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.

Book Review: Typical American by Gish Jen

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Typical American by Gish Jen

This book had all the elements I seem to desire in books lately: it’s equal parts character and plot, the language is beautiful but doesn’t weight the book down, and I felt like I got insight into a world I would never have seen otherwise.

This is an immigrant story. An assimilation story. A dream-big story. A learn-from-your-failures story. A love story. It is so many things, and I want nothing more than to spend more time with the Changs.

Another thing I’ve been struggling with in my reading lately: it’s so hard for me to watch characters make bad choices, especially as they know they are wrong and they are not situationally obliged to participate. It starts turning their core into a different shade for me, and I struggle to feel empathy.

Everyone in this book makes bad choices, but I never felt like they were bad people. I never lost my empathy for them, and it was easy to see where the dots connected that brought them to their poor choices. It was so easy to read, and so funny and smart and insightful. I look forward to working through Jen’s entire portfolio of work. I’ve read Mona in the Promised Land as well, although I found Typical American significantly more mature.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“For certainly he felt more attached to them for their having turned abstract – missing them more than he had liked them, the missing being simpler.”

“And then there was another pain too, quieter, weightier, its roots in what everybody knows – that one day a person looks back more than forward, that one day he’ll have achieved as much as he was going to, loved as much as he was going to, been as happy as it was granted him to be. and that day, won’t he have to wonder – was it enough, what he’s lived? Can he call that a life and be satisfied?”

“He wished there were someone to ask, someone who could tell him how much love was the proper amount for a pair of newlyweds, how enthusiastic they should feel about their new duties and responsibilities, where they fell in the spectrum of human attachments.”