The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison – Literary Analysis Part 1

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison – A Review Literary Analysis

According to Leslie Jamison, the defining symptom of the disease known as Morgellons is the emergence of strange fibers from the skin. Like the aberrant fibers that pinprick their bodies, patients with the disease, also known as Morgies, are also perceived as strange, obsessive hypochondriacs emerging from the general population. Often ostracized and ridiculed for their preoccupation, Morgies gather together, collectively searching for both empathy and the understanding of their disease. In her powerful essay, “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison’s visit to a Morgellons conference is imbued with sincerity and curiosity as she navigates through the lives of several Morgies patients to understand their pains and sufferings. Although she enters with unwavering commitment in fully empathizing with their problems, she gradually finds herself conflicted.

Leslie Jamison’s Reflection on “Devil’s Bait” and Morgellons Disease


American novelist Leslie Jamison and her acclaimed novel The Empathy Exams

In the concluding paragraphs of her essay, believing in patient Paul’s and others’ sufferings but disbelieving in the existence of their disease, Jamison reflects on her conference experience and her cognitive dissonance with empathy and its exercise. Through this reflection, Jamison crafts an uncertain yet investigative persona, determined to explore and understand empathy in both herself and others and ultimately engage readers in the realities of pain and suffering – visible or invisible.

* * *

“I went to Austin because I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment. But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so. Paul told me his crazy-ass symptoms and I didn’t believe him. Or at least, I didn’t believe him the way he wanted to be believed. I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he hurt like there was. Which was typical. I was typical. In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal? I want to say, I heard you. To say, I pass no verdicts. But I can’t say these things to him. So instead I say this: I think he can heal. I hope he does.” ~Leslie Jamison


* * *


I went to Austin because I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment.


Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams – Literary Analysis on Persona

Immediately, Jamison does not reflect that she goes to the conference but rather announces that she “went to Austin,” evoking a specific sense of destination and purpose. The word “because” accentuates the aim of her expedition – that she “wanted to be a different kind of listener.” By desiring to “be a different kind of listener,” Jamison distances herself from the “kind these patients had known,” the ones “winking,” “biting their lips,” and “smiling in smug bewilderment.” The doctors are not nodding but “winking,” suggesting a condescending doubt of the Morgies’ unreal pains. Others are not smiling in optimistic hope but grinning “in smug bewilderment,” further underlining these patients’ encountered ridicules. Even friends are “biting their lips,” through which Jamison highlights that even familiarity through kinship could not prevent these friends from disbelieving the Morgies. Through the doubtful and almost sneering connotations of these listeners, Jamison depicts the magnitude of the smirking disbelief that the Morgies encounter.


At the same time, she utilizes this disheartening portrayal to emphasize the magnitude of her desire, her “want,” to be “different” and empathetically understand their sufferings, visible or invisible. By doing so, Jamison’s constructed persona of determination to be “different” begins to unfold. However, her usage of past tense, such as in the verb “wanted,” hints at her foreshadowing failure to “be different.” By in no means does this discredit the determined aspect of her persona. Instead, the past tense’s suggestive nature exposes a more nuanced dimension of her constructed self, her persona of conflicts and uncertainties.


But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so.

Jamison’s “want,” her desire to “be a different kind of listener” juxtaposes with her true response that “doesn’t make [her] so.” Coupled with the capitalized conjunction “but,” this juxtaposition fortifies the conflicted persona that Jamison chooses to present. Consequently, through the conflicting dichotomy of her intention and reaction, Jamison underlines the difficulties of empathy as both an aim and practice. Jamison’s exploration of empathy allows readers to engage as well. Her changes of pronoun usage from first person to second person “you” in her observation that “wanting to be different doesn’t make you so” produces the effect that the readers are also a part of her empathy journey in Austin. Her “want” begins to dissolve into the readers’ “want” and their struggle to “be different” and feel emotionally engaged for the Morgies.

[Read Part 2 Literary Analysis Essay Review of The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison]

Works Cited

Jamison, Leslie.  The Empathy Exams. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.  Print.

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5 replies »

    • Thanks so much, intrepid8! There are so many nuances with empathy that the mastery of understanding and performing it is often so difficult. I’m glad you enjoyed the analysis! Many thanks and hearts 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Truly rarely can i encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail for the head. Your concept is outstanding; empathy something that too little everyone is speaking intelligently about. I’m happy that we came across this around my find something in regards to this.

    Liked by 1 person

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