The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson
Tin House Books, 2014. 228 pp.
“Even what the mind forgets, the body remembers.” –Lacy Johnson
As Lacy Johnson writes in the notes following her memoir The Other Side, the word memory takes its root from origins one might expect—the Anglo-French memorie, something written to be kept in mind; the Latin memoria, a reminiscence—but also from sources more unexpected: “from Old Norse, Mimir, the name of the giant who guards the Well of Wisdom; and from Old English murnan, to mourn.”
The Other Side is a book about memory, and about mourning. It’s also a book about the body: about the attempt to reclaim the body in the wake of trauma—in the author’s case, having been kidnapped and raped by a man she loved—and the ways in which one’s physical and emotional self shut down after violence. Or perhaps more aptly, how a wall goes up, a door is locked, so securely that one wonders if it will ever reopen.
Fortunately, The Other Side is also a story of escape: of finding a crack in the wall, a key to the door, and stepping out onto a path to recovery. For Johnson, that key lies in telling her story, one memory at a time. “The story is a trap, a puzzle, a paradox,” she writes. “Ending it creates a door.”
The book begins with the hundred-pound Johnson, armed with a two-by-four, escaping a soundproofed room where the man she lived with for two years—and who she has left six weeks prior—has imprisoned her, raped her, and threatened to kill her. An assault rifle leans against the wall. With a strength that shocks her, Johnson tears herself free from the chair the man has bound her to and escapes, a metal U-lock dangling from her wrist.
Throughout the subsequent pages, and over the course of ten years, Johnson works to recapture those five hours of captivity—along with the preceding years spent with the man and her life leading up to it; to parse through her memories and reclaim what once was hers: the body in which she lives, the sense of self that has left her, and the heart that—despite what she has faced, read the words of Sylvia Plath that serve as the book’s epigraph—“has not stopped.”
The book is narrated through brief, non-chronological fragments of memory and reflection—sometimes lyrical, sometimes jarring—which often read more like poetry than prose. These moments illustrate memories of abuse throughout the relationship—the man shoving Johnson against a wall, spitting in her face, gently plucking her curled body from a hotel bed after a fight—in what seems like it might be a moment of tenderness—only to place her on the floor. We also see a picture of seduction and perceived passion: Johnson’s college Spanish TA, the man is twice her age, with dual Venezuelan-American citizenship; he speaks multiple languages and has traveled the world (in contrast to Johnson, who has spent most of her life in an unnamed Midwestern state); he woos the small-town girl with exotic dinners and slow dances in his apartment, with trips by train across Europe. We see the photos he takes of her, the gifts he buys her. We see her desperately wanting him—a sociopath who ostensibly cannot love—to love her.
In one of the book’s most stark examples of how memory works both for and against us, the man snaps the neck of Johnson’s cat. Recalling that iconic Joan Didion dictum “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Johnson writes: “I tell people we have put the cat to sleep. I can’t remember how and when I came to believe that lie.”
Like all the characters in Johnson’s book, the man is not given a name. He is referred to only as The Man I Used to Live With. While initially this device seems distracting, the anonymity works: By stripping the man (along with Johnson’s friends, her sister, and her husband) of an identity, we see Johnson as isolated. The people in her life are peripheral; ultimately, she is in this struggle alone.
Though she escapes the soundproofed room, Johnson does not escape the nightmare—because the man escapes too. Despite being charged, he flees to Venezuela, and his home country refuses to extradite him. Johnson attempts to move on with her life, but dwells in perpetual fear that the man will return and kill her. She earns a PhD and marries twice—first only a few months after the kidnapping, a marriage marked by violence that ends quickly—and then to a man who eventually becomes the father of her children. But she closes herself off to her family, unable to connect. “I’m trapped on the other side of a wide, dark chasm,” she tells her husband. “He holds out his arms, but I cover my face, look down, turn away. In this story, I’m always turning away.” Her children tug at her skirt, grab at her legs while she cooks and cleans, begging for affection. “I know how to tighten the cold fist of my heart,” she writes. “I don’t remember how to open it.”
As Johnson digs deeper into the recesses of her memory, we discover that her story is also one of womanhood: of the female body as object; of powerlessness; of the way that so many young women use sex to try to repossess their bodies—to both submit to cultural power dynamics and simultaneously attempt to subvert them. “From childhood I was taught to survey and police and maintain my image continually,” she writes, “and in this role—as both surveyor and the image that is surveyed—I learned to see myself as others see me: as an object to be viewed and evaluated, a sight.” She looks at a photograph the man once took of her on a train between Prague and Berlin, one of many adventures on which he whisked her away, then abused her physically and emotionally: “This is how he sees me: a mirror that reflects his power always.”
Following the kidnapping, Johnson feels like a stranger in her body. She is disturbed by the sight of it, longs to hide both the bruises and the flesh beneath. She covers her skin with tattoos in an attempt to conceal, to begin anew: “I look at the reflection. It both belongs to me and doesn’t. A play of light in the mirror. This is not my body, I think, feeling dizzy. But then something in me wobbles, collapses, shifts. I can feel this body: static, living. Not a surface, but an opening.”
At the heart of the book, Johnson asks a central question: “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. How can I move my body through the world, and yet there is also an image of my body that resembles in every way the real thing: two people, bound together by this perceived resemblance—a woman who has died, a woman who goes on living.”
In the end, Johnson does go on living. Like all recovery, though, hers is never final but ongoing: In telling her story she finds an opening, and now she must move through it. And she does so—intricately, beautifully, fiercely. But Johnson’s book is not just beautiful; it’s also transcendent—particularly, I would wager, for women: This is art as catharsis, for both writer and reader. A grappling occurs in the heart and mind of the reader as it occurs in the author. A recollection. A breaking open of memory. A key to a door. A fissure in the walls that are constructed around our collective and individual bodies and pasts, revealing support beams beneath—still strong despite trauma endured and the stories we build to survive it. An opening that eventually, hopefully, leads from darkness to whatever light awaits on the other side.
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