Lacy M. Johnson
Portland, OR: Tin House
Paperback, 978-1935639831 (also available as e-book and audiobook)
232 pages, $15.95
“Just inside the door, they will find a dog collar, construction supplies, and a soundproof room. I have told them what to expect. Meanwhile, waiting alone in the car under the dark shadow of an oak tree I start seeing things: no shadow is just a shadow of an oak tree…When The Detective returns, he finds me knotted into thirds on the floorboard: hardly like a woman at all.”
The Other Side is the National Book Critics Circle Award– and Edgar Award–nominated memoir from Lacy M. Johnson, who was kidnapped, imprisoned, and raped by a former boyfriend in 2000. This is her story of the before, during, and after. Johnson also tackles universal issues women live with: the illusion of power as puberty works its alchemy and men begin to pay attention to girls who are still children, regardless of the new swell of breast and curve of hip; the sense of always being on stage, under constant evaluation; the popularity of Dead Girls in our culture.
The Other Side is not a linear, chronological memoir but written in fits and starts, as if it’s too much to sustain for long. Johnson’s writing is at once removed, as if disassociated, and searingly personal. Instead of names, she capitalizes common nouns that change depending upon the role the person currently performs and it is peculiarly affecting: My Spanish Teacher becomes The Man I Live With becomes The Suspect.
Johnson has much to say about memory and how “even what the mind forgets, the body remembers.” Her use of rhythm and repetition is practically poetic.
“But the mind goes thrashing so wildly. The body lays itself down on a clear plastic sheet, hears but does not listen to the soup of human-like speech boiling in its ears, spilling exactly the length and width of the room. The mind skitters safely out of reach….But the mind goes thrashing. 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 unraveling, will be unraveling, has been unraveling since.”
Johnson survives and goes on to become a professor, published writer, wife, and mother. She has the help of a husband who refuses to participate in her campaign to annihilate herself. She struggles with motherhood: how to keep kids safe without suffocating them, how to deal with their demands that remind her of The Suspect’s childishly vehement demands, how to open her heart again.
“I’m afraid the story isn’t finished happening. 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 of language.”
Johnson has granted us the privilege of honesty by including every shade of grey. If there is a failure of language in The Other Side I cannot find it.