The last (and only other) time an essay collection wrecked me was one year ago. I was just starting to really dive deep into reading as an admittedly inadequate (but still very valuable) way to cope with the ways in which my body has been failing me, robbing me of my athletic identity and my primary outlet to manage the anxiety-and-depression-induced fires in my brain. That collection was Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me, which remains one of my absolute favorite books of all time.
It was Melissa Febos who put Lacy M. Johnson’s The Reckonings (Scribner 2018) on my radar earlier this year. (I’ve said this before, but she’s my literary north star; her Twitter and Instagram have brought multiple incredible books into my life, including Pretend We Live Here by Genevieve Hudson, otherwise known as the best short story collection of 2018 if not the decade, don’t @ me). Of course The Reckonings is out from Scribner, which is kind of killing it with its publications these days, but that’s not the point of this review.
The point is, The Reckonings wrecked me, though in a very different way than Abandon Me (which is much more internal and resonated so much with me because it’s very queer). I therefore highly recommend everyone, especially every white person, read this book. Be prepared; it will not be easy. It will, however, be very worth the pain.
While trying to organize my thoughts about this collection, I went back and typed up all of passages I’d underlined, which took a very long time. Johnson tackles so many huge, heavy things with her fearless, bold, and vulnerable writing: Abuse and assault, war, feminism, whiteness, environmental disaster, the concepts of mercy and evil, corruption, violence, rage, art, love, and joy. That’s a lot of things!
The Reckonings reminds the reader just how frightening and horrible the world is, and just how impossible it is to reckon not only with the horror, but with our complicity. I say this especially as white person, as an heir to a system that made the world the dumpster fire it is today. One of the many reckonings Johnson tackles is the one with race and privilege. As a fellow white woman who is always trying to do better, I appreciate Johnson’s voice in Against Whiteness and What We Pay especially. On white people who deny blame for systemic racism (i.e. the “my ancestors didn’t own slaves’ types), she writes, ‘If we did not in some way already understand that we reap even very small benefits from the systemic oppression of people of color, there would be nothing about which to deny our individual guilt.’ In What We Pay, she writes about the injustice of the wealth gap that allows her to use money ‘probably unfairly earned’ to buy a nice house and grow vegetables and dream the American Dream basically on her students’ dime. How does one reckon with that?
This isn’t a book about how to be an activist. (For that, I recommend Charlene Carruthers’ Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements as a start). Rather, it’s a work that uses beautiful prose and engrossing storytelling to do what its title suggests: try to reckon. It’s a personal account, from the author’s experience of kidnapping and rape (which she wrote about in her memoir The Other Side); to her deeply impressive investigative reporting (Erin Brockovich-style) on a massive cover-up and broad willful ignorance of a nuclear waste dump outside St. Louis in The Fallout (which can be read in Guernica, it’s truly something); to her experience of Hurricane Harvey (she lives in Houston). Johnson weaves memoir and social issues together in such a compelling way. Her essays are intensely crafted, full of detail, accessible in their readability and challenging in their content. They feel like what I imagine it would feel like to box (which is something I’ve actually given thought to this year thanks to another of my favorite 2018 reads, Amateur by the brilliant Thomas Page McBee): physically painful, oddly intimate, and an entry point for deeply questioning oneself.
The collection ends on a slightly uplifting note, because hope is important when trying to survive despair. Johnson muses on both art and running as tools for opening spaces for joy, and for a little bit of personal justice. As a runner, I loved what she had to say about finding those fleeting moments of peace in the chaos when she runs:
A woman’s rage can transform many things, including herself. I’ve held on to my rage for precisely that reason. I’ve gathered it, decades of it. I carry so much rage with me that I grind my teeth at night, and grind them all throughout the day… But sometimes rage is so large that nothing else can live alongside it, an because everything I’ve been taught to do with rage means harming myself or another person, I run. Now fifteen miles. Now twenty.
Running turns me into a body that can breathe, that can arrive here, in precisely this moment, despite sometimes paralyzing fear, despite everything.
The Reckonings asks of the reader to approach their own reckonings, both globally and internally, with purpose and a little hope and happiness. Every essay is a strong stand-alone piece, but are perhaps even more solid together. It’s a book that will stay with me for a long time.
Note: I received a free copy of The Reckonings from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions are my own.
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