HOUSTON, Oct. 30, 2014– Last year, more than 110 women across Texas were killed in domestic violence murders by their husbands, ex-husbands, intimate partners, boyfriends or ex-boyfriends, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence.
Alumna and staff member Lacy M. Johnson may have escaped that same fate 14 years ago, when she says she was “kidnapped and raped by the man I loved." Johnson chronicles her life before and after the traumatic incident in the memoir “The Other Side.”
The book has garnered reviews from such publications as the Los Angeles Times and Publishers Weekly. In its review, the Wall Street Journal states, “the reader feels pulled onto a fast train, in a compartment with a narrator telling an intimate and terrifying tale.”
Johnson received a Ph.D. from UH in 2008 after enrolling in the University’s famed Creative Writing Program. Today, Johnson is 36 years old, happily married, the mother of two and the director of Academic Initiatives at UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.
UH News Digest discussed the memoir and domestic violence with Johnson, as the nation, including UH, observes Domestic Violence Awareness Month. To hear Johnson read an excerpt from her memoir, visit https://soundcloud.com/poetsandwriters/the-other-side-by-lacy-m-johnson.
Why did you decide to write “The Other Side”?
I decided to write this story because I am a writer and because I couldn’t not write this story. The events that I describe in the book happened when I was 21 years old. I had been an English major in my undergraduate years, and I had taken a couple of writing workshops. I had just started thinking that writing was something Iwanted to do and could do, when I was kidnapped and raped by the man I loved. Obviously, what happened changed my life.
When I look back at the poems I was writing in graduate school, I realized that I was always trying to write this story. When something catastrophic and traumatic happens to you, sometimes there aren’t words to describe it. In my research I learned that unlike other memories, which drift and change, traumatic memories sometimes don’t. I thought, maybe if I was able to change the memory a little bit or show myself ways that this memory wasn’t quite right or that the story was missing parts, that it might start to drift and change, and my relationship to the memory might also change.
Did your relationship to the memory change and if so, how has it helped you recover?
Yes, though not necessarily in the way you might think. I think that most people imagine that writing a memoir would be cathartic, which isn’t exactly true. Catharsis means purging, as if writing were a way of forgetting. What I have found instead is that though I haven’t forgotten those events, when I open the book now I feel a sort of neutrality towards what is written there. As if it happened to someone else, though I still distinctly remember it happening to me. It’s a strange feeling because now those events have receded into the past, which is exactly where they should be.
What was your family’s reaction to “The Other Side”?
My husband is extraordinarily supportive. He read the memoir for the first time after it was done. I was terrified about letting him read it, because there is a way I talk about what happened in the book that is different from the way we have talked about it. I was worried that knowing the truth would change how he thought about me, which has very much to do with the lingering shame that a lot of survivors feel. After he read the book, he told me that he is proud of me and thinks that I am so brave.
My mom told me she wasn’t going to read the book, because she thought it was going to be too painful. She read it anyway. I was afraid that she would be hurt by the book and was concerned about what she would think of me. She was nothing but supportive. I think she felt sorry for what had happened. She wanted to blame herself for my bad choices. In the end, I think she reached the same conclusion that I come to by the end of the book — if the kidnapping and rape hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today.
What kind of feedback have you received?
People often tell me that something similar happened to them, or something similar happened to a sister, or a wife, or an ex-girlfriend or to a mother, or that something similar is happening to them still … I spent most of my adult life thinking this thing that happened to me was uniquely horrific and traumatic, even though I knew other people had their own horrors and traumas. I thought mine was particularly horrific in a certain kind of way, so it is unsettling to know it is not unique to me after all.
How did you find the courage to write the book especially since the suspect is still at large?
When I started writing this book, I was very afraid all the time. Frequently, I was too afraid to leave the house. Some days were worse than others. I would feel too afraid to take my children to the park, which is not to say I didn’t take them to the park, but I felt afraid. It wasn’t that this one person was going to come and get me — though, there was that, too —but it was a sense of being vulnerable to attack. I had these weird, paranoid delusions of everyone wanting to attack me, but I know, obviously, that’s not true. After something like that happens, you are a little more alert … But eventually, I decided enough is enough, that I wasn’t going to be afraid anymore.
I know you can’t just stop feeling an emotion because you want to, so I started replacing fear with things that make me feel brave. Writing about my experience makes me feel brave. I’m still afraid, but I’m just not going to let that fear make choices for me. There is a certain possibility he (the suspect) may contact me or he could show up to one of my readings, but I’m not going to let that stop me for doing something I feel is very important — to tell this story, to speak out on behalf of other people who are still afraid, to say to them you don’t have to live that way anymore.
You seem very happy. How did you move on with your life?
I went to psychotherapy. I took a lot of medication, but I don’t think that any of that affected me as positively as building a healthy, loving family for myself. Surrounding myself with loving people was the single best thing I ever did for myself. Having children, loving and taking care of them was helpful as well, but even more helpful was learning to let people love me back.
I also realized that healing doesn’t mean going back to the way things were and going back to the person I was, because that is impossible. That person is gone. The person I am now is a person who has been kidnapped and raped. I have to love that person, too, and be willing to forgive my former self for the bad choices she made. She didn’t know what I know now.
What is your advice to women and men suffering in abusive relationships?
The first step is admitting to yourself the truth about the kind of relationship you are in, and realizing that you don’t deserve to be abused. Leaving an abusive relationship is not always as simple as it may seem to outsiders. The person may be financial dependent on the abuser or the person may still love the abuser.
Once you are able to admit you are in an abusive relationship, it becomes a bit easier to ask for help. But it’s very important to make sure that you have people to turn to for help. One of the most popular tactics for abusers is to isolate their victims from their network of family and friends, so they won’t have anyone to ask for help. But there is always someone who will help. The hardest thing, I think, is taking help when it is offered.
By Francine Parker