The author on her new book of essays about activism, the failure to reckon, and extracting power from pain.
Lacy M. Johnson often gets asked, “What would you like to see happen to your rapist?” The question usually comes from readers of The Other Side, her 2014 memoir about being kidnapped and raped by her boyfriend, who planned to kill her. Her latest collection of essays, The Reckonings (Scribner), is an attempt to answer this question, and, more broadly, address the complexities of seeking retribution.
Each essay in the collection grapples with an injustice that includes and goes beyond the self: from sexual assault to the death penalty to environmental disaster. There is no “irritable reaching” for certainty as John Keats put it. Through each exacting and deliberate examination, Johnson’s project moves ideas of justice beyond vengeance, into compassion, mercy, and grace. She contends deeply with injustice, including a frank admission and in-depth exploration of her own white privilege in the essay “Against Whiteness.” At the very heart of her thesis is that “the failure to reckon” may be the greatest injustice of all.
During a talk she gave at the Tin House 2018 Summer Workshop, Johnson confronted the criticism waged against her memoir The Other Side, that she was unlikeable. She responded by asserting, “As if by labeling me unlikable, they don’t have to listen to the story I needed to tell.” Women, she says, who are ambitious, who are good at their jobs, who tell the truth, who don’t take shit, who burn bridges, who know their worth, are unlikable. She concludes, “I am not good at singing…but I know I write like a bad motherfucker.” And she does.
The Reckonings is Johnson’s third book, and The Other Side was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime, and the CLMP Firecracker Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Tin House, Guernica, and elsewhere. She lives in Houston and teaches creative nonfiction at Rice University.
Johnson and I spoke via telephone on a bleak Monday in September, against the backdrop of the seventeenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Hurricane Florence was bearing down and mandatory evacuation orders had been issued for coastal communities within the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, all too familiar to Johnson, Houston Flood Museum curator, who had lived through and writes about Hurricane Harvey which hit Houston in 2017. Kavanaugh’s nomination for the Supreme Court was in the headlines and we were yet to hear about the letter detailing an accusation of sexual assault against him, but we were sure the gloom and successive blows to women in the Trump era would continue. As my dog barked in the background and Johnson, caught in traffic, had pulled off the interstate to talk with me, we commiserated, as women, as writers, and as activists.
—Kelly Thompson for Guernica Magazine
Guernica: You endured a horrific incident as a young woman in which a man you once loved kidnapped you, held you in a soundproof room, and raped you. In The Reckonings, you write about the person in the back of the room at your readings, usually sitting by the door, who holds a retributive idea of justice and who asks you what you would like to see happen to him. Is the title essay, “The Reckonings,” your answer?
Lacy M. Johnson: I think it’s my answer to the particular person or people sitting by the door who ask that question or have that assumption, but it isn’t unique to them or The Other Side or even to my experience. The idea of retributive justice, or vengeance, is common. The second part of their question was, “You probably want him dead, right?”
Everybody assumed I would want him not only punished, but killed, and that was so surprising to me. I was shocked by it. It bothered me so much. I started thinking, and wondering, What’s with that? Where does that come from? But it’s a very ancient impulse, older than the Bible even, the sort of eye for an eye that we find in Leviticus. And it goes all the way back to the Code of Hammurabi, written laws dating back to about 1754 BC, which, interestingly, meant to put an upper limit on vengeance rather than to suggest that vengeance or retribution should be a mandate.
Perhaps it’s an innate instinctual impulse to want to harm the person who harmed you, not just the way that they harmed you, but to completely destroy them as a way to get even. We feel like there would be pleasure in that, or that it is a natural desire. I just wanted to put some pressure on that idea, and see if there are in fact other ways of being, and also to think about what kind of harm we perpetuate by insisting on that mode of justice, if it is justice at all.
Guernica: In the title essay, you write, “Everyone gets their just desserts, the story tells me, so I can go on.” People want the loose ends tied up and they want to believe that there is retributive justice, so that they can feel safer, it seems. So much of our cultural narratives are simplistic. Why is that?
Lacy M. Johnson: I think we find narrative pleasure in that story. When we go to watch movies or we read about things in a book, we’re removed in some way, distanced, so we participate as an observer rather than thinking about our own lives.
When Paul Manafort got convicted recently, a lot of people I knew celebrated, had a little party. We rejoice in punishment; it’s the end to the story that we desire. I also participated in that, I was not sorry to see Paul Manafort get convicted.
From a narrative point of view, if you raise the stakes a little bit in movies or in stories, from a conviction to, say, an execution, as I wrote in the book, we find pleasure in watching the bad guy get his due. I found pleasure in seeing Beatrix Kiddo finally kill Bill by performing the five-point exploding heart technique.
That said, I would not find pleasure in seeing someone murdered in real life. It’s increasingly available to us, the documentation of murder. But the feeling is not pleasure at all, it’s horror.
That horror cues us into the fact that our narratives are not necessarily serving us from the perspective of building real justice in the world.
Guernica: In your essay “Against Whiteness,” you mention “the failure to reckon.” Do you think that failure is at the core of injustice?
Lacy M. Johnson: A lot of injustice gets perpetuated with a failure to reckon with our history, with the way that we participate in harming other people, even if we don’t mean to, even if we don’t have ill intentions, even if we aren’t trying to do bad things. But that doesn’t mean that our actions aren’t harmful, even if we don’t intend them to be.
Part of the reason that the book is called The Reckonings is that each essay reckons with an injustice. Like the bird on the cover, it’s the same bird every time, but each photograph shows it in a different position. All the essays are in some ways the same essay, they’re asking the same question, which is, What do we even mean by justice? What does justice look like in this world? How can we achieve justice in a way that doesn’t make more injustice?
Guernica: That “failure to reckon” includes looking at language. In “Speak Truth to Power,” you discuss the Me Too movement, rape culture, and the many things that women live with in their daily lives that are considered unspeakable, and write that language itself can silence women. How is language serving justice or injustice in the world?
Lacy M. Johnson: That’s the thing we’re seeing with the Me Too movement. We’re told that it’s taboo to tell, that it’s shameful to have been—and the language here is interesting—raped, to have been assaulted, to have been the victim of domestic violence, that it is shameful to have received the misogyny that men are trained to project from birth, rather than the opposite: that it’s shameful to rape a woman or it’s shameful to abuse someone who’s your domestic partner.
The shame of speaking about having been assaulted performs the function of silencing along with, of course, the other fact that women aren’t believed if they do speak. They make it pretty hard for the victim to try to get any kind of remedy in the court system for this terrible violence that’s been done.
When someone commits a crime against a woman’s body, it’s not considered a crime against her but a crime against the state. She belongs to the state. There are so many layers.
Guernica: You write, “Language disappears men in relation to their crimes and puts the focus on victims.”
Lacy M. Johnson: Right, because we talk about how many women were raped, not how many men raped women. We talk about how many women were the victims of murder, not how many men murder women. Our language obscures the violence that’s happening and who is performing that violence on whose body. You know, we have to make our sentences more active. The passive voice removes the actors, and it takes the focus off the perpetrator and focuses on the victim, as though there is no perpetrator, only a victim.
Vice President Biden, at a press conference in 2014, spoke about the findings of a presidential task force that revealed that one in four women who goes to college is raped. I see numbers like that all the time. I teach at a university, so we’re always seeing these numbers—you know, two out of five women, what percentage of women have been raped in their lives. But where is the study that shows how many men rape women? What percentage of men are raping women? I would like to see that study. I would like to know.
Guernica: In that essay, you tell the story of Philomena, who had her tongue cut out by her rapist, but who finds a way to tell her story anyway, through art, by weaving a tapestry. What does it mean to you that women are speaking out and telling their stories?
Lacy M. Johnson: With Me Too we have started to see how important it is to speak out, that change can occur, that it’s not futile, that it’s not exclusively an uphill battle, that you won’t always be punished, there won’t always be retribution, that in fact speaking can affect positive change.
Les Moonves was just removed as the head of CBS for sexually assaulting at least twelve women over a period of many years.
Guernica: Yes, I saw that.
Lacy M. Johnson: What was most interesting is that he’s not getting a severance package. CBS is instead donating at least $20 million to various Me Too organizations. Six board members have been removed, and many of those have been replaced with women. Women are being placed at the top of organizations in ways that I think are right and good, and reflect a shift. So things are changing.
I think about the Olympics doctor, Larry Nassar, earlier this year, and the way that enough women speaking up and insisting on being heard made people look into it, so that even more women came forward. I’ve never seen anything like the sentence hearing, the way that the judge handled it, the way she allowed women who had survived the violence he committed against them to look him in the eye and tell him the harm that he had done, to say what they wanted to say to him.
Only a couple of women had agreed to do it, but the judge left the sentencing open. She said, “I’m not going to close it. We’ve heard from everybody who’s on the schedule right now but I’m going to go ahead and leave this open over the weekend. I’m going to keep it open on Monday so that if you are listening right now, if you’re watching this on television, and you haven’t had a chance to come and tell him what you want to tell him, now is the time, come and say what you have to say. I’m going to keep it open for you.”
And then the women came.
He tried to say, “This is harming me, this is hurting my feelings,” and she was like, “Tough!”
Guernica: “You’re traumatizing me.”
Lacy M. Johnson: Right, and she says, “No, you are going to listen to this right here. I’m going to make you listen to this. You don’t get to talk back. I’m not going to let you read your letter, I’m going to rip it up and throw it on the ground.”
I just thought it was remarkable. And at that moment I felt a glacial shift. You’ve seen the calving of the glaciers; it was like something huge was breaking away right at that moment. And I felt like now we’re on a different side of something from where we were before.
Guernica: With what happened in that courtroom and many of the things we’re witnessing, I wondered how you receive those victories, given that the man who raped you is still missing and has never been held accountable.
Lacy M. Johnson: I watch with interest. As I write in The Reckonings, that’s what I want—that’s all that I would want—is to be able to tell him what he has done to me.
But also, I would like to have him reflect back to me, to acknowledge, not make an excuse, not apologize, but say, “Yes, I harmed you in these ways. I take responsibility for that harm.” Not even to say he’s sorry or anything, just to admit what he’s done, just admit it without qualifying or revising it, to just mirror back to me basically what I say to him about what he did. That’s what I want. That reflection was missing from Nassar’s trial.
And then what happens to him after that, I don’t really care. I mean, I don’t want him to be my neighbor, I don’t want him living next to me, I don’t want him to necessarily go free because he’s a person who’s capable, as we’ve seen, of being very harmful and breaking the law and committing violence against people. But I’m not fantasizing about him being in prison either. And when I say I don’t really care, it doesn’t mean I don’t want him to go to prison necessarily. Whatever happens to him is not how I think about justice. That’s not justice for me. That’s just, you know, he broke the law, there are laws, it’s protecting the community from the harm he may do in the future, but it’s not justice.
Justice for me is finding a way to not be constantly looking over my shoulder, to not feel like I’m defined by this story every moment of my life, like I’m always navigating in relationship to this thing that he did to me. Justice is that I can experience joy, that I can live in the present, that I can be with my children and not think about them being harmed all the time.
That’s what justice looks like for me. I don’t even necessarily like the idea of restorative justice, because I don’t think we can restore things back to the way they were. Oftentimes, I find recovery writing or talk of recovery after trauma problematic because I can’t go back. I can’t re-become the person I was before.
Guernica: In your title essay, “The Reckonings,” you write, “I’ve learned that sometimes the hardest and most important work I’ve done has meant turning a story I couldn’t tell into one I can—and that this practice on its own is one not only of discovery but of healing.” What are the ways into that discovery, if there’s no recovery?
Lacy M. Johnson: I don’t know that I have a manual about what to do, but I know that I spent a lot of time trying to “recover.” And I found it quite futile and frustrating. Ultimately, it just seemed like I was moving in the wrong direction. I can’t ever re-become the person I was before. And I wouldn’t want to either.
But how do I take the worst thing that’s happened to me in my entire life and, instead of trying to back away from it, move forward through it, and through that motion transform the pain into power and strength?
I’m a much more powerful, outspoken, strong woman than I was when I was twenty-one years old, when that happened to me, or even before I met him. I would not want to give that back. And so, going through this, and finding my way, discovering a way forward, is the source from which I draw that power and strength.
I think that also has to do with being in a loving community, feeling myself embraced by love, and that being embraced by the love of others allows me to love myself in such a way that I can approach the pain not from a place of pain but from a place of calm understanding that I am cared for in this world. That is the thing that’s allowed me to approach that pain and trauma in a way that has resulted in it becoming a source of power.
Guernica: For me, perhaps the most devastating moment in the book came in “Girlhood in a Semibarbarous Age,” when your young daughter says to you, “I don’t want to be a girl.” What was that like for you as a mom?
Lacy M. Johnson: It’s a hard thing to hear. I don’t think she would remember saying that now because she’s older, but as girls begin to leave childhood and begin to approach that border where they’re becoming women, becoming sexualized, and even before—because they’re sexualized all their lives—before their awareness of it catches up, they realize, as girls, as she did, I’m not safe in this world in the way that I thought I was, this world isn’t the place that I thought it was.
Guernica: It’s so damaging to girls.
Lacy M. Johnson: It’s not good for boys either. I also have a son. As Chimamanda Adichie says, “Masculinity is a small, hard cage, and we put men and boys in it.” I see that very much happening for my son, similar to it happening for my daughter, but in a completely different way. The way that children receive their gender education is just completely unjust. These are the things that are going to happen to you according to your gender, this is our expectation, and this is the world that you enter. Better carry some mace and watch out. I don’t think it’s good for anyone.
I was thinking about both of those things in the essay. Obviously, that particular essay is about girlhood, you know, it’s in the title, and I’m trying to examine the way that this history is handed down to us as if it’s biological or as if it’s inevitable, when in fact it seems like a crock of shit.
Guernica: I love the notes in the back of the book that provide more details about the references that come up in the essays. In the notes for the “Girlhood” essay you discuss the Venus of Willendorf figure as problematic.
Lacy M. Johnson: Yes, she’s got a large bosom, she’s very round, fecundity is what it’s all about. Fertility. We’re told this image alone is representative of the sacred feminine. But, in fact, at all of these sites where they’ve discovered these so-called Venus figurines, they actually find a variety of them. They’re not all round and large-breasted. Some are tall and slender and flat-chested, some are dancing, and some are athletic. Why are we holding one up as the sacred feminine? That seems like a fiction and I would say a fairly modern fiction.
The other half of the dichotomy in that essay—there’s the woman on the one hand, but on the other hand there’s the bull and the beast—that’s what we expect from men, that’s how we teach them how to be, both through our language, as we were discussing before, and the things we implicitly suggest are expected of them. How they’re expected to behave toward women, toward one another, the way that they’re expected to think about themselves. If we don’t hold men up one way, and women up one way, if we allow ourselves a bit more queerness and movement, then perhaps we might not find ourselves in quite this situation.
Guernica: In “On Mercy,” which first appeared in Guernica, you write about two kinds of mercy: “Little mercy teaches a lesson…that everyone is human, just as we are. There’s no one—no one—who doesn’t deserve that kind of mercy.” And examples of that “little mercy” abound throughout the book—for example, in your work with children who have cancer, your daily runs, in the minutia of our lives, really. That, you suggest, is where we find mercy, even justice. What are your thoughts on “big mercy”?
Lacy M. Johnson: I think of big mercy in a kind of biblical sense. I’m an atheist now, but I grew up Southern Baptist, so there’s a way that my consciousness is shaped by the stories that I was told as a child. And so, when I was a child and going to Sunday school at the First Baptist Church, the stories I heard about mercy were about God’s mercy. Humans are terrible and expendable, so we were told stories that reflected that. Noah and the flood is one of those stories. God was so disgusted with humanity and its depravity that he decided to destroy everyone except Noah and his family. Mercy was shown to some, saving a few at the expense of everyone else. That’s what I think of as “big mercy.”
But I also see that kind of mercy in terms of how we think about death row, the way that the governor works, or the parole board, or the Supreme Court when it’s making a decision about a man’s life. They have this power to spare someone who has been sentenced to death, and when they do, we call it mercy. I don’t think anyone is worthy enough to offer that kind of mercy. There’s too much power in it. That kind of power is not just, no matter what. I don’t think that anybody deserves to necessarily receive that kind of mercy either, especially when it’s at the expense of everyone else. None of us deserve to be the chosen few, the ones spared from mass sacrifice while everyone else perishes.
Guernica: It makes me think about the power of story that we’ve been talking about and where stories originate. And that’s another book you could probably write, right?
Lacy M. Johnson: I’m going to write about climate change next. That’s the next thing. I wrote about it a bit in The Reckonings, but I found there’s a bit more that I want to say about that. I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet. It’s still a little embryo of an idea.
Guernica: How can any of us contain the despair that can arise, the approaching disaster, as you so eloquently state, “that is us?” In that particular sentence you were referring to the fallout of toxic waste, but it seems to me that allegation applies across the board. In other words, what relieves or helps you with the burden of complicity?
Lacy M. Johnson: Oh my goodness, I don’t know. I feel quite a lot of despair sometimes. I think I do what I do, my activism, because it’s the right thing to do, or it’s the right thing for me to do. I’m not saying that I expect everyone to do it.
I talk about it maybe a little bit in the essay “Art in the Age of Apocalypse.” There are a lot of things that I love and want to save, to protect and cherish and value. But there is also terrible injustice. Writing about injustice is just one form that my activism takes. By doing that, I give myself permission to see not only the problem that exists, but that it is maybe the symptom of a greater ill, a structural thing. By writing about it, I can understand what that structural thing is. And that’s the thing that needs the remedy.
I don’t always get to an answer about what that should be, but I strive toward it. I hope that readers come along with me and my questions about how to repair these wrongs, and it moves the conversation a little closer toward justice.
Guernica: Does that fit with your conception of the function of art?
Lacy M. Johnson: It’s a function of my art, anyway. I don’t think it’s the function of all art, but definitely it’s a function of the art that I’m interested in making and experiencing and reading and supporting. I make this work from a place of hope, an orientation of the spirit. It’s not a belief that something will turn out a certain way, but a commitment to doing something because it’s right, no matter how it will turn out.
I don’t necessarily have confidence that this book of essays or any particular essay will change the world, but I’m compelled toward some kind of action. I can’t pretend injustice doesn’t exist, I can’t not address it, I can’t ignore it, I can’t comply with it, I can’t be complicit. This is the way that I am in the world.