Review: Houston Memoirist Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side Finds Redemption in the Dark
Lacy M. Johnson reads at Brazos Bookstore in Houston on Thursday, July 22, at 7 p.m.; at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio on Sunday, July 27, at 3 p.m.; and at BookPeople in Austin on Tuesday, July 29, at 7 p.m.
How does one tell an unspeakable story? This question hovers like fog over Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side, a memoir about the author’s imprisonment and rape, in 2000, at the hands of a man she had once dated. Since then, Johnson has found happiness both professionally (she received her Ph.D. from the University of Houston and now works as director of academic initiatives at UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts) and personally (as a wife and mother), yet the crime—whose perpetrator escaped the American justice system by moving to Venezuela—has continued to haunt her. The Other Side is a book about an abusive relationship leading to a violent crime, yes, but more than that it’s about the difficulty and necessity of telling such a story instead of allowing others to tell it for you.
Johnson shows less interest in the awful facts at her memoir’s center than in the way she experienced those facts. She rarely addresses the rape directly, circling it at a distance, oftentimes even standing outside of her story to focus on objective-seeming materials—police reports, photographs, newspaper articles—only to then question their objectivity by delving into her own memories. (“It’s possible I’m not remembering right,” Johnson tells her therapist, who responds: “Is there any other way of remembering?”) This tension between fact and perception forms the book’s intellectual backbone, and though The Other Side begins as a true-crime story, it flowers into an investigation of memory.
Despite the subject matter, Johnson never wallows in bleakness. Her writing style is engaging and redemptive, a trick accomplished partly by virtue of Johnson’s voice—clear and direct, but with a breezy archness that belies her story’s dark core. Upon seeing her possessions in a Ziploc bag marked EVIDENCE, Johnson writes: “Nice to meet you, Evidence.” Elsewhere she exhibits both the touch of a poet (blood in her mouth becomes “the taste of a penny stolen from the kitchen jar”) and a novelist’s eye for character-fleshing detail (her mother addresses crises with Cool Ranch Doritos). As for the crime itself, Johnson breaks it up over a couple of different chapters, never asking the reader to experience the horror in a sustained way. The Other Side moves lithely from scene to scene, shuffling the chronology so readers remain aware that no matter how terrible events may seem, a happier life for Johnson lies ahead.
All of this adds up to a great book, one that isn’t ultimately about violence, but about a woman taking control of her own story after years of looking at it as if it were a reflection, something familiar yet distant, something she never quite accepted as her own.
“How is it possible,” Johnson asks, “to reclaim the body when it’s visible only in a mirror?” The Other Side is Johnson’s attempt to shatter that mirror—to reclaim a seemingly unspeakable story and, in so doing, to bring it to an end.