Near the beginning of his memoir, Wrong Side of the River, author Cliff Johnson tells a shocking story from early childhood.
In 1954, a week before Johnson was set to enter the first grade, his great-uncle invited him on a late-night alligator hunt. At the time Johnson was being raised by his great-grandmother. They lived near Cow Bayou not far from the Sabine River, in the far southeastern corner of Texas. Johnson’s mother was a fugitive from the law. His father was a mystery.
When they reached the water’s edge, Johnson’s great-uncle seized him and pulled him in. To Johnson’s horror, he realized his Uncle Rudy had no intention of hunting alligators that night. “Uncle Rudy grabbed me with his other hand and pushed my head under the cold water,” the author writes. “I struggled to pull free but his grip on my arm only tightened. With both hands he pushed me to the bottom and then attempted to stand on top of me. Pulling on his legs didn’t seem to make any difference. I was fighting for my life and it was obvious he was trying to drown me. There was nothing I could do but hold my breath and continue to struggle with all my strength.”
Johnson’s Uncle Rudy was an alcoholic merchant marine who wanted the young boy dead because he was tired of providing for him.
Incredibly, Johnson escaped, and the following morning his great-uncle apologized, claiming he had sought forgiveness from the Lord. The murder attempt was never mentioned again, Johnson writes, “buried like a lot of other family secrets … that were just as dark as the bayou itself.”
With so many wild stories to share, Johnson’s memoir hooked me early and didn’t let go till the final page. I could scarcely put the book down. That’s unusual for me, because memoir is not one of my favorite genres. In many tales of childhood trauma the author comes across as bitter or self-pitying. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t always make for the best reading.
If anybody has a right to express resentment, it’s Johnson. As a child he was repeatedly abandoned or put in harm’s way by a revolving cast of colorful but deeply flawed adult guardians who passed him around like a shared burden. However, Wrong Side of the River is no airing of grievances. It’s more of an adventure tale, fast-paced and full of good humor. I enjoyed it immensely.
Johnson responded to my questions via email.
You survived a tremendous amount of turmoil, neglect, abuse, upheaval and even a murder attempt (!) during your childhood. What was it like to relive those experiences while writing your memoir?
“Revisiting those memories that I would just as soon forget was the hardest part of writing my story. My wife was the first to notice that I would take on the mood of whatever experience I was writing about. The emotions seemed to really come out and at times would physically drain me. I think it was by adding humor, I was able to get through those times, both back when I was experiencing those events, as well as writing about them.”
How did you come to the decision to share your story? Did you worry about airing some of your most personal family secrets?
“For years I wouldn’t have dreamed of telling anyone what my younger years were like. After all, I wanted to fit in … be an equal with those around me. When I first decided to go into law enforcement and was interviewing for the position, the mayor ask me if I had any skeletons in my closet. Can you imagine my horror? My mother was in prison for most of my childhood, and we had been on the run all over the country. Skeletons in my closet? I think I was keeping the whole cemetery in there!
“The only person that wasn’t happy about me writing my story, was my Uncle Rudy. He had tried to drown me when I was a child. When he found out that was going to be in my book, he called one morning at 3 a.m. and wanted me to go fishing with him so we could talk about the event I was accusing him of. I told him that I’m a lot bigger now than I was back then, and it would probably turn out different than he expected. He died a couple years later. Health reasons … I had nothing to do with it.
“My mother and an uncle helped me with remembering the chain of events; however, my mother passed away before the book was published.”
As a reader I couldn’t help but compare your book to Mary Karr’s highly celebrated memoir, The Liar’s Club, which kind of launched a national memoir craze after it was published in 1995. Her book and yours are both coming-of-age stories largely set in Southeast Texas, featuring an eccentric cast of deeply flawed adult family members. Were you influenced by her work? What was it like following in the footsteps of such a successful book?
“I didn’t read The Liar’s Club until after my book was published. In fact I hadn’t heard of it until my sister told me I needed to read it, as a lot of her story took place in Southeast Texas. We grew up just across the river from each other. Strange that she would end up in New York and me in Idaho. As for following in her footsteps, she didn’t leave me a very clear path to success. I’ve had to find my own way.”
Seriously, though, why are there so many crazy people where y’all are from?
“Doggone it, just because some of my distant relatives fire shots at you when you are floating down the Sabine River, doesn’t make us all crazy. After all, he thought you were his brother … not some stranger passing through.
“Seriously, it could be a number of factors. Southeast Texas, Southwest Louisiana, the Piney Woods and the bottomland along the Sabine River have always been a place like no other. They say Alaska is the last frontier, but I’m not so sure that that’s true. Change comes slow to this region of Texas and Louisiana, and one of the first questions a stranger my be asked is, “Who are you kin too.” If you’re not kin to anyone, you may not feel very welcome. Johnson is a common enough name that I never really had that problem.”
How is work coming on your sequel, Right Side of the River? Has the writing process been any different this time around? I’m dying to know how your various family members ended up, especially whether your mom and Big Mama turned their lives around, and whether you ever found out who your dad was. Do you plan to answer these questions in the next book?
“Right Side of the River is over halfway finished. What makes writing it different is, on the Wrong Side of the River I was a juvenile. On the Right Side, I’m an adult, so I have to consider the statute of limitations.
“During the process of researching and writing I did find out who my dad was and discovered I had siblings that knew nothing of me. If nothing else ever came out of writing, that made it all worthwhile.
“My next book will start where Wrong Side of the River ends and come up to my retirement, as Chief of Police. It’s been a long journey and one that I look forward to sharing with my readers. I guess the one message that I really want to express is that regardless of your beginning in life, we each have the power to control the outcome. Life is all about choices.”
Author Cliff Johnson left Southeast Texas as a young man. He recently retired as the chief of police for a small town in Idaho. Buy his book from Amazon or directly from his website, Misty Peak Publishing.