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The Reckonings: Essays by Lacy M Johnson

This extraordinary, timely new collection of essays by the award-winning writer of The Other Side—rooted in her own experience with sexual assault—pursues questions of justice, sexual violence, and retribution.

In 2014, Lacy Johnson was giving a reading from The Other Side, her “instant classic” (Kirkus Reviews) memoir of kidnapping and rape, when a woman asked her what she would like to happen to her rapist. This collection, a meditative extension of that answer, draws from philosophy, art, literature, mythology, anthropology, film, and other fields, as well as Johnson’s personal experience, to consider how our ideas about justice might be expanded beyond vengeance and retribution to include acts of compassion, patience, mercy, and grace.

From “Speak Truth to Power,” about the condition of not being believed about rape and assault; to “Goliath,” about the concept of evil; to “Girlhood in a Semi-Barbarous Age,” about the sacred feminine, “ideal woman,” and feminist art, Johnson creates masterful, elaborate, gorgeously written essays that speak incisively about our current era. She grapples with justice and retribution, truth and fairness, and sexual assault and workplace harassment, as well as the broadest societal wrongs: the BP Oil Spill, government malfeasance, police killings. The Reckonings is a powerful and necessary work, ambitious in its scope, which strikes at the heart of our national conversation about the justness of society.




Praise for The Reckonings:

“Unflinching and honest, The Reckonings seamlessly melds the personal and political into a collection that is both timely and timeless … Lucid and compelling, Johnson’s essays are not only bold and memorable, but insistent reminders that all good essays are, in fact, reckonings: attempts to work out problems, whether domestic, cosmic or both, on the page.”
—Houston Chronicle

“A collection that converses with itself and the reader, asking us to question our beliefs and our roles in a system that perpetuates violence.”
—The Millions

“The 12 essays collected in The Reckonings form a kind of song cycle on the subject of justice, with recurring motifs and a basso continuo of moral urgency. Themes develop, intersect, change key … It’s a lot of ground to cover, but Johnson dexterously arranges these disparate topics into a larger unity.”
—Texas Observer

“[Johnson’s] essays on the violence humans inflict on each other and the earth—including racism, misogyny and a variety of pollutions—challenge our culture’s expectations of justice and expose the limits of vengeance and mercy.”
—Ms. Magazine

“The Reckonings is a beautiful and complicated collection of essays. In essence, these essays are an exploration of violence—sexual violence, environmental violence, racial violence, economic violence. It can be bleak, because Johnson writes about rape and mass shootings and nuclear waste. But it’s also intellectually rigorous, big-hearted, and nuanced. A gorgeous combination of personal narrative and investigative journalism, these essays ask more questions than they answer—in the best possible way.”

“Johnson writes with palpable compassion and brilliance, illuminating her deep humanity, while imbuing it in equal measure in the people she writes about and quotes. That her influences include Audre Lorde, Simone Weil, Adrienne Rich makes for a clear understanding of what is constitutes the sacred ground on which she stands. Finally, the last essay—”Make way for joy”—actually coaxed a smile and made a wee spot for the possibility of hope in my crankitude. This is no small thing. I am grateful.”

“Incredibly timely, this essay collection (in the vein of Rebecca Solnit and Maggie Nelson) seamlessly weaves Johnson’s own thoughts and experiences with philosophy, art, literature, film, mythology and anthropology to tackle questions of justice and retribution, truth and fairness, harassment and assault — and most important, how to translate these feelings into action.”
—Cup of Jo

“In The Reckonings: Essays, Lacy M. Johnson reflects on justice and retribution and raises difficult questions, all while using own personal experiences with violence and injustice, as well as examples that affect the masses.”

“These essays attempt to parcel out several knotted problems and suggest forms of meaningful
justice … Johnson’s questions and answers are hard but necessary.”

“[Johnson] makes a plea for activism, art, and … common decency … [in this] thoughtful and probing collection.”

“This is a hell of a book! Lacy M. Johnson has thought through issues most of us do not want to think about, and she has written a powerful and deeply compassionate confrontation with violence in its most personal forms. I can barely express how impressive this work is.”
—Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller

“Lacy M. Johnson’s The Reckonings is breathtaking. At the heart of this book of essays is both the body of an individual woman and the body of the world, both endlessly transgressed and yet able to endure with defiance and bold beauty. Whatever we mean when we say justice, Lacy M. Johnson reminds us how love must be threaded through the everything, a love that is a fierce life-force and not an apology. Here is a woman whose voice and body have moved through violence to refuse cultural inscription. Let that be song.”
—Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan and The Chronology of Water

“Through prose that is at once passionate and percussive, Lacy Johnson’s The Reckonings demands that we place justice and discovery at the center of our conversations, memories, imaginations, and art. I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier to be alive after reading any book. In this weird way that probably says way too much about the smallness of my life, I felt like everything would be okay — like we will make and sustain justice — because a book I needed but never imagined reading was in the world. The Reckonings is as important as it is masterful on the sentence and conceptual level. The Reckonings is proof that caring about this place, and getting lost in the minutiae of what makes us unjust might actually be a pre-req for creating incredible, life-altering, just art.”
—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

“In lyrical and stunning prose, Lacy M. Johnson responds to our ongoing violence—environmental, racist, sexist—and dares to imagine what repair might look like. Johnson is the best kind of witness—brave, brilliant, accountable, prophetic. Her essays are urgent, riveting. I couldn’t put this book down. Reading The Reckonings reminded me it’s possible to write our way into a new world.”
—Sarah Sentilles, author of Breaking Up with God and Draw Your Weapons

“Lacy M. Johnson’s The Reckonings is an essay for thinking people, which, in an age where the essay is reduced at times to “click bait” headlines and recycled advice about dating and wellness, is the highest compliment. Johnson grapples with the fundamental issue of our time: what is justice? What is punishment? What is mercy? Johnson’s beautiful writing and hard-won wisdom will make you think, and then think again. I am grateful for this book.”
—Emily Rapp Black, author of Poster Child and The Still Point of the Turning World

“As ever, Lacy M. Johnson’s work here is ambitious and brave, and with The Reckonings she has written an essential book about what means to emerge from darkness, bounding step by bounding step. This brilliant collection of essays is a tour de force in empathy, an evocative work that invites us to consider how to make way for joy despite the unavoidable tragedies that shape our lives. With her keen eye closing the distance between the personal to the political, the constructed world and the environment, Johnson provides a compassionate vision of endurance and transformation in coming to terms with the facts of life as we now know them. Her writing engages the lyricism of poetry and the fortitude of reportage as she brings her own experiences of pain into conversation with others also still making their way despite loss.”
—Wendy S. Walters, author of Multiply/Divide and Troy, Michigan


Histories of dreams upside down, histories of terrible crimes, children dying, towns flooded, the evil that men in particular do, and with the darkness there is writing of joy, love, hope and courage.
Necessary truth work with the myriad of complexities with justices and injustices, the fears, hopes, love and hate, laid out on the page with a great selection of writing.

A writer finding herself free upon the page, discovered her potent voice and with that a meditation on things past and within the whirlwind of her mind, beating against her heart these resounding testaments of reckonings of hers.

“Writing can change us, make us better, stronger people whose actions, though they may seem small and inconsequential at the time, can matter, for ourselves and for the world.”

Writings, necessary readings, therapeutic and meditative, must-reads to re-read, let others read, and for some to have hope and empathy that there is someone else that has walked in those footsteps, especially with mental health awareness starting to be generated, people taking their lives, you are not alone, with craft in writing, honesty, courage, and paying forward, Lacy Johnson has written something very important for our times.


“I was twenty-one when that man kidnapped and raped me and tried, but failed, 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, not the writing and not the living—not until I often found myself standing in front of strangers telling them there is justice for me in standing here, in this room, alive and breathing and telling my story with my own voice.”

“I want a long line of reckonings. I want the truth told back to us. I want the lies laid bare.”

“At all times every day, we are saturated with an ideal of the woman we are all supposed to become: a woman who is soft and pliable, who is round and supple, who is easily overcome, is penetrable, vulnerable—someone who is small and powerless and weak. Each day we see this ideal projected at us from movies; it is sold to us on billboards and in magazines; it arrives as fact each day in the headlines and is reinforced by the mythology of our most ancient art.”

“It seems impossible to speak about rape precisely because this threat of violent retribution is real, whether explicit or implicit, but also because of the widespread belief in our culture that rape is an aberration: a violence so unthinkable, so unfathomable, so taboo as to render it unspeakable.”

“Jon Krakauer points out in Missoula, that unlike murder, which results, very convincingly, in a dead body; or a kidnapping, which results in the clear absence of one; or even a violent physical attack, which results in medically verifiable wounds or contusions; rape is the only violent crime with a victim who is subject, and subjected, to doubt. We find expressions of this doubt in our long and troublesome history of men deciding what rape is and what it is not.”

“Not all radiation is fatal. Radiation is around us always, and each of us is exposed to radiation daily: from the sun, from the dirt, from sources we would never think to suspect. We ourselves are a source of radiation, since each of us carries radioactive elements inside our bodies from birth. Throughout our lives, we are constantly irradiating one another, not only with charged microscopic particles but also with suspicion and fear and blame. We find infinite directions in which to project our rage and bewilderment and grief.”

“We are all connected. The rivers and streams and tiny creeks wind through the city and go on winding. They twist and bend and run backward on themselves, changing course and direction a thousand times over the ages. The water swells and leaves its banks with the seasons, swells into the streets we build, and our backyards and gardens, into the places we never think of because we do not want to see them: our landfills, our factories, our toxic dumps, all of the remote places we send our worst creations. There is no fence to keep it all out. The disaster that approaches is ourselves.”

“In this way, the act of making art also begins with looking. When I sat for many hours looking at the Monet, I had not yet found essays. Or perhaps essays had not yet found me. Years later, I would discover in essays a way of reseeing the world in which the world could be changed—in which no ocean was ever just a rising body of water, and no mistake had ever been inevitable, and no bruise was ever just an accident. Not even, I would conclude, the ones I had sometimes worn on my face.”

“Writing can change us, make us better, stronger people whose actions, though they may seem small and inconsequential at the time, can matter, for ourselves and for the world.”

“Hate is “a hideous ecstasy,” Orwell once wrote, and it can turn anyone, myself included, into “a grimacing, screaming lunatic.”

“It is a joy that has no bottom and no top; it shines inside my body, faster, stronger, more brilliant than ever before. Running makes a tiny space for joy to enter my life, and I find my own justice in that.”

“Running turns me into a body that can breathe, that can arrive here, in precisely this moment, despite sometimes paralyzing fear, despite everything.”

“Joy comes in the morning, or so the familiar saying goes. In the morning I run with the dog. I run with my neighbor. I run with two friends. I finished a half-marathon with blood on my knees and a smile on my face, another with tears streaming down my cheeks. In a few weeks I’ll run a full marathon. Twenty-six miles. I can see it already: how I cross over the finish line with my hands in the air. Everyone watches, but no one I know. They cheer, these strangers; they can’t possibly know how this story began, but they rejoice with me to see how it ends.”