Johnson’s new book, ‘The Reckonings,’ speaks truth to power

A literary crowd packed Brazos Bookstore almost to its capacity Oct. 9 for the release of “The Reckonings,” the newest book from Lacy Johnson, Rice associate professor of English and author of the critically acclaimed 2014 memoir “The Other Side.”

"The Reckonings"

“The Reckonings” was released Oct. 9.

“The Reckonings” (Scribner, 336 pages, $26) comprises a series of 12 essays, all of which aim to answer one of the most common questions Johnson has heard since publishing “The Other Side.” Her memoir, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, chronicles her kidnapping, imprisonment and rape at the hands of her boyfriend — a man who has since fled to a country with no extradition to the United States.

What justice would she have served to the man who brought so much violence into her life?

Johnson’s answers, delivered across a dozen different dialogs, are often Socratic: What is the purpose of justice? Does visiting more violence upon an offender erase a victim’s pain? And if not, why do we pursue such punitive measures instead of finding ways to remediate, restore or relieve those who have been wronged? In other words, why not seek the recuperative power of reckonings rather than the cyclic, destructive vengeance of retribution?

After delivering a reading from “The Reckonings” to a standing room-only crowd — one that served as a testament to the power in speaking the truth of your own experiences, in being both heard and believed — Johnson took questions from the audience. A man who’d taken umbrage with her description of the power imbalance between men and women, specifically in matters of sexual violence, raised his hand. The Q&A session was instantly transformed into an airing of his own grievances before Johnson reigned things in from the podium.

Though unplanned, the moment underscored what Johnson addresses in her new book: Speaking truth to power makes those who feel implicated deeply uncomfortable, yet it is the only way forward.

“If anything, that man proved the point I was making. Because, as you say, when I asked what man in the room had not been taught all his life to prioritize his experience over others’, he tried to ‘not all men’ me. But then (he) admitted to having run with a ‘rough crowd’ that verbally harassed women, though he claimed — outlandishly — that this harassment was ‘consensual,’” Johnson said. “I think he just doesn’t understand how power works, or how harassment and assault are experienced by women, and maybe it makes him uncomfortable to realize there’s a lot about the world he doesn’t know.”

Some of Johnson’s essays focus explicitly on gender-based violence, such as the aptly titled “Speak Truth to Power” that chronicles the epidemic of sexual assaults on women. Other essays focus on other ways in which power imbalances create a landscape rife with injustice. And it isn’t only men who are implicated.

“In ‘The Reckonings,’ Johnson tries in every essay to show ‘the population that considers itself innocent’ that innocence doesn’t exist,” wrote Lily Meyer in a review of the book for NPR. “Writing about topics as diverse as race, sexual assault, Hurricane Harvey and art history, Johnson demonstrates repeatedly that any adult who considers herself innocent has failed to reckon fully with the world around her.”

How do we reckon with this ourselves? Johnson has an answer for that too: by speaking the truth, by being open to hearing the truth in others’ stories and by helping to restore joy into the world in those places where it has been extinguished.

“Because the ways that injustice robs joy from us are myriad and diverse, service to other people’s joy should take myriad and diverse forms as well,” Johnson said. “In one of the essays in the collection I write about a landfill in St. Louis that’s burning.” This often happens with landfills, she said, “but this one is particularly nasty because it contains nearly 50,000 tons of nuclear waste left over from the Manhattan Project that was dumped there illegally in 1973.”

Those who live near the Missouri landfill today have a host of illnesses that may have been caused by chronic exposure to the radiation. It also may have altered their DNA “in ways they pass on to their children, and their children’s children,” Johnson said. “This is a multigenerational injustice, resulting from the reckless pursuit of a weapon so powerful that it could annihilate hundreds of thousands of people in the blink of an eye — which is itself an injustice that requires our attention.

“Having spoken with the communities in St. Louis that are affected by this waste, what they want is for the government to publicly acknowledge its role in harming them, to take responsibility for that, and to offer a formal apology,” she said. “In other words, telling the truth is the first step.”

For those affected, Johnson said, “working in service of their joy means the government acknowledges the ways that war harms us all — not just those who are its intended targets — and that it works to repair that harm. It also means that the government invests in nurturing all communities’ health and well-being rather than in the power of ultimate destruction.”

Of course, it’s only after the truth is told and acknowledged that any action toward restoration can begin. Sometimes that truth comes crashing down upon us; other times, it’s cracked open bit by bit, slowly, as people become more receptive over a period time. Johnson’s new book encourages an openness to it all; she even found herself encouraged by the “not all men” man in the front row, with whom she spoke later as she signed books into the night.

“It’s a positive step that he heard me on the radio and came to the reading,” she said. “I think that means that, despite his outburst, he wants to learn.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.