In a recent article in the Atlantic, Leslie Jamison discusses the memoirist’s responsibility to investigate the events of his or her past on the page rather than merely confess to them.1 She writes, “This notion of investigation offers an alternative to confession … To put the ‘I’ to work this way invites a different intimacy—not voyeuristic communion but collaborative inquiry, author and reader facing the same questions from inside their inevitably messy lives.” Authors Lacy M. Johnson and Thomas Page McBee thrive in the role of investigator in their 2014 memoirs, sharing not only the ways their lives unfolded, but also questions about what those experiences mean. Although the books are vastly different, Johnson’s The Other Side and McBee’s Man Alive question the connections between trauma and the body after a violent experience. Each book also offers a unique and haunting meditation on memory: both the power and failures of it.
“How is it possible to reclaim the body,” writes Johnson, “when it’s visible only in a mirror?” In The Other Side, she tells the story of the night her abusive ex-boyfriend and former teacher kidnapped and raped her in a soundproof room with the intent to kill her. Her harrowing account navigates through a series of nonlinear memories from before, after, and during the traumatic kidnapping.
Johnson describes her story in detail so visceral that it is difficult to read, but she refers to no one by name, real or imagined. Instead she assigns each character his or her own title: The Man I Live With, My Older Sister, My Handsome Friend, The Female Officer. Similarly, she never identifies the town she lives in or the college she attends at the time of the kidnapping. This is because The Suspect, as Johnson calls him, is still at large today.2
The Other Side is gripping from the first page, where we meet Lacy, holding a wooden board above her head with two U-bolts around her wrists, breaking out of the soundproof room where she was supposed to die. Shortly after Lacy escapes, however, so does her captor. He flees the scene and then the country, ending any chance of arrest. The desired and expected “happy ending” is not coming—at least not by the standards of sensational crime dramas inspired by the horrors that Johnson actually experienced. In such stories, the audience always leaves with the satisfaction that the Guilty have been brought to justice and the Innocent can finally prevail. Perhaps that is what makes Johnson’s story such an important one: the telling of the story becomes the justice in the story.
At the center of her narrative are the complex ties between trauma, memory, and the body: “The body remains calm … But the mind goes thrashing. The mind goes thrashing away from the body, which does not move a muscle, does not move an inch from the spot in which it is unraveling, will be unraveling, has been unraveling since.” The Other Side is also an account of Johnson’s exploration of her survival as a woman whose life and body and mind have been changed by violence, and who starts and restarts her life years after the kidnapping. Throughout the book, she wants to reclaim her body, to finally relieve it of the terror it continues to remember, even when her mind forgets.
Johnson writes about the implications of violence against women, who have been “taught to survey and police and maintain [their] image continually.” She describes her body as an object that was taken from her and broken and must now be recovered and repaired, even after she has dated and married and remarried and started a family. In the final scenes of this brilliant and beautiful memoir, Johnson imagines her death being reported in the local newspapers before finally deciding, “that story is not my story,” crashing through the door, and beginning the journey of recovery detailed throughout these breathtaking pages.
Thomas Page McBee’s gender transition memoir, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, also explores how trauma and memory shape bodies. Like The Other Side, McBee’s work is a case of remarkable storytelling in the wake of violence. The narrative unfolds in short, nonlinear fragments as McBee tells us about the two men that shaped him: the father who sexually abused him during his childhood, when he was still Page—his first, female self—and the mugger who held him at gunpoint when he was 29.
The pages of McBee’s book are colored with powerful discoveries about what it means to forgive those who have hurt us, and about self-discovery and self-acceptance.
McBee’s abuse by his father and his attack by the mugger, though separated by nearly two decades, are described seamlessly within the first twenty-five pages of the memoir. “Silence was my language,” McBee writes as he reflects on the trauma he experienced at the hands of his father, Roy, when he was a ten-year-old girl. Silence also nearly killed him when he was on the side of the road with his attacker; only when he finally spoke out loud, “my voice struck me, as it always did, as reedy: womanly,” did the mugger let him go.
At the heart of all of this violence is gender identity. His father abused him when he was a child, silent and female, and, 19 years later, his mugger let him live because he was female, a piece of his identity only revealed when he broke his silence. McBee is remembering this trauma as he tries to decide if he wants to go through with the gender transition process. Through short, often poetic vignettes, he imagines how he will navigate the landscape of the world—and the landscape of himself—if he chooses to transition. “So I stayed in my blurring body, an invisible man filling himself in,” he writes, learning how to articulate the identity he has wanted all his life.
The pages of Man Alive are colored with powerful discoveries about what it means to forgive those who have hurt us, and about self-discovery and self-acceptance. “There are the facts of what happened,” he writes, “but the story is in parts. It is still hard to capture the salty terror of the worst of it, the freeze, the split: how I lost a body, or how I conflated the two ways my body was lost to me.” While Johnson describes the process of writing her book, of telling her story, McBee explains that his body is his story; it, too, is made up of parts. Man Alive, like The Other Side, is not a story of retribution; it is a story of redemption in which the storytelling becomes a part of the process of recovering.
When his attacker lets him go, McBee writes, “I could have lifted a car, saved a baby pinned under its metal casings. The pinpricks in my limbs subsided, everything waking simultaneously. I sensed it: a portal opening. I felt myself waver for a moment between selves, all of them present: the child, the body I’d always been, and the one I would become.” But even the mugger’s decision to let McBee live cannot release him from his traumatic past or present. It is only when Page becomes Thomas that his body and his mind are finally free. While Man Alive focuses heavily on McBee’s journey as he transitions from female to male, from Page to Thomas, at its core is a change even bigger, deeper, and more extraordinary than that: the book itself becomes a reflection on the self within the body and what it means to be human.
Both The Other Side and Man Alive are investigations of who the author was before violence and the person they became—or returned to—after violence. Johnson and McBee take us on journeys through their traumatic histories from their most shameful moments to the decisions they made not to be ashamed of their pasts. Their bravery in these works helps us find courage, too, and reminds us why we must tell our stories.
- Leslie Jamison, “Enough About Me,” The Atlantic, March 16, 2015. ↩
- Tin House Books, “An Interview with Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Other Side,” Open Bar blog, August 11, 2014. ↩