(New York: Scribner, 2018)
Early in the summer of 2017, my husband and I made the difficult decision to unsubscribe from The New York Times. Our reading of the Sunday edition over bowls of oatmeal each Sunday had morphed into an exercise in self-flagellation leading to a persistent click in my jaw. We felt conflicted at first: Were we not exercising our privileges as white, socio-economically stable millennials by hiding from bad news? Was there any legitimacy to our argument that we could be both informed and active participants in our community while also practicing that nebulous activity called “self-care”? But, when the first weekend passed without the thwack of wet newspaper against the porch, we were both relieved. We had taken a step back and were unburdened.
Around that time, Hurricane Harvey had begun its catastrophic flooding of the Houston metropolitan area. I paid a minimal amount of attention to the news and, instead, informed myself of the storm’s progress via Lacy Johnson’s Facebook posts. I’d been a follower since I had read her excellent memoir, The Other Side, a few years earlier and, after the 2016 presidential election, leaned increasingly heavily on her posts to harmonize the intelligent, tenacious woman I’d once been with the shrill, paralyzed bitch I am today. Whether an all-caps diatribe about our dysfunctional government or a longer meditation on the compassion demonstrated by her local community in Houston during the hurricane, her posts demanded more thoughtful consideration of the modern world.
This is all a round-about way of acknowledging how much I needed Johnson’s new essay collection, The Reckonings. The essays are both personal and political, self-reflective and persuasive; they pose difficult questions about justice, violence, and retribution. And, while Johnson can be tender, her calls to action are more often brawny: She allows very little space for the rationalizations many of us make for our patterns of avoidance or hyper-aggression. The Reckonings stimulates us readers to (re)establish ourselves in social discourse and more closely examine the habitual energies and distorted lenses through which we try to make sense of our modern lives.
Johnson’s work covers many important topics but all seem to point the reader toward a careful reflection of “justice” both theoretically and as applied in daily life. The book begins with Johnson’s recounting of a 2014 reading she gave from The Other Side, a memoir of her kidnapping and rape at age twenty-one by a man she once loved. During the post-reading Q&A session, an attendee asks what Johnson would like to have happen to her rapist. The attendee’s assumption, Johnson contends, is that the suffering Johnson experienced must be changed into the satisfaction of inflicting pain on her rapist in order for her to feel solace.
This expectation is common among female readers of The Other Side and is (subconsciously) based in the theoretical framework of “criminal as debtor.” Johnson references Nietzsche, who posited that “a crime creates a debt; the criminal becomes the debtor, the victim his creditor, whose compensation is the particular pleasure of bearing witness to a cruel and exacting punishment.” But this idea of justice is not sufficient for Johnson. She writes:
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.
I suppose it’s predictable, perhaps especially to female victims of violence, that Johnson’s response feels a little insufficient. However, as the essays move beyond Johnson’s assault, her argument that punishment and justice don’t necessarily equate and (in many circumstances) may be antithetical gains strength.
“On Mercy” is possibly the most effective essay in the collection. It is a complex piece, interweaving Johnson’s experiences volunteering in a pediatric cancer ward and pivotal moments in the grotesque history of capital punishment and racism (primarily targeting Black Americans) in the United States. In a brief passage, Johnson recalls a deacon’s wife reading stories from a picture book at the First Baptist Church in her hometown. After the boys have been dismissed to other activities, the deacon’s wife tells the girls the story of Lot’s wife, who disobeyed the angels and is turned into a pillar of salt, as well as the story of Eve, who defied an order from God leading to the universal punishment of “every woman everywhere for all eternity.” These stories, Johnson says, “require that we believe people deserve to be punished.” (Implicit here is an argument that this belief is most profoundly inculcated in women).
And is it not true that most of us, under the right circumstances, do believe in punishment as a legitimate form of justice? I think back on many insomniac nights after the 2016 presidential election where, in the darkness of my bedroom, the worries that nauseated me during the workday escalated to full-blown panic. As an epileptic with a brain tumor, I was afraid my health benefits would be reduced or lost entirely. I “coped” by wishing my condition on the many politicians who supported repeal or drastic revision of the Affordable Care Act. The “wish” emerged in me organically, but nothing about it was cathartic. Had it materialized, this punishment would not have resembled justice.
Further on in “On Mercy,” Johnson demonstrates that an eye-for-an-eye approach to justice has long been actively (and passively) accepted in American communities. Religious affiliation or non-affiliation aside, the social contract tradition argues that justice is derived from the mutual agreement of communities, that the collective must decide how justice is distributed and to whom. Johnson quotes Justice Potter Stewart’s majority opinion in the 1976 Supreme Court Case re-legalizing the death penalty: “Capital punishment is an expression of society’s moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct. This function may be unappealing to many, but it is essential in an ordered society.” Johnson offers a counter-argument:
It’s a big Mercy that annihilates the many to redeem the few: a whole world purified by fire, rinsed by flood, and made perfect and shiny and new. Big Mercy decides who lives and dies and how. It cleaves humanity in two: the few chosen to be powerful, the many rendered powerless. Big Mercy teaches us the first lesson of righteousness: that other people are not as human as we are. No one deserves to receive big Mercy, and no one deserves to offer it either.
The big Mercy theory raised conflicting impulses in me that I have found difficult to resolve. Like Johnson, I am more interested in engaging the part of myself that’s open to forgiving those who have harmed or intend to harm others and want to squash the part of me that does (sometimes) believe in the concept of “punishable offenses.” But, as I moved deeper into The Reckonings, I found myself angrier and more depressed. Johnson tackles so much that many of us would rather avoid: the BP oil spill; decades of government malfeasance; our president and administration; the public shaming of victims of rape, assault, and workplace harassment; police killings of Black Americans. A tremendous amount of suffering is presented and, in part because Johnson treats each topic fairly and honestly, her arguments for non-retributive theories of justice become harder to sustain.
“Art in the Age of Apocalypses” offers an alternative to punishment: that we try to confront the violence of our lives and times with small acts of compassion. In it, Johnson recounts the despair many of her students felt after Trump was elected and meditates on the role art plays both in ameliorating suffering and inspiring activism. She writes:
But what I finally told my students one week after the election – or maybe I’m now telling myself – is that our art has the power to change [this], but we must dedicate ourselves to the task of making apparent what our despair has obscured. Where the irrefutable evidence of science has failed, and where the slippery logic and grand rhetoric of public debate fail, and where the cruel and biased vengeance of the judicial system fails and goes on failing, our writing can succeed in unfolding a subtle shift in intellect, a change in perspective, a new way of seeing that is then impossible to unsee.
But Johnson’s encouragement for artists to keep producing despite or because of challenging times failed to inspire: The mountain of evidence demonstrating our flaws as individuals and as civil society provided so effectively in earlier essays had become too much for a pen, paintbrush, or photograph to overcome. I wondered: Would it be so bad to be purified, finally, by flood or fire? Is it wrong to want things made perfect and new? By the time I finished the footnotes (which are impeccable) I expected to suffer an aneurysm.
True to the avoidant nature I had been hoping to shed, I put The Reckonings on a high shelf and tried not to think about it. But scenes soon began to pop into my head: A little girl with a bright neon wig pressing her hand to the window of her quarantine room to greet her siblings demonstrates an incredible capacity not to flinch in the face of pain. Johnson’s husband canoeing through shit brown water to rescue neighbors stranded in their flooded homes is evidence of the generosity inherent in our communities, especially during times of crisis. A bearded hipster realizing for the first time the horror of oil erupting in plumes at the bottom of the ocean reminds me that it’s never too late to learn something new and make good use of that knowledge. In a minor gesture representing a major lesson learned, I took the book off its high shelf and placed it front and center on my desk. Retreat is not an acceptable response to pain.
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Lisa Grgas is the Associate Poetry Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tin House Magazine, Luna Luna, Web Del Sol Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.