Midway through my interview with Houston author Lacy Johnson earlier this week, both of our phones start buzzing.
It takes several seconds before we realize the interruption is FEMA’s testing of the new Presidential Alert system, which is ironic, because we were in the middle of a discussion of Johnson’s essay "Speak Truth to Power," about the myriad ways women are silenced when speaking of their lived experiences, and the ways mens’ stories are prioritized.
“He just interrupted our conversation,” she says.
“I’m gonna put that in the story,” I say.
“Right in the middle of our talking about this bullsh*t,” she says.
The essay is one of 12 in Johnson’s newest book, The Reckonings, which explores the meaning of justice. The collection probes this question through many lenses, from white supremacy to mass shootings to ecological disasters. She reads from the book at Brazos Bookstore on its release date, Tuesday, October 9.
Johnson’s inspiration for this project started with her previous book, The Other Side, which is a 2014 memoir that recounts her imprisonment and rape by a former boyfriend who planned to kill her. She eventually escaped, but so did her rapist. He remains at large.
“While I was touring for that book, people kept asking me ‘What do you want to have happen to the man who did this to you?’ And the follow-up to that was always, ‘You probably want him dead, right?’ That struck me as such a strange response," she says, "because I don't want him dead. I don't want him to be my neighbor, but I don't need his suffering for my own sense of justice."
Even so, Johnson found it revealing how strangers kept wishing him the death penalty. "The more I thought about it, the more I realized that that's the only way we define justice in this country—you do something bad, something bad happens to you—therefore justice," she says. "And I just thought, ’There has to be another way.’”
Each essay in the book starts from the question of how we can extend our idea of justice beyond vengeance and retribution, so that we're not constantly perpetuating suffering on the world.
In "The Fallout,” an essay about a small Midwestern town suffering from the radioactive leftovers of The Manhattan Project, Johnson asks a similar question of resident and activist Dawn Chapman: How do you want this to end?
“I don’t know,” Chapman tells her. “In the end, I’m not even fighting to win. And even if we could win, a win isn’t what you think it is. A buyout isn’t a win because we could move but this poison would still be inside us.”
I ask Johnson why she thinks people ask that question—where the need to see resolution comes from.
“From the perspective of my memoir, it comes from narrative desire—people wanting closure," she says. "We’re kind of trained to want that by the movies that we consume, where the bad guy always gets it in the end. From a narrative perspective, we find that pleasurable. But I find that in reality, if I see a person suffering, I don’t find pleasure in that. It’s horrifying.”
In another essay, "On Mercy," Johnson quotes from the family of James Byrd, the black man who was dragged to death behind a truck by three white supremacists in 1998 in Jasper, Texas. Byrd’s family has just witnessed the execution of one of his killers, Lawrence Russell Brewer.
“It didn’t bring me any sense of peace or relief,” one of his sisters told the media.
“Like Gandhi said, an eye for an eye, and the whole world will go blind,” said Byrd’s son, who opposed the execution.
“There’s a term called retributive hatred, where after someone does something to you, you want to harm them in the way they harmed you,” Johnson says. “And I think that just comes from hatred. And I think we can resist that impulse in ways that are productive for our happiness and wellbeing, both as individuals and as a society.”
Lacy Johnson reads Tuesday, Oct. 9. Free. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet St. 713-523-0701. More info at brazosbookstore.com.