Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Empathy Exams | Leslie Jamison

First, allow me to preface, dear readers, that I have changed my mind. In lieu of Carlo Rovelli I have decided (based on recommendation from a friend) to review and consider Leslie Jamison's THE EMPATHY EXAMS for my little project, instead. It's an essay collection and it is very, very good. Next time I will find some other book not listed in my original outline for the project, and I will hope that it is enough.

Readability ★★★★☆

Leslie Jamison's THE EMPATHY EXAMS is a collection of nonfiction essays published by Graywolf Press in 2014. The narrator in each story ruminates in some form or another on the idea of human connectivity, on how we can feel or assume or adapt someone else's pain into something that we can ourselves understand. The book has over 11,000 ratings and 1,400 reviews on Goodreads, and with Leslie Jamison currently teaching at the Columbia MFA program, I think she'll be perfectly accessible if the Honors College chooses her book as the 2019-20 read. She's still a BFD (Big Freaking Deal), but I think that our program would be right up her alley. What's the worst that can happen? We make our freshmen more empathetic?

The fact that THE EMPATHY EXAMS is comprised of essays is what makes it so attractive as a potential Honors Read. Classes can easily take this book one essay a week, or otherwise just pick and choose whichever essays are most interesting/applicable to the course topic. Which brings me to...

Applicability ★★★★★

The essays cover such a broad range of topics that I feel absolutely positive that any genre of study or method of thinking will be able to find an essay that pertains to them. I see particular interest points in the fields of Latin/Mexican-American Studies, Biology, Physiology, English/Creative Writing (especially non-fiction), Spanish, Gender/Women's Studies, Russian Literature, et alia. 

The new Center for Compassion Studies would be an excellent on-campus resource for students researching this book, and I am absolutely certain that classes would be able to speak with faculty from almost any department who would have something to say about this book. 

Transformation ★★★★☆

Thankfully, thankfully, the Honors College seems to have moved on from its minor obsession with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and thus my life as a reader can continue without frantically searching for books I like that feature AI characters or robotic whosiwhatsits (not that robotic whosiwhatsits are bad, but let's be honest, my readerly interests are generally more aligned with fairy tales and essay collections and books that make me feel something, which are not categories that have to this point included books about robotic whosiwhatsits. Sorry, Andrew).

If anything, the theme of transformation will apply most directly to the transformation inherent in people who become more empathetic. Whether that be the students reading these essays and realizing what it means to connect to people through empathy, or merely the understanding that Leslie Jamison herself has transformed in some way to become more aware of instances of empathy, there is a transformation worth its weight here. 

Don't believe me? Here we go.

The Empathy Exams
The narrator is a student medical actor. She receives scripts about her character's illness and must inhabit the body of this sick person. This narrator is, herself, a sick person, one who gets an abortion (successful) and has heart surgery (unsuccessful) within a one month span of time. The narrator considers what it means to be empathetic, and whether or not empathy can be veritable. 
"This was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself" (8). 
"Part of me has always craved a pain so visible - so irrefutable and physically inescapable - that everyone would have to notice" (12). 
"Empathy is a kind of care but it's not the only kind of care, and it's not always enough. I want to think that's what Dr. G. was thinking. I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo" (17). 

Devil's Bait
The narrator attends a conference for people who have self-diagnosed themselves with Morgellans Disease, a sickness that plagues them through the intense and evergreen feeling that there is something happening underneath their skin, and that no matter how much they pick at themselves or how many anti-parasite medication they consume, whatever is alive under their skin will continue to exist there. The narrator wonders if her belief that these people believe in their disease counts as empathy.
"It can be so difficult to admit what satisfactions certain difficulties provide - not satisfaction in the sense of feeling good, or being pleasurable, but in granting some shape or substance to a discontent that might otherwise feel endless" (35). 
"I wanted to do nice things for everyone out of a sense of preemptive guilt that I couldn't conceptualize this disease in the same way as those who suffered from it... A confession: I left the conference early. I actually, embarrassingly, went to sit by the shitty hotel pool because I felt emotionally drained and like I deserved it. I baked bare skinned in the Texan sun and watched a woman from the conference come outside and carefully lay her own body, fully clothed, across a reclining chair in the shade" (53). 

La Frontera
The narrator attends a bilingual literary gathering held in Tijuana and Mexicali known as an encuentro. She contextualizes the cities she passes through during the entirety of the trip by her experiences as an outsider, as a projector, and as a listener. She thinks about the narco-wars, her own privilege, a faux-versus-true-to-life experience. This is a test of her empathy, in a way. 
"The soldiers empty out our bags. It all feels pro forma, but still - of a climate, of a piece, setting a tone. As we drive away, I glance back and notice that another soldier, this one standing on a truck, had his machine gun trained on us the whole time" (61). 
"The night before coming to Mexicali, he stayed up till one thirty to finish grading a batch of papers, then decided to reward himself the next morning by hitting the snooze button. Fair enough. As it turned out, a grenade explosion woke him anyway, two minutes later, followed by a volley of machine-gun fire. "Like a conversation," he says, "one voice and then the response." He says it wasn't anything unusual" (62). 

Morphology of the Hit
The narrator explains her time as a teacher in Nicaragua using Vladimir Propp's organizational techniques from MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE. The narrator was punched in the face. The narrator gives Proppian context to what it means to have been punched in the face. The empathy of this essay may exist in its broken bones, in its unwillingness to ask for empathy but its need to receive it, anyway. 
"Some functions describe villains stealing body parts. You break something and you steal the way it used to look. That never comes back. // "He took your wallet?" someone asked me. "And your camera?" // I nodded. I wanted to say: he took my face" (73). 

Also featuring:
Pain Tours (I): La Plata Perdida / Sublime, Revised / Indigenous to the Hood
The Immortal Horizon
In Defense of Saccharin(e)
Fog Count
Pain Tours (II): Ex-Votos / Servicio Supercompleto/ The Broken Heart of James Agee
Lost Boys
Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain

No comments

Post a Comment

© ReadingHannah | All rights reserved.
Blog Layout Created by pipdig