On Ghosts, and the Wisdom of Dead Women
Kameron Hurley of Brutal Women, guestblogging
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of ghosts.
I grew up with the blazing image of my rebellious Aunt Karen creeping always just behind me, peering into windows, stepping in front of cars, dancing naked on the lawn under a full moon to the tune of some 70s hippie song.
She died in a car accident in 1977 at the age of 16 when she and a carful of friends pulled over on the side of the road on a foggy, rainy night.
Their car was rear-ended by a semi and burst into flames.
They were burned alive, all but the driver. He was yanked out of the flaming wreck by the driver of the semi, whose cab fire extinguisher saved the kid’s life. The kid survived with burns over 80 percent of his body.
My grandfather had to go in and identify what was left of his daughter, which he was only able to do by virtue of the clothes she was wearing. Yes, those tattered, charred remains looked a lot like clothes she owned.
He lost himself to drink not long after.
I was born a couple years later.
My mom wanted to call me Karin. My dad thought that was a pretty fucking morbid idea.
As a compromise, I’m named after some movie star’s daughter, though neither I nor my mother can remember which movie star, or whatever happened to her daughter.
Even so, more than one family member has mistakenly called me “Karen.”
Aunt Karen was the center of my family mythology, and my parents often dredged her up when they sought to teach me about the ills of the world. She was hanging out with disreputable people who drank and did drugs and didn’t work real jobs. She was out at 2 am at only sixteen, sixteen being a notoriously irresponsible age, of course. She was a smoker. She always dressed inappropriately, in big knee-high boots and short skirts and dresses she often made herself.
And she died violently in a flaming, fiery wreck.
I used to have dreams about the whole world burning.
As I grew older, I was kept in check by the mistakes of a dead woman. I gave my parents detailed itineraries of where I would be, and with whom. I wasn’t allowed to wear make-up, date, or get my ears pierced until I was sixteen, that magic age. My parents were always leery of the teenage drivers I was cavorting with. I didn’t often go to others’ houses; my parents liked to keep gatherings at our place. I was given strict lectures about the Sexual Urges of Young Boys, lectures that often forgot I had sexual urges of my own.
When I did begin to date, I did so with much trepidation. Both of my grandmothers were pregnant before they married, and got stuck in less than happy marriages. My parents had been desperately in love when they married, but they were the first to say they’d gotten married too young, straight out of high school.
Men and relationships were dangerous things, as dangerous as cars.
They could end in the same sorts of wrecks.
I spent most of my time growing up in fear. Fear of living in my little town for the rest of my life, fear of going away and fucking up and dying horribly for my fuck-up. Fear of being in relationships. Fear of being a fat, lonely spinster who had only cats for company. Fears of friends who betrayed me, fear of getting too close to anyone, fear of never being close enough.
The world was full of danger. It was best I stayed home.
And while living on the stories of dead women and war brides, I decided to wait. I would wait for something to happen to me. I would wait, like the stories said, for the right guy. I would wait for those fairytale-princes, for that perfect person who would open up the world for me.
I would wait.
I started waiting at 13, and stopped waiting at 17, when it all just got to be too much.
Waiting just wasn’t my style.
I ran out of the house and shacked up with my high-school boyfriend 3 days after turning 18. We drove 250 miles from home and set up shop in a University town and struggled to make ends meet.
You know this story.
I made money waitressing. He dropped out of school, tried to do some temp work, ran away to join the Marines.
It turned out just like a fairytale, all right. Only it was the cautionary tale: the white trash straight-out-of-high-school-abusive-relationship script.
I returned back to my little town, dejected, defeated. I hadn’t listened to the stories. I’d followed one of the “bad” scripts. I’d misread.
I was supposed to be smarter than that.
There was another way to read Karen’s story.
The ghost in my house was not a wanton harlot who got her just desserts in a burst of flaming wreckage along I-5. The reason she was out that night was because she’d told her stepdad to fuck off some time earlier and moved out of a house that my mother admits was stifling. She smoked in my mom’s apartment, when she knew she wasn’t supposed to. She took pottery classes. She dressed her own way. Did her own thing. Listened to her own music, loudly. Danced, drunkenly. Had her own friends. Whereas my mom just accepted the way life was, Karen challenged it.
Karen said “No.” Karen said, “Fuck you.”
And yea, she died. And you know, we all die. It was a bad mistake on a wet, foggy road. It wasn’t a moral judgment handed down on high.
When I stumbled back home, a broke waitress who could barely climb stairs because she was so out of shape, and took more comfort in binge eating than relationships, I spent days and days in bed. When I wasn’t waitressing or eating, I was sleeping. I felt dead. I felt like everything inside of me had died.
And after all that sleeping, and all of that depression, wallowing around in my own failure to do or be anything worthwhile at all, I decided a bunch of things.
I hated my job. And I didn’t have to keep it. I hated being out of shape. And I didn’t have to be that way. I hated binge eating. I could eat differently. I hated dating. I didn’t need to be dating to be whole. I hated my life. I didn’t have to.
Most of all, I was tired of being afraid. And I was tired of waiting around for someone else to save me from the flaming car wreck that had become my life.
Somewhere in the hazy realm of sleep and depression, I decided that I’d already died. I’d already lived the myth. I’d done the worst thing. I was stuck in a mediocre community college that was taking years to get through, working a mediocre job that got me nowhere, and I was being screamed at by a less-than-mediocre guy. I was living the wrong story. I was living someone else’s life.
So I decided I was dead.
And, being dead, I could start all over again.
After you die, everything else you do in your life won’t really be a failure. You’ve already reached the bottom of the well. You can either sit there splashing around in the water, or you can crawl back out, put on a different cloak, and write yourself a new life.
I decided to write a new life.
I read about other people. I found some of my mom’s old feminist books, and discovered the abusive relationship script and thought, “Holy shit! I’m not insane. Other people went through this, too, and they’re strong and smart. It doesn’t mean I’m not strong and smart.”
I found better books. I looked for strong female heroines. I found stories about women who didn’t go out “looking” for themselves: they created themselves. Often, from scratch. They got tired and started over. They realized the world they saw wasn’t the one that worked for them. They made another.
I found Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem, Shulamith Firestone, Susan Faludi. I found the dystopian fiction, 1984, Brave New World, Anthem. And there was Childhood’s End, Fahrenheit 451, The Dispossessed, and Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny and Sturgeon and Kurt Vonnegut and Cordwainer Smith. Once I got going, I couldn’t really stop. They all went together, the feminists and the genre writers - they all looked at the world and saw other ways it could be. I read Frank Herbert and Delany and Moorcock and Octavia Butler. I fell in love with Joanna Russ. Later, I would roll over into Angela Carter and Christopher Priest and Maureen McHugh and they would open up a staggering world of possibilities.
I got some better jobs, nothing fancy, not much more than minimum wage, but they treated me better, they gave me more confidence. I stockpiled some money. I applied to universities in the most obscure place I could think of inside the US:
God bless student loans.
I bought a one-way ticket to Fairbanks.
I’d never been to Fairbanks. I didn’t know anyone there. In fact, I would be 1,600 miles from anyone I knew.
A week before I was to leave for Alaska, I made the drive out to Molten Falls park just outside my little town. I liked to go there to watch the boys jump. They’ve got a bridge over the big swimming hole, a bridge that drops 55 feet into black water. It’s a summer rite-of-passage sport for the local boys to jump off the bridge and splash around stuttering curse words and comparing bruises.
I spent the afternoon watching the boys jump.
I thought of all the things that could go wrong with a jump. Thought about broken bones and paralysis. Thought about a life lived in a wheelchair. Thought about the kid who died there two years before.
Thought about flaming, fiery death. Because it was all the same, wasn’t it?
Might as well go back to bed. It was safer there.
But then, I was dead anyway. I was someone else entirely.
Why wasn’t I jumping?
Cause, I figured, I was a girl.
I’d never seen a girl jump.
Well, fuck that. I’d make my own story.
I trekked up to the top of the bridge. I removed my jewelry and my watch. I climbed over the guardrail and stood on the bow of the bridge. I looked out at the spread of the dark water, the cliffs on either side.
You don’t really think about anything at this point, except that if you hesitate any longer, you aren’t going to do it.
I stepped off the bridge.
55 feet is enough of a drop so you’ve got quite a lot of time to think “What the fuck did I just do?” as you watch the mossy cliffs blur on either side of you.
I hit the water, cold, cold, cold.
When I looked up I could see the bubbles of air escaping my lungs and bleeding up toward the surface.
I could feel. I could see. I could think.
I wasn’t dead.
I fought for the surface and sprang free just in time to meet a guy swimming toward me.
“You OK?” he asked.
“Yea,” I said.
“I’ve never seen a girl jump before,” he said.
Well, there’s a first time for everything. When you’re dead, you can do just about anything.
And when you decide to live again, the whole world opens up.
I’ve jumped off a lot of metaphorical bridges since (I missed out bungee jumping in New Zealand a couple years ago because of weather), but it all started with that bridge. That jump. That first one-way ticket off the beaten path.
I didn’t have a script for this one.
Just blind belief in possibility.
I’d grown up learning that rebellious girls died badly, and proper ones married young. I believed they were black and white stories, cautionary tales. I believed in the rules they gave me.
I believed girls didn’t jump.
I was wrong.
I believe stories have an incredible power to show us possibility. Ways the world can be, ways our lives can be. The closer and narrower your world, the more likely books can open up pathways to other places, show you other ways of seeing. It’s why stories are so dangerous. It’s why people burn books. It’s why if you want to control someone, you don’t teach them to read.
My family mythology worked in the way that many fairytales work: it taught me caution, it taught me fear, it taught me ways not to be.
But looking outside of my family’s stories, I found new ones. I found people who had chosen to live differently, who saw different ways of being.
I saw people who lived.
Three years ago, I spent the night in a bed and breakfast at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town. I was on a research trip for my master’s work. I was housed in a little room that smelled faintly of cat urine. It was hot and dry and the windows were open.
I sat up in the big bed watching The English Patient, dozing off to the sound of the bugs outside. I turned my head a little to the window, to the softly billowing white curtains, and I saw a pale hand pointing into the room, toward the dresser.
I froze, terrified out of my mind. When the curtain billowed again, the hand was gone. It took several more terrified minutes before I went to the barred window and looked out.
I was on the first floor, but the way that hand was pointing, whoever it was would have to have been particularly short, with a particularly long reach, in order to point through those bars and into my room. I hadn’t heard any footsteps on the gravel outside.
I looked out - looked left, looked right.
I jumped into the middle of the bed and spent a sleepless night hiding and sweating under the heavy blankets, hoping the ghosts wouldn’t come for me, now, after all this time.
The next morning, at breakfast, I overheard some of the kitchen staff discussing the house ghost, a troublesome spirit who they blamed for missing kitchenware.
I spent the next few nights developing a taste for whiskey at the open bar.
But I had no other run-in with the ghost, that one or any other. What kept me up was fear. And fear comes from me, nobody else.
You can’t blame it all on the ghosts.
A few of years ago, while I was stuck back in my parents' house for six months between Alaska and South Africa, working at temp jobs to pay for plane tickets out to grad school, working to come up with the money for a student visa, one of my uncles stayed over at the house in my old room while I bunked across the hall.
He told my mom that he had a dream of Karen. She had come to him in the dream and told him, "Everything's going to be all right."
And in those dark nights when there's not enough money, when I'm reaching for wine and cigarettes to get me through the week on the way to my next life jump, when I want the world to open up but everybody's closing doors, I think of that, I think:
"Everything's going to be all right."
There's more than one message a ghost can give us.
I do sometimes still think of she, Karen, my Aunt, the wild woman with the flowers in her hair and the knee-high boots. I still fear fire. I still hesitate when making decisions straight from my gut, without the input of rational thought.
Jumping can be scary.
But I still jump. Because other people have done it. Because I know it’s possible. Because all the ghosts in the world couldn’t hold me back.
I’m the only one who can do that.
I jump because not jumping is scarier. I’ve lived that life.
I’m making another one.