A Review of Lacy Johnson’s The Reckonings
February 25, 2019 § 3 Comments
by Valerie Wayson
Early in her newest essay collection, The Reckonings, Lacy Johnson describes what has become a common occurrence: At the end of a reading, someone, usually a woman, asks Johnson what she wants to happen to the man who kidnapped, raped, and tried to kill her. Does Johnson want him to die? To suffer? The questioner often has a story similar to Johnson’s, a story of surprising violence and survival. Johnson has attracted these stories since she told her own in her 2014 memoir The Other Side, a book that grapples with differing versions of one event and the inherent faultiness inherent in describing a deeply traumatic experience. Don’t you want justice, these fellow survivors ask? Johnson examines the line between justice and vengeance, and she questions whether vengeance can ever be healing or cathartic. Johnson herself doesn’t think the death and suffering of a man she once loved would allow the “shut place” inside her to open. Suffering begets suffering, and she doesn’t want a continuance of the cycle. Instead, she wants a reckoning. “I want the truth told back to us,” she says. “I want the lies laid bare.”
In “Girlhood in a Semibarbarous Age,” Johnson argues that a woman’s body is often not her own. She tells of her children’s reaction to the stealing of the Boko Haram girls, how her daughter binds her dolls in rubber bands and puts them on a shelf, how she doesn’t want to be a girl anymore. Most compelling to this end is Johnson’s casual catalog of the self-protective habits she has acquired over the years: keeping the lights off in her office so she can see anyone approaching more easily than they can see her, or keeping her scissors visible and sharp. These behaviors seem reminiscent of those suffering from PTSD—the constant vigilance, the ever-present expectation of violence.
In “Precarious,” Johnson shows the effects of a culture desensitized to violence, how it changes the survivors and makes them more likely to be violent themselves. In “Speak Truth to Power,” she describes a sixteen-year-old girl waking up in her yard and learning through social media her naked body was exposed, urinated on, and slapped with flaccid penises while football players doing the videotaping made rape jokes involving a dead girl. Two of the perpetrators are found “delinquent” to which one breaks down after and sobs, his life is over. Meanwhile, the girl receives death threats. Johnson shares her first rape at the age of fourteen, saying how she repeats no over and over, and when she describes the incident to others, they “explained it back to [her]: ‘Slut,’ they said. ‘Liar.’ ‘Whore.’”
Sexual assault is not the only offense for which Johnson demands reckoning in her collection. She describes oil spills, flooding, a town built next to nuclear waste. She wants each story told because when we tell our stories, although we can’t undo what’s been done to us, we can at least make it harder for this to happen to someone else.
When I tell the story of my own abuse, the reactions are now predictable: women thank me for my trust, and men offer to kill or beat up the aggressor. When I was younger, this offer pleased me. It made me think that if my aggressor had known he would be held accountable for his actions, he might not have assaulted me. Over the years, this prospect has become less appealing. I don’t want revenge. I want to be away from my aggressor, to never have to see him again. This is selfish on my part. I want it because I want my suffering to stay finished. Other suffering, however, is ongoing, and every time someone doesn’t tell their story, that’s another incident hidden, one less opportunity to expose the prevalence of violence, one more time someone got away with hurting someone else. Like Johnson, my motivation has been misunderstood as seeking attention or gaining revenge, when the truth is telling our stories is a way to protect others.
Lacy Johnson makes an elaborate and nuanced point in The Reckonings: telling of our stories is not about vengeance or anger, but about our refusal to accept our own suffering. If we continue to assert that this is not okay, we will eventually achieve a world in which it isn’t.
Valerie Wayson is a writer and teacher who’s taught in Iraqi Kurdistan, Madagascar, and Texas. She holds an MFA from Georgia College and is pursuing a PhD in creative nonfiction at Texas Tech University.