The Reckonings begins, in an essay of the same name, with Johnson’s consideration of a question she often heard from audiences when speaking about her first book, a memoir of her ordeal when, at age 21, she was kidnapped, held captive, and raped by a former lover: “What do you want to have happen to him, to the man who did this to you?” Her observations about the people who ask her this question are attentive and sobering: an old woman with “crepe paper hands,” a man in a 10-gallon hat who was raped by an uncle as a child, a boy asking for his girlfriend … “I am surprised at how the people sitting near the door in the last row of the auditorium always have a story like mine,” she writes, reminding us that she is not the only victim, that other victims are everywhere and often invisible to us.
Johnson is helpfully and fluidly expository as she explores the versions of justice many Americans rely on — from the Code of Hammurabi through Nietzsche and, for that matter, Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2. Her own mother wants Johnson’s assailant dead. Johnson herself admits that it "feels good to see someone get what he deserves." But where she finally lands is here: “I don’t want him dead. I want him to admit all the things he did, to my face, in public, and then to spend the rest of his life in service to other people’s joy.” She goes on: “I don’t even want him to suffer. More pain creates more sorrow, sometimes generations of sorrow, and it amplifies injustice rather than cancels it out.” These observations occur early in the book, and even though the pace and probity of her analysis up to that point should have set the stage for them, her lack of rancor surprised me. At first, I found myself filled with sadness: I guess I had been harboring the hope that she would give me permission to hate her attacker, to wish him dead. But absolute answers are not Johnson’s way. “[A]ny story that cannot accommodate nuances is not interested in truth but in obscuring it instead,” she writes in “Goliath,” her essay about how the United States has responded to 9/11. She is interested in truth.
The longest piece in the collection, “The Fallout,” is unlike the others in that it offers significant reporting in addition to analysis and interpretation. In it, Johnson investigates an environmental horror story taking place in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri — an underground fire working its way ineluctably toward an EPA Superfund site: a cache of nuclear waste dumped illegally in the early 1970s on land that was later turned into landfill and on top of which homes, schools, and businesses were built and, later, erased. This entire suburb, called Carrollton, is now an unlivable ghost town, an American Chernobyl. No one knows what will happen if the fire arrives at the nuclear waste cache, but the dread and horror experienced by the individuals brave enough to follow the story — a civil servant, a local activist, two concerned mothers — is palpable in the essay, although Johnson mostly avoids dramatic embellishment. (An exception: After her mother’s husband interrupts a conversation with his own memories of shoveling that same nuclear waste into train cars “for months,” she brings our attention to the various ailments that cannot with certainty be attributed to his exposure: he shuffles, moves slowly, has trouble catching his breath.)
When she finally gets an audience with the EPA, she learns that the organization can’t make plans based on scenarios that are hypothetical — e.g., the underground fire, or a Mississippi River flood breaching the current containment measures. They can only act when there is “real data” to collect — after such an event has already occurred. The poisoning of groundwater and topsoil and the resulting disease and deformity are a slow-motion rape, still in progress. There may not be sufficient data from which the scientists can develop a solution, but there is plenty of weighty history to go around: the original nuclear waste is a Manhattan Project by-product, and Johnson spares no one (not even Obama) in her insistence that we question our thinking then and now about what constitutes justice as a nation.
In “Girlhood in a Semibarbarous Age,” Johnson again writes about violence against women, this time framing the essay from her perspective as the mother of young children. Here, her path is winding. She looks at the ways that women, since the dawn of human history, have been considered prey, citing Boko Haram, O. J., prehistoric cave paintings, and works by Marina Abramović and Yoko Ono (she describes the difficulty some of her students have tolerating the questions she asks them to consider about the work of these artists). She describes her children arriving at school and coming home, her dog barking to warn of possible dangers. She doesn’t always connect the dots, leaving this reader to think along: Are women really prey? Have we always been? Is there a way to repair instead of repeat? When the piece ends with her young daughter telling her, “I don’t want to be a girl,” the remark feels both reasonable and chilling. I wondered how Johnson can possibly answer it, what she can ever do to make her daughter safe.
In “On Mercy,” Johnson observes children with terminal cancer (she teaches on their ward), as well as men sentenced to the death penalty (some regretful, others not) and the families of their victims. Again, her method is nonlinear: a collage of juxtaposed scenes and considerations, not a polemic. She explores what mercy means, parsing it into two forms that she calls big Mercy (essentially a biblical concept that defines some acts as unforgivable, and thus those who commit them as inhuman) and little mercy (the small kindnesses that remind us of our own humanity and that of others). My summary sounds glib, but her longer version is not. Surprisingly, toward the end of this essay, Johnson objects to the claim that “time heals all wounds”: “[D]eep down, I know this isn’t really true. The wounds change shape, change forms. Pain appears as a gash, then a cut, then a scab, then a scar — all near synonyms extending on and on along the signifying chain.” Thus, the inner well of mercy she displayed toward her own abuser is muddier than it first appeared. She also leaves her teaching job on the cancer ward. Yet the experience of reading this essay is more broadening than limiting: one must go on asking the same questions in one’s own life. No one writer or single essay can tell us exactly what to do; the abstractions of justice and law are just tools humans have made and must continue to refine.
“I teach writing in a pediatric cancer ward because I get paid to do it and because compassion challenges me in ways I wish I could rise to meet,” Johnson tells us. Nevertheless, her book is jam-packed with compassion. She does not appear to have any agenda beyond seeking to understand, to describe, and to grapple with the ways human beings behave — in other words, to empathize. In this moment of brazen racism, nationalism, xenophobia, and sexual violence, her willingness to sit with the nuanced difficulty of so many moral quandaries began to feel, to this reader, like a form of national service. To access our own capacity for repair, we need the help of writers of her caliber — at least I do. I’m pretty sure that’s why I read.
Rachel Cline is the author of the novels The Question Authority (2019), My Liar (2008), and What to Keep (2004).