The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison – Literary Analysis Part 2

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison – A Review Literary Analysis

[Read Part 1 Literary Analysis Essay Review of The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison]

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.

Compared to her general usage of “patients” in footnote one, Jamison now specifically pinpoints a man with the Morgellons disease, “Paul.” By directing her attention to “Paul” rather than just a patient, Jamison conveys a more intimate portrayal of her relationship with Paul and the Morgies in general. She suddenly becomes an insider of the Morgies group, empathizing and understanding them through her similar parasite experience. Yet, just as quickly as she becomes an insider, she becomes an outsider – “I didn’t believe him.” Added to her various conflicts is now her struggle to reconcile the pressures as both an insider and an outsider.


The outsiders vs insiders mentality.

Themes in The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison – Outsiders vs Insiders

Jamison employs the use of “or at least” to qualify her statement of disbelief. She progresses from a broad simple topic, “I didn’t believe,” to a more narrow comprehensive response, such as “I didn’t believe…the way” or “I didn’t believe there were…parasites.” She uses this gradually narrowing scope to focus on and investigate what specifically makes her not believe or empathize, and in doing so, her investigate nature emerges. Moreover, the three repetitions of “I didn’t believe” are sharply outlined against the one “I believe.” Jamison’s disbelief of the presence of physical “parasites” clashes with her belief of Paul’s internal “hurt,” further suggesting the conflicted uncertainties in her responses and constructed persona.

Ultimately, she creates these cognitive disparities to challenge and invite readers to immerse themselves in close reexamination of empathy. Despite disbelieving Paul’s “crazy-ass symptoms,” Jamison continues to ask herself the compelling question of to what extent is she responding with empathy, moving from “I didn’t believe” to “I believe.” As her explorative investigation progresses, she departs readers with more and more questions about the role of empathy in givers and receivers, insiders and outsiders, and we readers become increasingly entangled into that.

Which was typical. I was typical.

Referring to the fact that she does not believe in the existence of parasites but believes in Paul’s “hurt,” Jamison moves from “which was typical” to “I was typical.” Through this transition, she uses the powerful pronoun “I” to admit, acknowledge, and almost seemingly claim possession of this typicality. She closes the gap between the reader and herself by emphasizing that she is “typical.” She is in no way different or elevated from her readers, and her investigation subsequently becomes more realistic and allows readers to become closer and engaged in the empathy exploration.


However, at the same time, Jamison’s attribution of herself as “typical” widens the gap between the Morgellon disease patients and herself. Once again, she becomes a typical outsider of the atypical Morgies group. Jamison’s cognitive dissonance resurfaces, drawing parallels with her earlier conflict between “I didn’t believe” and “I believe.”  She straddles between identifying with her readers and identifying with the Morgellons, but her response of typicality betrays her intention of fully understanding the Morgies’ troubles. Through her constant deviations from intentions and “typical” reactions, Jamison is thrust into a paradoxical outsider-insider mentality. Yet, it is this recurring mental conflict that Jamison continues to pursue the understanding of empathy and its complex exercise.

In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal?

Her question, “How am I doing something…,” illuminates the investigative quality of her persona. She interrogates the capture of Paul’s pain in words, in her limited “essay,” struggling to not reduce or exaggerate his suffering. In her hardships to bring out the most accurate voice and suffering of Paul, Jamison thus uses the word “betrayal” and its harsh connotation to perhaps compel readers to explore ways to perceive and understand the realities of others’ pains and sufferings without underestimating or overestimating them.

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.

Exploring and Understanding Empathy in The Empathy Exams

From footnote one to footnote six, Jamison gradually progresses from past tense to present tense. Combined with the transitioning tense usage, her movement from absolution, “I heard you [and] pass no verdicts,” to uncertainty “I think…I hope” also becomes evident. Thus, creating this sense of progression, Jamison suggests that the exploration of empathy is an ongoing process from the past and present to even the future.


Additionally, Jamison does not simply state that she knows “he can heal,” but rather says that “I think” and “I hope.” Her “I think” and “I hope” further reinforces the uncertain nature of her presented persona. Yet, by choosing to portray her conflicts with empathy and the uncertainty in her persona, Jamison implicates that empathy is not a simple concept but like her uncertain persona, is riddled with many ambiguities and complexities. Through this, she again challenges readers to rethink about empathy in themselves, Paul, and others.

Lastly, Jamison utilizes her uncertain yet engaging, investigative voice to envelop others closer in empathizing with the visible and invisible, real and unreal pains of people. Throughout the essay, from Paul’s visible pain in his external scars to his invisible “hurt,” Jamison struggles to reconcile her sympathizing belief for his suffering with her disbelief of the disease. However, by ending the essay with a positivity of “hope” and “heal,” Jamison ultimately shares the idea of continuing to exercise empathy for others’ pains, even the unreal and invisible.


Works Cited

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


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