Author of 'The Recovering,' And 'The Empathy Exams' Releases Essays
NOEL KING, HOST:
A little boy has vivid memories of a life that is not his life. His parents decide he's been reincarnated. An exhausted woman raising two disabled kids gets up early to enter into a virtual world where she's allowed to stay in bed. A writer gains weight during her pregnancy and remembers being anorexic. Leslie Jamison's new book of essays called "Make It Scream, Make It Burn" is about what it means to inhabit a life, a life a decade gone, a digital life or, in the case of the boy in Louisiana, a past life.
LESLIE JAMISON: When James was a toddler, he started to have these very vivid dreams about being in an airplane crash and started to tell more and more specific stories in which he described kind of taking off from a large ship that sounded like an aircraft carrier. And he started to name proper nouns - the ship itself, other men who had been on the ship with him. And his family started to do some digging, and a lot of the specifics seemed to line up.
KING: Did writing about reincarnation affect the way you think about yourself at all?
JAMISON: Absolutely. I found there to be something very beautiful about this vision of the self, this vision of the self as connected to these distant strangers. And for me, it tapped into my own experiences in recovery fellowships, where part of what's healing is thinking about your life as sharing these important things with the lives of strangers, and in a funny way, reincarnation sort of literalized that; like, what you are living has been lived before.
KING: You write about another kind of rebirth as well when you report on people who live - and I use the term loosely - but they live in an online virtual world called Second Life. I wonder if you can read a passage where you describe one of the people you profile. Her name is Bridgette McNeal.
(Reading) Bridgette McNeal, the Atlanta mother of four, has been on Second Life for just over a decade. Though Bridgette is middle-aged, her avatar is a lithe twenty-something whom she describes as perfect me, if I'd never eaten sugar or had children. When we spoke, Bridgette described her Second Life home as a refuge that grants permission. When I step into that space, I'm afforded the luxury of being selfish, she said, invoking Virginia Woolf. It's like a room of my own.
KING: I mean, there are so many reasons to love this woman. Her real everyday life is so difficult. She's raising two disabled children. What did you feel when you talked to Bridgette McNeal?
JAMISON: I felt so much. The idea of constructing these online selves that we prefer in certain ways to our real selves is really relevant to so many people. And for Bridgette, I was fascinated by her daily life. She's raising four kids, two of whom are autistic teenagers, and there's a lot of joy and meaning in those relationships and also a lot of hard work.
But she actually wakes up an hour and a half early in the morning, before she wakes her kids up; she loses sleep so that she can wake up in this paradise where she sort of lounges around on her digital bed. And that idea of building this curated life where she gets to be selfish and gets to be free in a certain way was deeply moving to me.
KING: The last third of your book becomes very personal. We learn about your grandfather dying. We learn about you meeting your future husband, about you becoming a stepmom and then a mother, and it starts to feel very much like a traditional memoir. And I wonder, as you're putting a book like this together, what is the connection between reporting on the lives of other people, complete strangers, and then reporting - or I don't know; is it reporting on your own life, or is it something different?
JAMISON: I think, for me, part of the joy of putting together an essay collection is this way that you can tell a story across the essays. And in this collection, part of what connects the reported pieces to the personal pieces is that so much of the reportage was looking at people who were longing for something far away.
When I get into the personal material, I'm really thinking about what it means to transition from states of longing to states of having and dwelling and inhabiting. I'm really trying to examine, OK, what is it like to have things, to have relationships, to have people close by, and how is that state of having introduce a whole different set of complexities than states of longing?
KING: There's also a tension that you draw out within yourself. You tell the story of your pregnancy, while at the same time telling the story of how you were diagnosed with an eating disorder in college. And I wonder if you could read just a bit of that section.
(Reading) Pregnancy wasn't a liberation from prior selves so much as a container holding every prior version of myself at once. I didn't get to shed my ghosts so fully. It was easy to call my doctor absurd when she'd chided me for gaining 5 pounds in a month rather than 4 and harder to admit that I'd honestly felt shamed by her in that moment. It was harder to admit the part of me that felt a secret thrill every time a doctor registered concern that I was, quote, "measuring small." This pride was something I'd wanted desperately to leave behind. I worried that it was impeding your growth, which was really just the distillation of a deeper fear - that I would infect you with my own broken relationship to my body, that you would catch it like a dark inheritance.
KING: And you're talking to your daughter there.
KING: And that part of the book is really, really difficult to read because there's part of the reader that just wants to say, Leslie, come on, man, let yourself be happy, right?
JAMISON: (Laughter) You know, initially, these started as two separate essays - an essay about pregnancy and an essay about my eating disorder that I had been trying to write for 15 years. And, you know, on one level, there was, you know, a very physical experience of stepping on the scale at my doctor's office and thinking, oh, this is the first time I've wanted the scale to read higher, and remembering back to this secret scale in my closet in college and how I would go in obsessively and religiously and just want the number to be lower and lower and thinking, what's the difference between that self then and this self now?
But it was also important to say, I think we can get really attached to these conversion narratives of self to say, I was this way back then, and I've gone 180 degrees, and I'm a totally different self now; I've left that old self behind. But I don't think that's how it works. I don't think we leave our old selves behind. I think we have to reckon with them. And this essay is also me reckoning with the ways that I've changed and with the ways that the ghosts of the old selves and the old fixations are still there, too.
KING: Leslie Jamison, thank you so much for your time.
JAMISON: Thank you so much for your questions and for having me.
KING: Leslie Jamison's new book is "Make It Scream, Make It Burn," a collection of essays.
(SOUNDBITE OF OLAN MILL'S "WINTER OF THE ELECTRIC BEACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.