I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.
The writer on surviving assault, deepening our standards for justice, and resisting forgiveness as the only way to move through pain.
In all of Lacy M. Johnson’s books, from her 2012 debut Trespasses to her searing memoir The Other Side, and her latest book of essays, The Reckonings (Scribner), she asks a question, not with the intent of answering it, but with the goal of exploring where the feeling that motivates it originates. The Reckonings interrogates our day-to-day pursuit of justice, what we often think about and what we readily don’t, from the human toll of environmental waste and corporate neglect to the emotional toll that judicial frameworks of forgiveness don’t effectively address. Every essay in The Reckonings,, let alone each paragraph, moves through its questions with heart, analysis, and encounters that show us the world is a place not of pure cruelty but one of virility for the possibilities we bring to it.
Jennifer Baker You begin your essay, “Art in the Age of Apocalypses,” with an anecdote about leading a writing workshop the day after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. I had a similar experience when I led a nonfiction workshop the day of the election. That evening the mood was very celebratory. The next week I’d say about two-thirds of the students in that workshop dropped out.
Lacy M Johnson Oh really?
JB They saw no point in writing. Sometimes people look at writing as a way to find answers—then, when tragedies strike, they’re so flummoxed to not find one.
LMJWe often don’t think of writing, or art more generally, as being a tool we have to fight in times like these. Or people tend to think of it as entertainment, as that thing I do to bring me pleasure. Something I use to express my inner self, my art. Artmaking and writing in particular can have radical potential and can create a shift in ourselves and others we want to see in the world. It’s really hard to see that in moments of despair because when we despair we feel like there is no possible thing that we can do. We think: I have nothing at my disposal. I have no tools. I have no skills. I have no recourse. Even if I did it feels like an insurmountable thing to overcome. I might as well give up.
But I think that’s where hope comes, which is the determination to do things because they’re right and not because of any expectation about how it’ll turn out. That idea and that practice lead me to all of these essays. Writing about these hard, dark things takes a toll on me personally. And I’m not convinced that writing these essays will change anything, but I do it because I think it’s the right thing to do. And I have to do something because if I do nothing than definitely nothing will change.
JB In that essay you wrote, “in my life, as in my heart, the uncertainties of the world often strike me silent.” Do you then, at some point, push yourself to write or does the work come out naturally when you’re ready?
LMJI think what happens for me is I encounter an issue. I witness an injustice. I hear about a problem someone is having and notice the way that it bothers me. I don’t fully understand all the things that are at work in this problem. That’s the period when I sort of go into the silence of listening and thinking and being confused, that’s not a time when I have anything to say about it. I feel like it strikes me mute. It’s a feeling of confusion and befuddlement, and from that space I do research, I read, I go out in the world, I ask questions. I try to learn more about it and sometimes the knowledge I collect assuages the worry, assuages the thing that bothers me. But more often than not, there’s a gap, there’s only so much that knowledge satisfies the worry or makes it feel better. And in that gap forms a question I have. That question is where I begin the writing. But the silence is what begins. It’s shock. It’s horror. It’s being terrorized. I think all of those experiences are meant to make us passive or nonreactive or retreat into ourselves and take refuge. And it’s in that space that I begin this contemplation and the work of collecting information.
JB When we think of silence—the shock that epitomizes fear, anxiety, dumbfoundedness—we can feel inept in some ways yet incredibly observant in others. In your essay, you mention passively watching this man yell at a woman you cared about. I’ve been there as a cishet, able-bodied person. We need to be vocal, but when do we do it? How do we learn, but at the same time not overstep?
LMJI think in the moment, yes, I was shocked and I was dumbfounded. I felt like my jaw was on the table. But in retrospect I felt dumbfounded and so shocked because I knew what I was observing was wrong. And why didn’t I say anything? I think it was because I was afraid to for all the reasons you describe. But that fear protects myself only, and the person who was doing the harm in that case. I think part of what I’m trying to do in this essay is to show that this is not the only way this kind of thing happens. It happens in interpersonal ways but also at an institutional scale. And if we don’t speak up then we are complicit, we are participating and allowing it to happen even if we’re shocked, even if we’re appalled. We’re sort of just participating in the status quo. That’s a hard lesson for me to learn. It’s something I continue to struggle with. Where is my voice useful? I don’t want to speak up when my voice is not useful or not welcome or not the one that should be amplified. And I’m conscious of that. At the same time, I don’t think it should be the explicit burden of People of Color to be doing anti-racist work. And I think, I hope, that I’m contributing to that conversation in productive ways in this essay.
JB In your conversations that explore whiteness: Is recognition scarier than the ignorance?
LMJI’ve spent my life trying not to feel like I’m in that sort of precarious financial, economic position of being on the verge of homelessness I occupied in my late teens and early twenties. And then to arrive in a place of economic comfort, which I think we’re all sort of trained to strive for, right? Not just economic comfort, but everything that comes with that. But if you stand outside of that for a moment, or if you’ve ever had the experience of being outside of it, you can see a craftwork more clearly. We start to understand the way that the system structures everything. If we understand we have a moral and ethical responsibility to deconstruct, destroy, destabilize that structure, what goes up in its place? And where do we go from here? What happens to my personal comfort and to my family and to all these things I like having?
That’s sort of a scary thing, not just in terms of whiteness and privilege, but in terms of thinking of the environment. We’re all so used to doing it this way and how do we even begin to imagine it a different way? Can we even begin to look for ideas about a different way of doing things and a different way of being when we’re all sort of inside of that? And it’s not just the environment, it’s everything. But I think just because it’s scary doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Just because we don’t know the answers doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have questions. Just because we don’t know our final destination doesn’t mean we shouldn’t begin the journey. That is the commitment to doing that work. It’s about embracing that uncertainty because we believe it’s the right thing to do.
JB Reading “On Mercy” and the titular essay, I got really caught up on change and looking at the self. You wrote, “Is forgiveness an auto-result of healing?” And I wondered: Is forgiveness a necessity, the “secret ingredient” to moving forward?
LMJI don’t love the idea of forgiveness because I think women in particular are pressured to be forgiving, to accept our suffering and not hold grudges and not be angry and not feel our rage. I think that forgiveness asks that we give our pain away and refuse the experience that we have our own pain. We’re only given the unhealthy option to forgive or go on hating. I am more interested in the way that my experience helps me move through that pain. This particular pain of having been kidnapped and raped by the man I used to love has made me. I don’t forgive him, but I don’t hate him either. I don’t want any harm to come to him. I don’t want him to be my neighbor. I don’t want him to live right next to me. As I say in “The Reckonings,” I want him to admit what he did to me in public and then I want him to spend his life in service to other people’s joy. Beyond that I really don’t care what happens to him at all. I don’t need him to suffer. If I weren’t so scared of him for the harm he wants to cause me, I wouldn’t necessarily need him to go to prison. Surviving that pain has made me a stronger and more resilient person. I don’t want to give that away.
JB Do you feel that because you wrote about that experience, it becomes the target on our back? The Reckonings explores the space beyond the worst thing that happened, it’s an interrogation of what many of us should be thinking about.
LMJI was afraid that writing The Other Side would always and forever cast me as that woman who got kidnapped and raped. And I’m not sure I’m not that person, that I’m not sort of seen as that writer who wrote that book. But I don’t think I feel limited by other people’s ideas of who I am. I don’t think that it limits what I can do or what I’m interested in. I think I do have somewhat of a responsibility to shepherding or stewarding that narrative because it’s been important to many people. And I have a responsibility to myself and the others I honestly didn’t realize existed until they told me they did. To steward those stories and to continue thinking about them in ways that are not exclusive to that experience. So rather than continuing to stand in that place and trauma, and writing about the trauma forever I’m sort of just moving my own place so that I’m standing slightly forward or shifting toward a different direction, maybe to the side or to the back, up or down, whatever. I either continue to write about the trauma or I don’t. But continue to move. I can’t help but do that in my life. I will never not be a person who was kidnapped and raped. Just as I will never not be a woman who used to be poor. I will never not be a person who grew up on a farm. I’m always moving across and through and within and among my ever-evolving identities. And I think trauma is no different.
JB Is it okay if we end on a note about joy as you did in your collection?
LMJSure! We think of this dark pain as being more urgent and more deserving of our critical attention. And in some ways, that’s true because these are the moments when people’s lives are on the line. We need to talk about this so that people don’t keep dying or getting sick. Because this is an urgent need to get on the same page about this issue so that we can work together to change it. And because joy is not a thing that bothers us is why I think we tend to treat it as something that doesn’t deserve our critical attention. Joy should be the destination we’re heading toward. We tend to think of justice as what it would feel like to see the people who have harmed us suffer, that there would be pleasure in that, right? I find there rarely is actual pleasure in seeing other people suffer. When people in the Trump circle started getting indicted and convicted, there was an explosion of joy on social media. Some people were celebrating as if it’s a party. But that’s not joy.
JB I remember those OJ Parties. They were weird in retrospect.
LMJI think if we put pressure on that celebration, or that pleasure we feel in those moments, we will find it’s not actually very pleasurable. I don’t know how to describe it, but I think that true justice should feel like joy. When the condition of joy becomes a possibility, when we feel that door beginning to swing open and we choose to move through it, that is what justice feels like. It’s more about healing myself than it is about punishing the other. It’s more a thing I make for myself, that I make with my community, that we make for one another together than it is about taking things from other people. It’s not about causing harm but repairing it.
Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator/host of the “Minorities in Publishing” podcast, and contributing editor to Electric Literature. In 2017, she was awarded a NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship & Queens Council on the Arts New Work Grant for Nonfiction Literature. Her essay “What We Aren’t (or the Ongoing Divide)” was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2018. Jennifer is also editor of the short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018). Her writing has appeared in Forbes.com, LitHub, Poets & Writers, and Bustle among other print and online publications.