The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

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The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

This book was really powerful for me. It’s a series of essays that starts with the author describing her experience as a Medical Actor – someone who plays a patient with a script of symptoms and issues that a doctor in training must then diagnose. It continues on to tell stories of 100 mile hell marathons, Morgellons disease and the people who believe they have it, and more. 

Jamison does a really lovely job of blending philosophy and fact, being smart but accessible and really teasing out the ways in which we relate to each other – whether it’s our ideal selves or the reality of how we judge.

A few pieces that I underlined:

“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.”

“Which is the sad half life of arguments – we usually remember our side better.”

“I needed people… to deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible. Which is a superlative kind of empathy to seek, or to supply: an empathy that rearticulates more clearly what it’s shown.”

“That the hardship facilitates a shared solitude, an utter isolation that has been experienced before, by others, and will be experienced again, that these others are present in spirit even if the wilds have tamed or aged or brutalized or otherwise removed their bodies.”

“I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the hurting woman is a cliche but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.”

“We shouldn’t have to turn every scar into a joke. We shouldn’t have to be witty or backtrack or second-guess ourselves when we say, this shit hurt.

Read it if you want a good think about what it means to be a person trying to relate to other people… and someone to lead you through it.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

So… confession. I also read her book An Untamed State and was not impressed. I wanted to be. I follow Gay on Twitter and tumblr and am an all-around fan, so I scooped up that novel with enthusiasm, but for me it just fell flat.

Another confession: I read this book a solid month ago and am just now typing this up. Fail.

That said, this is a really strong group of essays. There are a couple in the collection that felt so strongly academic-review-paper that I actually skipped them, but the rest were fantastic and I highly recommend the book. I do wish that, in some ways, she had gotten more intimate. Her style seems to be very matter-of-fact – she’ll give you details and will name her feelings but won’t encourage you to feel them with her so much as tell you about them. I’m not saying these to dissuade at all – again, highly recommend and I’ll be passing it to friends. Just thinking aloud.

Read this if you’re a feminist. Or not a feminist. Or (ha!) a bad feminist. I also recommend you get familiar with Roxane Gay on Twitter and tumblr for a taste of her musings. She is a true literary internet rockstar.