The Other Side

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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  • Page Count: 232
  • Direct Price: 12.75
  • List Price: 15.95
  • 5 x 7 3/4
  • July 2014
  • 978-1-935639-83-1
Format Price

Price as Configured $0.00

Lacy M. Johnson  is the author of The Other Side and Trespasses: A Memoir, and she is co-artistic director of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. She lives in Houston with her husband and children.

*Chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick

Kirkus calls The Other Side a “modern classic"!   

"The shock of violence, the uncertainty of memory, and the jagged path of healing are the skillfully braided strands of "The Other Side," Lacy M. Johnson's poetic, harrowing new memoir about an abusive — and very nearly deadly — relationship."
Oregonian

"Ferociously beautiful and courageous, Johnson’s intimate story sheds light on the perpetuation of violence against women."
—Starred Kirkus

"This riveting narrative of a young woman's kidnapping and rape at the hands of a former boyfriend moves fluently between dissociation and healing."
Publisher's Weekly

"Johnson’s matter-of-fact retelling of the horrors that befell her is by turns poetic and journalistic but harrowing all the way through."
—Starred Library Journal

"In this brilliant memoir, Lacy Johnson offers us a guide to the impossible—how to reconstruct a past when the past itself is shattered, each memory broken into pieces, left rattling around inside us. Sometimes flashes of poetry are all that we can find in the wreckage, sometimes these flashes are all that can possibly save us, brought together for brief, burning instances, and then let go. The Other Side bristles with life and energy and to read it is to be transformed.
—Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

"Wow. Just...Wow. The Other Side is the sonic boom of a powerful story meeting an even more powerful storyteller. It's hard to say anything about a book that leaves you this breathless. Lacy Johnson is my new literary hero."
—Mat Johnson, author of PYM

"Lacy M. Johnson’s powerfully moving and brilliantly structured memoir, The Other Side, asks, “How is it possible to reclaim the body after devastating violence?” Her intense desire and demand for a life lived in the body is triumphant. Johnson’s strength to free not only her physical self, but also to move through years of incapacitating fear by writing this book, is breathtaking: 'I lift the chain from my neck, over my head, let it rattle to the floor'."
—Kelle Groom, author of I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl

[one]


•••

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 tarp—the 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 floor—a checkerboard—to 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.
Morning. 
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.


And wait. 


And wait.

Why do we stay in dangerous situations?


First, I think you have to realize that most abusive relationships aren’t abusive all the time, and that not all abuse is violent. There are also many moments of laughter and tenderness. There are jokes and passionate lovemaking. Then suddenly there’s a conflict, which may escalate into violence, or into the threat of violence, but that is nearly always followed by remorse and a return to loving physical contact. It’s a powerful cycle, and I think that anyone who stays in that kind of relationship isn’t willing or able to acknowledge to themselves, and definitely not to others, the ways in which that situation is a dangerous one. It’s easier, actually, to hide or make excuses, or to fall out of contact with friends and family than it is to admit to being in love with someone who occasionally rapes you, or calls you a cunt or punches you in the face. 

In my own experience, I tended to blame myself for the abuse, in all its forms. I always felt so surprised as it was happening, and shocked after it was done. I told myself that maybe if only I had done or said something differently, or if only I could be a better person, everything would be so much better. That went on for years: with me always thinking that if only I could be a better person he would love me. It was only when the violence started to become really consistent that I realized maybe I should actually get out of the situation as soon as possible. 


How did you decide how much to tell?


Until I started working on this book, I told only one story about being kidnapped and raped by a man I used to know. The story was very brief and very factual, and I’d learned to tell it almost without thinking. When I started to work on this book, I requested copies of the police reports from the case, and felt shocked to see that the story had not changed in form in more than a decade. That seemed to me like a really important detail, and brought to mind something I’d read about how our relationship to traumatic events is often linked to the stories we tell about those events. So, I reasoned, maybe if I could learn to tell a different story about this traumatic event, I could change my relationship to it. I quickly realized that changing the story meant I would need to confront several powerful emotional and psychological forces that had been working on the story to constrain it into that single unalterable form. Eventually, I chose to focus my attention on the constraining force of shame, which proved to be incredibly fruitful, and which is contrary, I know, to all of our ideas about the function of shame -- that inner, critic that silences a voice by judging it as wrong, inferior, and worthless. The seemingly unalterable story I’ve always told about the event was my starting point, and from there I asked, what is the most impossible thing to say about this? That feeling, of trying to say the most impossible thing, helped me to write this book, since in the end I realized that all the most impossible things were actually what was most important to say. 

 

All of the names in The Other Side are anonymous? Why? It feels like you are protecting the identity of others but not yourself.


I write in the book about breaking free from this story, and that is definitely, certainly, absolutely true. I’m not going to hide anymore. I refuse to go on living one more moment of my life in fear. I have every intention of living openly and giving readings and teaching and doing my thing. And yet, as much as I want to shirk off the terror that has haunted me all these years, I also have to acknowledge that by writing this story now, in this very public way, I might be putting myself in real danger. The person I write about is an actual sociopath, free and out in the world. If he decided he wanted to find me it wouldn’t be very hard. I haven’t changed my name. I’m not using a pseudonym. A simple google search reveals where I work, and my title, and my office number in the building. I’m not afraid of that anymore. I’m not afraid of him. But that doesn’t mean I want him knowing my address or the names of my children or my spouse. Why put them at risk by using their real names? 

 

You address motherhood in this book—why did you feel it was important to include the birth of your children in this narrative?


My children, more than anyone else really, have taught me what it means to love. As I write in the book, I had this very naive and romantic idea that giving birth to my first child would “fix” me, that creating life would somehow balance out the negative space left by the abuse I suffered at the hands of someone I had loved. I totally bought into the whole fiction around childbirth: how my child would be a joy and I would look at her and feel love like I’d never experienced before. And like that,Voila!, I thought, I’d be “fixed.” Clearly, this is a really selfish way of thinking about bringing another person into the world, and it was based on what I thought I would get from a baby, and didn’t take into account all that I would have to give. And then the very first time looked into her face, moments after she was born, I realized that she had absolutely nothing to give me at all. I know that’s not a very popular way of talking about birth, because I’m supposed to say I felt so blessed or Her life is a gift or some crap like that. I don’t think that way of thinking had set me up for success, because in reality what I had was this screaming ball of pure want and need. I fed her and clothed her and put her to sleep, but that’s not all she wanted from me. Babies can be full enough, and warm enough, and well rested, but they have an appetite for love that is never, ever sated. And in that regard, I didn’t feel like I had anything to give her, because allowing myself to love her seemed like such a terrible, horrifying risk. As she grew older, she started to offer me something no one else in my life ever had: completely relentless and unconditional love. At first, it made me feel so sad and anxious and ashamed. It felt like so much pressure. I certainly didn’t deserve it, not after everything. And I certainly didn’t have that kind of love to offer her in return. But my daughter kept loving me in her fierce, stubborn way, and little by little, I began to see myself through her eyes: as a person who didn’t need to change a thing, who was already worthy of that kind of love. When my son was born, loving him came so much easier, because I had this really incredible teacher there to show me how it should be done. That is the gift my children have given me, and it has helped me to end the story I tell in this book.