Last Night a Critic Changed My Life

Robin Richardson on her hero, Leslie Jamison

Welcome to a new series in Partisan, "Last Night a Critic Changed My Life". Echoing a long-running feature in Mojo Magazine, which looks at life-changing records, this series will focus on moments when writers encountered the work of a critic and found themselves transformed. In the second instalment, poet Robin Richardson describes how critic Leslie Jamison opened the heart of a closeted enemy of cool. Read the first instalment here.

I'D BEEN COMING up against a wall in how I was thinking about writing: shame stood between me and what needed saying. Trouble was I couldn’t name the source of this shame, therefore couldn’t address it. In her 2014 essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison names it: the problem of truth-telling in a culture that has decided that being in pain, particularly for a woman, is saccharine and passé. 

 Robin Richardson. Photo courtesy of author.

Robin Richardson. Photo courtesy of author.

Jamison uses pain to spark a war between unabashed sharing and apathetic irony. Then she obliterates the latter—and liberates the reader. With that I was free to begin writing with the vulnerability I’d secretly coveted. I was a closeted enemy of cool, and Jamison provided the catalyst for coming out. 

She looks at a time preceding postmodern irony, when female pain was grotesquely romanticized:

The pain of women turns them into kittens and rabbits and sunsets and sordid red satin goddesses, pales them and bloodies them and starves them, delivers them to death camps and sends locks of their hair to the stars. Men put them on trains and under them. Violence turns them celestial. Age turns them old. We can’t look away. We can’t stop imagining new ways for them to hurt.

She then argues that our new culture of restraint has developed a knee-jerk aversion to expressions of pain for fear of further picking at the old scab of romanticization. Jamison writes about a cultural war on female suffering: chat rooms hate on teenage girls who cut themselves, doctors prescribe stronger medications for men than for women who report the same degree of pain.  

 Leslie Jamison. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Leslie Jamison. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Take the popular HBO series GIRLS, which revolves around young women who exert exhausting amounts of energy trying to downplay their own pain in a world where being wounded is worthy of insult. Jamison proposes that the girls on GIRLS are not so much wounded as post-wounded. They portray the new climate of too cool to hurt. But the post-wounded woman isn’t hurting any less. In fact, she’s wary of expressing her hurt, which she knows will be perceived as indulgent and melodramatic, and therefore keeps pain to herself. This repression, Jamison argues, disguises itself as jaded apathy and leaks into other areas of the girls’ lives, resulting in shallow friendships, botched jobs, and abusive relationships. What I love most about Jamison’s writing style is that she doesn’t stop at this detached observation and analysis but candidly offers herself up in support of her theory. She, too, has been post-wounded. She, too, has been afraid of expressing her own experience with pain. She knows the root of this fear is shame, and so she searches for and cuts the root clean. 

She is sharp to the point in her critique of the critic Michael Robbins:

In a review of Louise Glück, Michael Robbins calls her “a major poet with a minor range.” He specifies this range to pain: “every poem is The Passion of Louise Glück, starring the grief of Louise Glück. But someone involved in the production knows how to write very well indeed.” His “but” implies that Glück can be a poet who matters only despite the limitations imposed by her fixation on suffering, that this “minor range” is what her intelligence and skill must constantly overcome. 

Robbins frustrates me and speaks for me. I find myself in a bind. I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the “hurting woman” is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.

As a poet I love when form enacts content. Jamison enacts her own proposal, wrapping up the essay in the most vulnerable, unabashed, and frankly intimate way possible: 

The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.

Jamison has put herself on the line, expressing herself with all the cliché enthusiasm this generation despises. Yes, I know, putting yourself on the line is itself a cliché. But I’ll follow her lead anyway, and like a thirteen-year-old fan girl declare it to the sky, the chat room, wherever: Leslie Jamison has become my hero. 

I was a closeted enemy of cool, and Jamison provided the catalyst for coming out.

It’s not just that she’s put her finger on the pulse of what’s making it so hard these days to be honest, but that she believes in the pulse, the heartbeat. And people are listening; every major publication I can think of in North America has published a favourable review of the collection the essay came out in, The Empathy Exams. Mary Karr writes, “This riveting book will make you a better writer, a better person.” I believe she is right. 

Before reading Leslie Jamison I’d been blindly pushing up against apathy with a clumsy attempt at honesty, always peppered by the fear of being uncool or easily dismissed. But my honesty is uncool. That’s a fact. I am uncertain, excessive, easily confused, and fluctuate between self-doubt and pop-star-like bravado. I cry when things are pretty, and wholeheartedly think Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” is one of the finest songs this age has produced. I say things like this all the time. I change my mind about them just as frequently. I mean it all without the slightest degree of irony. 

Honesty is a scary thing to embrace; like the characters in GIRLS I’ve been afraid of showing a very hip world my very unhip messiness and enthusiasm. But it’s because of women like Leslie Jamison that this past year in writing and living has been the finest and richest of my life so far. As Jamison would want it, my heart is open. I mean that. 


ROBIN RICHARDSON's latest book is Knife Throwing through Self-Hypnosis (2013).

WHAT TO READ NEXT: “The pause in my reading means my next play will be at least a little stupider than it might’ve been.”