Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein

By Lynette G. Esposito
Are you in pain?  Its 2020 and maybe there is a need for a qualified author to discuss this issue.  Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein and published by Bellevue Press does just that. Olstein redefines the understanding of pain through an extended lyrical essay that includes poetry, conversation and perceptions of pain.
The opening chapter begins with:
                            All pain is simple.  And all pain complex. You’re in it and
                            you want to get out.  How can the ocean be not beautiful
                            Pain is pain:  vivid even in its opacity, vague even in its
                            precision.  Pain reduces and expands, diminishes and
                            amplifies, bears down upon us, wells up within us, goes by
                            the as often as by my, and only rarely by our. 
The next paragraph uses the words: “Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck as Olstein begins to describe the birthing of her child.  This honesty about birth pain alerts the reader that this is a no holds bared author and the discussion of pain will be real. Starkly refreshing, this honesty brings the reader close to the writer as well as to the subject of pain in an intimate way women have with other women who have given birth and endured the choices of how to give birth and how to handle the pain.  Her style of writing is crystal clear and although the subject is pain, it is like watching a rider and horse jumping rope:  fascinating.
In thirty-eight short chapters comprising 181 pages, Olstein explores the notion of pain with a variety of writing styles. Her creative nonfiction employs personal revelations such as her birthing experience, conversations about pain and poetic techniques.  In chapter thirteen she refers to Antiphon the Sophist in the late fifth-century B.C. who suggests people should not fear dreams and was criticized for this philosophy.  He is believed to have written a treatise The Art of Freedom from Pain.  Olstein explores the surviving fragments of Antiphon’s discussions and expands the discussion into chapter fourteen discussing the language used by Antiphon and other Sophists concerning pain. In chapter fifteen she brings the reader into the present with her neurologist attempting to define migraine pain.  Pain is old, pain is new, pain is present she seems to observe.  She explores how we are trying to avoid it as well as understand it. Some of the interpretations read like poetry; some like analysis, and some like a conversation with a therapist.
 On page 151, Olstein talks about perception and how it affects us in attempting to make sense of the world.  She quotes Jonah Lehrer a science writer and one-time lab technician who suggests that the brain is redefining cellular forecasts.  The wide scope of her references opens the discussion of pain to a broad spectrum…perhaps too broad.
She ends the book with a poem on hearing voices.  This technique to end a full-length creative nonfiction essay this way is a little risky to bring the discussion to closure.  If the intent was to leave the discussion at an open door, I think this technique succeeds.
 Olstein teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and has authored four award-winning poetry collections published by Copper Canyon Press.  She is a member of the poetry faculty at the University of Texas at Austin where she teaches in the New Writers Project and Michener Center for Writers MFA programs.  She also serves as an associate editor for Topeka Quarterly.  Pain Studies is her first book of creative nonfiction. For further reference, the author’s website is LISA OLSTEIN

Pain Studies is available in March 2020 from Consortium Book Sales and Distribution or


Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.




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