Leslie Jamison is in my head: The Empathy Exams

indexThe one about your head:

The second essay in Leslie Jamison’s excellent collection, The Empathy Exams, is titled “The Devil’s Bait” and it’s terrifying. The essay deals with a community of people suffering from Morgellons disease. Google Morgellons, as I just did, and you’re in for an immediate introduction to the controversial conversation about the disorder. The top results include your expected Wikipedia, WebMD, and Mayo Clinic sites, as well as two Morgellons “truther” sites that urge people to click to learn the “real facts,” and to disregard the CDC.

I’m not going to offer an opinion on Morgellons and Jamison doesn’t really offer one either. What she does offer is the astute observation that there is a robust, organized community of sufferers that would prefer to believe that there are bugs crawling under their skin than to believe they may be mentally ill.

The one about your uterus:

I have a co-worker, a woman approaching fifty, who found out recently that she’ll need to have a hysterectomy this summer. She says that when the doctor told her, she immediately turned to her husband and said, “but this means we can’t have another baby.”

They have two children in their early twenties and are looking forward to the freedom of an empty nest. But not being able to have children filled my co-worker with a sense of despair that had little to do with whether or not she actually wanted to have another child. In Jamison’s title essay, she describes this same despair at the idea of having an abortion. Trauma of that decision, even when it is definitely the right decision.

The one about your legs:

In “Fog Count,” Jamison visits a friend in prison. He is an ultra-marathoner in prison for mortgage fraud. We first meet him in an earlier essay when he is only an ultra-marathoner. But things happen. In that first meeting he tells us that running makes him feel free and smooth and happy but then he is in prison and the freedom that we able-bodied all possess, from hip to toe, is gone. He talks about inner mobility, about the ability to follow the trail wherever, and the loss of that feeling.


Maybe this reaction has to do with the fact that I’m a woman but I felt this book in my entire body. I ached and cringed while reading. That’s not to say that this is a book just for women; I don’t particularly believe in the idea of “masculine” and “feminine” books* and I think all genders would miss out by missing The Empathy Exams. I can’t even think of a joke-y Kanye reference here because I’m so surprised by how great this collection was. So go read it!


*On the topic of masculine and feminine books, here’s an anecdote to illustrate why those labels are dumb. Most people probably think of Harlequin romances as purely feminine. A major Canadian urban library system, when reporting on their move to e-books, noted that the use of Harlequin books by male readers jumped 200% when they began to offer them as e-books. So “masculine” and “feminine” books aren’t really a thing when you remove people’s need to justify what they’re reading to others.

**Every post is improved by a pithy Kanye reference so if anyone has one, please leave it in the comments.


3 thoughts on “Leslie Jamison is in my head: The Empathy Exams

    • I worry that people might steer clear of this book because it’s described as a “book of essays” and that always sounds like Serious Reading, but it’s such a delightful, interesting book that I almost want to lie and tell people that it’s a book of short stories so that they aren’t intimidated.

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