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The Empathy Exams, By Leslie Jamison, book review: Take pleasure from this pain


“Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries,” writes Leslie Jamison near the start of her fine odyssey around pain. Trauma, of course, also metastasizes; it writes itself on the body and across the soul. It speaks through metaphor and analogue. It alienates us from ourselves and others. It is greedy, demanding and absorbing, and its victims sometimes fall in love with it.

This tricky territory is where Jamison, a young novelist and graduate of the renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop, sets up shop. She wishes to know when and how, and how much, we should empathise with people who suffer, given that empathy, if it’s to be meaningful at all, must also bleed across boundaries – in this case, from one person to another. She wants to know the extent to which empathy is self-serving, where it ends and presumption begins, and when empathy merely reinforces the pain it wishes to console.

Jamison exhausts the questions most writers would ask very quickly, then goes on to pose a dozen more. She fathoms deep pockets of intellectual and emotional curiosity, sometimes creating a feeling of claustrophobia, so you’re right there with her, as irritated as she is by the cheap fabric and rough texture of lazy thinking. And she writes with surgical exactness.

Jamison may be a superb diagnostician, but she also selects her case studies extremely well. She interrogates empathy through her experience of being a “medical actor” – someone paid to perform a malady in order to test trainee doctors on their bedside manner – and by attending a conference for victims of the bizarre Morgellons disease, who imagine their bodies to be invaded by fibres, filaments and specks. She’s always in the frame herself, empathiser extraordinaire, questioning her own fascination with doctors and medicine, addiction and delusion, suffering and compassion, with wanting attention and paying attention. 

This rich feast of searching and questioning culminates with a bravura essay, cheekily titled “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”. “What’s fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one?” Jamison asks. Here she admits to being a former cutter; that she starved herself, but is now so over the skeleton as semiotic signpost; that when her entire writing class saw how childish were Sylvia Plath’s cries for attention, she read out “Ariel”. 

These days Jamison is “post-wounded”. She understands “that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood”. She still bleeds, but she’s determined to exist, and to write, beyond the blood.

Marina Benjamin’s Last Days in Babylon: the story of the Jews of Baghdad, is published by Bloomsbury