THE OTHER SIDE: a powerful portrait of rape and recovery

I am re-posting my August 2014 review of Lacy Johnson’s THE OTHER SIDE in response to her moving Facebook posts about her experiences coping with Hurricane Harvey this week. Johnson lives in West Houston and teaches at the University of Houston, and her daily open letters have provided a detailed, eloquent, and very empathetic view of Houstonians’ struggles during and after one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the U.S. I encourage you to read her posts and then to buy and read her remarkable memoir.

lacy-johnson   the-other-side

The Other Side: a memoir

By Lacy M. Johnson

Tin House; July 15, 2014

$15.95, 219 pages

In a time when the issue of violence against women has once again become part of the common conversation, with Republican politicians and pundits expressing dismaying lack of knowledge and sensitivity about rape and women’s sexuality, Lacy Johnson’s new memoir, The Other Side, is a blast of reality therapy, a potent dose of The Truth.

On July 5, 2000, when Lacy Johnson was a 21-year-old college student, she was kidnapped and raped by the man she had recently broken up with. The Suspect, as she calls him, had planned his revenge carefully, renting a basement apartment and soundproofing a bedroom in order to torture the young woman who had grown tired of his physical abuse and dared to leave him. Although The Suspect had chained her with U-bolts to a primitive, handmade chair  in the room with blue Styrofoam walls, Johnson managed to escape when he left briefly and drove herself to the police station.

While The Other Side starts with her escape and the beginning of the police investigation, the bulk of the book concerns the events leading up to that summer day 14 years ago and her attempt to recover and rebuild her shattered psyche.

How did she come to fall in love with, and eventually live with, a sociopath? Perhaps because he was her Spanish teacher at the local university, a graduate student and TA who was “twice the age of his students, at least.” Later, a professor in the Spanish department will describe him as “erratic and disorganized as a scholar, but affable, a gifted, erratic dilettante.” Such a man could well be appealing to a certain type of  young woman. Johnson makes clear that, like many otherwise intelligent young people, she made many poor decisions.

Johnson discusses her sexual and romantic past and her erratic lifestyle without sugar coating events or offering any apologies. She does not claim to be an innocent, inexperienced young woman. But the point, of course, is that none of this is at all relevant to the crimes committed against her. Johnson was not “asking for it.” As we observe The Suspect and learn more about him, we see clearly that his abuse of Johnson both during and after their relationship is about wielding power ruthlessly.

While the story she tells is, sadly, hardly unique, it is the manner of her telling that makes The Other Side one of the most riveting reads you are likely to experience this year. Johnson assumes the coolly removed voice of a detective or journalist in telling much of her story. She refers to those involved as The Female Officer, The Detective, My Good Friend, My Handsome Friend (the man she was dating at the time of her abduction), and My Older Sister. After she breaks up with The Spanish Teacher, he becomes The Man I Used to Live With and, later, The Suspect. She alternates between an objective, almost hard-boiled retelling of the case involving The Suspect and The Victim, and a brutally honest personal narrative that will have you spellbound, holding your breath for pages at a time. This is a book best devoured in a single sitting, if you can handle the intensity.

What follows the kidnapping and rape are a frustrating series of events. The Suspect returns to the apartment before the police arrive and finds Johnson gone, withdraws a large amount of cash from an ATM, and flees to Mexico. This is just the start of his journey to avoid arrest. As the local police captain says six days after the crime, when the case has expanded to involve an international pursuit, “He’s a very intelligent individual who is scaring me.”

Johnson writes beautifully and with a philosophical bent about the aftermath of that July day. She is confronted by a range of emotional and physical responses, some of which make sense and some of which perplex even her educated, introspective mind, but she copes as best she can. The story of her attempts to overcome the experience and transform herself into someone not defined by it is difficult to read yet gripping nonetheless.

Her psychological state in the weeks and months following her rape is well captured in this description of her visit to a psychiatrist. “The Psychiatrist tells me to take the blue pill for depression and anxiety and the white pill for lack of appetite. The yellow pill is for forgetting: it puts me to sleep so long without dreaming I forget to wake up. I forget what my name is. I forget where I live.

“I know it’s the blue pill that makes all the feeling go away because I start taking it first. And by feeling, I mean feel-like: I do not feel like getting out of bed. Or like getting dressed, or drinking water, or eating food. I can’t keep food down anyway. I do not feel like puking my guts out so I do not eat. I do not feel like going to work. Or like walking alone from my car, across the parking lot, now or ever again. The editor at the literary magazine where I am an intern calls and wants to know where the banner ad is and I say I’m sorry; I’m a little behind on that. I’ve had some personal issues lately. The editor says, Your issues are not my issues. Get it done today. Maybe he thinks I am faking it. Am I faking it? I do not feel like asking this question. Or like being awake. I do not feel like watching television or reading a book. I do not feel like watching the sun come through the blinds. I would rather feel nothing all day.”

She also discusses the self-conscious existence of the female. “That image, of the self, does not belong equally to everyone. As a woman, I must keep myself under constant surveillance: how do I look as I rise from the bed, and while I walk through the store buying groceries, and while I run with a dog in the park? From childhood I was taught to survey and police and maintain my image continually, and in this role – as both surveyor and the image that is surveyed – I learned to see myself as others see me: as an object to be viewed and evaluated, a sight.”

Johnson reclaims herself, in part, by telling her story – to herself and to others. She reminds us of the many facets of a story. Is there a story at all, just one story? “There’s the story I have, and the story he has, and there is a story the police have in Evidence. There’s the story the journalist wrote for the paper. There’s the story The Female Officer filed in her report; her story is not my story. There’s the story he must have told his mother when he called her on the phone; there’s the story she must have told herself. There’s the story you’ll have after you put down this book. It’s an endless network of stories. This story tells me who I am. It gives me meaning. And I want to mean something so badly.”

Later, “in graduate school I begin trying, in earnest, to write. I write about anything but The Man I Used to Live With…but it always comes back to him, to all that happened…. It’s the only thing that pulls me out of bed: these poems that lie and misdirect, that circle and circle all the things I can’t say out loud. Each day I begin writing, I think, This is it. Today is the day. As if typing anything other than that unthinkable thing were a kind of breaking free. Each day, as I’m sitting at my computer, watching the words accumulate on the page, I feel elated, euphoric. Look at how far I’ve come, I think. How far these words can carry me.”

Near the end of The Other Side, Johnson writes, “I’m afraid the story isn’t finished happening. Sometimes I think there is no entirely true story I could tell. Because there are some things I just don’t know, and other things I just can’t say. Which is not a failure of memory but of language.”

The Other Side is anything but a failure. The fact of Lacy Johnson’s telling and the manner of her telling it constitute a triumph over others’ attempts to control her life and the stories she tells herself and us. The Other Side is a viscerally powerful, gorgeously written memoir about rape and recovery that readers will not soon forget – in part because they are likely to read about it being nominated for, and winning, much-deserved literary awards in the coming year.

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Memoirist Alexis Paige: On Manuscript Re-entry, Narrative Nonfiction, and Re-visiting Craft Basics

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Photo: Ben DeFlorio Photography 


By Alexis Paige

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts

For more years than I care to admit, I have been working on a memoir about my unlikely journey through the Texas criminal justice system, including a 60-day stint in the Harris County Jail, one of the largest and worst in the country, with a terrible record of inmate sexual assaults, in-custody deaths, and violations of health and sanitation standards. I say unlikely because I am white, educated, middle-class, and have good teeth. All these factors marked me as an oddity in the jail, but I was told by my pod-mates at some point weeks into my sentence that the combination of my whiteness and nice teeth in particular marked me as suspicious, possibly a narc. I started the memoir long before I knew what I was doing and became so mired by the labor that I began to write little scenes and vignettes for relief, to feel a sense of accomplishment. The vignettes became their own labor, for in them I found myself finally confronting the sexual assault I had buried like a drum of nuclear waste and stored in some Area 51 of my own consciousness. In sidestepping one book, I found myself writing another.

But now that this other book is about to be published, it’s time to re-enter the jail manuscript, and re-entry, unfortunately, is not at all like riding a bike, not a simple matter of picking up where I left off. I am different now than I was even 18 months ago when I set the book aside, which is to say that the memoir’s retrospective narrator is different, the vantage point altered. You become the writer you need to be to finish the book, my MFA mentor David Mura once said. I didn’t ask him what happens if you don’t become that writer. I’m not certain where this becoming has located me now in relation to my memoir project, but something palpable has shifted. In rereading the draft recently, much of it felt off—not the events of the story, nor, I don’t think, the structure, but some tonal nuance, some quality of insight. In the hopes of steeling myself for the task, I decided to go back to basics and to re-read two of my favorite creative nonfiction craft books, Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Sven Birkert’s The Art of Time in Memoir.

For the writer of narrative nonfiction and other storytellers, The Situation and the Story is a revelation. Every other sentence is something that needs to be written down, remembered, revisited, and made into a writer’s tattoo. So much clarity and insight and depth are distilled into this small volume. It is the clarity I especially admire; it has the quality of carefully brewed wisdom, and inspires the feeling that we are getting her best stuff.

In important ways, Gornick’s ideas about the different components of nonfiction narrative—the situation and the story—dovetail with Sven Birkerts’ ideas in The Art of Time in Memoir. Though he talks about time, and she largely about person or persona (the nonfiction narrator), both writers are engaged in a complex discussion of structure, or of what Gornick calls “organizing principle.” Both writers, I think, are interested in the way in which good nonfiction emerges from a place of contact, collision, force acting upon force. Whether concerned with persona or time, we must not render a flat self or a flat experience. The voice and the events must rise out of an important shaping force, a kind of texturizing pressure, a place of axis as a place of access.

One of Birkerts’ examples of the important friction that time provides is in an analysis of Annie Dillard’s lyrical memoir, An American Childhood. The explicated passage is a nighttime scene of sense and felt memory as narrated by Dillard’s child self from her childhood bedroom. Birkerts writes, “The author here enacts in compressed form [that it is compression seems important] what the memoirist more commonly works out on the macroscale, namely, the collision of original perception and hindsight realization: the revision of the then by the now” (37). It is this place of collision that he highlights again and again, the place (or time) where story meets the apprehension of story.

Gornick uses different terms, but I would suggest that she examines fundamentally the same phenomenon—how friction makes the magic of narrative nonfiction (principles, which of course, apply to all storytelling). “The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void,” Gornick writes. “The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, and experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts” (14). It seems that each is talking about this critical engagement—whether engagement with self or experience or time. Both writers assert a fundamental truth about writing, namely, that writing is art making, much like sculpture or painting; to locate narrative or self is to locate the right place/time/self of the story and the right place/time/self of the telling of that story. The right juncture, perhaps. This location must be one of moment and of movement—not in any traditional sense of drama—but in the mind of the memoirist. I suspect this location has changed for me now, and I need to locate some new juncture in my ever-becoming mind. The goal of the memoir, perhaps, is to find the wormhole from now to then; the problem, of course, is that the now is always moving.

What we remember has intrinsic force and value to us, but the force and value of the memory is driven by its active apprehension of that memory in the now of its rendering. My writing is never flatter than when memory is unearthed by way of a kind of forced dredging. Engagement might come in the form of a self in conflict or a time of conflict, but story can’t emerge from static experience or a static self. In re-entering my memoir, in particular the skin of the retrospective narrator who was cryogenically frozen in 2014, I have found that the fit is off. So how does a writer re-engage in order to make art? Confronting the narrative forces of time and persona, and re-calibrating my narrative persona to one of this writing moment, to this now, I hope, will make the difference. I need to start again, which is not to say that I need to start from scratch.

In the beginning of her book, Gornick takes the reader to a funeral, wherein eulogy after boring eulogy stretch on without texture or meaning—that is, until we come upon a story shared by a woman who spoke of the complexity of her relationship with the deceased. The difference between the stories that didn’t work and the one that rose in sharp relief from the others, the story that stayed with Gornick, was that the latter “had been composed” (4). It is not experience, even dramatic experience, that makes a great story, but a writer’s shaping that makes a story. On this point, I think that Birkerts and Gornick would agree that the shaping is the art making. “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story,” Gornick says. “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (13). If I use my own memoir as an example, I might say that the situation is this: middle-class white girl from the North gets in trouble with the law in Texas and confronts her alcohol problem in the process. But the story, the fulcrum of the experience, is the discovery or the recovery of identity amid failure. Wait, no, this was the story in some old version. Then, later, it was the story of confronting racial privilege. And now? It’s still all those things perhaps, but filtered through some newer, actively-grappling self-definition.

The situation or series of events can be anything, Gornick suggests, so long as it’s well made, so long as the situation is drawn through a compelling story. And a compelling story—emotional experience, the apprehension of experience—can be delivered only by a particular narrator, one who knows him- or herself at the time of the writing. First, the narrator must be reliable. Much is made of this reliability in nonfiction circles, but defining reliability is fraught. Do we mean a kind of competence, like a court reporter? Or do we mean something else, something akin to authenticity? Gornick suggests, by way of an example from Orwell, that a reliable narrator is one who inspires trust by admitting defect, wrestling with mixed feelings, and by rendering inner conflict. I have come to believe that this kind of narrator has tolerance for ambiguity and for his or her own unresolvedness—that trying to make sense of one’s mess is what makes the work interesting.

In response to Orwell’s reflection on the ugliness of imperialism, Gornick writes, “The man who speaks those sentences is the story being told: a civilized man made murderous by the situation he finds himself in” (16). Gornick argues that the reliable narrator must implicate him or herself; it is by the act of self-implication that we come to know and trust the persona of the story.

Interestingly, she distinguishes the narrator’s persona from the writer him- or herself, much in the way we distinguish the speaker of a poem from the poet, but I find the use of the word persona paradoxical. Persona suggests a construct, something not real. Perhaps this paradox fuels some of the wonderful friction out of which stories are made. Of course, as a practical matter, the writer must construct a narrator, a persona, in order to win over the disinterested reader. The writer can’t be all of her selves; Gornick points out that our real selves, all of our selves accumulated, are just boring and whiny. We save these selves—all of them in their accumulated banality—for our dear, patient friends and family.

Gornick draws some other important connections between writerly concerns and personae. She writes about style and persona, about persona rising from a kind of stylized, yet authentic, self. As in the case of Orwell, she writes, “the persona he created in his nonfiction—an essence of democratic decency—was something genuine that he pulled from himself, and then shaped to his writer’s purpose” (17). That this something was genuine seems an important point to make.  The other concerns she has us consider in terms of creating a narrator include distance and subject. She suggests that her own lack of narrative distance sank her early drafts of a memoir about Egypt. She was too close; therefore, there was no movement, no arrival at clarity.

Finally, Gornick suggests the writer keep in mind the “disinterested reader” to avoid the trap of memoir as therapy, testament, or mere transcription (again, these are pitfalls Birkerts has observed). She writes, “the shaped presentation of one’s own life is of value to the disinterested reader only if it dramatizes and reflects sufficiently on the experience of ‘becoming’: undertakes to trace the internal movement away from the murk of being told who you are by the accident of circumstance toward the clarity that identifies accurately the impulses of the self that Cather calls inviolable” (93). This movement toward clarity helps me to think about my own project because I realize that I have to re-enter the manuscript now and move toward a newer, fresher clarity so that the reader can experience “becoming” along with me. As Gornick points out, “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom” (91). The door to the wormhole has moved, even if only slightly, and I need to line up the portals once again in order to find the story. Re-entry, like everything else, is just a matter of time, work, and physics.


Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including New Madrid Journal, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Her essay, “The Right to Remain,” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology, was featured on Longform, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize and twice a top-ten finalist of Glamour magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. Her first book, a collection of lyric essays, Not a Place on Any Map, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published on December 5, 2016. Paige teaches writing at colleges and universities throughout New England and writes from a converted farmhouse pantry in rural Vermont, where she lives with her husband, and their two dogs, Jazz and George. She can be found at alexispaigewrites.com.

Author Lisa Lenzo on turning real life into stories: Is it fiction or nonfiction?

Lisa Lenzo beach  Strange Love

THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. Congratulations to Lori in Oscoda, Michigan!

WIN A SIGNED COPY OF STRANGE LOVE! Share Lisa Lenzo’s essay on Facebook or Twitter by using the links at the bottom of this post. Then leave a comment below with your Twitter handle or email so I can contact you if you win. The winner will be chosen randomly on Sunday, November 30.

Raised in Detroit, Lisa Lenzo now lives in southwestern Michigan, where she drives and dispatches for the local bus company and writes. Lenzo’s first story collection, Within the Lighted City, was chosen by Ann Beattie for an Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press. Lenzo’s second story collection, Strange Love, was published by Wayne State University Press through their Made in Michigan Writers Series in May of 2014.

Lenzo’s short fiction and essays have appeared in The Mississippi Review Prize Issue, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Italian-American Reader, Birth: A Literary Guide, Sacred Ground: Stories About Home, and Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes. One of Lenzo’s stories won a Hemingway Days Festival Award and another was chosen for a PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award and read on NPR. She has recently finished a novel, Taking the Blue Star, which made the top twelve for the 2012 James Jones First Novel Award. “Strays,” one of the highlights of Strange Love, was the winner of the 2013 story contest sponsored by The Georgetown Review.

Once I handed a story I’d written to my mom saying, “Don’t worry, Mom, this isn’t about our family.” I’d pared my four brothers down to just one. The family was still wealthy and white and living in the inner city of Detroit, but I’d turned my doctor father into a college professor. My mom gripped the manuscript I’d handed her and began reading it fast. She hadn’t gotten through a full page before she looked up at me and said, “If this isn’t our family, then what are our forsythia bushes doing in here?”

Of course, most readers don’t know the details of my background like my mother does. Yet I’ve had people who’ve just met me say they can tell that my stories are autobiographical.

A lot of writers narrow their eyes, stiffen their shoulders, and take this stance: “It’s fiction.” And then they don’t elaborate. They don’t say another word. But who is going to believe me if I claim, “That’s someone else’s double above-the-knee amputee brother who lost his legs in a cardboard box crusher, not mine?” I mean, there’s just not that many, if any, other brothers out there fitting that description. Sure, I could turn Kris into a paraplegic and put him in a car accident instead, but then I’d have to forfeit a lot of interesting details from real life, such as how a Vietnam vet who happened to be working at the job site saved Kris’s life by winding wires around Kris’s thighs and torquing them with sticks, and how, during the unsuccessful operations to save his legs, Kris’s body was transfused with twenty-two pints of blood. And if I turn Kris into a paraplegic in my fiction, leaving him with his legs intact yet non-functioning, I’d have to give up Kris wheeling down the street toward some kid who blurts out, “What happened to your legs?” and Kris leaning in to the boy’s ear and whispering, “Sharks.”

My new novel-in-stories, Strange Love, is as autobiographical as anything I’ve written. It’s about a mother and her daughter and their relationships with men and boys. Before it was accepted for publication, an editor of the press that wanted to acquire it called me up and said, “I have to ask you a question.”

“Go ahead,” I answered.

“Is it fiction or nonfiction?”

“It’s fiction,” I said. “It’s autobiographical, but it’s fiction.”

“Good,” she said. “That’s what I thought.”

A little later in our conversation, this editor, who is also a playwright, said, “What people really say is better than what you can make up.” We went on to agree, though, that it’s when your imagination riffs on real dialogue that magic happens. We start with odd and inimitable bits of what we say and hear, and then, like jazz musicians, we embellish and improvise, we reach for something higher. This is just as true of other aspects of realistic literature—certain settings, characters, and events are also better when they are transformed.

Yet it seems that readers are so thirsty for the truth that they like to believe that realistic fictional stories occurred just as they are written. When I’ve tried to show readers that I’ve made up more than they thought, when I’ve picked apart a story, telling a class or reading audience, this is true and this is not, they always seem a bit deflated when I’m finished. It’s as if I’ve dissected a living thing before their eyes to show them how it was put together, and sure, now they see how it was made, but the living thing they liked is dead.

My brother Anthony once said about a family scene in which I’d made up every bit of action and all but one sentence of dialogue, “I remember that.”

“You do not!” I protested. “I worked hard on that!”

Of course, it’s also hard work to write solely from the real; it’s both laborious and tricky to choose from among the thousands of possible actual details, to untangle them from the parts you don’t want to include, and to decide how best to arrange and frame them. Before I begin to write a particular piece, I ask myself, Should this be fiction or non-fiction? Do I want to have access to fiction’s greater freedom, or do I want to hold onto that extra weight and power a story manifests if it is strong enough un-re-imagined, because then the reader reads it thinking, This really happened. When I was eighteen, I took off to live in the woods with just my dog, and in the following weeks, three boys were murdered in two separate incidents less than a mile from my campsite. I decided to write that story just as it happened.

On the other hand, sometimes a greater truth can be revealed through fiction than by sticking to the facts. In a story from my first collection, set during the ’67 Detroit riots, a white father is arguing with two white policemen who have stopped a thirteen-year-old black boy who was simply walking down the street where the boy, modeled on a neighbor, and the man, based on my father, both live. In real life, all of the policemen who patrolled our neighborhood during that riot rode with their high-powered rifles sticking out the windows of their cars, but neither of these two cops, while I was watching from our front porch, aimed his rifle at our young black neighbor, which is how I wrote it in my story. Sure, I chose to write it like that partly because it gives the story greater tension. But I also wanted to honor a larger truth. By having the cop point his rifle at David’s back, I bring to life, for a brief moment, the forty-three people who died during those three days of police and National Guard occupation, most of whom were black boys and men who were shot while fleeing. By pointing to this fictional boy with the tip of a policeman’s rifle, I point to all the living boys and men who were gunned down.

My greatest struggle with writing about real people, whether in fiction or nonfiction, is that I am exposing, to varying degrees, people who might not want their lives exposed. I don’t have to worry about this too much with my daughter Cloey, who is something of an exhibitionist when it comes to appearing in my work. For years she said some version of these words to me: “You wrote one story about me when I was a baby. Then you wrote a couple more when I was a little kid. And then you stopped. When are you going to write another story about me?”

When she was in her early twenties, she said, “C’mon, Mom, when are you going to write about my teenage years?”

“When I’ve recovered from them,” I told her.

At the time, I was divorced and in the midst of writing stories about my dating life. I would come home from another strange and disappointing yet humorous date and think: “This is ridiculous. This is hilarious. I’ve got to write this down.” After I’d turned a bunch of journal entries into three stories about a divorced mother, I saw that several more stories would make a collection. I ended up with five long stories, which I showed to my writing group. They asked for “more Marly,” the character based on Cloey, who at that point appeared only in the mother’s stories and only briefly. So I cut the length of each of the mother’s five stories by half and gave Marly–and Cloey–four stories of her own.

I didn’t ask Cloey’s permission about what to include, so when she read the finished stories and told me she liked them, I was relieved. But what about the men in Strange Love? I wasn’t in touch with any of them anymore, and I didn’t want to look them up. Besides, I decided long ago that I have the right to write about my own life, and, of necessity, that pulls in the lives of others, since our lives overlap and intersect. I can’t write woman-meets-men stories without including the men. And the man on whom the title story is based had sat beside me on my couch one night while reading “his” story right after I first wrote it, and, rather than objecting, as I feared he would, he laughed a lot. I had included a lot of personal information about him, yet I hadn’t revealed any secrets.

There’s a whole storehouse in my brain of dark and fragile things various people have told me through the years that I’ve marked off limits and which I haven’t repeated in words, either spoken or written, and never will, without their consent. Still, I feel uneasy at times about the men I have included in my love stories without much camouflage or their permission. On the night I was told that Wayne State University Press was going to send me an advance contract for Strange Love, I went to sleep feeling troubled and sorry for these flawed yet decent men whom I would be, to an extent, exposing. But in the middle of the night I woke up with this thought in my head, spoken in the dialect of the neighborhood where I grew up: Motherfuckers should have known not to mess with a writer. Perhaps something to that effect should be printed on a T-shirt for me to wear, or else tattooed on my neck, just below my smile.

Sometimes the line gets blurred between my fiction and nonfiction, sometimes intentionally. I’ve entered pieces in nonfiction contests at times when there is actually a little fiction in the story. In other words, I’ve lied, although not in any big, James Frey sort of way. I did this with a piece called “Spin,” by setting all of the scenes in Detroit, when one scene actually happened in Chicago. It simply made more sense for the entire story, whether I labeled it fiction or nonfiction, to happen only in Detroit. Ironically, or maybe fittingly, this story is about truth and fiction, exaggeration and lying, the “spin” we put on what we tell, inadvertently and intentionally. (Before the fact police come knocking on my door, let me say that “Spin” is forthcoming, in the Detroit-themed issue of Transmissions, as fiction.)

Sometimes I want to throw my hands up and say, What does it matter what I call it or how I write it? But of course these questions and demarcations are important. Yet to what degree remains unclear, at least for me. So then how should I proceed?

I haven’t arrived at any resounding ethical or creative conclusions. I’ll likely be struggling with how to approach my fiction and nonfiction for the rest of my writing life. And each answer, like each story, novel, memoir or essay, will be individualized, unique. So I continue to stumble along with my pen flowing across the page and my fingers tapping on the keys, and then I try to reshape what I wrote into the truth as I know it. Sometimes the result is fiction; at other times, it’s nonfiction. Either way, I’m trying to say, in the best way I can, what I know and what I think is worth telling.

Women sweep inaugural Kirkus Book Prizes; Lily King wins fiction award for EUPHORIA

Lily King

Lily King was named the winner of the first Kirkus Prize for fiction for her fourth novel, Euphoria, based on an incident in the life of groundbreaking anthropologist Margaret Mead. In a ceremony held in Austin on October 23, Kirkus Reviews, a publishing trade magazine much relied-upon by booksellers, critics, and others for its advance reviews, awarded prizes for Fiction, Nonfiction, and Young People’s Literature. [My review of Euphoria is here. Lily King’s essay on her uniquely hand-crafted writing process, published just this Monday, Oct. 20, is here.]

Roz Chast, a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker, won the Nonfiction prize for her illustrated memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Her book made the shortlist for the National Book Award, which will be awarded on November 15.

Kate Samworth won the Young People’s Literature award for her unique creation, Aviary Wonders, Inc: Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual, in which readers can order a custom-made bird.

The three authors will each receive a $50,000 prize, one of the richest in literature.

The judges raved about Euphoria, lauding its “perfect construction, its economy and originality, and its fearlessness.” Chast’s memoir stood out for its  “heartbreaking beauty” and her use of “cartoons, family photos, sketches, documents and text to explore a profoundly human issue: the death of one’s parents.” And Samworth’s inventive book, intended for children 8-11 years old was called “by far one of the most creative books we have ever encountered.”

Kirkus fiction editor Laurie Muchnick explained that the fiction prize judges “wanted to find a book that they could recommend to everybody they knew, one they all loved and that they wanted to press on people.”

THE OTHER SIDE: a powerful portrait of rape and recovery

lacy-johnson   the-other-side

The Other Side: a memoir

By Lacy M. Johnson

Tin House; July 15, 2014

$15.95, 219 pages

In a time when the issue of violence against women has once again become part of the common conversation, with Republican politicians and pundits expressing dismaying lack of knowledge and sensitivity about rape and women’s sexuality, Lacy Johnson’s new memoir, The Other Side, is a blast of reality therapy, a potent dose of The Truth.

On July 5, 2000, when Lacy Johnson was a 21-year-old college student, she was kidnapped and raped by the man she had recently broken up with. The Suspect, as she calls him, had planned his revenge carefully, renting a basement apartment and soundproofing a bedroom in order to torture the young woman who had grown tired of his physical abuse and dared to leave him. Although The Suspect had chained her with U-bolts to a primitive, handmade chair  in the room with blue Styrofoam walls, Johnson managed to escape when he left briefly and drove herself to the police station.

While The Other Side starts with her escape and the beginning of the police investigation, the bulk of the book concerns the events leading up to that summer day 14 years ago and her attempt to recover and rebuild her shattered psyche.

How did she come to fall in love with, and eventually live with, a sociopath? Perhaps because he was her Spanish teacher at the local university, a graduate student and TA who was “twice the age of his students, at least.” Later, a professor in the Spanish department will describe him as “erratic and disorganized as a scholar, but affable, a gifted, erratic dilettante.” Such a man could well be appealing to a certain type of  young woman. Johnson makes clear that, like many otherwise intelligent young people, she made many poor decisions.

Johnson discusses her sexual and romantic past and her erratic lifestyle without sugar coating events or offering any apologies. She does not claim to be an innocent, inexperienced young woman. But the point, of course, is that none of this is at all relevant to the crimes committed against her. Johnson was not “asking for it.” As we observe The Suspect and learn more about him, we see clearly that his abuse of Johnson both during and after their relationship is about wielding power ruthlessly.

While the story she tells is, sadly, hardly unique, it is the manner of her telling that makes The Other Side one of the most riveting reads you are likely to experience this year. Johnson assumes the coolly removed voice of a detective or journalist in telling much of her story. She refers to those involved as The Female Officer, The Detective, My Good Friend, My Handsome Friend (the man she was dating at the time of her abduction), and My Older Sister. After she breaks up with The Spanish Teacher, he becomes The Man I Used to Live With and, later, The Suspect. She alternates between an objective, almost hard-boiled retelling of the case involving The Suspect and The Victim, and a brutally honest personal narrative that will have you spellbound, holding your breath for pages at a time. This is a book best devoured in a single sitting, if you can handle the intensity.

What follows the kidnapping and rape are a frustrating series of events. The Suspect returns to the apartment before the police arrive and finds Johnson gone, withdraws a large amount of cash from an ATM, and flees to Mexico. This is just the start of his journey to avoid arrest. As the local police captain says six days after the crime, when the case has expanded to involve an international pursuit, “He’s a very intelligent individual who is scaring me.”

Johnson writes beautifully and with a philosophical bent about the aftermath of that July day. She is confronted by a range of emotional and physical responses, some of which make sense and some of which perplex even her educated, introspective mind, but she copes as best she can. The story of her attempts to overcome the experience and transform herself into someone not defined by it is difficult to read yet gripping nonetheless.

Her psychological state in the weeks and months following her rape is well captured in this description of her visit to a psychiatrist. “The Psychiatrist tells me to take the blue pill for depression and anxiety and the white pill for lack of appetite. The yellow pill is for forgetting: it puts me to sleep so long without dreaming I forget to wake up. I forget what my name is. I forget where I live.

“I know it’s the blue pill that makes all the feeling go away because I start taking it first. And by feeling, I mean feel-like: I do not feel like getting out of bed. Or like getting dressed, or drinking water, or eating food. I can’t keep food down anyway. I do not feel like puking my guts out so I do not eat. I do not feel like going to work. Or like walking alone from my car, across the parking lot, now or ever again. The editor at the literary magazine where I am an intern calls and wants to know where the banner ad is and I say I’m sorry; I’m a little behind on that. I’ve had some personal issues lately. The editor says, Your issues are not my issues. Get it done today. Maybe he thinks I am faking it. Am I faking it? I do not feel like asking this question. Or like being awake. I do not feel like watching television or reading a book. I do not feel like watching the sun come through the blinds. I would rather feel nothing all day.”

She also discusses the self-conscious existence of the female. “That image, of the self, does not belong equally to everyone. As a woman, I must keep myself under constant surveillance: how do I look as I rise from the bed, and while I walk through the store buying groceries, and while I run with a dog in the park? From childhood I was taught to survey and police and maintain my image continually, and in this role – as both surveyor and the image that is surveyed – I learned to see myself as others see me: as an object to be viewed and evaluated, a sight.”

Johnson reclaims herself, in part, by telling her story – to herself and to others. She reminds us of the many facets of a story. Is there a story at all, just one story? “There’s the story I have, and the story he has, and there is a story the police have in Evidence. There’s the story the journalist wrote for the paper. There’s the story The Female Officer filed in her report; her story is not my story. There’s the story he must have told his mother when he called her on the phone; there’s the story she must have told herself. There’s the story you’ll have after you put down this book. It’s an endless network of stories. This story tells me who I am. It gives me meaning. And I want to mean something so badly.”

Later, “in graduate school I begin trying, in earnest, to write. I write about anything but The Man I Used to Live With…but it always comes back to him, to all that happened…. It’s the only thing that pulls me out of bed: these poems that lie and misdirect, that circle and circle all the things I can’t say out loud. Each day I begin writing, I think, This is it. Today is the day. As if typing anything other than that unthinkable thing were a kind of breaking free. Each day, as I’m sitting at my computer, watching the words accumulate on the page, I feel elated, euphoric. Look at how far I’ve come, I think. How far these words can carry me.”

Near the end of The Other Side, Johnson writes, “I’m afraid the story isn’t finished happening. Sometimes I think there is no entirely true story I could tell. Because there are some things I just don’t know, and other things I just can’t say. Which is not a failure of memory but of language.”

The Other Side is anything but a failure. The fact of Lacy Johnson’s telling and the manner of her telling it constitute a triumph over others’ attempts to control her life and the stories she tells herself and us. The Other Side is a viscerally powerful, gorgeously written memoir about rape and recovery that readers will not soon forget – in part because they are likely to read about it being nominated for, and winning, much-deserved literary awards in the coming year.

Guest blogger Patry Francis: My first bookstore

Patry Francis

Patry Francis is a three time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, and has twice been the recipient of a fellowship from Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her latest book, The Orphans of Race Point, was published by Harper Perennial on May 6 to strongly positive reviews by critics and readers alike. It was chosen as a featured  alternate selection in the Late Spring cycle of the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, Book of the Month Club, and Mystery Guild. The Boston Globe chose The Orphans of Race Point as a “Summer Read” recommended for those who like Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River and is the July book club pick for MomAdviceHer first novel, The Liar’s Diary, has been translated into seven languages and was optioned for film. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.         

Usually, when I give an author talk, I start by describing the bookstore I used to visit every Saturday from the time I was about fourteen. Initially, it seemed like a somewhat arbitrary way to begin, but one of the great truths that writing reveals is that every time we open a notebook or a new document, the subconscious reveals obsessions and truths we never knew we possessed, and they are rarely arbitrary. Every revision, or in this case retelling, makes that more clear.

But back to that bookstore. In a city of a hundred thousand, it was the only one we had and it sold used books. My father said it was a front for a local bookie, which may have explained the disarray I encountered when I walked down the cement steps to the basement level where it was housed, and the air of preoccupation exuded by the proprietor. He chain smoked while he talked on the phone, allowing what was often his sole customer the run of the place. The disorganized stacks of paperbacks that cluttered the aisles and lined the musty bookshelves might have turned others away, but I entered the store in the spirit of an excavator, and never left without a great find.

When I first found myself talking about a place I hadn’t consciously remembered in decades, I focused on its seedy location and how I’d once been frightened by a man drinking from a paper bag under a bridge along the route. “What are you looking for down here, little girl?” he asked as he lunged toward me. I can still remember the fear I felt as I ran away. However, his question has also remained.

Did I know myself what drove me to walk under that bridge every Saturday, with a couple of dollars in my pocket? That bookstore, I told my audiences, was what had made me a writer.

However, as I continued to repeat the story in the various libraries and bookstores that were kind enough to have me, I saw something more clearly than the face of the man who had frightened me under the bridge. I saw the tattered covers of several books I’d discovered there, the price marked in the corner in heavy black ink:

Franny and Zooey with its no-frills white cover: 35 cents. That led me to the library where I discovered the rest of Salinger’s work.

A musty, waterstained copy of Les Miserables: 10 cents. It is still among my favorite novels.

Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was unmarked, and when I asked the price, the owner flipped through the pages. “Hell, it’s poetry,” he said, pushing it at me. “If you want to read that crap, you can have it.” I still do.

I spent a dollar on an almost new copy of The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. Though I don’t remember much of it now, there are a dozen mentions in my adolescent journals about how it changed my life.

I wasn’t sure what Man’s Search for Meaning was about, but I knew I needed it. The slim mass market paperback was in less than pristine condition, so I haggled with the owner over the price.  Though he was usually willing to negotiate, this time he set his cigarette down in the ashtray and leaned over the counter. “Priced as marked,” he bellowed. “If you don’t want it, put it back on the shelf–right where you found it, too.” As if the store had a some secret order, after all.

The pages of that book are yellow now and marked with underlinings in various inks that mark different stages in my life, but I still have that one, too. Even the price on the cover remains: 75 cents.

I had probably told the story of my first bookstore a dozen times before I realized why it had returned to me now, and what it had to do with my novel. Clearly, I had been drawn to certain themes and questions all my life. The adolescent angst Salinger depicts so well, the rage against abandonment in Plath, the belief that our essential goodness can triumph even in the worst situations which I found both in Hugo and Frankel, all show up in The Orphans of Race Point.

I rarely write autobiographical fiction, but there is a reason we are drawn repeatedly to the same thematic landscapes, whether they’re drawn directly from experience or not. Like much of the creative process, it often remains one of the mysteries of the unconscious–at least for me. But every time I relive the walk to my first bookstore, and walk down the stairs to the subterranean room where a literary excavator unearthed so much of herself, I get a little closer.

WIFE AND WAR captures the hidden costs of 9/11 and the war on terror

Wife and War   Amalie-Flynn

Wife and War

By Amalie Flynn

Self-published, Sept. 2013

409 pages, $14.95

Amalie Flynn has written a memoir that is unique in both of form and content. It is written in a distinctive prose-poetry that is intensely vivid and emotional. And the subject matter connects her experience of the events of 9/11 with her marriage to a Navy officer who was deployed to Afghanistan for 15 months. The result is a problematic work that, despite its flaws, succeeds because its accretion of details and its immersion in 10 years of her life produces a cumulative power that is undeniable.

Flynn was sitting in a law school class in Lower Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. When students’ cellphones go off in a cacophony of ringing and buzzing, they make their way outside. Standing on the corner of Worth and Church streets, only nine short blocks north of World Trade Center, Flynn sees everything — including the people who jump from the towers to avoid death by fire. When the first tower collapses, she runs from the dust cloud with thousands of other panicked New Yorkers. And like so many others, she is traumatized by both the personal experience and the mere idea of the attacks. She tries to return to school two weeks later but is unable to continue.

“I know I left New York City because of them, the soldiers, their tanks and guns, because I did not want to be part of it. And how I ran away, all the way into the arms of a man wearing a military uniform, a man who would be called up, six years later, called up by my country, to go, go and fight it, The Global War on Terror.”

She moves back to her parents’ house in New Jersey, and then to Rhode Island, where she gets a job teaching English on a military base. There, she meets the man who she will marry just one year after 9/11, Jason Phillips. They begin to build a life together, a life she never expected; Jason is the first military man she has ever known, so the life of a military wife is one of life’s ironic surprises.

“When you marry a military man, you are joining the armed forces, even if you don’t want to. When you marry a military man, sometimes, it can feel like the only unit is his, deploying out in ten days, and the only one is you, left, here, at home, by yourself.”

Flynn is struggling to cope with her memories of 9/11 even before Jason is informed that he is being deployed to Afghanistan. A year after they marry, two years after 9/11, he asks her if she is alright “because it is the anniversary…. You never talk about it, he says, smoothing my hair, back, off my forehead…. Not yet, I whisper, not yet.

Even though Jason is in the Navy, he is called up because by late 2007 there simply are not enough soldiers and Marines. The second quarter of Wife and War follows Flynn through her husband’s 15-month deployment, as she cares for their son and copes with her own mental health issues (both related to 9/11 and Jason’s absence).

Compared to other military wives, she is fortunate because he is not seeing combat; he is working at a college in Kabul, training soldiers. He is able to call her nearly every day. “Our words are like snakes moving through the grass, crossing over oceans, over countries, over time changes, slithering back and forth, in between us, and coiling into the sentences of a conversation that may be our last one. And I stand, here, in our bedroom, next to our bed, that is always half made now, listening to him tell me you are a lucky wife.”

Still, it is a difficult time, as Flynn is suffering from a mild form of PTSD but is not getting the support she needs. Like anyone whose spouse is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, she worries about every day being Jason’s last and getting the dreaded visit informing her of his death. “I have imagined being a widow,” she writes. “I have imagined myself, standing, at his grave site, watching, as my husband’s coffin is lowered into the ground, as it gets covered, covered with dirt. I have imagined myself, weaving through the hallways of a foreign hospital, in Kuwait or Germany, and going to a hospital room, the one where my husband lays in a bed, with no legs, and no words, no life left in him. I have imagined what it would feel like, hearing the news that my husband is gone now. And I am thinking about our vows, how we took each other for better and for worse, and how, how the worst could have happened.”

Flynn captures the isolation, the loneliness, and the longing of a military wife in Wife and War. Some scenes and descriptions will remain with you long after you finish the book. “I can’t really explain it. How when you are a military wife, and when your husband is gone, gone for so long, there is a certain kind of longing. I can’t really explain how I long for him, my husband, for his body to be here, stretched out next to mine, in our bed, one side of his face lit up and legible, by the glow of the alarm clock, or his clothing, his socks and shirts and pants, all of it, left on the floor, there, as he climbs in, climbs in to find me. I can’t really explain how hard it is. How hard it is to know that he can die over there and never come home to me. How hard it is to be alone. And, how, sometimes, I just want someone to open me up again. Read me like a book, word by word, hip by hip, sentences and paragraphs and legs, to keep on reading me, page by page by page, until he is done.”

Jason does come home, physically unscathed and thus one of the of “lucky ones.” But it’s not quite that simple. The second half of the book describes what happens after Flynn’s husband returns. Although they are both happy — or at least relieved — to be together again, a marriage with two PTSD sufferers is not a stable place. Complications arise and fall away and arise again. Words are said, including “divorce.” Tears are shed.

“When my husband comes home, from war, for good, there are still checkpoints. There are those points we have to pass through each day. Like when he sees his combat boots in a closet, lined up and empty, reminding him of all of the soldiers who are dead, now, and how it could have been him. Like when he sees my back, again, facing him, in bed, this massive trench forming in between us, a massive trench that neither of us knows how to cross.”

Later, Flynn captures Jason’s hyper-vigilance at home. “We end up in the kitchen in a standoff…. Because I cannot make him see that this is a kitchen, not a desert, that the island in between us is only Formica, that I am his wife, not an enemy he needs to scan for danger, or regard with suspicion, or target for soft spots.”

But in time, with effort and patience, they find their way back to each other and to a functional marriage. “I know my husband changed over there. How he swore to himself, if he was lucky, lucky enough to get out of Afghanistan alive, things would be different. Then he came home. And I just wanted things to be the same.”

In the end she realizes that “war never ends. Even after a country says it does. Even after my husband looks at me, dead in the eyes, and says, it’s fine…. I know the war will never go away. It will always be, here, in our marriage, my husband, that country, so broken by war, and, how, it almost broke us.

Wife and War is an undeniably powerful piece of writing, intimate and even self-flagellating at times. Flynn’s writing has a hypnotic effect at times. But the odd form of repetition she favors can also be distracting and even annoying at times. Flynn also makes unorthodox use of commas, sprinkling them throughout the text almost randomly. While it appears that she was trying to control the flow of words in order to ensure the pauses and breaths that poets rely upon in readings, the effect of so many commas where they are rarely encountered interferes with the story she is telling.

I couldn’t help but think that Flynn should rewrite Wife and War as a more traditional prose memoir, adding more detail to her descriptions of the life she and Jason lived, thousands of miles apart, as the months passed. But these are mere quibbles compared to the story she has shared with us here. It is a story more Americans need to read, along with books such as the outstanding story collections by Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men Are Gone) and Katey Schultz (Flashes of War) and recent novels by Cara Hoffman (Be Safe I Love You), Roxana Robinson (Sparta), Helen Benedict (Sand Queen), Lea Carpenter (Eleven Days) and Laura Harrington (Alice Bliss).

Wife and War is an indispensable record of the hidden costs of war paid by American men and women.

Amalie Flynn is a poet who publishes two blogs: http://wifeandwar.wordpress.com/ and https://septembereleventh.wordpress.com/.