, making your heart a little bit bigger. Absolutely necessary reading.”Flavorwire, “The 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2014 So Far”
“Fascinating and gorgeously written. . . . There isn’t a single essay that isn’t incredible, and there isn’t anyone who shouldn’t read this book.”Book Riot, “The Best Books of 2014 So Far”
"Fiercely contemplative, confessional essays. . . . [An] intelligent book."Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[Jamison] writes with intellectual precision and a deep emotional engagement. . . . The Empathy Exams is a gracefully powerful attempt by a tremendously talented young writer to articulate the ways in which we might all work to become better versions of ourselves."Star Tribune
"A striking collection of essays. . . . [Jamison's] self-awareness may be the collection’s greatest strength, allowing Jamison to lay bare the insecurities and insufficiencies in how she—and by extension we—practice empathy."Kansas City Star
"An extraordinary essay collection driven by a fierce, piercing intelligence laced with endless amounts of curiosity about the world and the thoughts, feelings, and ability that make us humans. . . . It’s a startling work of nonfiction that deserves every accolade it’s going to receive, and it announces a voice that you’ll want to follow anywhere."—Flavorwire
"Reading Leslie Jamison for the first time, you feel like you have been let in on a great secret. . . . Jamison’s Empathy Exams grants the sense that she has all of the goods to be one of the great commentators of our time. She has a keen eye for observation, an exceptional gift for a turn of phrase, and an adventurous spirit."Washington Independent Review of Books
"[Jamison makes] sharp observations about how people respond to pain and how people respond to other people’s pain. . . . In The Empathy Exams, Jamison’s essays do a rare thing: they show us—in many ways—what empathy means."The Millions
"[Jamison] manages—with a novelist's eye for detail and scene setting—to come across as a Montaignian figure, full of doubt, heart, and a yearning to expand the boundaries of the fragile self."Stephen Sparks, Tin House
"Brilliant. . . . Jamison offers no all-purpose definition of empathy. That is, perhaps, her greatest contribution to the conversation: she invites us to think harder about what empathy might be — to excavate its layers — to approach empathy with more empathy, yes."—Los Angeles Review of Books
"A dazzling collection of essays on the human condition. . . . Jamison exhibits at the once a journalist's courage to bear witness to acts and conditions that test human limits . . . and a poet's skepticism at her own motives for doing so. It is this level of scrutiny that lends these provocative explorations both earthly authenticity and moving urgency. A fierce, razor-sharp, heartwarming nonfiction debut."Kirkus Reviews, starred review
The Empathy Exams is a welcome, if disquieting, reminder that we ignore or anesthetize pain—our own and that of others—only at great risk to our humanity. It beautifully embodies an alternative—the careful, fearless exploration of suffering and the claims it makes upon us.”American Scholar
“Extraordinary. . . . The vulnerable, visceral essays are bold and brilliant. The Empathy Exams should be required reading for all.”Culture Map Austin
"Jamison's exploration of the upsides, downsides, and difficulties of empathy is insightful, thought provoking, and itself empathetic. . . . A must read."Bustle
"Jamison is determined to tell us what she sees and thinks without condescension or compromise, and as a consequence her act of witnessing is moving, stimulating, and disturbing in equal measure. . . . Jamison is always interesting, often gripping."Bookforum
"Leslie Jamison unbridles the bonds that link one individual to another, using her own experiences as well as a raft of cultural observations to find that essential trait which separates the gentle from the sociopathic."—The Barnes & Noble Review
"Stunning. . . . A brutally honest, sometimes funny, always touching portrait of a woman growing up and moving through a complicated world."—Cedar Rapids Gazette
"Jamison contemplates what it is to feel, how we communicate what we feel and what we do with these communications. . . . Readers will finish with no doubt she is sincere in her quest to own, identify and comprehend empathy."Shelf Awareness
"[Jamison] circles around questions without settling for easy answers."The Columbus Dispatch
"What stands out in these essays is Jamison’s rare ability to express both depth of emotion and intellectual rigor."Fiction Advocate
"One of the year's best books . . . destined to feature on a good bulk of the top ten lists at year's end."—Corduroy Books
“The thrill of following Jamison the tourist is that her mind is an extraordinary analytical machine capable of producing sublimity.”Little Village
"Based on this book, Leslie Jamison is very much the next thing in non-fiction. A writer of uncommon intelligence, she merges memoir with reportage and criticism to create something not entirely new, but certainly novel and definitely exciting."Maclean's
"Leslie Jamison’s writing is elegant and honest, and reflects a person who is profoundly curious about the world around her."—Book Riot, "The Best Books We Read in April"
"Jamison writes with a sure eye for detail and a strong sense of phrasing. . . . This is a terrific collection, and a refutation of the assertion that the essay is a lost art."PopMatters
The Empathy Exams is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in years, a book both daring and profound.”Largehearted Boy
"Jamison's lovely prose and brutal honesty reveal an uncomfortable truth: our pain doesn't necessarily have greater meaning. . . . Bodies create and destroy us. Jamison documents exactly what that means while encouraging us to make our empathy larger than might be comfortable."—Books and Culture
“Reading Leslie Jamison gave me flashbacks to the first time I read Rebecca Solnit or Annie Dillard—the sense of having an impassioned conversation with a fiercely intelligent friend. The subjects she takes on are difficult. . . but her energy in attacking them makes reading a surprising pleasure."Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, Greenlight Bookstore
"Quite possibly the finest essayist of her generation. Here is a writer who examines other lives while investigating her own; who writes about all kinds of situations with the utmost empathy; who cracks open the reader’s ribs and cradles his or her heart in her hands.”Michele Filgate, Community Bookstore 
“More than any book I’ve read this year, I am dying to sell the living hell out of this book once it’s finally here. These essays carry real weight, and each one is strengthened by its reflections and associations with the others. . . . This is a profoundly moving book.”Casey O’Neil, Elliott Bay Books
“Leslie Jamison is a marvel. The essays that make up The Empathy Exams are wise, uncomfortable, beautiful, humane, and utterly absorbing. . . . The best nonfiction book of 2014.”Jill Owens, Powell’s
The Empathy Exams is a profound and beautiful book that has the capacity—so rare!—to change the way you think about yourself and those you love. Jamison’s thought and prose are so clear, remarkable for such a murky subject, that I came out the other side feeling scoured.”Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books

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“Jamison is a sharp and insightful observer of human interactions. Her gift is taking those observations and pushing past the point of comfort to expose truths we may not see otherwise—truths we may not always want to see.”CBC News
“Leslie Jamison has written a profound exploration into how empathy deepens us, yet how we unwittingly sabotage our own capacities for it. We care because we are porous, she says. Pain is at once actual and constructed, feelings are made based on how you speak them. This riveting book will make you a better writer, a better human.”—Mary Karr
The Empathy Exams is a necessary book, a brilliant antidote to the noise of our time. Intellectually rigorous, it’s also plainly personal, honest and intimate, clear-eyed about its confusions. It’s about the self as something other than a bundle of symptoms, it’s about female pain and the suffering of solitary souls everywhere, it’s an exploration of empathy and the poverty of our imaginations, it’s ultimately about the limits of language and the liberating possibilities of a whole new narrative. This fierce collection’s cri de cœur is that we desperately need new words. The Empathy Exams earns its place on the shelf alongside Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and Illness as Metaphor and Virginia Woolf’s odd but stunning essay, ‘On Being Ill.’ Like Woolf, Leslie Jamison comes to her subject but finds nothing ready made, or, at best, a rickety, suspect vocabulary, and so, starting over, takes her ‘pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other’ and crushes them together until a vital new language begins to emerge.”—Charles D’Ambrosio
“In The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison positions herself in one fraught subject position after the next: tourist in the suffering of others, guilt-ridden person of privilege, keenly intelligent observer distrustful of pure cleverness, reclaimer and critic of female suffering, to name but a few. She does so in order to probe her endlessly important and difficult subject—empathy, for the self and for others—a subject this whirling collection of essays turns over rock after rock to explore. Its perambulations are wide-ranging; its attentiveness to self and others, careful and searching; its open heart, true.”—Maggie Nelson
“These essays—risky, brilliant, and full of heart—ricochet between what it is to be alive and to be a creature wondering what it is to be alive. Jamison’s words, torqued to a perfect balance, shine brightly, allowing both fury and wonder to open inside us.”—Nick Flynn
“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, the effect is, well, disorienting, astonishing. ‘We crash into wonder,’ as she says, and the span of topics Jamison tosses up is correspondingly smashing and wondrous: medical actors, sentimentality, violence, plastic surgery, guilt, diseases, the Barkley Marathons, stylish ‘ex-votos’ for exemplary artists, incarceration, wounds, scars, fear, yearning, community, and the mutations of physical pain.”—Robert Polito, from his Afterword
"Leslie Jamison threads her fine mind through the needle of emotion, sewing our desire for feeling to our fear of feeling. Her essays pierce both pain and sweetness."—Eula Biss
“Brilliant. At times steel-cold or chili-hot, [Jamison] picks her way through a society that has lost its way, a voyeur of voyeurism. Here now comes the post-Sontag, post-modern American essay.”—Ed Vulliamy, author of Amexica: War along the Borderline
"The Empathy Exams is a book without an anaesthetic, a work of tremendous pleasure and tremendous pain. Leslie Jamison is alternately surgeon, midwife, psychiatrist, radiologist, and nurse--and in all these things she is fiercely intelligent, fiercely compassionate, and fiercely, prodigiously brave. This is the essay at its creative, philosophical best."—Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, winner of the Man Booker Prize
"Gutsy essays. . . . A tough, intrepid, scouring observer and vigilant thinker, [Jamison] generates startling and sparking extrapolations and analysis. On the prowl for truth and intimate with pain, Jamison carriers forward the fierce and empathic essayistic tradition as practiced by writers she names as mentors, most resonantly James Agee and Joan Didion."Booklist, starred review
"[Jamison examines] some very difficult topics with intelligent candor. . . . These essays will inspire readers to reflect on their own feelings of empathy—not an easy feat in today's disinterested society."Library Journal
"[An] excellent new collection . . . . The question at its core is what we humans should do about suffering, and Jamison reframes it again and again, in settings from the border crossing at Tijuana to a murder trial to the finish line of an ultramarathon."—New York Magazine
"[Jamison] reaches deep into her gut—her heart, her mind—and offers up what she finds there. . . . I trust her for this meticulous honesty, and I admire her for the writing engenders."Michigan Quarterly Review
"[Jamison's] work is so deeply felt and observed, beautiful as poetry and as probing as a deep sea satellite."The Millions
"Deeply thoughtful."Chicago Tribune
"This quirky, insightful collection dazzles."People
"Jamison pokes so deeply into the idea of empathy that she is able to raise questions about empathy we wouldn't expect. . . .  If empathy is setting our own discomfort to allow the feelings or symptoms of others to become our feelings, too, than entering into an empathetic contract with Jamison is a worthwhile exercise. These are essays that challenge and provoke, affirm and affect."--Bookslut
“Nearly every page of The Empathy Exams leaves you the better for having read it, and it’s important to mention the kinds of existential heights she reaches with this book. Revelations lie beyond every lick-turned page, each paragraph gilded with some kind of unexpectedly simple truth, shining before you in the sifting of Jamison’s sentences.”Biographile