MAKE IT SCREAM, MAKE IT BURN is a collection of fourteen essays exploring the dynamics of haunting and obsession. I look at how we are defined by what we can’t ever fully grasp, from the ghosts of possible prior lives to the perpetually unfinished work of documentary art, from the alternate selves of our online avatars to the specters of broken romances. If my first collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, explored the perilous allure of empathy, this collection examines what happens not when we look but when we can’t look away—when we find ourselves consumed by desire or fascination.
The structure of MAKE IT SCREAM, MAKE IT BURN serves as a mirror image to The Empathy Exams. Whereas the latter started with the personal and gradually turned outward, MAKE IT SCREAM, MAKE IT BURN progresses from the outward-looking to the deeply personal. It begins with a trio of pieces of longform reportage: an account of the “loneliest whale in the world” and his devoted followers, an exploration of children who vividly member their past lives, and an examination of those who find community in the virtual world of Second Life. In the pages that follow, it takes readers to Sri Lanka to survey the residue of its Civil War, offers the definitive critical account of an outsider artist’s 25-year documentary photography project on both sides of the US/Mexico border, and ruminates on a museum devoted to the breakups of ordinary strangers. I ultimately turn to the achingly personal, examining my own life as a site of strangeness and mystery, considering the dynamics of obsession, haunting, and longing in essays about weddings, infidelity, elopement in Las Vegas, becoming a stepmother, and my own pregnancy juxtaposed against an eating disorder years before. These are essays about how we are composed by what we long for, and by living in uneasy relation to what we have.
I was born in Washington DC and grew up in Los Angeles. Since then, I've lived in Iowa, Nicaragua, New Haven, and (currently) Brooklyn. I've worked as a baker, an office temp, an innkeeper, a tutor, and a medical actor. Every one of these was a world; they're still in me. These days I teach at the Columbia University MFA program, where I direct the nonfiction concentration.
My new book, a collection of essays called Make It Scream, Make It Burn, comes out in September 2019. I've also written a novel, The Gin Closet, a collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, and a critical memoir, The Recovering. My work has appeared in places including The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Oxford American, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer.
michael [at] broadsidepr [dot] com
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Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
I wrote an essay about Make It Scream, Make It Burn for Entertainment Weekly.
This book happened in conversations with strangers, on a puddle jumper from Houston and an overnight bus ride across the Sri Lankan interior, in the swampy Louisiana suburbs and on a Naval Base in the middle of the Puget Sound. It happened in a community garden in Harlem, where a woman told me how a blue whale she’d never seen had helped her recover from a six-week coma. It happened on the Vegas Strip, between a New York that was not New York and a Venice that was not Venice; in a wedding chapel with a neon Elvis swinging his neon hips above a neon awning. It happened at my grandfather’s deathbed. It happened at my daughter’s birth.
These essays are about haunting, longing, and obsession, which is to say they are about how we’re defined by what we’ve lost, what we desire, what we reach toward but can’t ever fully hold: alternate lives, broken relationships, dead parents, landscapes haunted by love and violence. These essays took me to places and stories I couldn’t have imagined—to the living room of a family who believed their son had been a fighter pilot shot down during World War II, to a museum full of relics from romances that had ended years before, and to the strange digital paradise of a place called Second Life, where I rode a virtual horse through a virtual redwood grove, and chatted on the virtual rooftop of a blind woman who had found, in this other world, a way to see.
Over the course of the seven years I spent working on this book, my life changed in fundamental ways. I met my husband. I became a stepmother. I had a baby girl. I realized that it’s sometimes easier to long for what’s far away than it is to live with what’s close at hand. At first, I thought this collection was about the connection between desire and distance, about being obsessed with what we can’t fully grasp: the mystery of prior lives, the metaphor of a lonely whale, the allure of an online avatar. But eventually, I realized that it was just as interested in what’s right in front of us. How do we keep showing up for our daily lives? How do we keep reinventing them?
If this book began as an exploration of longing, then it ended up becoming an exploration of dwelling. “We can break through marriage into marriage,” writes poet Jack Gilbert. “We must / eat through the wildness of her sweet body already / in our bed to reach the body within the body.” Reaching the body within the body means finding mystery within the familiar and the daily, finding the unknown within the known. These essays are also about that discovery—not only about extraordinary manifestations of obsession, fascination, and loneliness, but about the deep realms of enchantment lodged inside ordinary life. They’re about looking for the correct princess for a five-year-old girl who is just starting to call you “Mommy,” or begging for a replacement whoopee cushion at a kid’s arcade in a run-down casino at the north end of the Strip.
While my first essay collection, The Empathy Exams, began in a deeply personal place before turning outward to look at the world, this collection starts by looking outward—at the forces that might propel someone toward an elusive whale with a singular song, or a past life as a tobacco farmer, or an online avatar that isn’t confined to a wheelchair—and then turns inward to examine the kinds of loneliness and heartache and transformation that saturated my investigations of desire all along. My response to the Museum of Broken Relationships was also an exploration of all the former relationships that still lived as ghosts inside of me. My fixation with Second Life was also about reckoning with my own escapist impulses—is the impulse to flee an intrinsic part of what it means to inhabit any home, any family, any life?
This book took seven years not just because the essays were written across that span of time, but because they were re-written across that span of time. An essay about my grandfather’s death became—six years later, after the birth of my daughter—an appreciation of my brother’s relationship to the young boys he was raising. An essay about a documentary photographer who had spent twenty-five years photographing the same Mexican family became—after I’d read hundreds of pages of her diaries, and interviewed the people she’d been photographing—a piece that was as much about obsession as it was about art. An essay about Las Vegas as a city built of unmet desires became a very different essay once I fell in love with a man from Vegas and married him in one of its all-night chapels, committing to our shared daily life in that city designed for fantasy.
The collection’s title—Make it Scream, Make it Burn—was inspired by a review written by the poet William Carlos Williams, in which he praises the photography of Walker Evans for documenting ordinary life so acutely: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream.” For me, the notion of making life scream is less about pain and more about urgency. It’s about finding a kind of primal cry inside the ordinary house, the ordinary marriage, the ordinary morning. It’s about looking at something so closely that you feel it starting to smolder under your gaze. It was what I wanted to do in this book: Make life scream. Make it burn. Make it funny. Make it strange. Make it sing.
Entertainment Weekly’s #1 Nonfiction Book of 2018!
Literary Hub’s #1 Best-Reviewed Memoir of 2018!
“An astounding triumph....A recovery memoir like no other....Jamison is a writer of prodigious ambition....Here, she’s a bare-it-all memoirist, an astute critic, and a diligent archivist all in one. The book knows no bounds, building in depth and vitality with each passing concern....There’s something profound at work here, a truth about how we grow into ourselves that rings achingly wise and burrows painfully deep.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Magnificent and genuinely moving. This is that rare addiction memoir that gets better after sobriety takes hold.” —New York Times
“Poignant....Taut and immediate.” —Village Voice
“A sprawling, compelling, fiercely ambitious book....Its publication represents the most significant new addition to the canon in more than a decade....Jamison’s writing throughout is spectacularly evocative and sensuous....She thinks with elegant precision, cutting through the whiskey-soaked myths....Jamison is interested in something else: the possibility that sobriety can form its own kind of legend, no less electric, and more generative in the end.”—The Atlantic
“Such is Jamison’s command of metaphor and assonance that she could rivet a reader with a treatise on toast. We perhaps have no writer better on the subject of psychic suffering and its consolations.”—The New Yorker
“Fascinating....energetic, colorful, fun, buzzy, affecting, and spot-on....Emotional, as well as factual, honesty is the sine qua non of a memoir. Yet this kind of deep honesty—the merciless self-examination and exposure that Jamison displays—is increasingly rare.”—New York Times Book Review
“A remarkable feat....Jamison is a bracingly smart writer; her sentences wind and snake, at turns breathless and tense....Instead of solving the mystery of why she drank, she does something worthier, digging underneath the big emptiness that lives inside every addict to find something profound.”—Time
“Riveting....Jamison orchestrates a multi-voiced, universal song of lack, shame, surrender, uncertain and unsentimental redemption....It is a pleasure and feels like a social duty to report that Jamison’s book shines sunlight on these creepy, crepuscular enchantments. Wisdom floods the scene, and genius never flees. Quite on its own terms, The Recovering is a beautifully told example of the considered and self-aware becoming art.” —Boston Globe
“Thoughtful, fiercely honest, and intimate, The Recovering is a must-read that is Jamison at her best.”—BuzzFeed
“Gritty....Raw....Thought-provoking and distinct....Fascinating in ways you might not expect....The Recovering ventures beyond the cliché and the ordinary to remind us once again of both the fallibility and resiliency of the human condition.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Precise and heartfelt....The Recovering is a magnificent achievement.”
“Wonderful....wholly original....it shines.”
“As a reader of this most consuming book, I celebrate Jamison’s deep openheartedness, deliberate unselfishness, immaculate, inculcating vision, and her language—oh, her language....For her intelligence, her compassion, her capaciousness, her search, her deep reading, her precise language, Jamison must be honored here.”
With its deeply personal and seamless blend of memoir, cultural history, literary criticism, and reportage, The Recovering turns our understanding of the traditional addiction narrative on its head, demonstrating that the story of recovery can be every bit as electrifying as the train wreck itself. Leslie Jamison deftly excavates the stories we tell about addiction—both her own and others’—and examines what we want these stories to do and what happens when they fail us. All the while, she offers a fascinating look at the larger history of the recovery movement, and at the complicated bearing that race and class have on our understanding of who is criminal and who is ill.
At the heart of the book is Jamison’s ongoing conversation with literary and artistic geniuses whose lives and works were shaped by alcoholism and substance dependence, including John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Billie Holiday, and David Foster Wallace, as well as lesser-known figures such as George Cain, lost to obscurity but newly illuminated here. Through its unvarnished relation of Jamison’s own ordeals, The Recovering also becomes about a different kind of dependency: the way our desires can make us all, as she puts it, “broken spigots of need.” It’s about the particular loneliness of the human experience—the craving for love that both devours us and shapes who we are.
For her striking language and piercing observations, Jamison has been compared to such iconic writers as Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. Yet her utterly singular voice also offers something new. With enormous empathy and wisdom, Jamison has given us nothing less than the story of addiction and recovery in America writ large, a definitive and revelatory account that will resonate for years to come.
New York Times Bestseller, Notable Book of 2014, and Editors' Choice. Named a Top 10 Book of 2014 by Entertainment Weekly, Publisher's Weekly, Oprah, Slate, Salon, the L Magazine, and Time Out: New York. Finalist for the ABA Indies Choice Award and the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Published in the UK, Brazil, Germany, Holland, Italy, France, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Korea, and China.
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.
“Extraordinary. . . . she calls to mind writers as disparate as Joan Didion and John Jeremiah Sullivan as she interrogates the palpitations of not just her own trippy heart but of all of ours. . . . Her cerebral, witty, multichambered essays tend to swing around to one topic in particular: what we mean when we say we feel someone else's pain. . . . I'm not sure I'm capable of recommending a book because it might make you a better person. But watching the philosopher in Ms. Jamison grapple with empathy is a heart-expanding exercise.” ―Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Extraordinary and exacting. . . . This capacity for critical thinking, for a kind of cool skepticism that never gives way to the chilly blandishments of irony, is very rare. It's not surprising that Jamison is drawing comparisons to Sontag. . . . There is a glory to this kind of writing that derives as much from its ethical generosity, the palpable sense of stretch and reach, as it does from the lovely vividness of the language itself. . . . It's hard to imagine a stronger, more thoughtful voice emerging this year.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“Jamison writes with sober precision and unusual vulnerability, with a tendency to circle back and reexamine, to deconstruct and anticipate the limits of her own perspective, and a willingness to make her own medical and psychological history the objects of her examinations. Her insights are often piercing and poetic.” ―The New Yorker, "Books to Watch Out For"
“This quirky, insightful collection dazzles.” ―People
“If reading a book about [pain] 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. . . . To articulate suffering with so much clarity, and so little judgement, is to turn pain into art.” ―Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A-
“A virtuosic manifesto of human pain. . . . Jamison stitches together the intellectual and the emotional with the finesse of a crackerjack surgeon. . . . The result is a soaring performance on the humanizing effects of empathy.” ―NPR
“Extraordinary. . . . Much of the intellectual charge of Jamison's writing comes from the sense that she is always looking for ways to examine her own reactions to things; no sooner has she come to some judgment or insight than she begins searching for a way to overturn it, or to deepen its complications. She flinches, and then she explores that flinch with a steady gaze. . . . [A] beautiful and punishing book.” ―Slate
“A brilliant collection. . . . We're in a new golden age of the essay . . . and in The Empathy Exams Leslie Jamison has announced herself as its rising star.” ―The Boston Globe
“Remarkable. . . . [Jamison] combines the intellectual rigor of a philosopher, the imagination of a novelist and a reporter's keen eye for detail in these essays, which seamlessly blend reportage, cultural criticism, theory and memoir.” ―Los Angeles Times
“A stunning collection. . . . a profound investigation of empathy's potential and its limits.” ―Cosmopolitan, "10 Books by Women You Have to Read This Spring"
“[Jamison] writes consistently with passion and panache; her sentences are elegantly formed, her voice on the page intimate and insistent. Always intelligent, self-questioning, willing to experiment with form, daring to engage with the weird and thrust herself into danger spots, a patient researcher and voracious processor of literature and critical theory, she is the complete package: state-of-the-art nonfiction.” ―Phillip Lopate, San Francisco Chronicle
“[Jamison] writes with intellectual precision and a deep emotional engagement. . . . The Empathy Exams is a gracefully powerful attempt by a tremendously talented young writer to articulate the ways in which we might all work to become better versions of ourselves.” ―Star Tribune
“Jamison is determined to tell us what she sees and thinks without condescension or compromise, and as a consequence her act of witnessing is moving, stimulating, and disturbing in equal measure. . . . Jamison is always interesting, often gripping.” ―Bookforum
“The Empathy Exams is a work of tremendous pleasure and tremendous pain. Leslie Jamison is so intelligent, so compassionate, and so fiercely, prodigiously brave. This is the essay at its creative, philosophical best.” ―Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize
“Leslie Jamison threads her fine mind through the needle of emotion, sewing our desire for feeling to our fear of feeling. Her essays pierce both pain and sweetness.” ―Eula Biss
“Leslie Jamison has written a profound exploration into how empathy deepens us, yet how we unwittingly sabotage our own capacities for it. We care because we are porous, she says. Pain is at once actual and constructed, feelings are made based on how you speak them. This riveting book will make you a better writer, a better human.” ―Mary Karr
“The Empathy Exams is a necessary book, a brilliant antidote to the noise of our time. Intellectually rigorous, it's also plainly personal, honest and intimate, clear-eyed about its confusions. It's about the self as something other than a bundle of symptoms, it's about female pain and the suffering of solitary souls everywhere, it's an exploration of empathy and the poverty of our imaginations, it's ultimately about the limits of language and the liberating possibilities of a whole new narrative. . . . The Empathy Exams earns its place on the shelf alongside Sontag.” ―Charles D'Ambrosio
“These essays--risky, brilliant, and full of heart--ricochet between what it is to be alive and to be a creature wondering what it is to be alive. Jamison's words, torqued to a perfect balance, shine brightly, allowing both fury and wonder to open inside us.” ―Nick Flynn
“Leslie Jamison positions herself in one fraught subject position after the next: tourist in the suffering of others, guilt-ridden person of privilege, keenly intelligent observer distrustful of pure cleverness, reclaimer and critic of female suffering, to name but a few. She does so in order to probe her endlessly important and difficult subject--empathy, for the self and for others--a subject this whirling collection of essays turns over rock after rock to explore. Its perambulations are wide-ranging; its attentiveness to self and others, careful and searching; its open heart, true.” ―Maggie Nelson
“Leslie Jamison writes with her whole heart and an unconfined intelligence, a combination that gives The Empathy Exams--an inquiry into modern ways and problems of feeling--a persuasive, often thrilling authority. These essays reach out for the world, seeking the extraordinary, the bizarre, the alone, the unfeeling, and finding always what is human.” ―Michelle Orange
“Brilliant. At times steel-cold or chili-hot, [Jamison] picks her way through a society that has lost its way, a voyeur of voyeurism. Here now comes the post-Sontag, post-modern American essay.” ―Ed Vulliamy, author of Amexica: War Along the Borderline
“When we chance upon a work and a writer who summons and dares the full tilt of all her volatile resources, intellectual and emotional, personal and historical, the effect is, well, disorienting, astonishing. We crash into wonder, as she says, and the span of topics Jamison tosses up is correspondingly smashing and wondrous: medical actors, sentimentality, violence, plastic surgery, guilt, diseases, the Barkley Marathons, stylish 'ex-votos' for exemplary artists, incarceration, wounds, scars, fear, yearning, community, and the mutations of physical pain.” ―Robert Polito, from his Afterword
AS A YOUNG WOMAN, Tilly flees home for the hollow underworld of Nevada, looking for pure souls and finding nothing but bad habits. One day, after Tilly has spent nearly thirty years without a family, drinking herself to the brink of death, her niece Stella—who has been leading her own life of empty promise in New York City—arrives on the doorstep of Tilly’s desert trailer. The Gin Closet unravels the strange and powerful intimacy that forms between them. With an uncanny ear for dialogue and a witty, unflinching candor about sex, love, and power, Leslie Jamison reminds us that no matter how unexpected its turns, the life we’re given is all we have: the cruelties that unhinge us, the beauties that clarify us, the addictions that deform us, those fleeting possibilities of grace that fade as quickly as they come. The Gin Closet marks the debut of a stunning new talent in fiction.
Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. One of the San Francisco Chronicle's Best Books of 2010.
“Starred Review. Jamison's beautifully written debut follows independent young New Yorker Stella and her estranged aunt Tilly as they form some version of a family… The relationship between Stella and Tilly is compelling…what truly drives the novel is Jamison's gorgeous prose.”
“First-time novelist Jamison portrays three generations of ‘wounded women’ in an exquisite blues of a novel…Narrating by turns in each lonely woman’s voice, Jamison creates emotionally complex scenes of harsh revelation in language as scorching as gin…Jamison’s novel of solitary confinement within one’s pain is hauntingly beautiful.”
San Francisco Chronicle:
"The Gin Closet" is no escapist fantasy but a slow and steady heartbreak. It is also exquisitely beautiful. Jamison writes like a poet, her imagery breathtaking, her sentences unfurling unpredictably, to the novel's devastating end… "The Gin Closet" is a classical tragedy. The characters are doomed to repeat their mistakes, haunted by the past, unable to save themselves or each other. But while the plot precludes redemption, language is a saving grace both for the novel and in their lives. We may not be able to change, but at least we can tell our stories, finding flashes of beauty even in the ugliest things.”
“Life is raw in Leslie Jamison’s astonishing first novel, a story of love and ruin in the American West…it is a book that finds beauty in dysfunction — and, in doing so, gives us one of the truest and most devastating depictions of alcoholism to be had in some time…“The Gin Closet” is nothing short of a tour de force.”
A “keenly felt” exploration of “love’s more complex geometries.”
New Haven Advocate:
“Jamison's voice is resoundingly unique, her prose both raw and precise, fully attuned to poetry without ever rescinding an energetic narrative impulse… Jamison trusts the consciousness of her characters and her readers. At the very points a lesser writer would stumble, lurch and turn away, she stands still, stares and turns our faces to stare along with her… Of particular importance is the oblique beauty and taut sensuality of Jamison's language and imagery… Jamison is not just marching to the beat of her own drum. She is banging out a brutal, ecstatic symphony upon it. The Gin Closet dares readers to understand how and why we abrade our bodies, ourselves, to manifest the incommunicable to one another.”
Time Out New York:
“Jamison is no coward…she writes courageously about disease, sex and perils of the flesh without flinching… she’ll become a strong voice in contemporary fiction.”