I HEARD Lacy M. Johnson read from her new memoir, The Other Side, at the Tin House Writers’ Workshop this past July. After hearing the first few lines of her shattering prose, I knew that I would read the book. And I did — in a single rapt sitting, on the plane ride out of Portland.
The Other Side tells how Johnson was kidnapped and raped by a man with whom she’d actually been involved, and how she has come to understand herself and the world in the wake of this trauma. In the book, which is as ambitious as it is affecting, Johnson refashions our culture’s narratives about violence and victimhood, deepens our understanding of the lived experience of systemic misogyny, and illumines the elusive interplay of body, word, memory, and meaning.
Johnson took the time to respond to my questions over email.
NATHAN GOLDMAN: How did you come to write The Other Side?
LACY M. JOHNSON: To be honest, I can’t really remember a time in my adult life when I wasn’t working on The Other Side. When I was 21 years old, just after I’d graduated college, just as I was beginning to think of myself as a writer, even before I’d begun to think of myself as an adult, I was kidnapped and raped by a man I used to love. From that point on I wrote about only one subject, which was a trauma so profound I couldn’t find words to describe the extent of its devastation. This is something I realize only now that I look back — now that I can hold the entire catalog of my work in my head — that I was always working on this project. Even while I was working on Trespasses, which is a memoir in prose poems, I had my eye on this one, knowing it would be next, learning from my mistakes as I made them. I rushed Trespasses, probably, but The Other Side was becoming so urgent that it was hard to focus on anything else.
What was your process like? How was it different from working on other projects?
It was simple, like weaving is simple: each vignette was written separately, independently. Early versions of the manuscript had them shuffled together in different ways from how they appear now. In some drafts, the back and forth between times and places shifted between each vignette, rather than between chapters. In others, the material included in what has become the [notes] chapter was part of the body of the main text. There are no fewer than 27 radically different versions of the manuscript in a file on my computer. Between one version and the next, I would rearrange, and then work on it for a while — editing, writing new material — before finding it completely unsatisfactory and pulling it apart again. I’d then write more vignettes, draw diagrams, and put it all back together in a different way. Apart; together. Apart; together. One of the persistent concerns of my writing practice has to do with process and how people make meaning. Writing The Other Side was, if nothing else, a useful exercise in making and remaking meaning.
What do you believe popular, contemporary narratives about trauma and recovery get wrong? Were there tropes that you consciously sought to avoid, amend, or reinterpret in The Other Side?
The narrative I wanted most to amend had less to do with recovery than with justice. We have only one narrative about justice in our culture, and if you look carefully, you’ll see it playing everywhere on near constant repeat: There is a VICTIM. There is a CULPRIT. The VICTIM must be above reproach; the CULPRIT must be monstrous, must be apprehended, brought to trial, convicted, and incarcerated. When that happens, the VICTIM should feel justice has been served. But that narrative bears very little resemblance to my own. I’m not above reproach, which maybe makes me a bad VICTIM. Some readers will encounter this book and feel compelled to blame me for being kidnapped and raped. The man who kidnapped and raped me is also not a type; he is a real person — a very complicated, very troubled person I once loved — although no matter how many mistakes I may have made, what he did was inconceivably wrong. And he wasn’t apprehended; he wasn’t brought to trial, or incarcerated, or arrested, or punished in any way. So where is that narrative about justice in all of this? Maybe it doesn’t really exist. Maybe it’s unattainable. Maybe it has nothing to do with real, actual people, and it’s time to rethink it in every way.
In an interview at the Tin House blog, you noted that most of your formal writing training is as a poet. In what ways did poetry influence The Other Side? Do you believe that there is any special relationship between poetry and memoir?
You know, some of the most significant influences on The Other Side were works written by poets that straddled a line between prose and poetry — Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon — each of which enlarged my world, or made me smarter, or made me feel that way Dickinson describes — “as if the top of my head were taken off” — which doesn’t often happen to me when reading prose. I think it might be that poets often learn to cultivate a certain kind of attention — attention to language, yes, but more specifically to the relationship between language, memory, and meaning; as well as the relationship between attention and time: how time can be as pliable as the various registers of attention — and that translates to memoir in profound and beautiful ways.
Your endnotes serve many functions: some supplement the narrative with information from legal documents; others quote or cite works by neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and other thinkers on gender, trauma, memory, and the body; others point out literary allusions.
I see the notes as a 14th chapter. Whereas the bulk of the material in the first 13 appears to come mostly from memory and experience, the [notes] chapter draws almost exclusively from outside sources, and at least partially illuminates the decade of research that has gone into writing the book. It’s also probably the only one I might like to alter in future editions, since there are allusions I’ve since realized that I forgot to include, research I’ve since felt compelled to address, conflicting information that has since come to light. I also intend the [notes] as a mimetic gesture, structurally speaking: if you remove them, the first 13 chapters are actually a circle — with me exiting where I enter, the narrative repeating and repeating, on and on forever. Without [notes], The Other Side becomes a hopeless, depressing sort of book. But [notes] interrupts that circle, in the same way my actual research — reading and writing about trauma, gender, memory, and the brain — interrupted that powerful cycle of hopelessness and depression in my life.
The Other Side is, in part, about the reclamation of the female body. Is there a relationship between memoir and political advocacy?
I agree that The Other Side is, in part, about how I’ve learned to claim my body as my own, but it’s also about claiming my voice, and about how those two things are not as separate as you might initially think. At this very moment, women everywhere are doing these things — claiming the body, claiming the voice — and, perhaps as a result, increasingly claiming control of the public discourse about women. Literature, journalism, memoir, art — all of it — has the potential and sometimes the responsibility to persuade, to convince, to foster empathy and understanding, to help sway public opinion — to help change the culture in which we all live. But that does not, should not, and cannot take the place of focused and sustained efforts to change the institutions — education, medicine, government — that continue to police women’s rights, our bodies, and our daily experience.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly, you said, “My goal in writing The Other Side was very simple: to change how I think and feel about the events of the past.” Is that process complete?
I wrote The Other Side hoping that it would bring a catharsis — as if writing about those events could purge that night from my memory. As if writing were a way of forgetting. What I have found instead, is that though I haven’t forgotten those events, when I open the book I feel a sort of neutrality towards what is written there. As if it happened to someone else, though I still distinctly remember it happening to me. It’s a strange feeling: how the events have receded into the past, which is exactly where they should be.
What has surprised you most since the book’s publication?
I am surprised by the response from readers — not the critical response, but the live response. People have approached me after readings to share their own stories of abuse. People write to confide in me and to ask my advice, and I find myself standing for something I never imagined I would come to represent. At one reading a woman running for judge asked me how to change the court system to better respond to cases of domestic abuse. At another, a single mother asked me how to raise her daughter to grow up to be a strong woman, so she doesn’t wind up in an abusive relationship. Men reach out to me to thank me for helping them to understand why a mother, or a wife, or an ex-girlfriend is the way she is, and how to love her better. Nothing in my training as a writer prepared me to respond to these questions. And for the longest time, I thought that my story was unique. But now I understand that many people everywhere share the burden of tremendous sorrow, and all of us want the same thing, which is to get rid of it, to purge it. Catharsis. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to purge an emotion — I can’t stop experiencing fear, or sorrow, or grief — simply by deciding to not feel anymore. But I have this idea: even though I can’t stop the emotion, maybe it’s possible to replace it with its opposite. Just as my fear has been quelled by doing things that make me feel brave — small things, like leaving my house, for example; or big things, like breaking a 14-year silence — maybe sorrow can be quelled by acts of joy, big and small, and grief by acts of hope.