Lacy Johnson bangs on the glass doors of a sleepy local police station in the middle of the night. Her feet are bare; her body is bruised and bloody; U-bolts dangle from her wrists. She has escaped, but not unscathed. The Other Side is the haunting account of a first passionate and then abusive relationship; the events leading to Johnson’s kidnapping, rape, and imprisonment; her dramatic escape; and her hard-fought struggle to recover. At once thrilling, terrifying, harrowing, and hopeful, The Other Side offers more than just a true crime record. In language both stark and poetic, Johnson weaves together a richly personal narrative with police and FBI reports, psychological records, and neurological experiments, delivering a raw and unforgettable story of trauma and transformation.
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|Publisher:||Tin House Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I crash through the screen door, arms flailing like two loose propellers, stumbling like a woman on fire: hair and clothes ablaze. Or I do not stumble. I make no noise at all when I open the door with one hand, and hold the two-by-four above my head with the other. Only my feet and legs carry me forward, the rest of my body remains still like a statue. Like a ninja. A cartoon.
In the small gravel lot behind the four-plex I find only one vehicle covered by a beige car tarpthe elastic cinched between the bumper and the wheels. I wrestle it off and climb inside, coax my key toward the ignition. The lizard key chain shakes like an actual trapped animal in my hand, ready to shed its tail and flee. Take a breath, I say. You’re not dead yet.
Inching away from the building, I see the front screen door slapping against the outer wall in the wind. It’s too late to get out and close it. The tires spray gravel around the building’s unlit side and toward the street, where the street lights strobe on and on and on along the deserted boulevard stretching between the highway and downtown, where the boys down Jaeger shots, the girls down Jaeger shots, all of them dry humping at the bar or on the dance floor or in line for the bathroom.
I’ll never be one of them again.
I cross the boulevard by stomping the gas pedal to the floor, fingers ratcheted blue-knuckle tight around the wheel, leaning so far forward my breath fogs the windshield from the inside: proof I’m still alive. Or my breath does not make fog. Does not leave my body even. Not one nerve-taut muscle gives way while my headlights illuminate the narrow street, the empty parking stalls, the low beige-brick buildings.
When I realize I am not being followed I begin to cry and laugh and scream. Like bubbles. Like a peal. The rearview mirror shows my mascara running. Maybe I should apply a coat of lipstick? A patch of blood spreads where I have bitten my lower lip. The taste of a penny stolen from the kitchen jar.
I park the car on the curb in front of the police station and run through the dark with my shoes in my hands, cross the cold tile floora checkerboardto pound on the glass separating me from the two female dispatchers, a steel u-bolt still dangling from my wrist. Under the fluorescent lights, their skin flickers black and blue. They lean back in their chairs, hands folded over their soft round bellies, each pair of legs coming together like a V. Their black sweaters. Their blue polyester pants. The faces turn toward me, the eyebrows raised in disbelief. The clock’s arms both point to eleven. They’re black. They’re blue.
The stationmaster calls a detective out to meet me in the lobby. Tall and wide-shouldered, with brown hair and eyes, he looks vaguely like my uncle: both have kind faces. But the detective does not smile, does not give me a lung-crushing hug. He leads me into his office with his hand on his gun. Or it is not his office, but an office that is used by him tonight. There is a black rotary telephone with a black spiral cord pushed to the corner of a desk. The wood veneer comes up at the corners, exposing a layer of particleboard underneath. He shuffles in the drawer for a small pad of paper.
Tell me everything, he says. Start at the beginning. He does not mean the playground at the preschool with the rainbow bridge. Or the kitten tongue like sandpaper on my cheek. Or the potpourri simmering in the tiny Crock-Pot on the counter next to the jar of pennies in the kitchen. Though any of these could have been a beginning to the story I tell him. I want to see it, the little notepad, but he leaves the room to make some calls. No, I can’t call my family. No, not any of my friends. Nothing to do but to look at my feet: suddenly very very absurd. Someone should cover them with shoes and socks. Easier maybe to cut them off and perch them in a tree.
He returns to lead me down a dark hallway, where every office is a room with a closed door, through the kitchen, where coffee brews and burns, out a heavy steel door to a parking lot, an unmarked car. A detective’s car. He gestures, as if to say, After you.
While waiting in the unmarked detective’s car on an unlit street in the dark shadow of an oak tree I realize that real cops are not at all like movie cops. Real cops are slow and fat. Their bellies, in various states of roundness, hang over their waistbands, cinched tight with braided leather belts. They do not converge on the building with sirens blaring. They do not flash their lights or stand behind the open doors of their squad cars and aim their guns at criminals. These cops, my cops, do not wear uniforms. From the car where I am sitting alone in the shadow of an oak tree, they look like fat men who have happened to meet on the street, walking together around the side of the four-plex, toward the gravel parking lot, where they will find a discarded car tarp, a screen door flapping open, all the lights but one turned out inside.
Just inside the door, they will find a dog collar, construction supplies, a soundproofed room. I have told them what to expect. Meanwhile, waiting alone in the car under the dark shadow of an oak tree I start seeing things: no shadow is just a shadow of an oak tree. I press the heels of my palms hard into my eye sockets, sink lower into the seat. My thoughts grow smaller and race in circles. The adrenaline shakes become convulsions become seizures become shock. When the detective returns, he finds me knotted in thirds on the floorboards: hardly like a woman at all.
At the hospital, the detective leads me through a set of automatic sliding glass doors, not the main ones that lead to the emergency room, but another set, down the way a bit, special for people like me. He leads me down a florescent-lit hallway, directly to an exam room where the overhead lights are turned out. A female officer meets me there, and a social worker, who looks like she might be somebody’s grandmother. The officer and the social worker team up with a nurse, and the detective leaves without a word. The officer, the social worker, and the nurse ask me to take off my clothes. They unscrew the u-bolt from my wrist. Officer puts these things into a Ziploc bag named Evidence.
Nice to meet you, Evidence.
She takes pictures of my wrists and ankles. She speaks in two-syllable sentences: Turn, please. Rape kit. Oh Dear.
Sick hobby: it comes with instructions in Spanish, German and Japanese. Glue and little vials of brightly colored paint. The social worker wants to hold my hand. No thank you, ma’am. She is, after all, not my grandmother. Her skin is loose and clammy. She asks what kind of poetry I write as Evidence rips out fingerfuls of my pubic hair, spreads my legs and digs inside me with a long, stiff Q-tip. Another Q-tip in my mouth for saliva. She scrapes under my fingernails with a wooden skewer and puts the scum in a plastic vial.
The social worker invites me to stay at her house. Or it is not her house, exactly, but a half-house for half-women like me.
After the exam, the social worker gives me a green sweat suit in a brown paper bag. I’m supposed to dress in the bathroom. But the clothes are entirely too large: a too-large hunter green sweatshirt, a pair of too-large hunter green sweatpants, a pair of too-large beige underwear. Like my mother wears.
Officer doesn’t acknowledge that I look ridiculous emerging from the bathroom. Officer doesn’t acknowledge me at all. I know to follow her out the door, to the parking lot, her squad car. I know to hang my head. It’s the price for a ticket to the station.
The phone call wakes my parents out of bed. Mom answers; her voice is thick, confused. She says nothing for a long time. In the background, Dad gets dressed. Yesterday’s change jingles in his pockets. His voice buckles: Say we’re on the way.
The detective follows me to my new apartment in the unmarked car. He offers to come inside, to stand guard at the door, but I don’t want him seeing that I have no furniture, no food in the fridge, nothing in the pantry, or the linen closet, or on the walls. I ask him to wait outside. I call my boss at the literary magazine where I am an intern and leave a message on her office voicemail: Hi there. I was kidnapped and raped last night. I won’t be coming in today. I call My Good Friend’s cellphone. I call My Older Sister’s cellphone.
While I’m in the shower, the apartment phone rings and callers leave messages on the machine: My Good Friend will stay with her boyfriend; she’s delaying her move-in date. Of course she hates to do this, but she’s just too scared to live here, with me, right now. You should find somewhere to go, she says. My Handsome Friend’s message says he heard the news from My Good Friend. He’s leaving town and doesn’t think it’s safe to tell me where to find him. The message My Older Sister leaves says she wants me to come stay at her place, which sounds better than sleeping alone in this apartment on the floor.
I pry back the curtains and see my parents standing in the parking lot talking to the detective. My father shakes the detective’s outstretched hand. My mother covers her chest with her arms, one hand over her mouth, a large beige purse hanging from her shoulder. She’s brought me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a snack-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. I’m not hungry, but the thought of wasting her effort makes my stomach turn and turn.
I nibble the chips in the backseat of their car while they take me to buy a cellphone. They want to do something, to take action. With the fluorescent lights of the store, all the papers I must fill out and sign, the windows wide open behind us, I feel dizzy enough to fall.
Driving to My Older Sister’s apartment, I watch the road extending out behind me in the rearview mirror and try not to fall asleep. The apartment parking lot becomes boulevard, becomes deserted intersection, becomes on-ramp and interstate. The clusters of red-brick buildings give way to strip malls, to warehouses and truckstops, to XXX bookstores, to cultivated pastures growing in every direction: wheat-stalk brown and tree-bark brown and corn-silk green.
My Older Sister meets me in the parking lot with tears in her eyes. Her hug is both desperate and safe. As she carries my bag up the stairs she says, You look like shit. Under any other circumstances, I’d tell her to fuck off. Today it’s a comfort. I do look exactly as I feel.
She isn’t able to get off work tonight, so she shows me how to use the cable remote, loads her handgun, puts it in my hand. It’s heavier than I imagined. She’ll work late tonight, but if I need anything, her next-door neighbor, The Sheriff, knows what happened. He might come by to check on me. Please try not to shoot him.
The whole time she’s gone, I watch the closed-circuit channel showing the front gate of the apartment complex. I sit in the dark with the gun in my hand and watch cars drive through the gate. I don’t know what I’m watching for, but I keep watching. A gray conversion van looks suspicious. Lights turn in the parking lot, crossing the face of the building. I peer through a crack in the blinds.
I don’t eat. I don’t sleep.
Even after My Older Sister comes home, offers me a beer, falls asleep with her arm around my body in the bed, I fix my eyes on the dark and wait.
A Conversation with Lacy M. Johnson, Author of The Other Side: A Memoir
The Suspect is still at large. How did this influence the writing of your memoir?
I think the fact that he's at large precipitated my choice not to use his name or anyone else's name, though I might have made that choice even if he were in prison. The fact is, this isn't just a memoir; it's about my real actual life. And in my real actual life, there is a real actual person living abroad who might harm me or my family if he had the chance. I don't use his actual name in real life. I don't say it, and I don't really like for other people to say it either. To protect the people I love, I tried to keep other people who appear in the memoir as anonymous as possible, while also writing in an accurate way about the relationship I have with those anonymous people.
At the same time, his at-largeness also affected the arc of the book. I think when most people think about a satisfying conclusion to a story like this, they might imagine him being brought to trial and convicted and sent to prison for decades. That isn't possible in this case, since he's a Venezuelan citizen and is protected from extradition by the Venezuelan government. He'll never go to jail for this. He'll never have to appear in court. He'll never even be arrested. So that forced me to reimagine this notion of justice, and what it might look like in a story like mine.
There are times you are willing to portray yourself in a less than flattering light and it doesn't ever feel like you are courting the sympathy of your readers. Was this a conscious choice?
I made a very conscious effort to portray events as I remember them: not as I wish they had been, or as they would be if life were made neat and tidy for the purposes of telling a story. Which meant I had to be honest, brutally honest, about who I am and the choices I made. I made some really bad choices, not least of which was the decision to begin a relationship with a man who was my Spanish teacher at the university, and who was twice my age. If I were interested in courting a reader's sympathy, I could have made the case that he was a predator and I was his victim. It would have been an easy case to make. But the fact is, I had a lot of agency in the matter, and the very worst choice I ever made was to give it all away.
The appendix is unexpectedly moving, as it shows the amount of research and reading you did on trauma before writing this book. Can you talk about how you started reading about trauma, and how that affected your approach to what happened, and how you wrote about it?
It's interesting that you say that, since the appendix as it appears in the book represents only a small fraction of the research I've conducted on this subject matter. The research itself began more than a decade ago when I was in graduate school and started teaching a poetry workshop in a shelter for women recovering from substance abuse. My faculty supervisor at the time directed me toward several volumes on recovery writing in an effort to prepare me to respond to the women's writing in an effective and compassionate way, and this was actually a very instructive place to begin. For one thing, I discovered that I really, strongly objected to all of the rhetoric about how writing about trauma could, in effect, make a person "whole" again. It took years to articulate why this sentiment bothered me, but eventually I realized that it reinforces what I consider to be a flawed notion that after some kind of trauma (be it sexual violence or the death of a family member), that a person is somehow "broken." After a trauma, a person may feel that some part of them has been shattered that metaphor certainly describes the emotional state of a traumatized person but the fact is, every person is already a whole person, has always been a whole person. Even if the trauma has profound psychological effects, a traumatized person is also always a whole person. The thought patterns change, as do behaviors and associations. And perhaps most difficult of all, what changes is the story that person tells about him- or herself, to him- or herself. Of course I didn't know all of this, or couldn't articulate all of this when I began the research, but over the years, my research has extended into medical journals and history books, Greek mythology and neuroscience, quantum physics and literature, and I think I can say now, with some degree of certainty, that the story I told myself about myself was what made me feel afraid for so many years. When I set out to write this book, it wasn't to "fix" myself, or to make myself "whole" again, but to change that story I told myself about who I am, who I was, and who I still could be.
Memory plays a huge role in your memoir. How do memories before your kidnappingthose from childhood and adolescence that are referencedplay a role in recovery?
There's a tendency, I think, among traumatized people to think of what came before the trauma (childhood and adolescence, for instance) as being a part of the "real" me, and the traumatic memory as something that "broke" me. But what I've come to realize is that the trauma, in my case having been kidnapped and raped by a man I once loved, is also the real me. Which is not to say it defines me, not any more than having grown up on a farm, or having gone to college at a state university, though in the past I tended to give it so much more weight and importance because I was so shocked and so blindsided by those events, and because they had such a lasting psychological impact. It felt as though the "real" me was gone, and what was left was a weaker, unstable, more frightened version of the person I had been. I didn't like that feeling at all, and really wanted to change the way I thought. So, in the book, I also wrote about memories from my childhood and from adolescence because I thought that maybe if I treated the traumatic event as part of a much longer narrative that began long before I was kidnapped, and which had already continued long after I escaped, I might be able to put it in better perspective. For a very long time that traumatic memory had seemed like a static and unchangeable thing, so I thought that maybe if I could call a few things I remembered about that into question as we do all the time with memories from our childhood and adolescence I could make the traumatic memory more fluid, and let it return to the natural ebb and flow of memory. I wanted this story to become one of the stories I carry, instead of the story that I carry.
Like your first memoir Trespasses, the title The Other Side implies crossing boundaries. What about this interests you?
Trespasses is a book about geographic boundaries, cultural boundaries, class boundaries, and the boundaries created by the categories of gender and race, all of which begin with a single decision: to call this thing here different from that thing over there, and to assign value based on that difference. It seems that so many problems in the world come back to that same decision: to separate, to cleave, to pull one thing from another based on some perceived category of difference. The Other Side is a book about the boundary between the past and the present, the present and the future, and between the inner and outer self. I'm interested in these boundaries because it seems that, as a culture, we're so invested them that we now treat them as natural, as fact. I'm very interested in challenging that.
The Other Side is told in a series of vignettes, many no longer than a few pages. What appeals to you about his structure?
From a very practical perspective, most of this book, as well as Trespasses, was written when my children were very small, and one block of text was all I could produce in the time it took for one of them to take a nap, or after they went to bed for the evening. So the vignettes are a logistical necessity.
At the same time, I don't doubt that my use of the vignette has more than a little to do with the fact that I started out as a poet, and most of my formal training as a writer is in poetry. In the very, very beginning, I was writing these really tiny little poems, which only grew more and more dense and wrought over time. And then one day I realized how terrible and awful they were, and started writing prose poems instead. Trespasses, my first book, is a memoir in prose poems and short prose vignettes. The Other Side represents a slightly different point on that formal spectrum, since there aren't any poems in the book, though I believe there is much poetry.
Many of the events in your memoir you've never told your closest friends/colleagues. What are your feelings now that it will be published and you will be doing readings?
Honestly, I feel completely terrified about that. I keep telling myself that no one will come to readings, that it will be published and no one will read it and then it will disappear. While I was writing it, I had to pretend that no one would ever read it or else the fear and the shame of it all would have been too overpowering and I would have given up. And my intention in writing it was never to write a popular book (though maybe in my wildest fantasies I got to talk to Oprah and Terry Gross); in fact, I started writing the book so I wouldn't feel so much pressure to tell the story anymore. So I could, in effect, "come out" and stop telling it, or thinking of telling it, over and over again in this private way. Of course, the irony of the whole thing is that now that the book is nearing publication, I find myself having to tell and retell the story all the time. It still makes me uncomfortable, because people I work with ask what the book is about and I haven't yet figured out an easy way to talk about it. Yes, it's a book about this incredibly traumatic, unspeakably violent thing that happened many years ago, but more than that, I think, it's a book about love. That's hard to explain to someone who knows me only in a professional way, and it feels very risky, and very vulnerable. What I'm realizing in the process of having these really uncomfortable conversations, though, is that writing the book gave me an opportunity to reckon with these events in a very private way, and on a personal level, but talking about it in public requires that I begin a very different kind of process.
This is a deeply personal story, but you are also clearly talking about a culture of violence, particularly against women. What do you hope you bring to the discussion?
I don't like throwing around the term "rape culture," since I think a lot of people see a term like that and stop reading. But I'll use it now because I think it's necessary to answer your question: in a rape culture, it is taboo for women or men who have been raped to talk about having been raped. So much so that over half of all sexual assaults are not even reported to police. And then if they are reported, a woman gives her statement and then she is spoken for: by police officers or detectives or prosecutors or victims advocates. There's so much shame and shaming associated with sexual violence, and they are all part of the same social structure, which permits only a single story to be told about power about who has it, and who polices it. You know, we hear so often this old adage about how rape is mostly about power, which is not at all comforting to anyone who has been raped; and, at the same time, it also says something very disturbing about our culture when you consider that every two minutes someone in America is raped. In my experience, the violence itself is actually the point at which power ceases to be power and becomes merely force: the force of one body exerting its strength over another. But getting away with it reinforces that power. Shaming reinforces that power. The taboo of speaking about it reinforces that power. It's possible, then, that part of what I hope to bring to the discussion about rape culture is a way to begin a discussion we've actually been avoiding for hundreds of years.
How did you decide you were ready to not only write this book, but also to publish it?
Ha! I still don't think I'm ready! Who said anything about being ready?