Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Jennifer Morell, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Lacy M. Johnson about her book The Other Side (Tin House), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Autobiography, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Jennifer Ray Morell: Throughout The Other Side, there are references to the uncertainty and failures of memory. You write, “And yet, as I read the evidence file, I see things I don’t remember. Like how, according to the police reports, it was The Female Officer, not The Detective, who came out to meet me at the station, and The Female Officer also drove me to the apartment I’d escaped, and then to the hospital, and then back to the station. But in my memory, this role is so clearly played by The Detective, the man who looks vaguely like my uncle.”
While you write about your own memories, you also examine official documents. As a writer, how do you make sense of and organize these different threads in your narrative?
Lacy M. Johnson: As a memoir writer, my primary task is to make meaning out of memory, which is challenging for many reasons, not least of which is that memory often seems hopelessly jumbled and contradictory, and is made up as much of nonsensical images and sounds as the stories we’ve told to ourselves and to others about who we are, what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and, most importantly, why any of it matters at all. Although I would guess that most of us don’t have police reports at our disposal, we all maintain our own archives of “official” documents: photographs, emails, date books, journals, medical reports. Most of us believe these records are trustworthy in ways our memory is not. Memory is fallible, unreliable, shifting. But what I’ve found is that these “official” documents are often terribly, horribly flawed. For me, this is one of the central tensions in The Other Side, because somewhere between the story that is official and the one I remember is the one that I can translate into writing.
JRM: Regarding memory, you write about telling The Newest Therapist, “It’s possible I’m not remembering right.” She responds by saying, “Is there any other way of remembering?” Like the example with The Detective and The Female Officer, there are other times when you tell different versions of the same story: what you remembered and what you later realized to be the truth. Why did you decide to include multiple versions in your narrative?
LMJ: You know, I’m very skeptical of the word “truth.” The way we understand this word, it means something singular, and rigid, and uncompromising. I’m more interested in inquiry than resolution, and I prefer to make room for conflicting perspectives, and for multiple versions of a single story to exist at the same time. In this day and age, I think when we are presented with a question, or even a difficult situation, our most common impulse is to seek a right answer — a rigid, singular truth — and when it is found, to commit to it resolutely. The practice of holding multiple, conflicting ideas in one’s head at the same time, and considering them all equally, has proven to me to be much better path to genuine understanding.
JRM: How did you come to the decision to give your characters titles (The Female Officer, My Older Sister, My Good Friend) instead of names or aliases?
LMJ: I had no intention of inviting litigation or bad feelings by calling anyone by their real names, and if I wasn’t using real names it seemed a bizarre fabrication to call anyone by a fake one. Early on in the process I started calling everyone by an epithet as a kind of personal shorthand and it sort of grew on me. I liked the effect of everyone in the book being defined by their relationship to me, which sounds narcissistic maybe, but at the time I found it incredibly empowering and poignant: how such a subtle shift in naming can so quickly transfer agency.
JRM: You’ve woven the idea of Schrödinger’s cat throughout your narrative in the discussion of paradoxes. What drew you to that idea?
LMJ: It has to do with what I was talking about before, whatever it is that becomes possible when we give ourselves permission to believe multiple conflicting ideas at the same time. Paradoxes of all kinds strain the imagination. Schrödinger’s cat is a relatively familiar and accessible example — easy to imagine, easy to visualize — of a paradox that gets more challenging to imagine when we’re talking about memory, or history, or sexual violence. But in my experience, it’s very mimetic to what it’s like to go through a trauma: as I write in the book, “I am both alive and dead in every room but this.”
JRM: You describe yourself as fragmented: “a woman who has died, a woman who goes on living.” How has writing about your trauma aided in your recovery?
LMJ: I dislike the term “recovery,” because it implies a return, a redemption, a retrieval of something that has been lost. One thing has always been clear to me: there’s no going back, and there’s no re-becoming the person I once was. I will never again be a woman who has not been kidnapped and raped by a man I once loved. That woman is gone. Writing helped me to grieve that loss, maybe, if only because it forced me to fully acknowledge that recovery was, in fact, impossible. Discovery, on the other hand ... well, that is always possible.
JRM: How did the passage of time aid in your decision to tell this story? What, if anything, made you feel like you were ready to undertake this monumental task?
LMJ: I don’t think it was a feeling of readiness so much as a kind of desperation. It’s counterintuitive, but for some reason, the more time passed, the more acutely I experienced the terror of what had happened. After more than a decade I found myself often paralyzed by fear, and often willing to let that terror make my choices for me: what I could and couldn’t do, where I could and couldn’t go, what I could and couldn’t say. In some ways, even though every circumstance of my life was different, after all that time one very important thing hadn’t changed: I still gave tremendous power to the story that he could harm me, that I am vulnerable, that danger threatens me at every turn. It’s a story our culture loves for women to believe. More than anything else, maybe, The Other Side documents how I learned to let go of that story and give power to one that tells me I am free.
Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based artist, curator, teacher, activist, and is author of THE OTHER SIDE (Tin House, 2014) and TRESPASSES: A MEMOIR (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and she is co-creator of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Racial Imaginary (Fence Books, 2014), Fourth Genre, Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2013), Creative Nonfiction, Sentence, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. She teaches Interdisciplinary Art at University of Houston.
Jennifer Ray Morell is an MFA student in fiction at The New School. Her work has appeared on The Ruckus, Sundog Lit, and xoJane. She lives in Queens, New York.