Leslie Jamison Opens Cabinets of Wonder in 'Make it Scream, Make it Burn'

BY Rochelle Goldstein, October 9, 2019

From the mystique and fate of an outlier blue whale; to the civil war photography of Matthew Brady; to the spooky appeal of a computer game that allows users to create virtual selves; to the museum of broken relationships in Croatia, Leslie Jamison’s new essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, is, as NPR called it “[a] heady hybrid of journalism, memoir and criticism.” 


Taking into account that she is “…incapable of being uninteresting,” Jamison’s incisive focus on her world is girded with a lot of self-examination and questions about what the writer’s responsibilities are to her subject and what the moral implications are of translating experience into text.


The New Yorker’s Amy Waldman wrote that the book “explores notions of witness, storytelling and authenticity; of art and morality; and of pain—others’ and one’s own.” Calling Jamison’s writing “eloquent” and “lyrical,” Waldman adds that Jamison “can pin an idea with the speed and fluidity of a pro athlete.”


The book’s quirky and erudite range of interests, into which Jamison seamlessly weaves her personal experiences, came together, as she told the Boston Globe recently, “without a blueprint, or even a sense of a collection emerging.” Readers will recognize this mix from her other books, particularly, her breakout essay collection, The Empathy Exams, which also segued from personal experience to journalism to explore larger philosophical contexts.


In this latest book she reverses that trajectory as she travels from more journalistic writing to the personal, which ranges from her complicated feelings about attending weddings as a single woman; her pregnancy; her relationship with an often-absent father and enigmatic brother and the matrix of male attention.  


Approaching her varied constellation of subjects, Jamison describes herself as possessing “interrogative agnosticism.” Keeping an open mind, she says, she is “humbled by the world over and over again.”


Published in 2014, The Empathy Exams established her as a formidable essayist, and a writer with a large and enthusiastic critical and popular audience. The title essay came from her experience working as a test dummy for med-school students to hone their diagnostic skills. A book popular with both readers and critics,The Empathy Exams was described as a “radiant collection of essays” by the New York Times.


Last year’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath once again adroitly braided together Jamison’s personal experience with alcohol addiction, with stories of such celebrated artists in thrall to alcohol as Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, John Berryman, and David Foster Wallace. USA Today called it a “wholly original” and “wonderful” book.


Jamison was at Yale, where she eventually received a Phd in English Literature, when her first book, a novel, was published. She wrote the first draft while working the night shift as an innkeeper, reserving her days for writing. But it’s the essay that has galvanized Jamison’s considerable talents. A writer for the Kirkus Review called Jamison “one of the leading practitioners of the…form.”


Make it Scream, Make it Burn is available now.