Replaceable You

Make It Scream, Make It Burn BY Leslie Jamison. New York: Little, Brown. 272 pages. $28.

The cover of Make It Scream, Make It Burn

A writer can be said to have reached the stratosphere of literary stardom when her tattoo is almost as well known as her creative output. The phrase Leslie Jamison has printed across her arm—Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto, or I am human: nothing human is alien to me—was the epigraph of her first essay collection, The Empathy Exams, a national best seller that was lauded for single-handedly reviving the market for personal essays, and the tattoo has been invoked in countless interviews and profiles as a kind of précis of her work. In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, Jamison wrote that when she first encountered the quote, she “felt its force beyond rational explanation.” For what it’s worth, her translation is slightly simplified (the exact phrase is I am human: I consider nothing that is human to be alien to me) and also, apparently, stripped of its intended irony. The line, from Terence’s play Heautontimorumenos, is the waggish retort of a local busybody when another character tells him to mind his own business.

“Empathy” may seem a vague beat on which to build a writing career, but one could argue that its vagueness has allowed Jamison a rare freedom. Rather than being confined, like so many contemporary essayists, to a content silo—the immigrant experience, the obesity experience, the postpartum-depression experience—she has, over the span of her career, perused the culture with the roving curiosity of a midcentury New Journalist, writing on subjects as various as ultramarathons, her abortion, and the Sri Lankan civil war, all within the elastic parameters of this thematic concern. Her 2018 book The Recovering, a study of writers who have suffered from alcoholism that included her own story of sobriety, revisited many of her essayistic preoccupations, particularly the notion that personal narrative can be a bridge toward more expansive human connection. While other essayists have leveraged their lives as stand-ins for the specific communities on whose behalf they speak, Jamison seemingly speaks for anyone, using her own experience as a way into whatever subject she is writing about.

This is a precarious platform to occupy at a moment when there exists a vast, and often visceral, suspicion of the notion that writers—or anyone—can inhabit the reality of others. Two years ago, Jia Tolentino argued that the Trump era had marked the end of the personal-essay boom. “Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject,” she wrote in the New Yorker. Jamison’s new book, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, which collects essays she has published over the past five years, is acutely aware of this skepticism. In several pieces, her tattoo enters into the text as a rebuke. Walking the impoverished streets of Sri Lanka, reporting on genocide tourism, she looks at her arm and thinks: “Perhaps it was better to accept that not everything human was something I could know.”

Elsewhere, she makes the point more forcefully. In an essay on reincarnation experiences, she begins to question her willingness to entertain, without judgment, far-fetched possibilities like past lives:

In some deep unspoken part of my psyche, I’d convinced myself that agnosticism and acceptance were moral virtues unto themselves, but in truth I wasn’t so sure. Maybe I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by pretending that my belief system was tolerant enough to hold everything as equally valid. Maybe there were experiences I couldn’t relate to and things I might never believe.

Over the course of Make It Scream, this persistent questioning begins to feel like a full-blown crisis of faith. In “52 Blue,” a 2014 essay about a cultish obsession with a solitary whale, Jamison interrogates her own attempts to empathize with the lonely people who identify with the animal. Empathy, she suggests, can be a form of projection. It can also signal self-righteousness or cowardice. “Maybe I liked telling myself I was defending underdogs,” she muses in her reincarnation essay. “Or . . . maybe I was too scared to push back against the stories people told themselves in order to keep surviving their own lives.”

Jamison, who began attending AA meetings in her twenties, credits her impulse toward acceptance and openness to the principles she learned in the rooms of recovery. Participation in AA, she notes in the reincarnation essay, requires “extinguishing, or at least suspending, many forms of skepticism at once: about dogma, about clichés, about programs of insight and prefabricated self-awareness, about other people’s ostensibly formulaic narratives of their own lives.” There is an echo here of David Foster Wallace, another twelve-step veteran and arguably Jamison’s most relevant thematic influence, whose moral earnestness resonates throughout her work even as she struggles with the question of how far to extend her own acceptance.

Bunny Rogers, Study for Joan Portrait (detail), 2016, four framed ink-jet prints on paper, each 27 1⁄2 × 22 3⁄4". © Société, Courtesy the artist and Société
Bunny Rogers, Study for Joan Portrait (detail), 2016, four framed ink-jet prints on paper, each 27 1⁄2 × 22 3⁄4". © Société, Courtesy the artist and Société

At the end of the essay, Jamison emerges from her dark night of the soul to offer an unequivocal defense of empathy, one rooted in the notion of “porousness.” What appeals to her about reincarnation is the same thing she loves about AA, which also asks her to “believe in a self without rigid boundaries.” Sobriety has taught her to “understand myself as interchangeable, to see my dilemmas as shared and my identity as something oddly and inescapably connected to distant strangers.” If The Empathy Exams was concerned with the practice of identification, Make It Scream seems to propose an ontology that makes such identification possible: We can connect with others because we are all, deep down, the same.

It’s possible that relinquishing the ego is a useful practice for a journalist. Jamison’s determination to avoid quick judgments gives her a keen eye and often endows her reporting with clarity and restraint. But she is primarily a personal writer, which raises the inevitable question: How does the personal essayist write about a self that she believes to be unoriginal and interchangeable? The back half of Make It Scream contains reflections on a number of more intimate subjects—getting married in Vegas, becoming a mother, becoming a stepmother—that are notable for their lack of intimacy. The problem is not a lack of specificity: Jamison divulges, in candid detail, her college eating disorder (“Those hungry days were full of Diet Cokes and cigarettes and torch songs on my Napster”), her pregnancy cravings (“I ate endless pickles, loving their salty snap between my teeth. I drank melted ice cream straight from the bowl”), and a trip with her husband to northern Connecticut (“We ate hamburgers at a roadside shack and swam at Cream Hill Lake, where the teenage lifeguards almost kicked us out because we weren’t members”). But there is a dashed-off, generic quality to the writing, as though the profusion of concrete nouns is meant to disguise the absence of a distinct authorial consciousness. This is especially true when Jamison alludes to her former self, who often appears as a caricature of drunken self-absorption—she recalls “smoking alone on my stoop, lost to daydreams and self-pity.”

Jamison has written about the virtue of clichés, which she described in a 2015 essay for the New York Times as “the subterranean passageways connecting one life to another.” If her depiction of her life often appears shorn of its idiosyncrasies and rough edges, it may be because these anecdotes are designed to be immediately legible to readers who share these experiences. In the essay on being a stepmother, she details her own feelings of inadequacy, then pauses to extend her experience: “Twelve percent of women are stepmothers. I can guarantee you that almost all these women sometimes feel like frauds or failures.” At times, this desire to find the mean within herself—to be “relatable”—leads Jamison to apologize for her more original observations. Describing the birth of her daughter, she writes that when the doctors were forced to perform a C-section, she felt as though her body stopped being her collaborator and became her enemy. “I’m not saying this is the truth about C-sections,” she hastily acknowledges, as though anticipating the fury of a Twitter mob. “I’m saying this is the truth of what I felt.”

In the essay on stepmothering, Jamison reveals that other people—friends, editors—frequently try to tell her what her family is like, sharing unsolicited theories drawn from their assumptions about blended families. All of their speculations, she notes, feel incomplete. But rather than insisting on what it does feel like—to her—she tries, unconvincingly, to accommodate the opinions of others: “I rarely felt like saying, ‘No, it’s nothing like that.’ I usually wanted to say: ‘Yes, it is like that. And also like this, and like this, and like this.’” In the next paragraph, she confesses, unsurprisingly, that her family life often feels crowded: “Sometimes the sheer fact of those assumptions—the way they churned inside everyone we encountered—made stepmotherhood feel like loving someone in front of an operating theater full of strangers.” This is an apt description of the essays themselves. One senses that there are too many cooks in the kitchen, too many voices in the writer’s head.

The paradox is that Jamison’s eagerness to connect forecloses, in the end, the kind of intimacy that readers look for in an essayist—an honesty unconstrained by the sociable compromises and false niceties that color so much public discourse. In diluting her life to make it broadly relatable, Jamison betrays a lack of faith in the very ideals on which she has staked her brand. If the self is truly porous, if the contours of our interior lives are unoriginal and interchangeable, then the writer should not fear her subjective feelings and beliefs: To go deeper into her own perspective would be to plunge more profoundly into the font of all truth. It’s often said that empathy is impossible because we, as a culture, have lost faith in the ability to understand and inhabit other lives. But it can also break down when writers stop believing that their private self is a reliable locus of truth—or, worse, when they lose sight of the self entirely.

Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of the essay collection Interior States (Anchor, 2018).