Make it Scream, Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison

There were stories in Leslie Jamison’s first essay collection, The Empathy Exams, that I still think about more than five years after reading them. And it’s remarkable how regularly I refer others to particular essays written by Jamison. I suspect it will be the same with her latest collection, Make it Scream, Make it Burn.

So which particular essays will I be pressing on people, and why?

52 Blue – the story of the ‘loneliest whale in the world’. Perfect for when you need to be reminded of the deep pleasure in feeling a sense of wonder. And also if you feel like reading something heartbreaking but manageable, even hopeful. Jamison attempts to understand ‘…how the story of this whale had jumped the bounds of science and become something more like a rallying cry.’

The acoustic technicians call him 52 Blue. A scientific report would eventually acknowledge that no other whale calls with similar characteristics had ever been reported. “It is perhaps difficult to accept,” the report conceded, that “there could have been only one of this kind in this large oceanic expanse.”

Jamison speaks to a number of scientists who have studied 52 Blue –

He is hope and loss at once. I’d hear some break in her voice, and I’d copy her words. I’d copy the break. I’d make note of her scientific neutrality showing the strain at its seams…

The essay examines the problems inherent in projecting human emotions and experience onto animals, particularly that in this case, aloneness is conflated with loneliness. It’s difficult to regard 52 Blue simply as a whale with an unmatched song when he is spoken of with such passion, and written about with such feeling. There is an ending to this story. It’s fitting and it brought a lump to my throat.

Maximum Exposure – sometimes we’re invited into the lives of others, sometimes we’re not. Maximum Exposure explores the work of a photographer who by chance took a photo of a Mexican family, and then decided to visit them every year to document their lives. It tests ideas around what constitutes art, how we set personal boundaries, and questions how we profit from something.

Once you become obsessed with documenting, it can seem impossible to stop. No ending feels honest or defensible… What distinguishes exploitation from witnessing, and when is that witnessing complete?

…they were constantly torn about how much help to offer. It can feel inhuman to document pain without trying to ameliorate it.

The Real Smoke – when I went Vegas, I stayed in a truly glitzy/tacky hotel, drank cocktails from bucket-sized glasses, and embraced anything that seemed over-the-top.

To me, Vegas felt like the urban-planning equivalent of the homeless man we passed whose sign said: WHY LIE? I WANT BEER.

Apparently there’s a ’boutique’ side to Vegas – I never saw it, and The Real Smoke validated why the ‘tacky’ Vegas experience is the Vegas experience.

All of Vegas tries too hard. But is it inauthentic? I’ve never thought so. If inauthenticity depends on pretending you are something you’re not, then Vegas has always been adamantly honest. It is all fake, all the time.

Daughter of a Ghost – for blended families, this sensitive and honest account of Jamison’s own experience of becoming a stepmother is perfect.

I hated the idea of bribing Lily, trading plastic for affection, but I was desperately nervous. Plastic felt like an insurance policy.

…stepparenting asks us to question our assumptions about the nature of love and the boundaries of family. Family is so much more than biology, and love is so much more than instinct.

This collection demonstrates Jamison skill. Her observations are insightful, surprising and more often than not, very tender.

4/5 A memorable collection.

Down in Louisiana, I was renting a cabin out in Arnaudville, past the daiquiri drive-through…

6 responses

    • I enjoyed every essay with the exception of the title essay (!) which was focused on an aspect of US history that didn’t particularly interest me. The essays linked to the author’s family are so well done.

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