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.
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.