Journalist Leigh Cowart is not just a researcher and science writer: They're an inveterate, high-sensation-seeking masochist. Here Cowart explores their own pursuit of pain alongside ultra-marathoners, competitive eaters, BDSM practitioners and others driven by a desire for intense feeling.
... eye-opening ... Beyond plumbing their personal past, the author also engages in what might be called gonzo science writing. They dive into one excruciating situation after another (a polar bear plunge, a chili pepper-eating contest), and things go hilariously awry ... The author is especially good at describing escalating pain: just when you think a passage has reached a crescendo, Mx. Cowart ups the ante with some new turn of phrase. More than once, I found myself sucking in my breath and feeling my feet tingle as some new horror unfolded on the page. I especially enjoyed the chapter on extreme running ... Overall, the chapter is a beautiful reflection on the capacity for human endurance, and for pushing yourself beyond what you thought possible. It’s also wickedly funny ... Yet this running chapter does highlight a problem with the author’s objective to find masochists everywhere they looked ... That said, this book makes a far better case for the importance of pain in dance or athletics than I expected ... There’s more than a bit of an exhibitionist streak ... But the author largely sidesteps that danger and has produced a thoughtful, funny, and at times lyrical look at pain and its deeper human meaning.
Hurts So Good often left me frustrated, not so much by failing to answer Cowart’s questions but by regularly approaching them in predictable and unsatisfying ways. Again and again Cowart hovers around intriguing psychological and scientific ideas but then turns to an expert for what ends up being an unilluminating conversation, sometimes conducted over email ... Recycling—of phrases, questions and needless expletives that turn an otherwise engaging conversational voice into what feels like someone texting a friend or sounding off on Twitter—distracts from a deeply vulnerable book with memorable moments ... There are also questions Cowart doesn’t ask but probably should ... a first book by a promising writer who never quite answers their own question: 'What do you picture when you picture a masochist?'
Cowart’s persistent reliance on [certain] descriptors and turns of phrase gives the impression that many of these pieces were originally written as articles for different outlets, yet for the most part they hang together. Even as the language used to describe masochistic activities becomes familiar, sometimes calcifying into cliché, the activities themselves surprise by their variety ... the book scrupulously avoids talking about people’s racial identities so it’s hard to tell for certain how many racial minorities are discussed. This is the book’s biggest weakness: for race to go entirely unmentioned is to give the impression that racial differences are incidental to the experience of pain. This is far from the case ... it’s all well and good to remember that a host of cultural, environmental, and genetic factors play into why some people willingly participate in painful activities. Yet the past two years of the pandemic have also made abundantly clear that the experience of pain is thoroughly inflected by race and further entrenches extant hierarchies. There is a long history of subjugated individuals whose pain has never even been validated as such.