In light of the announcement that Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side was selected as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, we decided to revisit an interview we conducted with her last year.
You can read an excerpt from her memoir here.
Tin House: The Suspect is still at large. How did this influence the writing of your memoir?
Lacy M. Johnson: I think the fact that he’s at large precipitated my choice not to use his name or anyone else’s name, though I might have made that choice even if he were in prison. The fact is, this isn’t just a memoir; it’s about my real actual life. And in my real actual life, there is a real actual person living abroad who might harm me or my family if he had the chance. I don’t use his actual name in real life. I don’t say it, and I don’t really like for other people to say it either. To protect the people I love, I tried to keep other people who appear in the memoir as anonymous as possible, while also writing in an accurate way about the relationship I have with those anonymous people.
At the same time, his at-largeness also affected the arc of the book. I think when most people think about a satisfying conclusion to a story like this, they might imagine him being brought to trial and convicted and sent to prison for decades. That isn’t possible in this case, since he’s a Venezuelan citizen and is protected from extradition by the Venezuelan government. He’ll never go to jail for this. He’ll never have to appear in court. He’ll never even be arrested. So that forced me to reimagine this notion of justice, and what it might look like in a story like mine.
TH: There are times you are willing to portray yourself in a less than flattering light and it doesn’t ever feel like you are courting the sympathy of your readers. Was this a conscious choice?
LMJ: I made a very conscious effort to portray events as I remember them: not as I wish they had been, or as they would be if life were made neat and tidy for the purposes of telling a story. Which meant I had to be honest, brutally honest, about who I am and the choices I made. I made some really bad choices, not least of which was the decision to begin a relationship with a man who was my Spanish teacher at the university, and who was twice my age. If I were interested in courting a reader’s sympathy, I could have made the case that he was a predator and I was his victim. It would have been an easy case to make. But the fact is, I had a lot of agency in the matter, and the very worst choice I ever made was to give it all away.
TH: The appendix is unexpectedly moving, as it shows the amount of research and reading you did on trauma before writing this book. Can you talk about how you started reading about trauma, and how that affected your approach to what happened, and how you wrote about it?
LMJ: It’s interesting that you say that, since the appendix as it appears in the book represents only a small fraction of the research I’ve conducted on this subject matter. The research itself began more than a decade ago when I was in graduate school and started teaching a poetry workshop in a shelter for women recovering from substance abuse. My faculty supervisor at the time directed me toward several volumes on recovery writing in an effort to prepare me to respond to the women’s writing in an effective and compassionate way, and this was actually a very instructive place to begin. For one thing, I discovered that I really, strongly objected to all of the rhetoric about how writing about trauma could, in effect, make a person “whole” again. It took years to articulate why this sentiment bothered me, but eventually I realized that it reinforces what I consider to be a flawed notion that after some kind of trauma (be it sexual violence or the death of a family member), that a person is somehow “broken.” After a trauma, a person may feel that some part of them has been shattered—that metaphor certainly describes the emotional state of a traumatized person—but the fact is, every person is already a whole person, has always been a whole person. Even if the trauma has profound psychological effects, a traumatized person is also always a whole person. The thought patterns change, as do behaviors and associations. And perhaps most difficult of all, what changes is the story that person tells about him- or herself, to him- or herself. Of course I didn’t know all of this, or couldn’t articulate all of this when I began the research, but over the years, my research has extended into medical journals and history books, Greek mythology and neuroscience, quantum physics and literature, and I think I can say now, with some degree of certainty, that the story I told myself about myself was what made me feel afraid for so many years. When I set out to write this book, it wasn’t to “fix” myself, or to make myself “whole” again, but to change that story I told myself about who I am, who I was, and who I still could be.
TH: Memory plays a huge role in your memoir. How do memories before your kidnapping—those from childhood and adolescence that are referenced—play a role in recovery?
LMJ: There’s a tendency, I think, among traumatized people to think of what came before the trauma (childhood and adolescence, for instance) as being a part of the “real” me, and the traumatic memory as something that “broke” me. But what I’ve come to realize is that the trauma, in my case having been kidnapped and raped by a man I once loved, is also the real me. Which is not to say it defines me, not any more than having grown up on a farm, or having gone to college at a state university, though in the past I tended to give it so much more weight and importance because I was so shocked and so blindsided by those events, and because they had such a lasting psychological impact. It felt as though the “real” me was gone, and what was left was a weaker, unstable, more frightened version of the person I had been. I didn’t like that feeling at all, and really wanted to change the way I thought. So, in the book, I also wrote about memories from my childhood and from adolescence because I thought that maybe if I treated the traumatic event as part of a much longer narrative that began long before I was kidnapped, and which had already continued long after I escaped, I might be able to put it in better perspective. For a very long time that traumatic memory had seemed like a static and unchangeable thing, so I thought that maybe if I could call a few things I remembered about that into question—as we do all the time with memories from our childhood and adolescence—I could make the traumatic memory more fluid, and let it return to the natural ebb and flow of memory. I wanted this story to become one of the stories I carry, instead of the story that I carry.
TH: Like your first memoir Trespasses, the title The Other Side implies crossing boundaries. What about this interests you?
LMJ: Trespasses is a book about geographic boundaries, cultural boundaries, class boundaries, and the boundaries created by the categories of gender and race, all of which begin with a single decision: to call this thing here different from that thing over there, and to assign value based on that difference. It seems that so many problems in the world come back to that same decision: to separate, to cleave, to pull one thing from another based on some perceived category of difference. The Other Side is a book about the boundary between the past and the present, the present and the future, and between the inner and outer self. I’m interested in these boundaries because it seems that, as a culture, we’re so invested them that we now treat them as natural, as fact. I’m very interested in challenging that.
TH: The Other Side is told in a series of vignettes, many no longer than a few pages. What appeals to you about this structure?
LMJ: From a very practical perspective, most of this book, as well as Trespasses, was written when my children were very small, and one block of text was all I could produce in the time it took for one of them to take a nap, or after they went to bed for the evening. So the vignettes are a logistical necessity.
At the same time, I don’t doubt that my use of the vignette has more than a little to do with the fact that I started out as a poet, and most of my formal training as a writer is in poetry. In the very, very beginning, I was writing these really tiny little poems, which only grew more and more dense and wrought over time. And then one day I realized how terrible and awful they were, and started writing prose poems instead. Trespasses, my first book, is a memoir in prose poems and short prose vignettes. The Other Side represents a slightly different point on that formal spectrum, since there aren’t any poems in the book, though I believe there is much poetry.
TH: Many of the events in your memoir you’ve never told your closest friends/colleagues. What are your feelings now that it is published and you are doing events and readings?
LMJ: Honestly, I feel completely terrified. I keep telling myself that no one will come to readings, that it will be published and no one will read it and then it will disappear. While I was writing it, I had to pretend that no one would ever read it or else the fear and the shame of it all would have been too overpowering and I would have given up. And my intention in writing it was never to write a popular book (though maybe in my wildest fantasies I got to talk to Oprah and Terry Gross); in fact, I started writing the book so I wouldn’t feel so much pressure to tell the story anymore. So I could, in effect, “come out” and stop telling it, or thinking of telling it, over and over again in this private way. Of course, the irony of the whole thing is that now that the book is out, I find myself having to tell and retell the story all the time. It still makes me uncomfortable, because people I work with ask what the book is about and I haven’t yet figured out an easy way to talk about it. Yes, it’s a book about this incredibly traumatic, unspeakably violent thing that happened many years ago, but more than that, I think, it’s a book about love. That’s hard to explain to someone who knows me only in a professional way, and it feels very risky, and very vulnerable. What I’m realizing in the process of having these really uncomfortable conversations, though, is that writing the book gave me an opportunity to reckon with these events in a very private way, and on a personal level, but talking about it in public requires that I begin a very different kind of process.
TH: This is a deeply personal story, but you are also clearly talking about a culture of violence, particularly against women. What do you hope you bring to the discussion?
LMJ: I don’t like throwing around the term “rape culture,” since I think a lot of people see a term like that and stop reading. But I’ll use it now because I think it’s necessary to answer your question: in a rape culture, it is taboo for women or men who have been raped to talk about having been raped. So much so that over half of all sexual assaults are not even reported to police. And then if they are reported, a woman gives her statement and then she is spoken for: by police officers or detectives or prosecutors or victims advocates. There’s so much shame and shaming associated with sexual violence, and they are all part of the same social structure, which permits only a single story to be told about power—about who has it, and who polices it. You know, we hear so often this old adage about how rape is mostly about power, which is not at all comforting to anyone who has been raped; and, at the same time, it also says something very disturbing about our culture when you consider that every two minutes someone in America is raped. In my experience, the violence itself is actually the point at which power ceases to be power and becomes merely force: the force of one body exerting its strength over another. But getting away with it reinforces that power. Shaming reinforces that power. The taboo of speaking about it reinforces that power. It’s possible, then, that part of what I hope to bring to the discussion about rape culture is a way to begin a discussion we’ve actually been avoiding for hundreds of years.
TH: How did you decide you were ready to not only write this book, but also to publish it?
LMJ: Ha! I still don’t think I’m ready! Who said anything about being ready?
Lacy M. Johnson is the author of The Other Side and Trespasses: A Memoir, and she is co-artistic director of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. She lives in Houston with her husband and children.