When I saw Lacy Johnson read from her new memoir, she came right out with it. “No one says what this book is about,” she said. Then she told us.
The Other Side (Tin House Books, 2014) is about the day that Lacy’s ex-boyfriend kidnapped her and took her to a soundproof room he had built for the sole purpose of raping and killing her. He raped her and then left briefly to create an alibi for that night. He told her that when he returned, “I’ll shoot you in the cunt and then the head.”
Except Lacy escaped, she survived, she married, she divorced, she married again, she had children, she went back to school, she started writing, and for years she tried to tell her story: to herself, to her therapists, to new lovers or friends or people she met at a party. Each telling pitted her power to narrate against the control that man still had on her story. Until eventually she wrote this memoir.
“This will be the last version of the story I ever tell,” she writes near the end of The Other Side, and in that moment storytelling has never seemed so powerful.
Lacy was right, though. It is difficult to say what her book is about. When I encouraged my creative writing classes to go to her reading, I didn’t tell them. I said something about memory and trauma, about violence against women. I told them it was beautifully written. They went to see her read and came back the next day talking about how amazing they thought Lacy Johnson was, how strong and brave. These are the same feelings you have after reading her memoir. Except that you will also at times feel uncomfortable, teary-eyed and, if you are me, scared.
In defense of those of us who never say what Lacy Johnson’s new book is about, it is also about all those things I told my students. "Memoir" comes from the French word for memory, and The Other Side is one of the most thoughtful meditations on memory I’ve read in a long while. The narrative is constructed from hundreds of brief prose pieces that recall short chapters in Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and that, as in Flynn’s book, recreate the non sequitur and fragmented feeling of memory.
Cats, both hypothetical and live, are another tool Lacy uses to unpack memory. She opens her second chapter with a reference to Schrödinger’s cat, the famous thought experiment in which a cat is placed in a sealed box with a radioactive substance and a flask of poison that will shatter if an internal device detects radioactivity. The radioactive substance is so small there is equal chance at any moment that an atom of it will break down, the device will be activated, and the cat will die. Until we open the box to look, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. So was Lacy those hours in that soundproof room before she escaped. So are our memories until we expose them to the light.
But it was the real cat in The Other Side that broke me. Lacy met her ex-boyfriend—a man who like the other characters in this memoir is given only a epithet—when he was her Spanish TA in college. He pursued her, they started dating, and eventually she moved in with him, bringing her cat. Just as they two are planning a trip to Europe, she writes, the cat gets sick and she and “The Man I Live With” decide to put the cat down.
“The Man I Live With makes a beautiful dinner while I am crying in the bed and when I come out of the room and sit down at the little table by the window in the living room we plan the trip we will take next summer to Europe.”
That is the first telling of the story, one that in the next breath Lacy undoes. She remembers another moment, years later, sitting with a friend and petting that friend’s cat and discovering an original memory packed inside the one we have just read. Lacy is still lying in the bedroom crying, but in this story—the real one, we now know—the cat is still alive, sick with feline leukemia, but alive, and Lacy has realized there won’t be a European trip after all. Outside her room, she hears “The Man I Live With,” as he is called at this point in the narrative, in the kitchen with the cat and then “a terrible thud, and then another, and another. The thud becomes a crack, a breaking of something that is not fragile.”
She listens as “The Man I Live With” carries the cat out to the dumpster, comes back for a knife, says “still breathing,” and leaves again. They go to Europe. Lacy tells everyone the first story, the subterfuge into which she packed her real memory. “My love for the man requires the cat to be living,” she writes. “My fear of the man requires the cat be dead.”
I said earlier that this book scared me. This is what I mean. Before Lacy came to read at the university where I teach, but when I still knew she was going to come, I read the part of her book where she tells her husband she’s afraid to post a schedule of her book tour on her web site. “What do you think is going to happen,” he asks. “I think he’s going to show up and shoot me with a gun.”
And then there are her dreams:
I am in a mall, or a post office, or a supermarket, or the bank with my two children. People mill around us, each face like every other face. I am running late, or I am too early to meet a friend for lunch, or I am trying to retrieve the cell phone ringing in my diaper bag. I see him approaching at first only out of the corner of my eye—intent, purposeful, his jaw set crookedly, his snarling upper lip—and my stomach transforms from a regular stomach into a black-hole stomach that begins to swallow me, and all of dream-time.
I finished the book and, without wanting to, became convinced that this man would show up at the reading Lacy was to give at my university. I don’t know why I put myself in her narrative, except that The Other Side embedded in me a hint of the terror Lacy Johnson must live with. “The Man I Live With” is still free. He escaped to Venezuela, where he holds residency; the Venezuelan government has refused to extradite him to the United States.
In small ways, The Other Side also reminds me of Joan Didion’s Salvador, at least in its rare ability to recreate a terror that its readers feel but often cannot own. In Salvador, Didion uses the landscape of El Salvador—a famous body dumpsite, the Metropolitan Cathedral where Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered—to interrogate “the exact mechanism of terror.” That mechanism lives within the quotidian. Terror works by inhabiting the everyday and making us fear its possibility in everything. At any moment, the cat is either alive or dead.
The man who kidnapped, raped, and threatened to kill Lacy Johnson didn’t show up at the reading I attended, of course. She read from The Other Side, took questions, and explained, as she does in her book, that she now prefers him banished in Venezuela. This means she will never have to see him again, but also that she will never have to testify in court or face a retelling of her story under someone else’s terms. This book is her story. Reading it, you realize the power of the memoir, if not to set things right—because as Lacy Johnson makes clear, this is still not a story of recovery or triumph—then at least to shift the balance of power.
Sarah Viren’s prose and translations have appeared in the Colorado Review, the Massachusetts Review, Kenyon Review Online, Fourth Genre, Diagram, and The Pinch, which awarded her its 2014 Nonfiction Prize. She is the managing editor of Autumn Hill Books, a translation press, and teaches creative writing and literature at Texas Tech University.
The Other Side: A Memoir
by Lacy M. Johnson
Tin House Books, July 2014
$12.75 paperback, ISBN: 978-1-935639-83-1