Leslie Jamison has established herself as one of the most eloquent contemporary writers of the personal essay. Make It Scream, Make It Burn, her latest book, investigates the ethical difficulties of the relationship between writer and subject. While Jamison’s explicit reflections on these complexities remain within territory already mapped by essayists such as Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, her topic points to more hazardous questions about the moral basis of her nonfiction.
Jamison’s rise to prominence as a nonfiction writer has been built upon the burial of a previous version of herself. A younger Jamison was an alcohol addict who found “profundity” in the experiences of “affliction” and “dysfunction.” In her widely acclaimed nonfiction, Jamison shapes a story about how this past persona of Dark Woman is superseded. The story has been a public success. Jamison’s first collection of essays, The Empathy Exams (2014), was a New York Times bestseller, and her book on addiction titled The Recovering (2018) was Entertainment Weekly’s number-one nonfiction book of 2018. Make It Scream, Make It Burn reinforces the narrative put forward in the previous works. This new collection confesses to Jamison’s former “belief in sadness as a rarefied state: an affective distillery” capable of calling forth her most authentic self. The Dark Woman has been replaced with Jamison’s current persona: a more cheerful, mature adult who inhabits what Jamison calls “the complicated bliss of joined lives.” Jamison’s celebration of a new set of values buttresses her present roles as mother, wife, and generally functional member of society.
A sincere commitment to being a good person informs the ethos of this collection. Over the course of three sections titled “Longing,” “Looking,” and “Dwelling,” Jamison attempts to speak the truth of the whole human condition. Her hunger to enfold everyone and everything in a warm embrace orients her in the labyrinth of methodological self-examination, and she never once loses herself in self-referential acrobatics. Ultimately, however, Jamison’s search for universal communion has its own hazards. In attempting to fuse truth-telling with her vision of goodness, Jamison overcompensates for the previous errors of the Dark Woman and comes close to dismissing the more uncomfortable aspects of life.
In “Longing,” Jamison examines people’s investments in the stories they tell about themselves and others, with pieces on a unique whale with a fan club (“52 Blue”), belief in past lives (“We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again”), and the internet platform Second Life (“Sim Life”). Overlap with themes of previous essays occurs; for instance, the piece on past lives recalls Jamison’s essay on Morgellons disease in The Empathy Exams, both of which focus on the tension between skepticism of fantastic-seeming stories and the desire to believe one’s subjects. “Looking,” the middle section, shifts to pieces on Civil War photography (“No Tongue Can Tell”), James Agee’s journalism (“Make It Scream, Make It Burn”), and Annie Appel’s photography (“Maximum Exposure”), but requires more theoretical heft than Jamison offers. Jamison returns to her strengths of rendering emotional complexity and detail in “Dwelling,” closing with standout pieces on being a stepmother (“Daughter of a Ghost”) and pregnancy (“The Quickening”).
The major draw of this collection is Jamison’s style. The characteristically lush and image-laden sentences make an anti-Dideonesque celebration of emotionality: “Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress, sweet icing in the mouth.” Although those who prefer a more austere aesthetic may find the almost ecstatic language cloying, Jamison’s mode of expression is so bound up with her project of seeing an illuminated world that it is hard to envision this collection being written any other way. But while fans of Jamison’s rapturous prose will find their fix in this book, the first section’s thematic repetitions and the second section’s faltering forays into art criticism suggest that the craft of Jamison’s writing is more impressive than the positions she develops using her luminous language. The third and most successful section is also the one with the fewest theoretical ambitions. Still, Jamison is such a skilled writer that her work is worth reading for that reason alone.
The book obsessively returns to questions about the ethics of observing others. Jamison’s central concern is how to do justice to the subjects of one’s writing. But her self-reflexive turns do not approach the ethical quandaries at the core of her recent work, especially her writing on addiction and female pain, which have formed the basis for her public renown. The language Jamison uses to evoke the worldview of the person she once was brings that person(a) to life on implicitly unflattering terms. The evocation of the “sublime state of solitary sadness or fractured heartbreak” grants those feelings their intensity at the expense of their legitimacy. In a recent article for the New York Times titled “Cult of the Literary Sad Woman” (2019), Jamison confesses to having once found herself in the thrall of a “vision of truth as something dark and broken.” Her depiction of a twenty-two-year-old “deeply committed to a life of volcanic feeling” has a satirical edge. The reader is invited to regard sadness with a wryly knowing attitude that can coexist with sympathy, but not with respect. Jamison concludes the article by proposing that representations of delight and satisfaction have greater artistic promise than evocations of melodramatic sadness. She thereby seeks victory over her old vision of truth.
In moving away from the tortured-drunken-artist and sad-girl personae from which she claims to have once drawn solace and support, Jamison wants to believe that she has improved. An emotional teleology therefore takes shape in the closing essay of The Empathy Exams (2014), titled “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” After assessing the dangers both of dismissing female pain and of romanticizing it, Jamison concludes, with a nod to singer Leona Lewis, “[K]eep bleeding. Just write toward something beyond blood.” Jamison attempts to validate the experience of pain, but she does so on the condition that it be imbricated within a narrative of betterment: “There is a way of representing female consciousness that can witness pain but also witness a larger self around that pain—a self who grows larger than its scars without disowning them, who is neither wound-dwelling nor jaded, who is actually healing.”
The Empathy Exams, The Recovering, and now Make It Scream, Make It Burn all defend “joy, pleasure, curiosity, surprise, delight” from the threat posed by the alternative value system of a dark, prickly past self (or selves) who can’t see the point of it all. In Make It Scream, a defensive tone sometimes accompanies Jamison’s earnestness. She notes that the rules of coolness that govern the sorts of academic environments she has inhabited (Harvard, Yale, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) condemn any inclination toward sentimentality, and then she praises the “transgression” of Annie Appel’s unreserved emotionality. The threat of judgment from others (and, more fundamentally, from oneself) casts its shadow over Jamison’s enthusiasm, leading her to fight to remain one step ahead in the emotional dialectic.
The struggle to legitimatize affect creates a context in which Jamison lapses into a celebratory account of pleasure. After noting her past fixation on the aforementioned “sublime state of solitary sadness,” Jamison states that her present life is about “waking up each day and making sure I show up to my commitments,” about “Skyping with my husband” and “feeding the fetus inside me.” The subsequent descriptions of “Istrian fuži with truffles” and “noodles in thick cream” and “sea bream with artichokes” are rich with implication. Being happy and being good, feeling pleasure and doing as one ought, simmer together in the same pot. Jamison’s present determination to “show up to [her] commitments,” her search for “complicated bliss” in the midst of a life constituted by mundane routine, and her willingness to describe everyday experience in a tone of rapture are all admirable. But the omnipresent underlying presupposition of better-than and worse-than raises suspicion. Trying to argue about whether pain or pleasure is more interesting, or whether happiness or sadness offers more creative potential, is a bit like trying to stage an argument over whether red is preferable to blue. Better-than is not a descriptor that achieves profitable application to broad swaths of human experience. Truth is dark and broken, and it is also light and whole.
The writing in this collection is a love letter to life’s complexities. Jamison mentions her tattoo of a famous quote from Terence: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I am human, nothing human is alien to me. This piece of self-branding signals both the promise and the pitfalls of visionary participation in a universal republic of living beings. The strength of Jamison’s desire to connect to everyone and everything can be self-defeating. Aspects of sadness, melancholy, and pain resist integration into a vast glorious synthesis of health and sanity. Some varieties of desolation are predicated on the refusal of connection and consolation. Such desolation can only be subsumed into a developmental narrative by doing violence to the worldview of the person who refuses to play along with Terencian universalism.
The true achievement of Jamison’s moral ideal of all-encompassing understanding would require recognizing the citizenship of even the most oppositional members in the republic of all beings. Jamison’s work defines itself in contradistinction to a stubbornly sad past self who absconds from participation in the ecstatic nexus of creation. The question of the justice of this self-depiction is also the question of whether Jamison risks allowing happiness to support itself via a teleological appropriation of sadness, and whether her vision of universal connection undermines the possibility of the dignified refusal of the other.
Make It Scream, Make It Burn: Essays. By Leslie Jamison. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2019. 272 pages. $13.99, paper.