Ana Hein // Blog Writer
You’ve been in this scenario before.
You’re on the T. It’s packed – you’re probably on the redline. You’re standing smack in the center of the human version of a sardine can, and if one more person accidentally elbows you, you are going to throw them under the tracks. The woman next to you keeps blowing her nose. You’ve got two papers due next week and are stressed out enough without adding this lady’s sickness to the mix.
You wish you were anywhere but here.
But then maybe you notice that the nose-blower’s eyes are red and her lip is trembling. She’s not sick – she’s been crying. Has someone died? Did she have a bad breakup? Lose her job? Stub her pinky toe? Suddenly, you feel something for this person that a short moment ago you wished was in a quarantine facility at least three miles away. It’s not pity or even understanding, but it’s something that makes you think about what it means to be alive and human. You get off the T a minute later, or maybe she leaves first; either way, she’s gone now. You probably won’t ever see her again.
Leslie Jamison lives for moments like this.
She’s made her career out of recounting them, analyzing them, and dissecting them so we can see their mushy, metaphorically rich innards. She’s predominantly known for her 2014 essay collection, The Empathy Exams, in which she reflects on how she and others relate to each other in our complex misshapen glory. It’s a brilliant book, and one of my favorites. I had to buy it for a class last semester, and though we were only supposed to read three essays in it, I quickly found myself completely enamored with not just the subject matter, but also her prose. It’s direct, but lyrical; dense, but not in a pretentious way; it’s magnetic; it simmers. I finished it the second class let out.
Make It Scream, Make It Burn, her second essay collection and latest release, feels like a sibling to The Empathy Exams. Make It Scream, Make It Burn is still about what it means to relate to and be a person, but it zeros in on “the oceanic depths of longing and the reverberations of obsession,” according to the dust jacket. Jamison’s essays are always about specifics – a lonely whale and lonely people lonely people, a museum dedicated to breakups, becoming a stepmother, and Las Vegas and the sincerity of its kitsch – but she finds a way to make them about more than what they are. She fits them into a narrative about the self, a narrative about the world at large, and a narrative about narratives themselves.
That’s what I love the most about this collection – her thoughts on how we turn real life into a story. It’s something I do all the time. I romanticize and fixate on the idea of a person instead of the actuality of them, slot them into my life based on how I want them to relate to me, and don’t let them breathe outside that role.
I want to scream because I want to be heard. I want to scream because I want to be cared for. And when I read Jamison, I know she understands this. Whenever I pick up one of her books, I feel like she’s guiding me through a winding maze of my own feelings and thoughts, even though she’s writing about her own personal experiences. She can’t take me to the exit – I have to do that myself – but she gives me a map. Now it’s up to me to decipher it.
If you’ve ever related to another person before, you need to read this book. This is not a recommendation. This is an imperative.