The Hamilton Spectator

Pieces of Her

Exploring the contradict­ions of life as a writer, new mother and ex-wife.


WE LIVE IN A GOLDEN AGE of autobiogra­phical women’s writing. Real equality in publishing is still elusive, but the straight male inner world that was so meticulous­ly, relentless­ly documented in prizewinni­ng books of the past century, from Roth to Styron to Ford, has been forced at last from its position of unchalleng­ed supremacy. In its place has arisen a group of brilliant women,

inclusive of trans women, with their own ideas for the form, among them Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, Valeria Luiselli, Margo Jefferson, Alison Bechdel, Rachel Cusk, Carina Chocano — and Leslie Jamison.

Jamison, now 40, is the author of a new memoir called “Splinters.” It tells the story of her divorce and first years as a single mother. In her previous books, the finest of which remains “The Empathy Exams” (2014), Jamison often used hybrid forms, crossing autobiogra­phy with journalism and essays; in “Splinters,” however, as if the urgency of motherhood has retired the need for those inflecting techniques, she tells her tale straightfo­rwardly.

Neverthele­ss, her true subject has stayed intact: the tormented ambiguity of all action, ethical and aesthetic and personal, and the consequent divisions of the self, what Virginia Woolf called the “butterfly shades” of consciousn­ess. “One piece of me said, It’s unbearable,” Jamison writes about being apart from her baby. “The other piece said, It’s fine. Both pieces were lying. Nothing was fine, and nothing was unbearable.”

As “Splinters” begins, Jamison and her husband, “C,” are in the initial stages of

CHARLES FINCH is the author, most recently, of “What Just Happened,” a chronicle of 2020. their separation: “At drop-offs, as I stood with the baby in the stroller beside me, he called from the vestibule, Why don’t you eat something, you anorexic bitch. Or he said, Don’t you [expletive] talk to me. When I said, Please don’t speak to me like that, he leaned closer to say, I can speak to you however I [expletive] want.” In another drop-off scene he spits at her.

This is bitter proof of how monstrous love can turn. But Jamison, whose powerful mind is geared toward dialectic, finds as ballast for that injury an immense, nuanced, often physical hope in her newborn daughter. “Sometimes I felt the baby belonged to me absolutely,” she writes. “Sometimes when she lay sleeping beside me in her bassinet, I ran my fingers along my scar in the darkness: the thick stitches, the shelf of skin above like an overhang of rock. It was just a slit that led to my own insides, but it felt like a gateway to another world. The place she’d come from.”

Soon, Jamison returns ambivalent­ly to teaching (“I never felt doubled. I felt more like half a mother, half a teacher”) and begins seeing new men (whom, like “C,” she calls by distancing nicknames — “the tumbleweed,” “the ex-philosophe­r” — as if to declare the privacy of her reflection­s from them). “Splinters” is about how she is fragmented — splintered — into these different selves. “Part of me yearned for my daughter,” she writes. “But another part of me wanted only to be a woman on an open highway — with her feet on the dashboard and a man’s hand on her thigh.”

Jamison’s subject is the tormented ambiguity of all action and the consequent divisions of the self.

THE RECENT HIGH-WATER MARK for this kind of book is probably “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness” (2021), by Claire Vaye Watkins, a blazing comet of an autobiogra­phical novel, which is also about motherhood. “Splinters” doesn’t possess its energy or drive; Jamison’s “The Recovering” (2018), a dense and courageous book about her alcoholism, did, but this is a more cautious, mercurial project.

Perhaps that’s because it shows an author in transition, not just a person. Jamison’s excellent prose has always retained the aura of the M.F.A. — the sacral feelings about writing as a vocation, the incredibly careful similes, as if a firing squad awaited each one in judgment. In some lines of “Splinters” (“That summer, I was invited to a literary festival on Capri”) this style threatens to give way under the weight of the book’s scarcely acknowledg­ed privilege. Yet at other times, Jamison finds a voice that is wilder, angrier, funnier, free. “Lush milk nights and rumpled clothes,” she writes with fraught joy, in one of the many moments in “Splinters” that act as a passport directly into the experience of motherhood, “chapped lips and soaked bras.”

For a long time, “woman writer” was an epithet in literary culture. Jamison and her peers are something much subtler: writers investigat­ing womanhood as a category in the world, a way of being perceived, a set of challenges and fears. In part, the subject of this beautiful, bitterswee­t memoir is the pressure of that task. “It’s true that I didn’t want her to be away from me, even for a moment,” Jamison writes of her daughter during her hospital stay after giving birth. “But it’s also true that once she was gone, I pulled out my laptop.”


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