The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson

Lacy M. Johnson's "The Other Side"

If you turn on your TV right now, I expect that there will be at least a dozen shows depicting violence, murder, rape, homocidal psychopaths, and so on. Why? We are morbidly curious about the darkness, evil, the Shadow, whatever you want to call it. We wonder how people can be so cruel and comfort ourselves that we are not “that way”, that we are “safe.” We want so desperately to separate ourselves from that darkness and yet, we cannot look away.

I’ll admit, when I first started reading Lacy Johnson’s “The Other Side,” I had a bit of that hunger. Her memoir recounts the time when she was kidnapped by an abusive ex-boyfriend who intended to rape and kill her.  But like a good story, or at least the story you want, she escaped. When you see that description, you think, “Good thing she’s safe… now we’ll get the all the gory details first hand!” At least I did. The more I read, however, it became apparent that this story is not about that night. It’s about all the events that sandwiched that night and the road Johnson had to take to make sense of it all.

Throughout this book, she is putting a puzzle together as we travel with her through time, relationships, personal choices and the uncontrollable actions of others. She lets us see her pain, fear, numbness, confusion, small and large victories one jagged piece at a time. Her writing is raw, intimate and poetic. In the end, the picture she constructs is heavy and hard-won but not defeated, not finished.

Something that struck me throughout the book was a sense of emotional ambivalence Johnson experienced in regard to her kidnapper. This is a difficult concept to grasp, how we can hold on to two opposite feelings at the same time. Johnson disdained and feared her kidnapper, but had also loved him, had learned valuable lessons from him. She even says with some marked discomfort that he is one of the reasons she has become a writer. When asked by a therapist to make two separate lists, the good and bad things, about her kidnapper, she repeatedly says that she could not. These opposing feelings reside within her and she cannot pull them apart. There could be only one list.

That sentiment really spoke to me. We want to define people, events, ideas as “all good” or “all bad.” We are not comfortable wading through ambivalence, ambiguity, nuance. The truth of the matter is that life just isn’t that simple. Johnson gives us that  lesson through her analysis of her relationship with this man, this kidnapper, this rapist, this attempted murderer. Those labels were not his only characteristics, the only effect on her life.  I think that’s something worth remembering next time you’re watching Criminal Minds or CSI. Both good and evil are complex and they have a tendency to dip into each other more often than we’d like think.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just kids

These are the wonderful things about this book: it jumps between the past and the present, it is episodic, it is tangential, and it is poetry.  Patti Smith is a poet and a punk rocker and an artist.  Just Kids documents her 1967 move to New York and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  The two meet and move in together.  She works at a bookstore and begins writing poetry; he creates art: mostly altars and jewelry, until he discovers photography.  Smith recounts these years between ’67 and ’73 with a level of detail and specificity that is almost unbelievable.

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