On the one hand, Leslie Jamison’s stunning debut essay collection, “The Empathy Exams,” is an academic treatise exploring empathy: what is it, the dangers of it, the challenge of acquiring it. On the other hand, the book is a brutally honest, sometimes funny, always touching portrait of a woman growing up and moving through a complicated world.
In each essay, Jamison acts as the observer, and finds herself in some pretty remarkable positions, including watching her brother participate in the Barkley Marathons, an invitation-only, 50-plus-hour race outside Wartburg, Tenn,; and attending a conference on Morgellons disease, a skin disorder that may or may not actually exist, depending on who you ask. There also are essays where Jamison observes text and media (including a moving essay about films documenting the West Memphis Three), and herself and past experiences.
While the situations are intriguing in their own right, Jamison also reflects on the power — and challenge — of acting as an observer, and the importance of addressing privilege. This is readily apparent in her essay “Indigenous to the Hood” where she takes a Gang Tour through Los Angeles.
But there’s still one more layer for Jamison to peel back: that of being a writer. Jamison exposes all the scaffolding behind her essays, letting readers know how she started and when she got stuck. The result is a picture of Jamison not as a higher-than-thou essayist, but a curious, real woman — someone all readers can empathize with.