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Authors: Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams

BOOK: The Empathy Exams
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Praise for
The Empathy Exams: Essays

Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize

“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, author of
The Liar’s Club

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 coeur
is that we desperately need new words.
The Empathy Exams
earns its place on the shelf alongside Susan Sontag’s
Regarding the Pain of Others
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, author of
The Dead Fish Museum

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, author of
The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning and Bluets

“Leslie Jamison writes with her whole heart and an unconfined intelligence, a combination that gives
The Empathy Exams
—an inquiry into modern ways and problems of feeling—a persuasive, often thrilling authority. These essays reach out for the world, seeking the extraordinary, the bizarre, the alone, the unfeeling, and finding always what is human.”—Michelle Orange, author of
This Is Running for Your Life

“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, author of
On Immunity: An Inoculation
Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays

“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

“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, Judge, Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize



Also by Leslie Jamison
The Gin Closet

The Empathy Exams


Leslie Jamison


Copyright © 2014 by Leslie Jamison

This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota. Significant support has also been provided by Target, the McKnight Foundation,, and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.

Published by Graywolf Press

250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600

Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States of America

ISBN 978-1-55597-671-2
Ebook ISBN 978-1-55597-088-8

2  4  6  8  9  7  5  3  1

First Graywolf Printing, 2014

Library of Congress Control Number: 2013946927

Cover design: Kimberly Glyder Design

For my mother

Joanne Leslie

Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto
I am human: nothing human is alien to me.
The Self-Tormentor







La Plata Perdida

Sublime, Revised

Indigenous to the Hood






Servicio Supercompleto

The Broken Heart of James Agee



Works Consulted


Judge’s Afterword by Robert Polito


My job title is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a standardized patient, which means I act toward the norms set for my disorders. I’m standardized-lingo SP for short. I’m fluent in the symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips.

Medical acting works like this: You get a script and a paper gown. You get $13.50 an hour. Our scripts are ten to twelve pages long. They outline what’s wrong with us—not just what hurts but how to express it. They tell us how much to give away, and when. We are supposed to unfurl the answers according to specific protocol. The scripts dig deep into our fictive lives: the ages of our children and the diseases of our parents, the names of our husbands’ real estate and graphic design firms, the amount of weight we’ve lost in the past year, the amount of alcohol we drink each week.

My specialty case is Stephanie Phillips, a twenty-three-year-old who suffers from something called conversion disorder. She is grieving the death of her brother, and her grief has sublimated into seizures. Her disorder is news to me. I didn’t know you could convulse from sadness. She’s not supposed to know, either. She’s not supposed to think the seizures have anything to do with what she’s lost.



SP Training Materials

You are a twenty-three-year-old female patient experiencing seizures with no identifiable neurological origin. You can’t remember your seizures but are told you froth at the mouth and yell obscenities. You can usually feel a seizure coming before it arrives. The seizures began two years ago, shortly after your older brother drowned in the river just south of the Bennington Avenue Bridge. He was swimming drunk after a football tailgate. You and he worked at the same miniature-golf course. These days you don’t work at all. These days you don’t do much. You’re afraid of having a seizure in public. No doctor has been able to help you. Your brother’s name was Will.

You are not taking any medications. You’ve never taken antidepressants. You’ve never thought you needed them.

Your health has never caused you any trouble. You’ve never had anything worse than a broken arm. Will was there when you broke it. He was the one who called the paramedics and kept you calm until they came.

Our simulated exams take place in three suites of purpose-built rooms. Each room is fitted with an examination table and a surveillance camera. We test second- and third-year medical students in topical rotations: pediatrics, surgery, psychiatry. On any given exam day, each student must go through “encounters”—their technical title—with three or four actors playing different cases.

A student might have to palpate a woman’s ten-on-scale-of-ten abdominal pain, then sit across from a delusional young lawyer and tell him that when he feels a writhing mass of worms in his small intestine, the feeling is probably coming from somewhere else. Then this med student might arrive in my room, stay straight faced, and tell me that I’m about to go into premature labor to deliver the pillow strapped to my belly, or nod solemnly as I express concern about my ailing plastic baby: “He’s just so quiet.”

Once the fifteen-minute encounter has ended, the medical student leaves the room, and I fill out an evaluation of his/her performance. The first part is a checklist: Which crucial pieces of information did he/she manage to elicit? Which ones did he/she leave uncovered? The second part of the evaluation covers affect. Checklist item 31 is generally acknowledged as the most important category: “Voiced empathy for my situation/problem.” We are instructed about the importance of this first word,
It’s not enough for someone to have a sympathetic manner or use a caring tone. The students have to say the right words to get credit for compassion.

We SPs are given our own suite for preparation and decompression. We gather in clusters: old men in crinkling blue robes, MFAs in boots too cool for our paper gowns, local teenagers in hospital ponchos and sweatpants. We help each other strap pillows around our waists. We hand off infant dolls. Little pneumonic Baby Doug, swaddled in a cheap cotton blanket, is passed from girl to girl like a relay baton. Our ranks are full of community-theater actors and undergrad drama majors seeking stages, high school kids earning booze money, retired folks with spare time. I am a writer, which means I’m trying not to be broke.

We play a demographic menagerie: Young jocks with ACL injuries and business executives nursing coke habits. STD Grandma has just cheated on her husband of forty years and has a case of gonorrhea to show for it. She hides behind her shame like a veil, and her med student is supposed to part the curtain. If he asks the right questions, she’ll have a simulated crying breakdown halfway through the encounter.

Blackout Buddy gets makeup: a gash on his chin, a black eye, and bruises smudged in green eye shadow along his cheekbone. He’s been in a fender bender he can’t even remember. Before the encounter, the actor splashes booze on his body like cologne. He’s supposed to let the particulars of his alcoholism glimmer through, very “unplanned,” bits of a secret he’s done his best to keep guarded.

Our scripts are studded with moments of flourish: Pregnant Lila’s husband is a yacht captain sailing overseas off Croatia. Appendicitis Angela has a dead guitarist uncle whose tour bus was hit by a tornado. Many of our extended family members have died violent midwestern deaths: mauled in tractor or grain-elevator accidents, hit by drunk drivers on the way home from Hy-Vee grocery stores, felled by big weather or Big-Ten tailgates (firearm accident)—or, like my brother Will, by the quieter aftermath of debauchery.

Between encounters, we are given water, fruit, granola bars, and an endless supply of mints. We aren’t supposed to exhaust the students with our bad breath and growling stomachs, the side effects of our actual bodies.

Some med students get nervous during our encounters. It’s like an awkward date, except half of them are wearing platinum wedding bands. I want to tell them I’m more than just an unmarried woman faking seizures for pocket money.
I do things!
I want to tell them.
I’m probably going to write about this in a book someday!
We make small talk about the rural Iowa farm town I’m supposed to be from. We each understand the other is inventing this small talk, and we agree to respond to each other’s inventions as genuine exposures of personality. We’re holding the fiction between us like a jump rope.

BOOK: The Empathy Exams
7.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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