Author Leslie Jamison Turns Feelings Into Words In 'The Empathy Exams'

Mar 31, 2014

Author Leslie Jamison
Credit Colleen Kinder

According to Webster's Dictionary, the definition of "empathy" is "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions." Author Leslie Jamison has sought to personify what it is to "feel" in her latest book "The Empathy Exams." 

The 29 year-old chronicles her adventures playing sick for med school students; surviving an assault on the streets of Nicaragua; understanding the past lives of inmates, and even our relationship with the word saccharine, and how its artificially sweet meaning translates well beyond food and drink.

Jamison is scheduled to appear at Bookbug on April 3. Here are a few excerpts from the conversation:

On her experience working as a medical actor: "A lot of doctors and medical students and actually medical actors have responded to my writing. I've been able to engage in all these questions of can empathy be taught, and if so how can it be taught effectively. There's a really strong bleed between those two things. If you go through certain kinds of emotions or coax yourself to say certain things or do certain things you can start to feel those things from the inside...a lot of doctors expressed faith in that bleed between how you act and what you feel."

On trading apathy in one's own life for empathy in another person's life, as evidenced in her first book "The Gin Closet": "I certainly think that sometimes engaging with another person's pain -  or seeking to encounter their pain or understand their pain - can be a very altruistic gesture or a very generous gesture. But it can also be other things. It can also be an attempt to escape your own life or be numb to something inside of you. I think that we empathize for tons of reason that also have to do with ourselves - wanting to think of ourselves as empathetic people; wanting to think about somebody else's pain instead of our own pain. ...Empathy is not just this pure holy untarnished thing- it's this really ragged messy thing, and definitely one part of that raggedness is empathy as a form of self-escape. " 

On what she hopes the takeaway of her book is for other readers: "I would hope that people come away from this book thinking about both the importance of trying to understand other people's experiences - and especially what might be difficult about other people's experiences - but at the same time they understand the impossibility of ever fully understanding somebody else's experience... You couldn't ever really imagine what it was like to be them."