Without diminishing the first four essays, the moment Leslie Jamison’s astonishing collection, “The Empathy Exams,” came disquietingly alive for me was in “Pain Tours (I).” Jamison begins the three-part essay with, “This is how you visit the silver mines of Potosí, the highest city in the world: First take an airplane to El Alto, where some people’s hearts collapse under the altitude as soon as they step off the plane. El Alto is at 4061 meters. Potosí is higher.”
The essay’s start offers little to hold onto: The reader stumbles along, trying to discern why anyone would desire a visit to the highest silver mines in the world. “You” visit the Bolivian mine, noting “the miners are mainly Catholic but down here they worship the devil. Who else could possibly hold sway?” From Potosí, the essay jumps to the show “Intervention,” then closes with a section on Gang Tours — bus tours of some of the gang territories of Los Angeles, led by former gang members.
Though it’s certainly not obvious, the connective thread running through these three experiences is pain: the miners, addicts and gang members make the locations and stories of those locations riveting because of how we attempt to experience or empathize with their pain. The empathy that Jamison is writing about is not the sort we’re used to. In the title essay, she writes, “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”
She acknowledges that such a consideration of empathy — as a choice, as effort — “chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”
It’s hard not to quote Jamison at length: She writes with intellectual precision and a deep emotional engagement regardless of whether she’s trying to understand the torture of the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee, or is trying to work out the complexities of the experience of female pain, or defending saccharine, which is, she writes, “our sweetest word for fear: the fear of too much sentiment, too much taste.” Animated by a central question — how can we best care for and about one another? — “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.
Weston Cutter is from St. Paul and currently teaches at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.