In her stunning memoir The Other Side, Lacy M. Johnson tells the story of being held prisoner in a soundproofed basement of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. Though the violence in her book is easy to sensationalize, her narrative is a universal one of survival. Moreover, Johnson herself is anything but a victim. Here she is last month commenting on George Will’s dismissive treatment of women who have endured rape:
Men like George F. Will use the word “victim” as a slur, and I take that personally. On July 5, 2000, a man I knew — a man I had once loved and trusted — held a taser to my throat and took over the use of my car; he drove me to a basement apartment he had rented for the sole purpose of raping and killing me. He said he would kill me if I didn’t have sex with him, if I didn’t make love to him and make him believe it was real. In the police reports regarding that case, I am identified as Lacy Johnson, VICTIM. There isn’t a day that passes when I don’t try to shirk that label. I hold my head up high. I work at my job. I shower my children with kisses. I shop and walk in the street.
Johnson’s memoir is an extraordinary document, and she herself holds an important place in a movement to stop violence against women. She was kind enough to grant us an interview.
The Rumpus: Can you talk a bit about who George F. Will is?
Lacy Johnson: I’ll say only this about George F. Will: He is a conservative columnist for the Washington Post, and he matters to me not at all except for having written a particularly ill-conceived op-ed about sexual assault on college campuses—a subject about which he knows nothing. I wrote a response to his column, which was published on the Tin House blog, and which you quote above. Let’s never speak of him again.
Rumpus: Women throughout the US woke up July 1, 2014 to a particular type of violence, and that is the violence of hearing that this family-owned chain of stores Hobby Lobby won a victory in refusing to cover the medical fees of women’s birth control. I’m still stunned that in 2014 women’s reproductive rights are up for discussion. All of this amongst the #YesAllWomen movement. I mean we are having a clusterfuck of a moment . . . I have to admit I’m a little late to the party with things involving Twitter and social media. So can you speak a little about #YesAllWomen, and what it means to you?
Johnson: I believe #YesAllWomen will go down as a watershed moment in feminist history. For those who may not be familiar, I’ll give a little history: The whole thing started on May 24, the day after the Isla Vista shooting, when people started realizing that the shooter had a long history of expressing hatred and violence towards women. He planned the crimes, and his premeditation is documented in YouTube videos he posted days and hours before the shootings, citing rejection by women as one of his motivations for the slaughter. In one of the videos he says, “I don’t know why you girls have never been attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it.” When certain users on Twitter began pointing out that these attitudes of sexual entitlement are consistent with a broader, misogynistic, sexually aggressive culture, other Twitter users got defensive and asserted that “not all men” are misogynistic or aggressive or homicidal. One woman—I wish I knew her name—began tagging her tweets #YesAllWomen in response to the “not all men” argument, to make clear that, no, not all men are homicidal maniacs, but yes, all women live in fear of those that are. Within days, millions of women everywhere in the world were sharing their experiences of fear, intimidation, and harassment. At one point there were as many as 50,000 tweets a minute, with women sharing their experiences of everyday misogyny. The backlash against #YesAllWomen was, and remains, harsh, with users being trolled, harassed, insulted, and threatened. Around the same time I tweeted the following:
A male user tweeted something like, “If we have to pay for dinner and take out the trash we should get to rape you guys sometimes #YesAllWomen.” Unfortunately, I didn’t catch a screen grab of that, and the tweet has since been deleted.
But a month later, the vitriol was still coming. Here’s another example:
In the end, these threats are intended to frighten us, to threaten us, and to silence us, but it isn’t working. I find tremendous hope in that. #YesAllWomen mobilized women in a way I’ve never seen before, and I don’t think we’ve seen the end of it yet.
Rumpus: This next question is pretty particular to pain, or perhaps maybe really to survival. A thing I do—“I’m going to count to ten.” It’s the original threat—my heart spiking with angst as the numbers increase—yet when my mother locked me in her closet I remember counting as a form of solace. And now today, when faced with any kind of anxiety-inducing challenge—any extended discomfort (the dentist, a bikini wax, traffic), I count. Do you remember what you thought about in the basement? Was there ever a time when you resigned yourself to not getting out or was all your attention on leaving?
Johnson: It’s so interesting to hear about the different ways people cope with trauma. You counted, and I’m so glad that the counting brought you comfort. Most of the time I spent in the soundproof room, I thought of very little. I’ve come to think of terror as the mind caught drawing out the O in no. The O like a tunnel that leads down and down and down forever. During the very worst moments in the soundproof room, that’s where I went, down that infinite tunnel. It’s something I still carry with me, like an actual built place, and it’s where I take refuge even now when I’m faced with a trauma, no matter how slight. It’s automatic at this point. So no, I never felt resigned to being murdered by a psychopath. I didn’t feel particularly afraid of him even. I didn’t feel anything at all since my conscious self was already sliding down that O, watching what happened to my body from an increasingly immeasurable distance. For me, the project of the book is very much about climbing out of that tunnel, away from the terror, toward the light.
Rumpus: On that subject of moving away from terror, in your memoir you write, “How is it possible to reclaim the body when it’s visible only in a mirror: a reflection of the body, external, and reversed, an image that both belongs to me and doesn’t.”
In that same passage you describe yourself as both—a woman who has died, and a woman who goes on living.
No words have rung more true for me. I look at pictures of myself as a young girl, and I often feel like that girl has died and in her place sprung a completely different person with a different family and a different home, and a different school. My life is divided into two sets, birth family and foster family, and then there is the limbo land in between—group homes and la calle. Yet, strangely enough, I will sometimes feel like I am possessed by my birth mother, feel her expression bloom on my face, hear her biological echo in my voice.
This isn’t so much a question as a repost but I wonder and am sort of hoping that another fissure was born, that in becoming a mother you were able to reclaim your body, or perhaps gift parts of yourself to an entirely new being who is an extension of yourself.
Johnson: I know what you mean by “limbo land,” and where that really powerful hope for healing comes from because that’s exactly how I thought things would happen, too. I really thought that becoming a mother would be exactly that poetic, and symmetrical, and neat. But in fact my body was never less my own than after giving birth because I had to share it with this helpless wailing creature who wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. Eventually, as a result, I couldn’t smile or laugh or get out of bed. While the fantasy of having a child meant I would be restored to the person I had been years before, the reality of having a child meant I realized that person no longer existed, which was a devastating thing to realize after pinning so much hope on it.
But in that section you quote, when I ask, “How is it possible to reclaim the body when it’s visible only in a mirror?” The answer I finally came to is much more complicated, and has to do with what happens every time I walk out the door. When I was younger, before the kidnapping even, I didn’t realize how much my appearance participated in a much larger economy of image and desire. I wanted people to think I was beautiful and crafted my appearance accordingly. Now I realize the extent to which women are trained to value themselves based on how much we are desired by men—and how this training is part of a larger culture that demeans women as a general rule. Over time, I’ve stopped offering to the world an image of myself that I think it wants to see, and instead offer only the one I want to show—which is not an image of beauty but of strength.
Rumpus: I agree; even further, I’d say to be strong is to be beautiful. Another passage that struck to the core of me was when you write about keeping a journal as a teenager:
I write about sneaking out of the house to get drunk, smoke pot, and have sex with boys who have already graduated from high school. I write about fucking a grown man on the golf course in the middle of the night. How his cock is so large it nearly splits me in two. I write about the man who dances me into a corner at a party and fucks me in the front seat of his car. I write about the college student who fucks me on the bottom bunk at a frat party, my head spinning from alcohol, my friend passed out in the next room. I write about going to apartments to give head. In my notebook, it’s all I want, this fucking.
I read that passage and something clicked in me. How a good part of my sexuality was playing the role of girl as object, girl as toy. It used to be my mantra, unconsciously; I’d drive my car and chant to myself “fuckmefuckmefuckme.” I am what is known in the queer world as a bottom—I would say a stone cold bottom. I want to be touched and fucked and had but am too timid for the taking. And yes of course my perception and experience of intimacy has morphed as I’ve matured and developed loving, healthy relationships, but my teenage journals juxtaposed against yours would have been mirror images. And I discovered this captivity as our line of symmetry.
I heard recently that some therapists or relationship gurus often inquire, “Would you rather be respected in your relationship or would you rather be cherished?” So would you rather be respected or cherished?
Johnson: For me respect is the bare minimum.
Rumpus: I know it’s kind of cheesy and gross, and I felt strange even asking, it but I guess I am aware that in certain situations at work or in a lot of aspects of my life I tend to be guarded and poised for negotiating. Outside of work, I sometimes carry deep within me the fear and feeling of being hunted. The sound of my heels on the sidewalk at night. I walk to my car with my key erect between my knuckles. So in my romantic relationships I just like to get all loosey goosey and well—be cherished. Of course, I have to feel safe in order to do that, and so I agree that in order to be safe respect would be a bare minimum.
Johnson: It’s crazy how so many women lead the kind of double life you’re talking about, where the price for feeling safe at home is vigilance in public. So many of us do it in a very automatic way; we must have learned it somewhere, how to carry our keys between our knuckles like that, how to listen for a rush of footsteps approaching from behind. Men don’t get that same kind of education.
Rumpus: The most common question I’m asked about writing is about how do I write about experiences that are painful. Do you have any tips for readers that are interested in digging deep into their own narrative and are afraid of a) being emotionally vulnerable and b) the perception of friends and family members?
Johnson: I get that question a lot, too. Before I started writing The Other Side I would read another person’s work, let’s say Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and I’d find his willingness to admit so much about himself on the page totally fascinating. But that’s also what makes it such a powerful book! When I first read Suck City, before I came to know Nick and call him a friend, I felt totally convinced that the writer was grappling with some heavy shit—grief, loss, addiction—and it compelled me to grapple with some heavy shit of my own. Why do we read if not to empathize? Writers are real actual people just like readers are real actual people, and all of us fuck up way more than we’d like and make huge mistakes. I don’t think I learned from my huge mistakes until I wrote the book, which was probably the first time I had admitted even to myself the part I played in what turned into a completely messed up situation. And now that the book is nearly out, when all of these people I’ve never met are about to read all of these incredibly personal things about me, I don’t feel vulnerable. I don’t worry about the ramifications. I feel calm, collected, at ease. A few months ago, when I was preparing to read from The Other Side for the first time, I asked Nick which part of the book I should read and he gave me some really great advice. He said, “Start with the part that is hardest to say.” I think that’s really great advice for writers, too.
Rumpus: The structure of your memoir reminds me of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water in that it seems to be organized in fragments. Is the structure of the memoir the way you experience your memories?
Johnson: I love Lidia Yuknavitch! Does she have a cult yet? Because I would totally join her cult! And I loved Chronology of Water, the structure of which begins in fragments but eventually gives way to longer more linear narrative sections. I thought that move on her part was brilliant—moving from this fragmented narrative of being shattered by grief towards a more linear one of power and healing and hope. I think my book differs from hers in that the form of mine is consistent throughout—short vignettes, never more than a page or two, some no more than a few lines. Just as I was starting to work on The Other Side, I got really obsessed with diagrams of labyrinths. Did you know labyrinths are different from mazes? I didn’t know that. In mazes there are turns and choices and dead ends. But in a labyrinth there is only one way in, which leads all the way to the center, where something terrible like a minotaur might eat you, and then it turns and comes only one way out. This struck me as a really excellent metaphor for the way I experience the memory of being kidnapped and raped by a man I used to love, and so the structure of the book follows the labyrinth in and in, toward the terrible center, and then turns and comes back out.
Rumpus: And lastly, what’s next? Are you working on anything at the moment that you can share with readers?
Johnson: I’m always working on a lot of things—right now a few essays, some cultural criticism, a bit of art writing. I’ll probably start working on my third book very soon, which will likely be another work of unconventional nonfiction. But it’s hard to even begin thinking about that because I’m not yet finished with the project of this one. Yes, the writing is done, and the book is nearly out in the world, but now I am touring and giving readings, speaking publicly and doing so without fear of the ramifications. Who knows what will happen? Maybe I’ll be threatened. Maybe I’ll get hate mail. I’m not afraid of that. In some ways this is the more important part of the project—the one in which we all have a long-overdue conversation. It’s only now just beginning.