In her new memoir The Other Side, Lacy Johnson recounts her terrifying experience being kidnapped, raped and imprisoned by her ex-boyfriend, a man she used to love, trust and live with. Johnson writes about the unbearable consequences of their relationship in poetic, gripping prose that cuts right to the bone. This is a story of strength in the face of fear, of endurance in the aftermath of an unthinkable crime.
Lacy Johnson talked with Tin House editor Masie Cochran about her fears, her shame, and why she wrote the book. Johnson will be here at BookPeople speaking about and signing The Other Side on Tuesday, July 29 at 7pm.
TIN HOUSE: Why do we stay in dangerous situations?
LACY JOHNSON: First, I think you have to realize that most abusive relationships aren’t abusive all the time. There are also many moments of laughter and tenderness. There are jokes and passionate lovemaking. Then suddenly there’s a conflict, which escalates into violence, but that is nearly always followed by remorse and a return to loving physical contact. It’s a powerful cycle, and I think that anyone who stays in that kind of relationship isn’t willing or able to acknowledge to themselves, and definitely not to others, the ways in which that situation is a dangerous one. It’s easier, actually, to hide or make excuses, or to fall out of contact with friends and family than it is to admit to being in love with someone who occasionally rapes you, or punches you in the face.
In my own experience, I tended to blame myself for the violence. I always felt so surprised as it was happening, and shocked after it was done. I told myself that maybe if only I had done or said something differently, or if only I could be a better person, everything would be so much better. That went on for years: with me always thinking that if only I could be a better person he would love me. It was only when the anger and violence and abuse started to become really consistent that I realized maybe I should actually get out of the situation as soon as possible.
TH: How did do you decide how much to tell?
LJ: Until I started working on this book, I told only one story about being kidnapped and raped by a man I used to know. The story was very brief and very factual, and I’d learned to tell it almost without thinking. When I started to work on this book, I requested copies of the police reports from the case, and felt shocked to see that the story had not changed in form in more than a decade. That seemed to me like a really important detail, and brought to mind something I’d read about how our relationship to traumatic events is often linked to the stories we tell about those events. So, I reasoned, maybe if I could learn to tell a different story about this traumatic event, I could change my relationship to it. I quickly realized that changing the story meant I would need to confront several powerful emotional and psychological forces that had been working on the story to constrain it into that single unalterable form. Eventually, I chose to focus my attention on the constraining force of shame, which proved to be incredibly fruitful, and which is contrary, I know, to all of our ideas about the function of shame — that inner, critical voice that silences a voice by judging it as wrong, inferior, and worthless. The seemingly unalterable story I’ve always told about the event was my starting point, and from there I asked, what is the most impossible thing to say about this? That feeling, of trying to say the most impossible thing, helped me to write this book, since in the end I realized that all the most impossible things were actually what was most important to say.
TH: All of the names in The Other Side are anonymous? Why? It feels like you are protecting the identity of others but not yourself.
LJ: I write in the book about breaking free from this story, and that is definitely, certainly, absolutely true. I’m not going to hide anymore. I refuse to go on living one more moment of my life in fear. I have every intention of living openly and giving readings and teaching and doing my thing. And yet, as much as I want to shirk off the terror that has haunted me all these years, I also have to acknowledge that by writing this story now, in this very public way, I might be putting myself in real danger. The person I write about is an actual sociopath, free and out in the world. If he decided he wanted to find me it wouldn’t be very hard. I haven’t changed my name. I’m not using a pseudonym. A simple google search reveals the name of the place I work, and its website, and my title, and office number in the building. I’m not afraid of that anymore. I’m not afraid of him. This doesn’t mean I want him knowing my address or the names of my children or my spouse. Why put them at risk by using their real names?
TH: You address motherhood in this book—why did you feel it was important to include the birth of your children in this narrative?
LJ: My children, more than anyone else really, have taught me what it means to love. As I write in the book, I had this very naive and romantic idea that giving birth to my first child would “fix” me, that creating life would somehow balance out the negative space left by the abuse I suffered at the hands of someone I had loved. I totally bought in to the whole fiction around childbirth: how my child would be a joy and I would look at her and feel love like I’d never experienced before. And like that, Voila!, I thought, I’d be “fixed.” Clearly, this is a really selfish way of thinking about bringing another person into the world, and it was based on what I thought I would get from a baby, and didn’t take into account all that I would have to give. But the very first time looked into her face, moments after she was born, I realized that she had absolutely nothing to give me at all. I know that’s not a very popular way of talking about birth, because I’m supposed to say I felt so blessed or Her life is a gift or some crap like that. I don’t think that way of thinking had set me up for success, because in reality what I had was this screaming ball of pure want and need. I fed her and clothed her and put her to sleep, but that’s not all she wanted from me. Babies can be full enough, and warm enough, and well rested, but they have an appetite for love that is never, ever sated. And in that regard, I didn’t feel like I had anything to give her, because allowing myself to love her seemed like such a terrible, horrifying risk. As she grew older, she started to offer me something no one else in my life ever had: completely relentless and unconditional love. At first, it made me feel so sad and anxious and ashamed. It felt like so much pressure. I certainly didn’t deserve it, not after everything. And I certainly didn’t have that kind of love to offer her in return. But my daughter kept loving me in her fierce, stubborn way, and little by little, I began to see myself through her eyes: as a person who didn’t need to change a thing, who was already worthy of that kind of love. When my son was born, loving him came so much easier, because I had this really incredible teacher there to show me how it should be done. That is the gift my children have given me, and it’s where I found the strength to write this book.