Leslie Jamison can't write you a prescription. But she may understand what you're going through better than anyone else because she's been studying pain and those who suffer from it for a long time. Jamison's not afraid to root through the toughest parts of the human condition, or to attack fundamental questions: Is my pain real? How do I feel the pain of others? If reading a book about all this sounds...painful, rest assured that Jamison writes with such originality and humor, and delivers such scalpel-sharp insights, that it's more like a rush of pleasure.
Some of the essays in The Empathy Exams are autobiographical, but Jamison transcends memoir by tapping a huge variety of sources, from philosophy and medical texts to the exquisitely tragic life of Frida Kahlo to Brian De Palma's Carrie and HBO's Girls. A particularly memorable essay summarizes the sorry fate of ''wounded women'' in literature, such as Anna Karenina and Blanche DuBois (''Men have raped her and gone gay on her and died on her''). Jamison also does the fieldwork, whether it's following extreme marathoners in Tennessee, taking poverty tours in the Third World, or, in a moving and fascinating essay, sitting in on a support group for sufferers of Morgellons disease, a sci-fi-sounding condition patients report foreign fibers sprouting from their skin that almost all doctors believe is rooted in delusion.
Jamison's essays sometimes falter when she turns to herself cataloging her scars or recounting, in minute detail, getting punched in the face by a stranger in Nicaragua. But these are just quibbles. To articulate suffering with so much clarity, and so little judgment, is to turn pain into art. A-
''Empathy isn't just something that happens to us a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain it's also a choice we make: to pay attention, extend ourselves.''