Book Review: The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson
The Other Side
A Memoir by Lacy M. Johnson
Tin House Books, July 2014
Reviewed by Louise Krug
Lacy M. Johnson’s extraordinary memoir The Other Side is an account of her kidnapping, rape, and imprisonment by a man whom she once was in an ardent and abusive relationship. This story details her breathtaking escape and arduous battle to recover, but also examines the effects of terror, beauty, and the torment of memory.
The memoir begins in the middle of the night with Johnson’s breakout from the soundproof room in the apartment where the kidnapper kept her:“I crash through the screen door, arms flailing like two loose propellers, stumbling like a woman on fire: hair and clothes ablaze.” She tears a tarp off her car, careens to a local police station in bare feet, bloody, with U-bolts dangling from her wrists. When she is transported to a hospital we learn she has been raped (a female office says, simply, “Oh dear. Rape kit.”). The next day, her parents arrive with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Cool Ranch Doritos, and she begins the absurd journey of putting her life back together.
Through jumps back and forth along the timeline, we learn not only what happened, but also how Johnson fell into a violent relationship with a man twice her age. After the attack, we see Johnson stumble so many times that we wonder if the man who kidnapped her destroyed her ability to find the happiness she deserves.
Of this man, Johnson’s assessment of him is unflinching and terrifies. We see him murder her cat in their kitchen. We see him beat Johnson. But we witness actions that are even more cruel. After a fight he comes back late when Johnson is sleeping: “He lifted me from the bed so gently, so lovingly, it seemed. I thought he was going to apologize. Instead, he put me on the floor.”
Despite its dark subject matter, Johnson’s focus is not on these events themselves but on the workings of memory. Through conversations with therapists we see Johnson’s struggle to remember the mystery of what she saw in him as well as excavate painful episodes she had forgotten. Johnson discovers how the mind can play tricks on us, remembering something as pleasant when it really was horrible. “Even when the mind forgets, the body remembers,” she says.
It is this memory of hers that makes life painful, she learns, and despite the physical pain of her kidnapper’s hands, worse is the emotional anguish that will be with her forever: “Even if I stand and walk out the door, even if I leave right now and never see him again, unless I come down with amnesia, which only happens on daytime television, I’ll always carry him with me. I can’t will myself to forget his voice, his face, the rough impression of his palm on my hip’s still-forming curve.” Johnson also examines these workingsof memory by using police reports, photographs, and newspaper clippings to contrast or fill-in her own thoughts. “It’s possible I’m not remembering right,” Johnson tells her therapist, who responds: “Is there any other way of remembering?”
Johnson’s language is poetic, straightforward, and introspective. She examines what her beauty, once thought of as such an asset, also cursed her with: a need for attention, and a belief that it was her most important quality, “As a woman, I must keep myself under constant surveillance…From childhood I was taught to survey and police and maintain my image continually, 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.” Johnson shows us how she tries to move beyond this mindset with copious tattoos, but we know that it is an ongoing battle.
It is this quality of self-examination that gives her story its hope. By searching and fighting for a life she wants, she finds happiness both personally (as a wife and mother) and professionally (the author of Trespasses: A Memoir, she earned her Ph.D. from University of Houston and now works as director of academic initiatives at UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts). The Other Side not only details an incredible struggle, it lets the reader bear witness to Johnson’s discovery that she possesses real courage and a beauty that goes deeper than she thought.
Louise Krug is the author of Louise: Amended (2012), a memoir about the brain surgeries she had when she was 22. She teaches creative writing and composition at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Some of her recent work has appeared in Parcel and Word Riot. She has a collection of essays forthcoming from 99:The Press in 2015.