The Other Side
by Lacy M. Johnson
Tin House Books, 2014
The Other Side has a lot to offer readers because it is so many things at once: true crime, lyric nonfiction, mystery, investigative piece, and personal narrative. It was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, an Edgar Award finalist, and one of the Kirkus best books of 2014. It is also a simply stunning book.
At the heart of Lacy M. Johnson’s intense and poetic memoir is the gripping account of the author’s kidnapping, rape, and imprisonment by a former lover. Following her dramatic escape is the struggle to recover. In a voice that is both straightforward and artful, Johnson weaves her personal narrative together with police and FBI reports, psychological records, and neurological research to create a breathtaking story of survival. “Each report simply records my story,” she writes, “and yet it is not my story, though it is the same version of the story I would tell. Almost word for word. Like something I memorized long ago and can still perform by heart.”
The Other Side is composed of thirteen chapters, each made up of short vignettes that range from a few paragraphs to a page and a half. End notes supplement the text with research that shows just how much work went into this complex and contemplative book.
It opens at the police station after the author’s escape from the soundproofed room where she’d been held by her ex after he kidnapped her, raped her, and threatened to kill her with the rifle he left standing outside the door. This traumatic event is at the center of the narrative—it’s the reason the book exists—but through Johnson’s careful crafting, the memoir feels like so much more. Never emotional or self-pitying, events are relayed from police case files, compared to the author’s memory, and stand alongside the theory of Schrödinger’s Cat: “At any moment, he may or may not kill me. I remember how the two possibilities can coexist: I’m both alive and dead in any room but this.”
From there, a flashback to when she first met “The Man I Live With” (no names are used in the book, only identifiers such as these) along with some background about her family and her life. It only takes seventeen pages to recount meeting The Man, starting a relationship with him, and his becoming abusive, but by the time she knows something’s wrong, she has no one left to turn to.
What unfolds in this book feels like the author discovering how to live again after experiencing trauma that never quite releases its hold, yet in the retelling it’s never not thoughtful and captivating. It is, throughout, a beautiful work of art.
I know how to tighten the cold hard fist of my heart.
I don’t remember how to open it.
The small space of my car closes around me. The air grows hot and stale, and I can’t breathe in it. My back sweats; my heart races. And just as I’m about to let the panic wash over me, I start screaming. It’s not a scream that comes from my throat, or from my lungs, but a scream that comes from the shut place I carry inside me, a scream that could swell and swell without end. It’s made of equal parts terror and rage, multiplied and multiplied by the silence of all these years.
Although The Other Side deals with suffering, it doesn’t feel voyeuristic, and in Johnson’s able hands, her story also stands as a tale that our culture that badly needs to hear. Readers who have never experienced trauma anywhere near this level will still likely find this artistic and affecting book truly unforgettable.