“Unflinching and honest…both timely and timeless” (Houston Chronicle), this extraordinary collection of essays by the award-winning writer of The Other Side—rooted in her own experience with sexual assault—pursues questions that strike at the heart of our national conversation about the justness of society.
In 2014, Lacy Johnson was giving a reading from The Other Side, her “instant classic” (KirkusReviews) memoir of kidnapping and rape, when a woman asked her what she would like to happen to her rapist. This collection “attempts to parcel out several knotted problems and suggests forms of meaningful justice” (Booklist, starred review). Drawing from philosophy, art, literature, mythology, anthropology, film, and her own experience of violence, Johnson considers how our ideas about justice might be expanded beyond vengeance and retribution to include acts of compassion, patience, mercy, and grace.
“The Reckonings is not a book about changing the world. It’s philosophy in disguise, equal parts memoir, criticism, and ethics…The twelve essays deserve great consideration, while you read it and long after” (NPR). From “Speak Truth to Power,” about the condition of not being believed about rape and assault; to “Goliath,” about the ways evil is used as a form of social control; to “The Fallout,” about ecological and generational violence, Johnson creates masterful, elaborate, gorgeously written essays that speak incisively about our current era. She grapples with justice and retribution, truth and fairness, and sexual assault and workplace harassment, as well as the broadest societal wrongs: the BP Oil Spill, government malfeasance, police killings. The Reckonings is a powerful and necessary work, ambitious in its scope, which “challenges our culture’s expectations of justice and expose the limits of vengeance and mercy” (Ms. Magazine).
The Reckonings THE RECKONINGS Usually it is a woman who asks the question—always the same question. She is sitting near the door in the last row of the auditorium, having spent the last hour listening to me talk about what it means to have once been kidnapped and raped by a man I loved, a man with whom I lived, a man who even before the kidnapping had already violated me in every way you might imagine possible, especially if you were a man like him. Someone else in the audience asks what happened to the man, and I explain how he got away, how he is a fugitive living in Venezuela, raising a new family. This is not the ending anyone expects.
Now the woman has a question. She raises her hand, and when I call on her, always last, she stands and speaks in a clear, assertive voice: “What do you want to have happen to him, to the man who did this to you?” By “this” I know she means not only the actual crime the man committed but also all of the therapy, the nightmares and panic attacks, the prescribed medication and self-medication, the healing and self-harm. “I mean, you probably want him dead, right?”
No, I think. “No,” I say out loud. Her expression crumples; she looks confused. Everyone in the audience looks confused. This isn’t supposed to be how the story ends; it’s not the ending they want for themselves, for me.
The women at the book club don’t want this ending either. They are sitting around a long oak dining table in the home of our gracious host, who brings food out in many courses, during each of which the wine flows freely. They ask questions, mostly bookish ones, but eventually the conversation turns to the man I lived with, to how he got away.
“I’d kill him for you,” one says.
“I’d kill him on the spot,” says another.
They carry guns in their purses, they have told me. Maybe they are angry enough to use them.
One brings up a story she heard earlier in the day: a local man has been convicted of a boy’s murder. The boy was seven when the local man raped him; he turned eight on the day the local man burned him alive. The boy survived long enough to implicate the man, who was charged with capital murder after the boy died. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to forty years in prison.
“Justice has been served,” one of the women in the book club says.
“How is this justice?” asks another. “He’s going to spend the next forty years living off our taxes.”
“He should be burned alive,” the host says, “the same way he tried to kill that boy.”
She has been quiet the entire evening, in and out of the kitchen, up and down from her chair. Now she is seated at the head of the table, looking at her hands, which twist and untwist an ironed napkin over the middle of her plate. “What do you want to have happen to him?” she asks me.
This woman, like every other woman who asks the question, sits with her back to the wall, like I do when I have the choice, or near the door in the last row of every auditorium. Sometimes she is my mother’s age, or my age: she wears oversized sweaters, little makeup, pulls back her hair in a simple bun. She does not want attention. She has children, like I do, and like I do, she sometimes struggles to love them well. She will tell me this after I have finished answering questions, when I am sitting at a little table signing books. She has a story that is similar to mine “in ways,” and she doesn’t even know what to feel about it anymore.
Sometimes the woman sitting near the door, or against the wall, is an old woman with crepe paper hands. Sometimes she is not a woman but a man—an old man my father’s age in a ten-gallon hat, who tells me he was raped by an uncle when he was the age of my son. Or the person who asks the question is a man young enough to be my son if I had started much earlier, who tells me the question is for himself, or for his girlfriend. They both have a story like mine, he says, and they have not yet found an ending to it. I am surprised at how the people sitting near the door in the last row of the auditorium always have a story like mine.
I carry these stories with me because I don’t know what else to do with them. The details may differ. If it is not the story of an abusive lover, perhaps it is a mother, or a father, or an uncle; or it is the story of a friend who has been killed by a stranger while trying to do the right thing, or a woman who is shot in the back of the head while asking for help; it might be a story about the abuse of power, or authority, of the slow violence of bureaucracy, of the way some people are born immune from punishment and others spend whole lifetimes being punished in ways they did nothing to deserve.
In my story, there was a man I once loved very much, and because of the self-destructive way in which I loved him, I didn’t want to leave him when he abused me first with his words and then with his fists. I told myself I could fix him. That this wasn’t who he was, not really. I let him keep showing me who he really was until I finally believed him and left.
I had already lived a few lives by that time, I thought—a farm girl from Missouri, a door-to-door steak salesperson, a sex worker, a model in New York, a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault—but I was afraid none of these lives had sufficiently prepared me to live the one I wanted more than anything else. I had only just begun thinking of myself as a writer around that time, but I told myself I had probably not read enough books, had not visited enough continents, was not smart enough or wise enough, didn’t have anything to say, and no one would want to hear it if I did. I thought there had been a mistake in the cosmic register. Somewhere there was another Lacy Johnson who could keep straight when to use lay instead of lie, who actually belonged in all the places I began finding myself, who deserved all the good things that suddenly seemed to be happening to me.
This is all to say that the worst violence that man committed was not against my body but against the story I told about the person I believed myself to be.
I was twenty-one when that man kidnapped and raped me and tried, but failed, to kill me. The man got away, and I got away; he is a fugitive living in Venezuela, and I am a writer of books. The last one I wrote was about him, about the day he meant to kill me but I lived. It was not easy, not the writing and not the living—not until I often found myself standing in front of strangers telling them there is justice for me in standing here, in this room, alive and breathing and telling my story with my own voice.
It is not the ending to the story anyone expects—not even the one they want, because they want a return, a redemption, a retrieval of all I had lost for my part in the story; they want suffering for him. They want blood, guts, gore.
Now that would be justice, they think.
My mom tells me she wants him dead. She has just read the book—even though I told her not to, even though she told me she wouldn’t. She, like the woman sitting at the head of the table in the book club and like the woman sitting near the door in the last row of the auditorium, feels unsatisfied by the story I have told about my life, because it cannot be reconciled to all she has been told about how these things should end: that the man who did the terrible thing should suffer as much as I have suffered, and as much as she has suffered, if not more. In all of the movies she has seen, this is how it goes: the person who has done a terrible thing falls from a very tall building, or is incinerated in a ball of white-hot flames, or is shot in the dark by police, or at the very least is led away in handcuffs. She wants an ending like that for herself, for me.
I also watch these movies on occasion, and I admit there is a certain satisfaction when Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo finally kills Bill on the patio of his villa with the five-point exploding heart technique. He knows what he has done, why she has come; he does not even try to stop her. I take pleasure watching Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander condemn her rapist by tattooing that word into his chest. She violates him in the same ways he violated her, and a few more for good measure. When Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark allows Ramsay’s own dogs to eat him alive, she smiles a little, and there is something in me that smiles also. These men deserve this punishment, the stories tell us, and it feels good to see someone get what he deserves.
I know this is spectacle, entertainment, not actual life, though life also has its share of spectacles. I would be horrified, find I often am, to see anyone actually murdered, much less tortured, out of some thirst for revenge. The spectacle reinforces over and over a story I want to believe about the world even though I have never yet witnessed it for myself: that everything will come out right in the end, that bad things eventually happen to bad people, that good people eventually receive all the blessings they deserve. Everyone gets their just desserts, the story tells me so I can go on.
But what if that doesn’t happen? What if, as in my story, the person who does the terrible thing more or less gets away with it? Does that mean there is no justice to be had or made or found? What does justice look like in a situation where the crime is not intimate and personal but massive and public, and there is no one person to blame? What if the wrong person is blamed? What if we punish the right person but in the course of doing so cause unnecessary pain? What if we ourselves feel pain by performing this duty of punishing person after person, day after day? How could we not? What does justice look like in these situations? Is justice even a “real” thing that any of us can achieve at all?
There is a story we have each heard from birth that when someone does something bad, something bad should happen to that person in return and that this turnabout is justice. This story is a very old one, I’ve learned, older even than the law of an eye for an eye we find in the Old Testament, traceable back to the pre-Babylonian period, to the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest surviving record of ancient law:
If a man has put out the eye of a free man, put out his eye.
If he breaks the bone of a free man, break his bone.
If he puts out the eye of a serf, or breaks the bone of a serf, he shall pay one mina of silver.
This is the lex talionis—the law of retaliation—written more than five thousand years ago when vengeance ran amok, when a man might steal his neighbor’s cow, for instance, and the neighbor would respond by murdering that neighbor’s entire family. As we tell it now, the lex talionis is mandate—you must put out his eye—but the law was in fact meant to put a limit on vengeful action, to curb what humans understood to be our baser instincts.
Then, as now, we want to transform our suffering: to take a pain we experience and change it into the satisfaction of causing pain for someone else. We watch Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales turn his grief into hatred in order to pick up a gun, and watch Ving Rhames as Marsellus Wallace turn his terror and near annihilation into the promise of “going medieval” on his rapists, and us as his audience into accessories to all the suffering this promise might mean.
“To see another suffer is pleasant,” Nietzsche writes; “to make another suffer is still more pleasant.” He’s thinking in particular of how tempting it is to imagine punishment as a kind of redemption for guilt—the German word shuld means both “guilt” and “debt,” and one primary meaning of the word redemption was to buy that debt back—a trick of the mind that tells us that every injury has some equivalent of pain or sacrifice. There is, as Nietzsche points out, a strange accounting in this: a crime creates a debt; the criminal becomes a debtor, the victim his creditor, whose compensation is the particular pleasure of bearing witness to a cruel and exacting punishment.
Is that justice? Would I cheer, and cry, and jump up and down if the man who kidnapped and raped me were kidnapped and raped, and beaten, if I could grind him down with my rage until there was almost nothing left of him? If I could watch him suffer in all the ways he made me suffer or, better yet, cause that suffering myself? The story tells me to imagine it would feel satisfying: a release of adrenaline or perhaps the relief from it. Catharsis: a cleansing. To be honest, I’m not sure what justice is supposed to feel like. There is a shut place I carry inside me. If I caused him to suffer, would that go away?
I have found photographs of him on the Internet that suggest he is living with a woman who has given birth to two of his children, both girls. In the photos, he is as unhappy in his new life as he ever was in the one he lived with me. On vacation, he grows sullen because the trip isn’t going his way, and when the family joins him in the ocean he frowns and looks away from the camera, afraid of being recognized, of what the photograph will reveal. The older daughter, who is the same age as my son, sits on her mother’s lap, the mother who is love and safety, who makes a wall with her body between the daughter and him. Does he notice she does this? He holds the baby a little above his lap and away from his body. At a party, he dances back and forth in front of the children, and also their parents who are watching, because he has an audience, and in public he performs a version of himself who is charming, who is fun to be around, who is everything anyone ever wanted a person to be. Behind closed doors, he is angry and irritable, a man so fragile and insecure that he rages at anyone who does not reflect back the version of himself he wants to see. This is why his wife and daughters look, in the photographs, a little hollowed out inside. I can see everything he is doing to them. Everything he has already done.
You probably want him dead, strangers tell me.
“If we know in what way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter scale,” Simone Weil once wrote. In the years since I left that man, I have fallen in love many times, made a father out of a man I met on the Internet. I have created life, written whole worlds, outlined entire moral geographies for two barely domesticated children, and have learned to welcome the strangers who arrive at the doorstep of my soul. I’ve called myself a writer now more than half of my life, and during all this time, I have learned that sometimes the hardest and most important work I’ve done has meant turning a story I couldn’t tell into one that I can—and that this practice on its own is one not only of discovery but of healing.
Is justice a story about healing? Justice is blind, we are told; it is served, maybe like a severed head on a plate. It is a destination, the path to which is long and sometimes crooked and bent. The Roman emperor Nero called it justice when he threw Christians to the beasts in the Colosseum. For some, justice means sticking to the laws, or enforcing them. For others, it means helping friends and harming enemies. Aristotle observed that justice, like language, is a “special characteristic” of humans. Plato suggested that justice is “an inward grace.” “Might is right” is another enduring view—might meaning violence, of course, and violence being the opposite of grace.
More than anything else, what I want is a reckoning. Not only for myself, not only for him. I want it for everyone who asks the question: the woman with the crepe paper hands, the man in the ten-gallon hat, the boy who burned and his mother who must have barely lived. I want a reckoning for the woman shot in the back of the head and the man killed while running away—for the children who survive him. I want a reckoning for the person who believes he deserves to take life, and for the person who has been sentenced to offer his. I want a reckoning for all the wars politicians ask our children to fight on their behalf, and for all the children those wars fail to protect. I want a long line of reckonings. I want the truth told back to us. I want the lies laid bare.
“No,” I say to the woman who has asked the question from the back of the room, or from against the wall, or sitting at the head of the table. “I don’t want him dead. I want him to admit all the things he did, to my face, in public, and then to spend the rest of his life in service to other people’s joy.” She is struck silent and leans back in her seat.
This is the ending I want. I don’t want him dead. I don’t even want him to suffer. More pain creates more sorrow, sometimes generations of sorrow, and it amplifies injustice rather than cancels it out. I want to let go of my anger and fear and pain. I want to let go of the hatred and enmity and spite. I want that shut place to open. The ending I want is inside.
Lacy Johnson is the author of TheReckonings and the memoir The Other Side, which was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime, and the CLMP Firecracker Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, TheLos Angeles Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, Paris Review, Guernica, and elsewhere. She lives in Houston and teaches creative nonfiction at Rice University.
"Unflinching and honest, The Reckonings seamlessly melds the personal and political into a collection that is both timely and timeless ... Lucid and compelling, Johnson's essays are not only bold and memorable, but insistent reminders that all good essays are, in fact, reckonings: attempts to work out problems, whether domestic, cosmic or both, on the page.” —Houston Chronicle
“The Reckonings is not a book about changing the world. It's philosophy in disguise, equal parts memoir, criticism, and ethics. It has bits of Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, and Simone Weil, but its patron saint is Grace Paley ... The 12 essays in The Reckonings are 12 beginnings. Each one deserves great consideration, while you read it and long after. Each one leaves the work up to you.” —NPR.org
“In this searching collection of essays ... Johnson explores ideas of justice, retribution and mercy." —Newsday
“A collection that converses with itself and the reader, asking us to question our beliefs and our roles in a system that perpetuates violence." —The Millions
“The 12 essays collected in The Reckonings form a kind of song cycle on the subject of justice, with recurring motifs and a basso continuo of moral urgency. Themes develop, intersect, change key … It’s a lot of ground to cover, but Johnson dexterously arranges these disparate topics into a larger unity.” —Texas Observer
"[Johnson's] essays on the violence humans inflict on each other and the earth—including racism, misogyny and a variety of pollutions—challenge our culture's expectations of justice and expose the limits of vengeance and mercy." —Ms. Magazine
"The Reckonings is a beautiful and complicated collection of essays. In essence, these essays are an exploration of violence—sexual violence, environmental violence, racial violence, economic violence. It can be bleak, because Johnson writes about rape and mass shootings and nuclear waste. But it’s also intellectually rigorous, big-hearted, and nuanced. A gorgeous combination of personal narrative and investigative journalism, these essays ask more questions than they answer—in the best possible way.” —BookRiot
"Johnson writes with palpable compassion and brilliance, illuminating her deep humanity, while imbuing it in equal measure in the people she writes about and quotes. That her influences include Audre Lorde, Simone Weil, Adrienne Rich makes for a clear understanding of what is constitutes the sacred ground on which she stands. Finally, the last essay—”Make way for joy”—actually coaxed a smile and made a wee spot for the possibility of hope in my crankitude. This is no small thing. I am grateful." —LitHub
" In The Reckonings, Johnson takes the extraordinary steps of considering the life of the man who attacked her and reflecting on what should happen to him ... The breadth of topics that Johnson takes on in response to this act of violence in her life is remarkable, and her answers present readers with a profile in courage that deserves wide recognition." —Signature Reads
"Incredibly timely, this essay collection (in the vein of Rebecca Solnit and Maggie Nelson) seamlessly weaves Johnson’s own thoughts and experiences with philosophy, art, literature, film, mythology and anthropology to tackle questions of justice and retribution, truth and fairness, harassment and assault — and most important, how to translate these feelings into action." —Cup of Jo
"In The Reckonings: Essays, Lacy M. Johnson reflects on justice and retribution and raises difficult questions, all while using own personal experiences with violence and injustice, as well as examples that affect the masses." —Bustle
"These essays attempt to parcel out several knotted problems and suggest forms of meaningful justice ... Johnson’s questions and answers are hard but necessary." —Booklist, starred review
“Johnson excels at providing critical analysis of social justice and uses a variety of works, including mythology and film, to make the case for forging ahead with mercy and compassion. Her unflinching honesty and continuous quest for answers are woven throughout each essay, forming a thread that will have readers questioning their own beliefs. This beautifully written book packs a powerful punch. Those with a penchant for stories concerning individual rebirth in the aftermath of a traumatic event will flock to Johnson’s latest.” —Library Journal
"[Johnson] makes a plea for activism, art, and ... common decency ... [in this] thoughtful and probing collection." —Kirkus
"I don't know that I've ever been happier to be alive after reading any book." —Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
“This is a hell of a book! Lacy M. Johnson has thought through issues most of us do not want to think about, and she has written a powerful and deeply compassionate confrontation with violence in its most personal forms. I can barely express how impressive this work is.” —Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller
“Lacy M. Johnson’s The Reckonings is breathtaking. At the heart of this book of essays is both the body of an individual woman and the body of the world, both endlessly transgressed and yet able to endure with defiance and bold beauty. Whatever we mean when we say justice, Lacy M. Johnson reminds us how love must be threaded through the everything, a love that is a fierce life-force and not an apology. Here is a woman whose voice and body have moved through violence to refuse cultural inscription. Let that be song.” —Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan and The Chronology of Water
"Through prose that is at once passionate and percussive, Lacy Johnson's The Reckonings demands that we place justice and discovery at the center of our conversations, memories, imaginations, and art. I don't know that I've ever been happier to be alive after reading any book. In this weird way that probably says way too much about the smallness of my life, I felt like everything would be okay -- like we will make and sustain justice -- because a book I needed but never imagined reading was in the world. The Reckonings is as important as it is masterful on the sentence and conceptual level. The Reckonings is proof that caring about this place, and getting lost in the minutiae of what makes us unjust might actually be a pre-req for creating incredible, life-altering, just art." —Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
“In lyrical and stunning prose, Lacy M. Johnson responds to our ongoing violence—environmental, racist, sexist—and dares to imagine what repair might look like. Johnson is the best kind of witness—brave, brilliant, accountable, prophetic. Her essays are urgent, riveting. I couldn’t put this book down. Reading The Reckonings reminded me it’s possible to write our way into a new world.” —Sarah Sentilles, author of Breaking Up with God and Draw Your Weapons
"Lacy M. Johnson's The Reckonings is an essay for thinking people, which, in an age where the essay is reduced at times to "click bait" headlines and recycled advice about dating and wellness, is the highest compliment. Johnson grapples with the fundamental issue of our time: what is justice? What is punishment? What is mercy? Johnson's beautiful writing and hard-won wisdom will make you think, and then think again. I am grateful for this book." —Emily Rapp Black, author of Poster Child and The Still Point of the Turning World
“As ever, Lacy M. Johnson’s work here is ambitious and brave, and with The Reckonings she has written an essential book about what means to emerge from darkness, bounding step by bounding step. This brilliant collection of essays is a tour de force in empathy, an evocative work that invites us to consider how to make way for joy despite the unavoidable tragedies that shape our lives. With her keen eye closing the distance between the personal to the political, the constructed world and the environment, Johnson provides a compassionate vision of endurance and transformation in coming to terms with the facts of life as we now know them. Her writing engages the lyricism of poetry and the fortitude of reportage as she brings her own experiences of pain into conversation with others also still making their way despite loss.” —Wendy S. Walters, author of Multiply/Divide and Troy, Michigan