Usually it is a woman who asks the question—always the same question. She sits near the door in the last row of the auditorium, where I have spent the last hour talking about what it means to have been kidnapped and raped by a man I loved, a man with whom I lived. He was a man who, even before the kidnapping, had already violated me in every way you might imagine, especially a man like him. Someone else in the audience asks what happened to the man who did this to me, 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, always last. She raises her hand and when I call on her, 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 that 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 aloud. 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 me, or themselves.
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. 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 that day: A local man has been convicted of a boy’s murder. The boy was seven when the man raped him, and he turned eight on the day the man burned him alive. The boy survived long enough to implicate his attacker, 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 near the door in the last row of every auditorium. She sits with her back to the wall, like I do when I have the choice. Sometimes she is my mother’s age, sometimes she is my age. She wears oversize sweaters, little makeup, and 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 am 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 often the people sitting near the door in the last row of the auditorium 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; 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 to punishment while others spend lifetimes enduring punishments they did nothing to deserve.
In my story, there was a man I once loved very much, and because of the self-destructive way 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. He kept showing me who he really was until I finally believed him and left.
I had only just begun calling myself a writer around that time, but I was afraid that I had probably not read enough books nor visited enough continents. I was afraid that I was not smart enough or wise enough, that I didn’t have anything to say, and that 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, raped, and tried 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, neither the writing nor the living. It wasn’t easy until I found myself standing in front of strangers telling them there is justice for me in standing there, in that 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. They want a return, a redemption, a retrieval of all I had lost; they want suffering for him. They want blood, guts, and gore.
Now that would be justice, they think.
“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. 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. One primary meaning of the word redemption was the sense that one could buy that debt back—every injury has some equivalent of pain or sacrifice.
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. 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. 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. I have 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. I have learned to welcome the strangers who arrive at the doorstep of my soul. I’ve called myself a writer for 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 of healing.
Is justice a story about healing? Justice is blind, we are told. It is served, 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 have his ended. 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. More pain creates more sorrow, sometimes generations of sorrow. It amplifies injustice rather than cancels it out. I don’t even want him to suffer. 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 M. Johnson is a writer, professor, and activist. She is the author of Trespasses, The Other Side, and, most recently, The Reckonings.
Adapted from The Reckonings: Essays by Lacy M. Johnson. Copyright © 2018 by Lacy M. Johnson. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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