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'The Reckonings' Examines What It Means To Have Justice

When writer and poet Lacy M. Johnson was in her 20s, a man who she had recently broken up with kidnapped and raped her.

She wrote about her escape and recovery in the 2014 memoir The Other Side. As she began speaking about the book in public, a pattern emerged: Readers she encountered suggested that Johnson must want her rapist killed, or imprisoned, or tortured.

"You probably want him dead, strangers tell me," Johnson writes in the essay that opens her tour de force follow-up, The Reckonings.

No, Johnson says. She wants a reckoning.

What does that mean? In the first essay, Johnson describes what she wants: "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." Her reckoning, then, is a transfer of happiness. In the collection's last pages, Johnson returns to this idea: "I like the idea that justice is anything that makes way for joy, that makes the condition of joy a possibility again."

This sounds utopian, and it might be, but The Reckonings is not a book about changing the world. It's philosophy in disguise, equal parts memoir, criticism, and ethics. It has bits of Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, and Simone Weil, but its patron saint is Grace Paley, whose essays are much too infrequently read. Like Johnson, Paley was committed to bearing witness and, like Johnson, she believed, stubbornly and eternally, in joy.

In the essay "Six Days," Paley wrote that all prisons should be in cities. Otherwise, "the population that considers itself innocent forgets, denies, chooses to never know [about that] whole huge country of the bad and the unlucky and the self-hurters." In The Reckonings, Johnson tries in every essay to show "the population that considers itself innocent" that innocence doesn't exist. Writing about topics as diverse as race, sexual assault, Hurricane Harvey, and art history, Johnson demonstrates repeatedly that any adult who considers herself innocent has failed to reckon fully with the world around her.

This idea is strongest and most personal in "Against Whiteness," an essay about American constructions of race, which is to say an essay about white supremacy. Johnson opens by describing a long-ago class in which a guest lecturer, a tenured white poet, embarked on a racist diatribe at her professor, a female poet of color who Johnson admired.

"I said nothing," Johnson writes, "because I had never known what to say when watching a man explode under the pressure of his own narcissism, not even when he is attacking the people I love." Later, she understood that not knowing what to say was no excuse. She might not have succeeded in stopping the tenured poet, but she could have tried. Her silence was "a failure to reckon with the fact that my struggle was not the only one that mattered."

There's another essay in The Reckonings about silence. "Speak Truth to Power," it's called. It's about the epidemic of sexual assault against women, which Johnson calls "the problem that has no language." She traces her own path to speaking publicly about her rape, and writes with empathy, anger, and respect about the many women who report rape and are never believed.

"Speak Truth to Power" is an act of homage to those women. It's also a call to arms, or to speech. "I understand the fear of breaking a long-held silence," Johnson concludes. "It is a fear that holds tremendous power. But if there is any hope for justice, we must speak truth to that power." We must give the problem of violence against women its language.

I re-read "Speak Truth to Power" the week Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stepped forward to accuse Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Since then, I have thought about the essay every day. I have thought particularly about Johnson's response to the Muriel Rukeyser line, "What if one woman told the truth about her life? /The world would split open." No, Johnson writes. "Many women have told the truth about their lives, however impossible that may seem at the time, and the world has gone on pretty much as before."

I wonder often whether the Me Too movement is a reckoning, or whether it will become one. The country seems not to contain much "service to other people's joy." But the utopianism of that idea has a practical counterpart. Service to other people's joy is unending. It can never be finished. A reckoning can't be done. It can only begin, over and over and over.

The 12 essays in The Reckonings are 12 beginnings. Each one deserves great consideration, while you read it and long after. Each one leaves the work up to you.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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