Change Ourselves, Change the World: Talking with Lacy M. Johnson

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In her memoir The Other Side, Lacy M. Johnson unspooled the hardest story of her life, of being kidnapped and raped by who she calls “a man [she] used to love.” She told her story in all of its complexity and ugliness and beauty, and created one of the most three-dimensional and true portraits of trauma I’ve ever read. She articulated with depth and nuance feelings and experiences that many couldn’t even address directly, and did away with any ideas that trauma and vulnerability are in contradiction with steadiness and clarity.

In her new essay collection, The Reckonings, releasing tomorrow from Scribner, Johnson turns that same unflinching eye outward, onto the biggest, most insurmountable issues of our time: capital punishment and what defines justice; dismantling whiteness; speaking out about sexual assault; making art when it feels like the world is ending; and how to carry the collective caring, bravery, and generosity that humans show in the midst of disaster into every day of our lives—just to name a few. In a world that feels more overwhelming and unhealable every day, Johnson has provided a grounding, clarifying text to remind us of what’s at stake, and what we should be striving toward. She’s created a compass, pointing forward, that I know I’ll return to over and over again.

I spoke with Johnson last week by phone about her new book, the Kavanuagh hearing, and why we need to hold each other’s suffering in spite of our own discomfort.

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The Rumpus: In the essay, “Art in the Age of Apocalypses,” you say that you found in essays, “a way of re-seeing the world in which the world could be changed.” When I read that line it kind of clicked for me and it felt like a key to the whole book and seemed to apply to all essays in the collection. I was hoping you could talk a little more about that idea, and maybe what you saw as the thrust of this collection, the organizing principal, as it were, if that was not it.

Lacy M. Johnson: So, I think what I’m talking about in that essay is seeing in essays, or using essays, not necessarily to change the exterior world, but to change one’s own relationship to it. And in order to change the world, we change ourselves. If the world as we understand it—especially the social, cultural world—is made of individuals, by changing the sort of internal makeup or composition or attitudes and orientations of people, even slightly, that has a ripple effect that does change the world. And so, essays allow me to see in myself the way that I can change and therefore the way that the world can be changed, that it’s a key.

Then each of the essays is about a change or an injustice that’s out in the world and seeks to find, within the attitudes that I hold or that I share with others, the way that injustice can be address. That by shifting our idea of what justice is, for instance, we can create opportunities for justice. That if right now our conception of justice is violence and really the definition of justice and injustice are sort of the same thing, that you do harm to another person, then we’re caught in a kind of loop. And rather than trying to change the justice system or change the penal system or change all these symptoms of that attitude, what we perhaps actually need to do is change ourselves.

Rumpus: Which is especially hard, and I guess therefore especially important, when there’s so much to be angry about. You talked about feeling hatred for the first time after the election and realizing that that was not going to help.

Johnson: Right, and I think that definition that we have of what justice is, we’re taught it should feel like hatred. Take the death penalty, right? To see a person you hate murdered. To believe that that should feel good or pleasurable. That’s hatred, right? That’s where it comes from. And I think what I want to argue is that justice actually should feel like joy. Whatever form justice takes, it should feel like joy.

Rumpus: All of the essays in this book feel very timely and relevant, but I ended up reading your essay “Speak Truth to Power” the week of the Kavanaugh hearings, and there were a few lines in there that just felt like the perfect encapsulations of the conversation around the “why I didn’t report” hashtag and message, just felt like the perfect response to everything that was going on. So when I was reading that essay during that week, and feeling so intensely about it, I was also wondering what you were thinking. What it felt like for you to be watching that, knowing that this work of yours that addressed it so clearly was about to come out, and having spent so much time thinking about these ideas.

Johnson: I mean, I think I broke a couple teeth last week, maybe. Like grinding my teeth in my sleep. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been triggered. And I don’t throw that word around easily or loosely, but everything about the last couple of weeks has made everything in my body just sort of clench like a fist. Because yes, I write about this, but also I live this. This is my life. And to see the ways that power is abused to define another person’s reality. Just to see it in action and just see all the kind of gaslighting techniques that so many of us have experienced on a personal level, to see them writ large on the political stage­—I mean obviously it confirmed everything that I had always suspected, but I didn’t take any joy in that. I also saw just that really what’s at stake here isn’t even necessarily this seat on the Supreme Court. It isn’t, “is she going to be believed.” It’s who gets the power to define their own reality.

Rumpus: One of the things that that really stuck out to me in that essay in particular that I’ve kind of been turning over in my mind since reading it was when you talk about how we use language that removes the culpable person from the situation entirely, like we talk about women who are raped rather than men who rape. We talk about ‘accusers.’ That felt like it really applied to this situation as well. Even the language that we use, you write, is designed to undercut someone’s definition of their own experience.

Johnson: Yeah, and that line I think that comes right after that about Woody Allen where he says that somehow the accusations themselves are the crime and he is the victim. We saw that also with Kavanaugh, where he was saying that he was a victim of these accusations and then we saw all the white men in the GOP coming to his defense and supporting that twisting of the information. Where Lindsey Graham said, “You don’t have anything to be sorry for. In fact, everybody should regret what they’ve done to you.”

And I think the thing that’s been triggering not only for myself—I was talking to my students yesterday and just with a lot of women that I’ve had conversations with—is that somehow where we are having an opportunity to talk, finally, finally, finally there’s an openness to talk in this very open way about this epidemic of sexual violence, when all of us all of our lives have experienced this very powerful burden of silence. And in this moment when we’re finally breaking the silence, it has been twisted and that rug pulled out from under us and reframed as an epidemic of false allegations. Not that there is no epidemic of sexual violence against women. In fact there is an epidemic of false accusations against men.

Rumpus: Right.

Johnson: I had to unfriend and block my dad because he had posted this meme about you know, “Mothers of sons should be scared.”

Rumpus: Oh God.

Johnson: You know basically repeating, I mean it was before President Trump had said it, but I suspect President Trump saw the meme because it was almost verbatim.

Rumpus: Right.

Johnson: And I tried to talk him out of this, to explain to him how hurtful it was that he shared this and try to sort of educate him a little bit on the reality, and he just wouldn’t hear it and continued saying hurtful things, so I finally just blocked him. Which was, you know. A tough choice to make.

Rumpus: That actually kind of brings up something else I wanted to talk about too—how much of that kind of thing we tolerate from our loved ones and peers. In the piece “Against Whiteness,” you talk about whiteness as a social construct that requires silence and complicity from people who want to stay included in it. That also feels very timely to conversations that are happening right now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how such a large percentage of white women continue to support Kavanaugh and Trump, and feeling like as a white woman who very much does not support that side of things, where is my responsibility there? What can I do? What should I be doing? I feel like that essay started to offer some answers to that or at least move toward answers to that.

Johnson: Well, I don’t know I have answers. I don’t think that I have arrived at that place yet. I’m not smart enough about that to have answers of what look like concrete steps like, one, two, three. But I think other people do, actually. They’ve been in this fight a hell of a lot longer than I have. I do think that something I’ve been trying to think about even before I wrote an essay, but as long as I’ve been thinking critically about whiteness is, how can I be a bad white person?

A lot of my thinking about whiteness has come secondhand from Noel Ignatiev who used to run this journal called “Race Traitor.” Their archives still exist and are fascinating. He writes a lot about the abolition of whiteness, and throughout his career got a lot of trolling before there was trolling and a lot of hate mail saying that he wanted to murder white people and he said, “that’s not what I’m advocating.” The analogy that he uses is you can say you want to abolish the monarchy without suggesting you want to kill the queen. You just want to remove her power and primacy in this position. And I think thinking about abolishing whiteness can work the same way. I don’t want to harm any individual white people. But how do we undo the collective privilege and acceptance and compliance with the oppression of people of color? We have an individual and a collective responsibility to do that.

So I think in various situations, what is my individual responsibility here in this situation. The answer is never to stay silent, except when there’s a person of color talking about their own experience. That’s not a time when my voice is necessary. But in situations where I have access because I am a white person and I find myself in a room full of white people, I feel like I do have to say something, to go, “Why are there only white people in this room right now?” Especially if it’s a room where people are making decisions. Especially if it’s gathering people at the table to brainstorm ideas about something. How did it get to be this way? This is unacceptable. We can’t move on until we change. And I think that is an uncomfortable thing to do. Especially an uncomfortable thing to do as a woman, when people don’t want to hear what I have to say anyway. But I think I just have to get over that training that I’ve heard all my life to just be polite and shut up and be grateful for what I have. I think I’m in a position where I’m not afraid to lose what I have and that this is more important than my own comfort.

Rumpus: Yes. That feels like at least a step.

Johnson: Exactly. A step. It’s not the end destination; it’s not even the second step. It’s just the first step. But I think once we take the first step then the second step begins to become more apparent.

Rumpus: Right. So, in “The Flood” when you talk about Houston and Hurricane Harvey and people coming together, it’s written like: “Today is the fifth day. Today the sixth day.” And, turning to more of a craft question, I wanted to know: Were you actually writing that in the middle of that experience, as it was unfolding?

Johnson: I was, yeah. I actually wrote a lot of that essay as Facebook posts. From while I was stuck in my house as the water was rising all around us. My husband was really out in a canoe knocking down people’s garage doors and possibly getting electrocuted. And I was stuck at home in my house with the kids and the dog and feeling petrified that we were going to drown, and I didn’t have anything else to do. And I was like well, writing is the way that I understand the world. At first I was just trying to document what I was seeing and hearing and experiencing for people who were asking how we were and not really getting any news about it.

They began as like, “last night it was raining, the first band came through. Everybody’s OK. Don’t worry.” As it went on, my posts were getting longer and people were asking me to make them public so they could share them. So then I was like, “Okay I’m going to write this.” I wasn’t like “Oh I’m putting on my capital-W writer cap,” but I was like, I’m writing this now and making them public. And sometimes I would wake up and there were thousands of shares. So I just kept doing it. And people then were following along, and they were invested in what was happening. Afterward, I collected them all into a document, thinking that I might do something with them later, and realized that it was already quite a very long essay. So I just decided that I would sort of reshape them into this essay. But yeah, it was all kind of real-time that I was writing most of that.

Rumpus: It felt that way. It felt very present and in-the-moment. I teach writing as well, and students are always asking, “How much distance do you need?” Like there’s this wisdom that you’re supposed to wait and digest an experience before you write about.

Johnson: I don’t know where that comes from. Where does that come from?

Rumpus: I don’t know! I don’t know. But I always think of it like there are benefits and drawbacks. If you wait longer you’ll have more perspective and be able to reflect and kind of see all the pieces. But if you’re writing about something while it’s happening, you get everything that you’re actually feeling in that moment and the immediacy, which I really felt in that essay.

Johnson: It’s strange because I recognize that that is an idea that people have about what writing should be. That you should have enough distance to be able to tie it up in a nice tidy bow. But I don’t think that’s the only way to write or the only thing that writing should do. You know there was one reviewer of The Other Side who said that I wasn’t ready to write that book yet. Which is such a bullshit thing to say by the way. But it was because I didn’t have sufficient closure for her at the end. It was like still an ongoing thing, she felt like. But that is real.

Rumpus: That was my favorite thing about that book!

Johnson: Right. This is my life. There’s not an ending to this story where I’m all better. This is who I am now, and this is the thing that I’m going to continue to struggle with. And she disliked that because that was something that she wanted from a narrative perspective. But I think that’s not the only story that you can tell. Sometimes you can tell a story that is quite messy. That is a valid story, too. And it’s one that has value in this world.

Rumpus: And it’s sometimes truer, you know? If you’d tied The Other Side up with a bow like, “And now I’m all better,” I wouldn’t have believed you.

Johnson: It would’ve been a lie.

Rumpus: And you talk about that in the title essay of this book, kind of leaning into the fact that your story doesn’t have an end, and that that’s unsatisfying to some people and makes people uncomfortable but that’s kind of the point. None of the issues that you’re writing about in this collection are resolved or maybe even resolvable.

Johnson: Right. Yeah, there are no tidy bows in this collection. There’s no happily ever after. Maybe someday I will write a book that has a happily ever after but that’s not really my thing. That’s not the thing that interests me. There are enough people who do that. And I think yeah, if that’s the only story that we accept, like that’s part of why all these situations continue. These injustices and these problems continue because there are no tidy resolutions. There just isn’t any resolution at all. And I think that we have to put pressure on that, to hold one another’s pain and discomfort in a way that is uncomfortable to us. That the world as it is today demands that kind of recognition of one another and one another’s suffering. I think we can’t move on from this if we continue to reject one another’s suffering in favor of our own comfort.

Rumpus: It’s also uncomfortable to think really hard about an issue that has no solution. The human brain wants an answer, wants resolution. But if these issues had tidy answers and solutions, they would have been solved by now and there wouldn’t be a need to do the kind of hard digging and work about them that you’ve done here to help move the thinking forward.

Johnson: Right.

Rumpus: Well, I think we I think we’ve covered the main points I wanted to hit. I’m going to be thinking about this book for a really long time, and I’m glad I got to talk to you about it.

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Author photograph © John Carrithers.


Lilly Dancyger is the Deputy Editor of Narratively, where she oversees the memoir section. She's also a Contributing Editor and Writing Instructor at Catapult, and the editor of Burn It Down, an anthology of women and non-binary writers on anger, forthcoming from Seal Press. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and more. More from this author →