In the five far-ranging, multipart essays that make up her profound, often piercing new book Thin Skin: Essays, Jenn Shapland moves between numerous weighty topics—turning a curious eye upon everything from capitalism to nuclear power to climate change to personal identity—and draws connections only to tear them apart in her exploration of “the idea of our utter physical enmeshment with every other being on the planet.”
“To dig in the earth disturbs and destroys, but it also unearths, aerates,” Shapland writes. “To what extent is my own research a form of extractivism, a digging and unearthing that is painful to me, to the people I interview, to the people I tell about what I learn, to you?”
Despite this pain, Shapland dons a tall stack of writerly hats—historian, memoirist, naturist, harbinger—and sets what she discovers against the backdrop of her own life, as in her critically acclaimed My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Sometimes there is affirmation of her lived experiences; more often, such personal application raises additional questions about what she and we have been taught to be correct, true, acceptable.
In the titular “Thin Skin,” Shapland shares that a dermatological condition requires her to “build up my skin each day to face the world,” but New Mexico, where she lives with her partner, Chelsea, and their cats, has caused her sensitivities to flare. No wonder: Multiple fascinating, devastating interviews discuss Los Alamos National Laboratory and the poisonous radioactive waste that now lurks within the state’s beautiful landscape. And in “The Toomuchness,” she examines her own culpability in perpetuating capitalism, gazing at her jampacked closet and its resident moths as she considers, “Why is private property, accumulation, the only way to see our relationship with the world?”
Shapland interrogates other aspects of the personal and the political throughout, such as in “The Meaning of Life,” where she asks why having children is still a societal default, pointing out that “children are part of the system that entrenches us in capitalist striving and labor production and endless competition.” As in all of her Thin Skin essays, Shapland challenges readers to broaden their perspective and perhaps even join her in being thin-skinned, in order “to feel keenly, to perceive things that might go unseen, unnoticed, that others might prefer not to notice.”