Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize
A Publishers Weekly Top Ten Essay Collection of Spring 2014
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.
Jamison wrote about “wounded women” in her powerful novel, The Gin Closet (2010), and she pursues that subject in this collection of gutsy essays. But the line of inquiry that connects these riveting works of acute description and exacting moral calculus, these amalgams of memoir and risky investigative adventures is Jamison’s attempt to discern and define empathy in diverse and dicey situations. She begins with an account of her experiences working as a “medical actor,” performing as patients with baffling ailments that medical students must diagnose, encounters that deliver the realization that empathy requires humility and imagination. She discloses her own medical travails and asks, “When does empathy actually reinforce the pain it wants to console?” Jamison’s mission to put empathy to the test is more covert and even more provocative in her wrenching chronicles of drug-war-ravaged Mexico; Nicaragua, where a man attacks her and breaks her nose; a silver mine in Bolivia; and a “Gang Tour” in Los Angeles—explorations that inject guilt into the equation. A tough, intrepid, scouring observer and vigilant thinker, she generates startling and sparking extrapolations and analysis. On the prowl for truth and intimate with pain, Jamison carries forward the fierce and empathic essayistic tradition as practiced by writers she names as mentors, most resonantly James Agee and Joan Didion. ~ Booklist