On September 7, New York Times bestselling author Leslie Jamison spoke to the Whitman class of 2020 about her latest book, The Empathy Exams, a collection of 15 essays that combines memoir, reportage and scientific inquiry. The Empathy Exams was this year's selection for the annual Summer Read Program.
In her introductory comments for the evening, Associate Professor of Philosophy Michelle Jenkins called The Empathy Exams an exploration of "the difficult, messy, but vitally important concept of empathy." During her talk, Jamison said that human pain was an essential launching pad for empathy, posing as a guiding question for her talk: How can personal experience resonate beyond itself?
Her answer, in short, was by declaring the validity of everyone's story. People should trust in the weight of their own pain, she said, and share it with others. It is in that sharing that community is born.
When writing The Empathy Exams, Jamison at first struggled to weave accounts of personal pain—an abortion, a punch in the face, a failed heart surgery—into the book's pages. To tell her own story felt like navel-gazing, and she was especially wary of publishing information about her private life in the current media environment.
"In an age in which we spare no sepia filter for our [breakfast] syrup . . . how can we escape the gravitational pull of solipsism?" she asked.
Jamison began to consider that perhaps sharing her own story did not equate to solipsism, but instead to its opposite—empathy. She came to realize that to share the private moments of her life was to invite others to share their own private moments; telling was perhaps the greatest form of empathy.
The Empathy Exams was selected a from a list of more than 40 suggestions for the 2016 Summer Read submitted to a committee of students, staff and faculty members last year.
"We want a book that will introduce the first years to Whitman's value in critical thinking," said Katie DePonty, director of conferences, events and scheduling. "The book should start conversations. It should get people thinking."
Afton Weaver '20 said The Empathy Exams got her thinking about her connections with family and friends.
"It will definitely make me think more about how I relate to other people."
Weaver also thought the book succeeded in building community among the class of 2020, since "everyone is coming here from all different backgrounds. Empathy is a good general rule of thumb."
Every year, the Summer Read Program attempts to ease the transition to college by providing common ground. This year, The Empathy Exams went further, encouraging the class of 2020 to recognize their own complicated emotions reflected in their new classmates.
"You are not the only thing in the world, the only person who has ever hurt," Jamison assured them. "In truth, there is a whole world beyond you, in that moment and always, a whole world of other hurting bodies."