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Leslie Jamison, who became the face of a personal essay boom in 2014 thanks to her raved-about debut collection The Empathy Exams, returns to the form—and subject—that made her famous in the new essay collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn. It both builds on her previous work and undermines the foundation of her writerly project. It’s the story of a woman notoriously obsessed with empathy encountering and examining its limits.
Much of the book is made from essays the D.C.-born writer published over the last six years in places like Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Atavist Magazine. In addition to writing confessional personal essays, she’s been working for years as a reincarnated New Journalist, uncovering the strange and often confusing dimensions of human life, whether it’s an obsession with a lonely whale, a belief in reincarnation, or a life lived online. The first of the book’s three sections, “Longing,” brings those pieces together to let Jamison reflect on how she’s written about her subjects. In its second essay, Jamison mentions a sentence written in Latin that she has tattooed on her arm. In English, it reads “I am human, nothing human is alien to me.” By the second section, she’s alone in Sri Lanka, standing among the ruin of its civil war, thinking about the sheer arrogance of that statement.
“Nothing human is alien to me” is something she’s begun to reconsider. Is it possible for nothing human to feel alien? Is that desirable? Jamison’s age, her whiteness, her upbringing, her gender—all of these qualities affect what is known and what is alien to her. Luckily, in Make It Scream, she’s moved from writing with unearned authority about a universal womanhood (as she did in one of her most famous essays, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”) to considering the limits of her own sight. In one essay, she references the case of Percival Lowell, an amateur astronomer who claimed to see aliens on Venus and Mars, but whose telescope was actually showing him the shadows of the blood vessels inside of his eye. It’s an apt metaphor.
Even as she turns outward, Jamison has empathy for her younger self, the one who wrote all those feverishly intimate essays about her own pain, the one who got that tattoo proclaiming “nothing human is alien.” The most fascinating section of the book is the middle one, “Looking,” where she stops examining herself and begins examining writers and artists who have also struggled with observing and representing subjects truthfully—earlier in the book, she dwells on Janet Malcolm’s famous description of the journalist as a “confidence man.” Unsurprisingly, Jamison has a reverence for the ones who decide to entangle themselves on a real, messy, human level with the people they’re depicting.
She’s matured, and that means Make It Scream has less of the heightened drama and fewer of the emotional highs and lows of her previous collection. She’s not writing from inside the thick of pain anymore, and she’s no longer aching for connection. She’s becoming more comfortable on her side of the gap and ditching the drive to tear herself open in search of connection. But she’s still thinking about connection: The third section, “Dwelling,” is about the humility of sharing yourself and allowing yourself to be known. Love, she learns from her husband and their children, is less about falling and more about staying.
Notably absent from Make It Scream is the kind of confessional, painfully intimate writing Jamison’s readers have come to expect from her—she describes herself and her family in broad strokes. She reports on them much like she reports on the subjects she profiled for magazines, conveying their actions and their histories, but not much of their interiority. It’s a marked departure from the way she’s written about the people closest to her in the past, but it’s easy to read it as an evolution of her practice of empathy. Maybe part of the task of being trusted with the most vulnerable parts of another person is agreeing to leave them off the page.