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In 'Make It Scream, Make It Burn,' Leslie Jamison Turns The Pen On Herself

In her new book of essays, Leslie Jamison reminds us more than once that the Roman playwright Terence's Latin motto, "I am human: nothing is alien to me" is tattooed along her arm.

The declaration, also the epigraph of The Empathy Exams, Jamison's first essay collection, is a mission statement for this intense writer who is drawn to strange stories that feed "the human hunger for narrative" — but also test the boundaries of her compassion and her openness to "mystery and wonder."

Jamison makes no claims to objectivity in her reporting. Quite the contrary. An overarching concern in Make It Scream, Make It Burnis with "the fantasy of objectivity." Even when reporting on a blue whale whose unusual song becomes a rallying cry for lonely people, or a family invested in the idea that their toddler's nightmares channel his previous life as a pilot shot down by the Japanese in 1945, she investigates her own process and feelings with at least as much rigor as her research into the subjects themselves. Yes, this can lead to a self-involved form of meta-journalism. But the overall result is a heady hybrid of journalism, memoir, and criticism.

Jamison frequently probes her ability to suspend skepticism, which she notes was required in the 12-step recovery process from alcoholism she wrote about in The Recovering.She explains her defensiveness of the reincarnation story: "It wasn't that I necessarily believed in it. It was more that I'd grown deeply skeptical of knee-jerk skepticism itself." She rues "ready-made dismissiveness" and finds Joan Didion's position as "a knowing skeptic in a world full of self-delusion" smug.

Her corrective reaction has been somewhat extreme:

"In my own work, I found myself increasingly addicted to writing about lives or beliefs that others might easily dismiss: people who claimed to suffer from a skin disease most doctors didn't believe in, or self-identified outsiders who felt a spiritual kinship to an elusive whale."

Digging deeper, she adds, "But if I was honest with myself, this affinity also carried a faint whiff of self-righteousness. Maybe I liked telling myself I was defending underdogs."

Jamison worries, too, about the ethics and limits of journalism, and what Susan Sontag called "the weight of witnessing." Janet Malcolm's famous line about the journalist as "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse," is ever on her mind.

In "Maximum Exposure," a fascinating piece about photographer Annie Appel's obsessive, 25-year project documenting a Mexican woman and her family, Jamison writes of the reportorial "process of intimate entanglement" and the insistent "mess of subjectivity." She says Appel's "work matters because it evokes the ways that daily life simultaneously holds tedium and astonishment, drudgery alongside sudden surges of wonder." In another essay about photography, Jamison discusses both "the taint of artistry" and "the honesty of exaggeration" that help convey the horror of Antietam in Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs.

She takes up all these themes in the sharply analytic and deeply personal title essay, one of the best in the book. Her analysis of James Agee and Walker Evans' seminal chronicle of three Alabama sharecropper families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,highlights the challenges of capturing truth under the weight of "an inescapable self-awareness" and relentless self-doubt. Agee's legacy, she writes, "was the attempt to find a language for skepticism and to rewrite journalism in this language — to insist upon a sincerity that lay on the far side of self-interrogation." This, of course, could be a description of Jamison's own literary grail.

Make It Scream reverses the arc of The Empathy Exams by moving from the external to the internal, from others' longings and hauntings to her own. Chief among them is her longing at 30, "newly sober and newly single," to overcome her "attachment to the state of yearning itself."

How to do this? By finding the right man, settling down without settling, and in a phrase she repeats with the earnest insistence of a recent and perhaps shaky convert, learning to show up — for love, for her stepdaughter, for her commitments, for life's mundanities and "the daily work of salvage and sustenance."

Along the way, in an endearingly oddball piece on a Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia, she exorcises the ghosts of her failed relationships. She writes even more dazzlingly of her changing views of her husband's hometown, Las Vegas, "a genuine rhinestone" that is "adamantly honest" in its fakery, and yet another example of a quality she prizes highly — what the French call jolie-laide, beauty in ugliness. Later, she finds beauty aplenty even in the ordeal of her daughter's birth.

Jamison has come a long way from the young woman who struggled to stave off loneliness with starvation and inebriation. In these tributes to what she has described as "the deep realms of enchantment lodged inside ordinary life," she shows — as she did in The Empathy Exams -- that she's not afraid to buck the trend toward ironic detachment, even at the risk of sentimentality. This is a writer who is incapable of being uninteresting.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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