What does it mean to be a tourist inside someone else’s suffering? Sometimes, it means taking a bus ride through Los Angeles’s gang-ridden neighborhoods, or watching a former addict bleed and sweat and grow blisters as he tries to run a hundred miles, or visiting a man in jail.
Leslie Jamison has done all that, and more.
But how does another person’s suffering affect one’s own emotional intelligence? What are you supposed to do with someone else’s pain?
Jamison does not know the answer. But she searches for it by writing about episodes of attempted empathy in her own life—for example, the time she became “obsessed” with her brother’s bout of Bell’s palsy: “I spent large portions of each day imagining how I would feel if my face was paralyzed too. I stole my brother’s trauma and projected it onto myself like a magic-lantern pattern of light.” Was that empathy, Jamison wonders, or was it a kind of emotional theft?
These questions about how humans see one another and how they treat one another, and why, are explored to great lengths in Jamison’s debut essay collection, The Empathy Exams.
The title essay, which appeared in The Believer in February, weaves together painful personal experience and incrementally detached observations about what empathy is and whether it can be taught. It’s here that Jamison’s motivations are stated plainly: “I used to believe that hurting would make you more alive to the hurting of others. I used to believe in feeling bad because somebody else did. Now I’m not so sure of either.”