A Memoir of Violence and Complicated Memory

Book review: The Other Sideby Lacy M. Johnson

The short version: Lacy Johnson was kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend and held prisoner in a soundproofed basement he’d constructed solely for the purpose of raping and brutally killing her. He didn’t succeed in killing her. This book is about that event, how it affected her and her relationships over the following years, the ways memory forms and fades, and the raw, terrifying effects that violence has on everyday life and thought processes.

As you might imagine, this was a difficult book to read and think about.

The long version: Johnson has been telling versions of this story for years, to family, friends, boyfriends, strangers, therapists, law enforcement, lawyers, and herself. Sometimes the details are hazy, sometimes they’re clear. Sometimes her memory matches what she reads in news articles about the kidnapping and sometimes it doesn’t.

This obfuscation of memory, sometimes intentional, recurs. In one disturbing episode, Johnson recounts the story she tells herself and others about how her sick cat died, and the true story which she has buried beneath layers of fake memory for self-protection. She lied to herself during a relationship that she knew wasn’t right, in order to be able to keep loving the person. It’s hard to absorb, difficult to know because it’s a universal concept. Sometimes we tell ourselves these lies about loved ones, or even our own selves, to maintain our connections to them and our sanity. There’s no way thinking about that isn’t painful, although Johnson’s situation is particularly upsetting.

Her kidnapper was the TA in her college Spanish class, twice her age, twice-divorced with kids whisked away to Denmark to get them beyond his reach. So she was up against a lot from the beginning, there were some warning signs, in addition to his general repulsiveness and stomach-turning abusive behavior. Johnson is strong, just absolutely fearless, in confronting her past decisions. I found it very admirable; it’s uncomfortable wondering whether you’d be able to do the same. I guess it could go without saying, but there’s a significant unsettling element of discomfort that inevitably accompanies reading this book.

She’s a poet, and the book is written in a poetic tone. It’s hard to critique a memoir that’s so deeply personal, and about such a terrifying ordeal. I can say that I didn’t enjoy the writing style – I’ve read too many memoirs written in a similar distanced, often present-tense language of poetics and unconventional structuring, with a lot of vague metaphors and somewhat odd, reaching descriptions. It reads to me too melodramatically and it’s also overly familiar; it’s done a lot.

I also didn’t like reading certain topics (beyond the horrifying ones) like the details of casual sexcapades or complaining that she can’t get a married colleague to sleep with her while her relationship with her husband sadly, uncomfortably deteriorates. They seemed like the typical fodder of troubled, figuring oneself out type of stories. Again, it’s so familiar it’s like slogging through the same story every time. Is that an unfair thing to say about a memoir, ostensibly someone’s actual experience? Probably. But these sections felt so weakly written when she’s capable of a stronger, deeper kind of writing and examination of experience.

On the other hand, some moments were so powerful, they hit like a truck. We’ve all had bad or regrettable relationships, if not abusive ones. Some of Johnson’s references and descriptions hit so close to home in summing up feelings that I think are not uncommon to bad relationships, and obviously to abuse survivors. Like when she’s encouraged by a therapist to write two lists about her previous relationship with her kidnapper; one describing the terrible, and the other, the good things he did in their relationship:

It’s easy to write that I’m afraid of him. It’s harder to write that he taught me about film, and cooking, to admit that I’m probably a writer because of him, because of all that happened. It’s hard to admit that I loved him. 

It’s always hard to take the bad with the good – unbearably painful even. It’s something everyone has to come to terms with in examining our pasts, and it’s never easy. Sometimes the threads linking us to those we’d rather forget are simply too knotted to ever be untangled.

This will be the last version of the story I ever tell.

 Johnson was stifled for years, unable to move past this trauma (understandably.) She told and retold the story, in different versions, so often – struggling with the failures and nuances of memory, like when comparing the version in her head with the police report and finding discrepancies. She immediately admits after writing that line that this might be a naive expectation. But this was clearly a cathartic endeavor and needed to be written, and the story wasn’t complete until she could explore and understand the aftereffects of trauma and memory.

This should be a very meaningful work to anyone who’s endured similar suffering, in some form, from an abusive relationship. It helps to hear how someone else has made it through to the other side, even with bumps along the way.
My rating: 3/5

The Other Side: A Memoir
by Lacy M. Johnson
published June 16th, 2014 by Tin House Books

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8 thoughts on “A Memoir of Violence and Complicated Memory

    1. It was on mine forever too! I wanted so much to like it but there was just something off. The style, this almost adolescent tone about the wild or “bad” stuff she’s done…it didn’t work for me. But there was plenty of good stuff, reflective and poetic writing and her personal strength and honesty that were worth it.
      Plus it’s short, so as long as you’re interested enough, it’s not like it’s some huge investment of your time.

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  1. Not sure about this one. I’ve been weeding out explicitly violent books lately from my tbr pile, because it’s affecting me more this year. Knowing that this really happened would really stress me.

    It is difficult to review and rate a personal story. Hard for someone to say I really loved your memoir (of extremely disturbing content) or with the same token, to say I didn’t like how you wrote about it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely understand about limiting violently-themed material. I’ve gone through the same over the last year with restricting, or carefully choosing the right time and material for, my true crime consumption for the sake of my stress and anxiety. I’d definitely advise against this one because although there’s not a TON of explicit violence, there’s enough to be very disturbing, plus the consideration of the aftereffects…just overall it’s not a great package if you want to limit that type of content.

      This was indeed a very tough one to review, I felt terrible criticizing it too strongly and yet something just didn’t quite work for me. Hope you found it helpful to read, thanks for the very thoughtful feedback! 🙂

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    1. Ugh it was so terrifying. I actually read it over a year ago and thankfully I’ve either blocked out or forgotten what exactly happened to the cat. Cats getting hurt also always means a book gets a hard no from me. In this case it just made it all the harder to fathom her continuing the relationship with this guy.

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