Lacy Johnson: The Other Side
July 24 at 7
2421 Bissonnet St.
In her raw, poetic new memoir, The Other Side (Tin House Books), Houston writer Lacy Johnson recounts how she reassembled her life after being brutally assaulted and nearly killed by an ex-boyfriend. Johnson has published one previous book, Trespasses: A Memoir (University of Iowa Press, 2012) and holds a PhD from the UH Creative Writing Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, TriQuarterly Online, Fourth Genre, and Gulf Coast, and she is currently Director of Academic Initiatives at UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, where she teaches interdisciplinary art.
Houstonia: How did you know it was time to write this book?
Johnson: I don’t think I knew that it was time until it was finished. This is a story that I’ve always been trying to write to some degree, because the events I describe in the memoir happened just as I was beginning to think of myself as a writer. I think I had taken one poetry workshop before I met the man I used to live with. Then all the other writing workshops came after I met him, and all my serious writing came afterwards. It wasn’t that it happened and I thought, “Oh, I have this crazy thing to write about!” but I had these skills of communication that I was trying to hone, and this experience that I couldn’t really put into words. I gave the police my statement about what had happened, but I don’t think that really captures what happened on an internal level or what the effects of that were.
So within a couple of years I started trying to write about it, and trying to describe what had happened. And for basically a decade I was doing that. And each of the times that I would write about it, I would be, like, I’ve finally got it off my chest. And then I would go back and look at it later and realize that I hadn’t really said anything. I hadn’t been able to describe what actually happened—I was just sort of writing around this big, giant hole of silence. For all those years I didn’t really have the capacity or the bravery to sort of write into that silence. So after I finished my first book, I was just like, well, I’m going to try it again. And then I started making progress. It only took me a year and a half to finish the book once I sat down to write it. And now that it’s done, I feel that I did say what happened—I said all of it. And I don’t think I have very much else to say about it. So I feel like I’ve satisfied an assignment that I gave myself a long time ago.
You describe starting to write the book as extremely painful—you say you even hid under your desk at one point. What gave you the strength to push through that and complete the book?
Well, unlike at other times in my life I have a family now. My husband is very supportive. My children—they don’t even know what they’re supporting me for, but they believe in me, and I’m their hero. I knew that they had my back, and that they were supporting me, and that I could count on them. So that gave me a lot of strength—knowing that I was loved so fiercely by this group of people. As I describe in the book, one of the first chunks of time I was working on the book was at a writing residency. I was only there for a week or something, but it was really tough, which led me to sitting under my desk and crying, drinking bourbon, things like that.
But eventually I got past that. At one point I tried putting a piece of paper over the screen and typing without looking at what I was saying. And that for some reason helped. I would write a little, and then back away, and then come back towards that thing that I couldn’t say. Eventually, approaching it that way again and again I was able to get at it. But you know, I could say everything without euphemism, I could be very blunt, but there’s also a way in which language fails to describe certain things. I remember it very well, but there is just some aspect of it that I can’t describe. But I think I get close enough in the book.
What you’re describing sounds a lot like Elaine Scarry’s argument in The Body in Pain that at the deepest level, pain resists language, can’t be captured by it.
You know, I’m not trying to write an academic treatise or a comprehensive study. The Other Side, as a book, chronicles an internal journey that I went on. I don’t mean it to be solipsistic, but it is claustrophobic. But I think the next project—which I didn’t even realize until the last month or something—is probably going to have to turn that gaze outward to some degree, and examine the culture. And then I’ll be able to engage with writers like Elaine Scarry. As a culture, we don’t have the language to describe pain like this. It doesn’t exist—language fails us. And yet we have things like #yesallwomen and now with the issue of sexual assault, the conversation is definitely moving forward. But one of the things I’m noticing is that the larger culture is not comfortable with that. The way that the broader culture and the media reacted to #yesallwomen is telling about how uncomfortable we feel about women talking about having been sexually assaulted.
There’s this process of a woman reporting her story to an authority figure, and that figure takes over and they speak for her. They speak for her to the prosecutor, and unless there’s a trial she’s not really asked to speak for herself. And there’s all these confidentiality and victim protection laws put in place, so there’s a systematic, institutional way that women are silenced. It’s done not with terrible intentions, but to protect them. But part of that system of “we’ll take it from here” is the feeling that “you shouldn’t have to say this, because it’s shameful, or it’s painful.” And I don’t think that’s true, and I hope with the #yesallwomen campaign and people coming forward, we can push against that attitude. It’s not a shameful thing—I shouldn’t be ashamed, I shouldn’t be frightened. It’s painful, but not for the reasons that you think it should be painful.
Why did you decide to provide the footnotes?
The full text of all my notes is probably longer than the book itself. They represent more than a decade of research and writing and thinking about these issues. The notes come from certain lines I’ve pulled in there, because those works do inform my thinking and how I feel. In some ways they interrupt the cycle. If you took the notes out, just from a very structural standpoint, the book would end where it begins, and it would go around and around and around. I would never get anywhere, which is not a very hopeful kind of thing. But the notes interrupt that and allow me to get somewhere a little different. All this research and reading, from poetry and neuroscience and Greek philosophy, did shape my thinking over time. So it felt honest to include it.
You write that “the story is a trap, a puzzle, a paradox. Ending it creates a door.” Have you found that to be the case? Has finishing the story liberated you in some way?
It has. The irony is that now that I’ve written the book and I feel like I’m done with the story, now I find myself talking about it all the time and having to tell the story over and over again to anyone who will listen. I was just reading from the memoir the other night at Powell’s in Portland, and I was telling myself that I can choose to be paralyzed by this fear. I can choose to be paralyzed by this story. Or I can choose to stand up in front of this amphitheater of people and not be afraid that I’m going to be shot. Even if something terrible were to happen, I can’t keep letting that experience make my choices for me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, and it doesn’t mean I don’t have nightmares still sometimes, and it doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally hear some footsteps behind me and look over my shoulder. That’s just the history of my life, and it’s part of the way I live in the world. But when I began to write the book it had gotten to the point where I was afraid to leave the house and I was afraid for my children every single day. Every single day I felt nearly paralyzed with fear. And writing the book allowed me to engage that fear in a critical way and turn it into something else, into courage and hope. And to acknowledge that here I am, I have this beautiful family, my life is really great. I am actually safe. And I am letting this fear keep me from feeling joy.
I can only imagine how inspiring that must be to someone in the audience who’s been through something similar.
Yeah, people come up to me a lot, and they share their stories with me. I certainly did not expect that at all. It’s harrowing, but I think if I had had someone tell their story before I started the book, I think that would have given me a certain permission. So if my book gives permission to people to tell their stories, that’s amazing.
Your book is very personal, but it also comes at a timely moment for feminism, with the Isla Vista shootings, the #yesallwomen hashtag, and the backlash to the Twitter campaign from people like George Will. Have you been surprised at the virulence of the backlash from some men?
I haven’t gotten any backlash from men personally, although I’m sure it will come at some point. But I watched the #yesallwomen hashtag with a lot of interest, and was horrified, but not surprised, by the reaction to it. There was a tweet just a week or two ago that said “If I see any women with #yesallwomen t-shirts on, I’ll rape them on the spot, no questions asked.” One of the things that’s so interesting and inspiring about this moment in feminist history is that a lot of women are going through the same thing that I’m describing: “I’m just not going to be afraid of you anymore. I’m not going to let this fear of being attacked or raped or murdered dictate my decisions.” And that’s why I think #yesallwomen will go down as a watershed moment. It was amazing—there was no amount of backlash that could stop that tide. Now it’s kind of died off, but I think there’s a slight shift in the consciousness among women who participated in that. Those women will go back into the world and start having slightly different conversations. Maybe it changes the way we raise our daughters and sons. I don’t think there will ever be a time when there won’t be men who hate women, but I think we’re reaching a moment when women aren’t going to be afraid of those men anymore.
Why didn’t you give anyone’s name in the book? Especially your ex-boyfriend who assaulted you?
Well, he is still an international fugitive. I didn’t want to try to take on any legal battles. His family lives in the US, and I feel strangely protective of them, even though he clearly does not. I didn’t want naming him to cause pain for them. As for the people in my life, I did it to protect them. And nobody is defined except in relation to me, so I was taking a certain degree of power—you are who I tell you you are. And that sets you up for the conclusion, where I am in control of my own story.
I understand that you wanted to protect your ex-boyfriend’s family, but it must have been just a little tempting to publicly shame this guy, to tell the world who he is.
No, because he isn’t in the US. If he were in the US, he’d be in prison. He’s living abroad. On the one hand, I don’t think he’s paying attention to what I’m doing anymore. And to a certain degree, naming him would draw his attention back. And even though I don’t think he’s going to track me down and try to attack me, I wouldn’t want to give him reasons to try to contact me either.
I think the narrative we have about justice in the country is all to do with the legal system—that the criminal is arrested and put on trial and sent to jail, and everyone says justice has been done. But I think part of what The Other Side is trying to do is imagine a different kind of justice, which is where I get to say what I want, and tell the whole story. It’s not a legal battle that has to do with jail sentences, because I don’t know that I would feel a sense of justice in that. The justice comes in writing this story and trying to begin a conversation about why these things have happened and how they can be prevented in the future. To give women everywhere permission to tell their stories. I feel much more at peace about that result than I would have by shaming him and naming him and smearing him in the papers. When it happened, his name was in the newspaper—there were local, regional, and national stories about this fugitive. So he’s already been smeared, and I don’t need to smear him—that doesn’t feel like justice to me. That just feels icky.