REVIEW: The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson
Part 1: Pursue
“The funny version of the story goes like this: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…I was kidnapped and raped by a man I used to live with. I’m kind of fucked up about it.”
I suspect readers will describe Lacy M. Johnson’s memoir The Other Side using one or more, if not all, of these four words: Fearless. Unabashed. Unrelenting. Raw. As in: She is fearless, in her pursuit for finding a way to tell her story. She unabashedly writes about her capture. She is unrelenting in breaking her silence about this experience. Her raw writing reveals a story that must be heard.
All of these statements would be true, but none of them will do. We need a new language to look at the various ways in which Johnson uses to reveal her experience, to better understand how she linguistically reckons with the thing that fractured her life.
I could say this book is about struggle: A struggle imbedded in the events taking place in the memoir, how there’s a struggle between mind and emotions inside of Johnson herself. It’s a struggle to keep her body intact, a struggle to find which version of her story is true.
A struggle to be able to recover.
“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 language.” Johnson’s memoir is about being kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend and forced into a soundproof room so he could rape and subsequently murder her; certainly, the book is an emotionally taxing one to read, but the language Johnson cultivates is about poeticizing trauma, about giving voice and breath to her pain in an attempt to heal.
But I don’t want to bring “struggle” into my reading of The Other Side because this book isn’t about some struggle for strength and survival, for healing and connecting; this isn’t about the struggle to stop violence or the struggle for justice. This isn’t about the struggle to let her voice be heard or her panic to stop raging or her uncertainties to stop cementing. This also isn’t about how Johnson was pursued. This, ironically, is about how she is now the one pursuing. It’s her past she’s after. She needs those memories and the language that goes along with them so she can tell her story. Ultimately, this is about language.
Chapter 2: The Capture
“I could also say I lived with my kidnapper for two-and-a-half years, and during all the time we lived together he didn’t call it rape but fucking. When I finally moved out, he thought it would only take a few days of good, hard fucking to convince me to come home. If I refused, he planned to shoot me in the cunt and then the head. His words, not mine.”
Here, in the stark sound of that last four-word sentence, Johnson separates her story from that of her attacker’s. “His words” slices, the comma severing whatever connection they at one point might have had. The contrast she creates first in the horror of what her ex-boyfriend said to her is what makes that last sentence powerful. In it, using the contrast of his/mine sends out severe enough vibes, vibrant vibes, even, to make the reader’s eyes widen. The language Johnson utilizes in The Other Side charges through the idea of how a survivor should “share” her story, of what a memoir should be. Plot, narrative arch, character development, settings, details, and (often) a relieved sigh at the end of it all. Johnson does more than share. Through her deliberate word choices, language cracks open vivid images to momentarily freeze the reader, to make her pause, consider, picture, understand. “Sometimes I feel like a very small person. Like I barely fit around the space of a breath.” The imagery of this, the simultaneous feelings of cramped and wide that it creates, suspends the reader’s breath, forces her to feel that image, to get an inkling of how the aftermath of what happened feels like.
In other words, it is through diction and the ways in which she relates how she feels about her story of abuse and rape that captivates the reader instead of scaring her away. The language is too hard-hitting, (but never graphic) to not demand attention and recognition. From the very first few pages, Johnson jumps into her story in a way that shows her talented way with words.“I crash through the screen door, arms flailing like two loose propellers, stumbling like a woman on fire: hair and clothes ablaze. Or I do not stumble. I make no noise at all as I open the door with one hand, holding the two-by-four above my head with the other. My feet and legs carry me forward, the rest of my body still, like a statue. Like a ninja. A cartoon.” The contrast of these two hypothetical actions is what captures the reader. We don’t know what’s going on, but the explosive movement in the first possibility and the apprehension present in the second collide to bring the reader more fully into the memoir’s grip.
Johnson also captures the reader’s attention, by bringing her raw emotional and vulnerable self to the page. She says, “Here. This is how I feel. I don’t like it. You won’t like it. In fact, you’ll want to run away from it.” Even with the knowledge that her readers might ditch her, because the book might be too intense or too personal, she still persists to tell her tale. Throughout the memoir, Johnson continues to bring the reader more and more into the story as she exposes the hard and complicated parts of herself: “It’s easy to write that he taught be about film, and cooking, and to admit that I’m probably a writer because of him, because of all that happened. It’s hard to admit that I loved him.” In the same way that Johnson doesn’t “share” her story, she also doesn’t “invite” the reader into it. Rather, she uses language to reel her in and conscious word choice to capture the reader, to keep her here, reading.
All of these various complexities help to engage the reader with the text, to not be pushed away by the gravity of it, rather Johnson lets the reader stand next to her as she mazes through the different ways to tell her story.
Part 3: Silence
“To my acquaintances I say I’m writing about violence and memory and the body. Or I say it’s about violence and desire. I say I’m writing about a traumatic event in my past. Most people understand this as code for Think long and hard before asking more questions about this. Together we observe half a moment of silence before my acquaintance cocks his head back the slightest big and opens his mouth to say, Ah…I see.”
It’s the things she didn’t say for years that both define Johnson and haunts her. Writing another book helped distract her. But none of the effects of trauma (panic attacks, depression, lack of motivation, paranoia, hyper-vigilance, etc) vacated her. She says, “The first day, the day I begin writing this book, I sit at the computer, in front of the window, my eyes on the grass, my fingers on the keys, and tears stream down my cheeks. I down whole glasses of scotch and crawl under the desk.” And then here it is, that scene becomes a paragraph in the actual book. She eventually crawled out from under her desk. She wrote. The Other Side is proof of this.
There are moments when we explicitly see how trauma doesn’t end at the situation’s completion, nor when people are done talking about it. Silence, in fact, can perpetuate the trauma. “[My Older sister and I] never talk about what happened. Not about my mountain of credit card debt, or why I started drinking vodka before I’ve eaten breakfast, or why I can’t hold down a job. Not once.” And the rest of her family? Johnson states they treat her like “an ancient porcelain doll” and hug her and say I love you. From this, what Johnson realizes is that these gestures are “the only way anyone will speak to me.”
Eventually, however, it is Johnson who starts speaking. She hits a breaking point. And she breaks. But before this, she experiences what it means to scream and have no one listen. Inside the abandoned apartment where she is held captive, her ex-boyfriend shows how releasing her voice as loud as she can won’t help her. “He puts his face close to mine and says No one can here you. Go ahead and scream.
Years later, she feels a scream coming on. She wants to be heard. She opens her throat and her mouth and her voice come tumbling out — all of which happen during a panic attack. “[As] I’m about to let the panic wash over me, I start screaming. It’s not a scream that comes from my throat, or from my lungs, but a scream that comes from the shut place I carry inside me, a scream they could swell and swell without end. It’s made of an equal parts terror and rage, multiplied and multiplied by the silence of all these years.”
This book is that scream.
Part 4: Reveal
“I say, This is the last version of the story I ever tell. I know how ridiculous this sounds. How foolish. How naïve. Because the truth is: I’m afraid of what will happen when it’s done.”
The readers are here to witness.
What we see is a push/pull of mind and body. What we see is trauma held in the body. Muscle memory, in a way. A plead, but most importantly, the ways in which we survive. Speaking about childbirth to metaphorize her whole experience, Johnson explains how after she births her daughter, “the nurse stitches the wound that is gaping and open, [and- I am trying to stitch the mind back into the body.”
A mind and body tear away from each other, a full body and soul dissociation needed in order to continue, to survive. The survivor, Johnson, floats around until she finds a place in her traumatic story that’s safe enough to land. When she gets to that safe space, she takes a needle, a thread, and begins the process of stitching herself back together, of keeping the past a part of her so she can get a fuller picture of who she is now, a woman living in the present tense
Johnson further explains and gives credence to her mind/body problem. “At first, I have a body, a wild animal body I throw and thrash against his cage…. I growl and hiss and bare my teeth. But then, my body is not a wild animal body. It’s a human girl body: the two arms pinned, a cross; the two legs spread, a tomb. It’s the mind that goes thrashing so wildly. The body remains calm. The body undresses and lays itself down…. The mind goes thrashing away from the body, which does not move a muscle, does not move an inch from the spot in which it is unravelling, will be unravelling, has been unraveling since.”
The Other Side is Johnson’s attempt to mend the effects of all of her different types and moments of unravelling. She feels whole enough to face the past, to let it rush in, but she’s the one who declares the pace. Through writing this book, Johnson starts to gain back some of that control that was torn from her body. She is able to look back, call down the dark corridor of her memory. Something echoes back, like it always echoes back, like the past tends to do, and from this, she will always remember what happened in that sound proof room. So while she cannot forget, Johnson is starting to release. The only direction she can go from here is further towards herself. Through this, because of this, Johnson is finally discovering how she is “a woman who has died, a woman who goes on living.”
by Lacy M. Johnson