Machines Made of Words and Making Trouble: The Millions Interviews Lacy M. Johnson

October 8, 2018 | 4 books mentioned 11 min read

In her “ferociously beautiful and courageous” 2014 memoir The Other SideLacy M. Johnson recounted how she was kidnapped, held hostage, raped, and nearly killed by—as she describes him—a man she once loved: a man who also got away, avoiding prosecution, and is now raising a family in Venezuela.

In the title essay of her new collection, The Reckonings, Johnson writes that when giving readings from that memoir, she was frequently asked, “What do you want to have happen to him, to the man who did this to you?” Her audience assumes that she wants him dead; some even offer to kill him for her because, as Johnson writes, “they want suffering for him. They want blood, guts, gore. Now that would be justice, they think.” But this brand of justice is not what she wants at all. What Johnson wants is “a long line of reckonings … the truth told back to us … the lies laid bare.” And in this collection, Johnson goes on to do just that, exposing our broken power structures; elucidating misogyny’s repercussions in “Girlhood in a Semibarbarous Age,” examining her own privilege in “Against Whiteness,” and calling out the environmental destruction of which we are ignorantly and knowingly a part in “What We Pay” and “The Fallout.” But to suggest that each of these essays tackles a single topic is misleading, because The Reckonings is a collection that converses with itself and the reader, asking us to question our beliefs and our roles in a system that perpetuates violence.

Lacy answered my questions about her process, political art, the curation of the Houston Flood Museum, and her advice to fellow assault survivors.

covercoverThe Millions: The epigraph to these essays is a quote from Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood: “The Unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy.” How and when, in the aftermath of trauma, did you find yourself no longer wanting—if you ever did—a vengeful justice? And when did you sense your capability to curve toward joy?

Lacy M. Johnson: I don’t remember any point in the past when I wanted to take revenge on the man who kidnapped and raped me. Maybe there were times when I thought I might have to kill him, but that came from a fear he might show up and try to kill me first, not out of some thirst for revenge. I do remember, in the first several months after the kidnapping, being really upset that two people I was close to at that time had hired a bounty hunter to try to kidnap him from Venezuela and bring him back to the United States—or maybe the point was for that person to kill him all along. That wasn’t what I wanted. It still isn’t. Even now with all we know about the political and social upheaval in the country where he is living, it doesn’t make me feel happy or satisfied to imagine that he is in peril, that he is trapped in a situation from which he can’t escape. Justice, for me, is not a zero sum game. I don’t need to make him lose in order for me to win. I don’t need him to suffer in order for my joy to become a possibility again. That has come somewhat recently—from almost two decades of heart work I’ve done on my own.

TM: In an interview with Publishers Weekly you said that when you sat down to write The Other Side, you did so with the intent of changing how you felt about the past. What was your intent in assembling this collection?

LMJ: You’re right, I did write The Other Side to change how I feel about the past. Specifically, I wanted to change my relationship to the particular memory of being kidnapped and raped by a man I had loved. I had spent 13 years of my life feeling trapped inside that story, and writing The Other Side made me realize that all I needed to do to escape it was to believe that it was over and write an ending to it. It seems so simplistic to say it out loud, but it really did work. I wrote The Reckonings to change how I understand the present; in particular I wanted to know why it is that we continue to define justice according to 5,000-year-old laws. What is it about vengeance and retribution that allows them to continue to masquerade as justice? And what is it about our present moment that is relevant to ancient law? These were the questions I considered as I began this book. Perhaps next I’ll write a book to change how I feel about the future.

TM: Regarding our present moment: Given the momentum of the #MeToo movement and in the wake of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, with so many survivors of sexual assault feeling called to speak their truth, I wondered, as someone who found solace in articulating her story, if you have any advice for those speaking up or for those who don’t feel compelled or safe enough to speak.

LMJ: I write in The Reckonings about how I tend to dislike the term recovery, which implies a return to the way things were before, or a redemption, or a retrieval of everything someone has lost. Through the process of writing about what happened to me all those years ago—and, more recently, through the process of writing myself into a new understanding of what justice might mean—one thing has become clear to me: There’s no going back for me, and 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. Finding language for the story I had kept silent for so long has helped me to grieve that loss, maybe, because it not only forced me to fully acknowledge the ways that recovery is not possible, but to understand that discovery is possible. Telling our stories, difficult as they are to articulate, helps to move our focus from the impossible task of returning to the past toward all the possibilities we can encounter in the future.

TM: In “Art in the Age of Apocalypses,” you write about your students at Rice University returning to class after the 2016 presidential election, how the last thing in the world they wanted to do was workshop. How have your students responded since? Do you have to get beneath a new cynicism or do they feel a call to activism?

LMJ: I currently teach at an elite private university and, to my great dismay, most of my students appear to feel no particular call to activism. They are called to take challenging courses and to conduct ambitious research, and they also feel called to professions where they can make a lot of money. I don’t think it’s apathy they suffer from—not exactly—but rather that they’ve been trained all their lives to believe that one wrong choice will ruin all they hope to achieve. There’s a lot riding on their success, they tell me, and they’re under a lot of pressure from their families and communities back home. They don’t want to stick their necks out. They’re reluctant to speak out of turn or step out of line. I consider it at least part of my job to help them also feel the pressure of social responsibility that their immense privilege would make it very easy for them to dodge or ignore, and I can show them from the example of my own life that you can actually get into plenty of trouble—and, more importantly, you can make trouble—and do just fine.

TM: So many the systemic injustices you touch on are rooted in a fear of “the other” and our subsequent need for control. If you would, tell us why you prefer “the stranger?”

LMJ: I don’t like “the other” as a term because I think it confers on the dominant culture a primary status. It places all the burden of difference on the person who embodies it and fails to challenge that primacy of homogeneity in any kind of productive way. I prefer Georg Simmel’s theory of “the stranger” because I think it flips the critical gaze back to the dynamics at work in a group the stranger seeks to join. “The stranger,” as a theory, helps us to see how the group is created and maintained by its failure to incorporate people who arrive from outside the group and remain; in fact, the group will pretend the stranger’s “strangeness” is the only kind of difference that matters, and this creates cohesion in a group by allowing all the differences within the group to seem to fall away. The theory allows people in any group to challenge these assumptions by making ourselves unfamiliar with what we believe we know, and to insist on our own strangeness by becoming strangers again in all the places we are assumed to belong.

coverTM: You were trained in poetry and that background feels evident in the structuring of your nonfiction. In your first book, Trespasses, as well as The Other Side, you utilize vignettes and play with chronological time until the whole has an orchestral resonance. The Reckonings is equally resonant, yet it is a different kind of book in that each essay stands on its own—still, you’ve managed to make them speak with one another. Tell me about your process in assembling this collection and how it differed from your previous work.

LMJ: Everything I know about making essays I learned first from making poems, and really I don’t think poems and essays are such different things. ”A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words,” says William Carlos Williams. Essays are also machines made of words. Machines work for us, and on us. A poem has turns, like essays. Some poems rhyme and essays also do this, except we call it a “recurring motif.“ (My essays often rhyme-rhyme because I like the bell it rings in my brain.) What is the logic of a poem? Often association, same as in essays. What is the form of a poem? Anything, same as essays. A poem can be a list, a lesson, a meditation, a takedown, an ode, a critique. Essays can also be these things. When I called these things I write “poems” they functioned like tiny tesseracted versions of the things I now call “essays,” and my “essays” are more roomy and sprawling versions of what I used to call “poems.” But in truth, I’ve only ever written one kind of thing, and that thing tries to make the world more visible (to myself and others), because only when we can see a thing can it be changed.

TM: In “Art in the Age of Apocalypse” you write about the politically motivated art that has informed your trajectory as an artist. Many of the works mentioned are performance or installation based. In what ways have these works helped you to find your voice?

LMJ: I don’t know that these works helped me to find my voice so much as they have clarified my thinking. One of my areas of specialization is in interdisciplinary art, specifically in art that is socially engaged. People might have heard of an art form called “social sculpture,” a term that comes to us from Joseph Beuys, who coined it in the 1970s to suggest the idea that anything can be approached creatively, and that the artist’s life can be the form of her art. Social sculpture has evolved in all kinds of ways in the 21st century, most of which don’t interest me at all, but I feel very compelled by the particular branch of social sculpture that combines these ideas of art-as-anything with social justice. There are specific artists whose practice involves organizing their communities around an issue and working to solve it in ways that create a more just and sustainable future. I’m thinking in particular of Rick Lowe here in Houston working on Project Row Houses; Theaster Gates working in the south side of Chicago on the Dorcester Projects, and the work Mark Bradford does in Los Angeles with Art + Practice. Encountering the work of these artists has inspired me more than any particular writer has, and has completely changed the way I think about my role in this world as an artist, and the ways that I can carry the work I do on the page into my own community. 

TM: In “The Flood,” you describe how your family and the surrounding community weathered Hurricane Harvey, how it brought people together. You’ve since curated the Houston Flood Museum. Tell us about the motivation behind this project.

LMJ: During the storm, while my husband was rescuing neighbors out of their flooded homes, I was stuck at home with our kids and could think of nothing useful to do, so I started writing about what I was seeing, about rescue efforts and the experience of being stranded in our home—which did not flood in the end, but the water at its highest came about 15 horizontal feet from the house. I tried to write every day, and posted the essays on Facebook, where they were shared sometimes thousands of times. Those posts were a way of letting the outside world know what was happening here on the ground, and I used that platform to help connect people who wanted to help with those who needed it.

After the storm, when the flood waters had receded and the recovery had, for many, only barely begun (if at all), I was approached by the Houston Endowment (which is a local foundation committed to improving quality of life in Houston) to ask whether I might be interested in doing a Harvey story-collecting project—the aim of which would have been to preserve narratives of the storm that hadn’t really been heard and to lift up communities who had been inundated by this catastrophe. I told them I’d think about it for a minute—because I was trying to finish The Reckonings at that time—but ultimately it seemed too important to pass up. The idea I brought back to them was the Houston Flood Museum, which is a project of communal remembering about the catastrophic flooding that increasingly affects our region. The museum brings together stories of disaster in an effort to weave that traumatic event into the fabric of who we believe ourselves, as a community to be, and from that new understanding to try to imagine ways to move together into the future. 

TM: In “Speak Truth to Power,” you write that we have fostered “a culture of men who hate women because they have learned to hate the feminine in themselves.” As a fellow parent, of a daughter and a son, I wondered about the smaller, daily ways that you have found to subvert this narrative. What can we all be doing?

LMJ: The narrative of violent revenge is powerful and ubiquitous, and it arrives in the lives of my children through the various media they consume—movies, television, comic books, novels—as well as through their relations with peers. As a parent, and one who is committed to nonviolence, I feel like it is my responsibility to show them other ways. Where do we look for these? Where are the stories of people who solve problems through healthy, non-violent means—through peaceful resolution, and ceremony, and mediation? Those stories are harder to find because peaceful resolution doesn’t make a blockbuster movie: There are no explosions, no fight scenes, no blasting musical montage. Violence is big business in this country, and in my house at least we try to restrict the spectacle of it. There’s no television on school nights; they don’t have tablets or phones. We eat dinner together as a family and each evening we talk about the challenges each of us faced—and I include myself in this. Whether my challenges are intellectual, or interpersonal, or physical, talking about my approach to resolving problems gives me an opportunity, each evening, to teach both of my children—my daughter and son alike—the lessons that I hope, over time, can become just as powerful as that one about violent revenge: that we should move through the world with love, that vulnerability does not mean weakness, that an open heart is sometimes wounded, but that feeling pain is never an excuse for inflicting it.

TM: If you could press The Reckonings into the hands of one particular person or group of people today, with the guarantee that it would be read and absorbed, who would that be? And what is the first discernible change you hope they would make?

LMJ: This is a really hard question to answer, because whenever I start out on a book the person I really want to change is myself. I’m a very selfish writer in this way. I started on this book because I found the fixation on an ancient definition of justice so troubling, but I was baffled about what to install in its place. The question of justice is a personal one for me—and not just because I’m a writer and need something to write books about, but also because this is something I’m working through in my real, actual life. The man who kidnapped and raped me, and tried to kill me is alive and well and a fugitive living in Venezuela with his new family. Does that mean there’s no justice for me? I refuse to center my happiness and well-being on anything that happens or does not happen to him. So what is the alternative? Of course, this is also not just a personal question. We see this questions playing out in contemporary culture in a thousand different ways—ecological injustice, racial injustice, economic injustice, sexual violence, mass violence. I think one of the reasons we see so little progress in each of these huge systemic problems is because our definition of injustice and justice are basically the same thing: they’re both based on doing harm to another person or group of people. That feels like a trap, and I wanted to write my way out it. That’s what this book is. The first discernible change—and it is a big one—would be reorienting our definition of justice away from that ancient one that requires mutual suffering and toward a new one that creates the possibility for mutual joy.

is the author of the Iowa Award-winning collection of short stories If I'd Known You Were Coming, and her debut novel, Kept Animals, will be published by Scribner February, 2020.

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