This latest book presents a curiosity cabinet of topics: Jamison travels the world with a whale nicknamed “52 Blue,” takes a fraught trip to Sri Lanka, visits the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia and writes frankly about pregnancy after anorexia. It also includes criticism, such as a review of a major exhibition of Civil War photography and an essay on James Agee. These pieces have only the barest of connective tissues: Jamison wrestling with herself to find common ground with other humans or, as she puts it, “writing about lives or beliefs that others might have scoffed at.” (The collection’s lack of a consistent theme may stem from the fact that it’s largely composed of previously published magazine pieces.)
That cast of characters includes everyday people, artists, outsiders and outsider artists. “Maximum Exposure,” for example, focuses on the photographer Annie Appel, whose most significant work has been taking portraits of a single family in Mexico for 26 years. She rejects the rules of traditional photojournalism, enmeshing herself in the family’s life and giving them cash, food, school supplies and new clothes on every visit. Her oeuvre provides an opening for Jamison to analyze the fraught relationship between artist and subject — and her own relationship with Appel. Soon after they met, Jamison wrote an article about Appel that made the photographer unhappy. The relationship eventually mended: Appel granted Jamison access to her life’s work, and Jamison embraced Appel’s never-ending process, concluding that this decades-long project reflects a deeply ethical stance. “Respect meant letting your subjects get older, letting them get more complicated, letting them subvert the narratives you’d written for them,” she writes.
In another essay, Jamison sets out to meet the denizens of the virtual world “Second Life,” which at its peak had 1 million users. We meet an Atlanta mother of four, who works at a call center and has logged on for the past decade using a beautiful blond avatar; she describes her “RL” — real life — self as “trapped.” Meanwhile, a 67-year-old woman named Alice, who has multiple sclerosis and is unable to work or leave her house, logs onto the virtual world to find a place where she can participate in physical activities, like careening down waterslides or practicing tai chi. Other gamers role-play being members of a nuclear family — and though adults pretending to be kids might edge into creepy, Jamison sees something “stubbornly beautiful” in these strangers “wanting to live inside the same dream.”
Jamison literally wears her commitment to empathy on her sleeve: a tattoo in Latin, translating to “I am human, nothing human is alien to me,” runs down the length of her arm. But that credo gets tested in an essay about children who claim to have lived past lives. When she meets the father of one of her subjects, who shows her his extensive firearm collection, she’s unnerved, especially when she sees bullets strewn across the bed. “Had I been foolishly unwilling to acknowledge that some people were alien to me?” asks Jamison. “Did I need to identify with all the gun-loving men of this world? Was it naive or even ethically irresponsible to believe I should find common ground with everyone, or was that even possible?” She comes off as sheltered: Thirty percent of U.S. adults say they own a gun, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. Ultimately, she overcomes this doubt, concluding that the father and his wife were “two parents who wanted to believe their love could fill the gap between what they couldn’t explain and the explanation they sought anyway.”
After examining other humans and their obsessions, Jamison turns her eye on the ultimate mystery — herself, and love — in a section of personal essays. When she falls for the man who will become her husband, a novelist raised by two Las Vegas pawnbrokers, it’s a pleasure to read. We can see Jamison let go of her carefully wrought personal narrative and open herself to the unknown. Her future husband is a single father, and the couple has to build their relationship in the middle of the banalities of everyday life. Soon, Jamison is living out of a suitcase in the corner of his living room, pursuing a romance that’s catch as catch can: They schedule dates during the school day and sleep on a futon in an apartment that has toys scattered across the floor.
After a quickie marriage, she finds herself a stepmother overnight. What follows is a piece grappling with the complications of that new role. She overthinks this one: We don’t need a history of stepmother-related folklore or a Pew Research Center study to understand the very primal situation of a woman taking care of a child that isn’t hers. We only need Jamison’s heartbreaking anecdotes about being scolded by a stranger for buying her stepdaughter too much ice cream, because she doesn’t know what was “too much.”
If this book has a through-line, it’s the idea of wonder. In Jamison’s world, astonishment is always just around the corner. It hints at the way she moves through the world, aware that her knowledge is limited, with a sense of openness and continuous discovery. She found wonder in “Second Life,” sitting on a virtual rooftop balcony with a blind woman; she wondered at the very actuality of her husband. And it’s this sense of wonder that defines the final essay, about the author’s experience of childbirth: the complete and total mystery of new life, and the promise of what’s to come.
MAKE IT SCREAM, MAKE IT BURN
By Leslie Jamison
272 pp. $14.99