Who pays the costs of violence, whether waged against a person, group, or environment? That’s the broad question Johnson (Creative Nonfiction/Rice Univ.) tackles in this follow-up to her 2014 memoir, The Other Side.
While the author’s previous book described her hellish experience as a victim of kidnap and rape, this book of essays takes the recovery process to the next level, searching for ways to redress loss without resorting to eye-for-eye retribution. Johnson has startled audiences by refusing to wish the worst for her own attacker: “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.” Doling out punishment is easy; the challenge comes in creating change, especially in figuring out just where it begins. As her thoughts switch gears from the personal to the collective, the question of personal culpability increases. She’s against racism, but she knows she has enjoyed white privilege in her role as a professor. She protests against the BP Deepwater Horizon spill but wonders if her own job—at a school that is also a BP beneficiary—doesn’t in some way make her responsible. She asks, too, if rehabilitation is possible when the criminal is either a major corporation or, in the case of a landfill with World War II–era toxic waste, no longer around to face the consequences. “There is no one to arrest for this, to send to jail, to fine or execute or drag to his humiliation on the city square,” writes the author. In the face of crimes that affect both the one and the many, she makes a plea for activism, art, and—as she experienced when her Houston home flooded last year—common decency.
Johnson negotiates a path between vengeance and hand-wringing despair in this thoughtful and probing collection.