The Empathy Exams: Essays July 30 2014, 0 Comments

"She wants an empathy that arises out of courage, but understands the extent to which it is, for her, always rooted in fear. Imagining the pain of others means flinching from it as though it were our own, out of a frightened sense that it could become our own. She refers to psychological studies in which fMRI scans have observed how the same kind of brain activity is provoked by the observation of other’s physical pain as by the experience of one’s own. She says that she feels heartened by this instinctive identification, but wonders what it might finally be good for. 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."
Mark O'Connell for Slate

Of all the reviews I've read about this phenomenal collection of essays (part memoir, part journalism, part travelogue, part philosophical treatise), Mark O'Connell's in Slate was the only one to put its finger on one of the essential qualities that make these essays astounding and one of my favorite features of this book: Leslie Jamison's dazzling (yes, the superlatives abound here and so be it) mind constantly oscillates between fierceness and vulnerability. If the main theme is that of empathy, there is also a constant search on her part for absolute truthfulness in her accounts of encounters, emotions, events and intellectual musings.

The level of observations and reflections, of intellectual and emotional involvement in the stories of others, is on par with the few essays I've read by Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Mark Slouka, George Packer and Rebecca Solnit.

A book that defies characterizations. A book that is relentless in its honesty and willingness to dive in, to go deep, to dwell where it hurts, whether real or imaginary. Trust the words of Mary Karr: "This riveting book will make you a better human."

A humbling and and transformative reading experience.

Read the entirety of Mark O'Connell's review here: