by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor
I’ve long been drawn to the idea of ghosts. At first, I was fascinated by the ghost as symbol: what it means to have something hanging over your head or within your psyche. How you are haunted by what you do and don’t do, by what happens to you. Something from our past always lingers in the peripheral, awaiting our attention.
I eventually came to turn a critical eye toward the Western distrust of anything in the spiritual realm, both by those claiming religion and not. The idea that everything can be explained by logic and reason seems, rather, a way to assert dominance over nature and the supernatural world, and subsequently any minoritized group that believes in the power of these worlds. Thus, this disbelief acts as thinly veiled arrogance and overall ignorance of the unseen. But a thing is not nonexistent only because it cannot be seen.
I’m still drawn to ghosts as symbols, but by that I do not mean that symbols are only metaphor.
In her book White Rage, Carol Anderson juxtaposes the exaggerated alarm and media attention for justified Black rage in the face of racism with insidious and invisible white rage, which she defines as a reaction to Black advancement throughout history. But because white rage works through systems, goes unnamed, and cannot be photographed protesting on the street, it maintains an air of rationality and claims the moral high ground. It is a history that not only lingers, but persists.
During the time I was reading the book, one of my students described to me the stories that her grandparents told, about the spirits of enslaved people from America’s history living on plantations and haunting those who visited. When she asked what I thought of this, I told her that I believed these stories to be true.
America is and will continue to be haunted by its long history of white supremacy so long as this history remains a ghost: unseen, ignored, denied.
In the faith tradition of my youth, the Holy Spirit was rarely if ever mentioned, and it had nothing at all to do with our agency if we were tuned to its frequencies. I don’t know how many other Christian traditions share this silence and general anxiety around the Holy Spirit, but when I finally heard of theologies that interpret this spirit as an active presence in human lives, I could not believe it. Such power, I had understood, was akin to blasphemy.
Although the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in John 14, the gospel reports that Jesus told his followers that they would do even greater things than he had done. But much of what I understood about humility before God early on meant leaving everything in the hands of the divine. I don’t mean to suggest that I was encouraged to inaction, only that it took me a very long time to believe in my agency. It has taken even longer to not see this agency as antithetical to the notion of a higher being.
A few years ago I was writing and performing songs, and I wrote a lyric that originally stated, “I’ve been haunted once before / won’t let it happen again.” I was going through a season of depression when I wrote it, and as it got much worse after writing this line, I wondered if it was true. I doubted if I could really prevent another haunting. As the cloud began to lift from this particularly trying season, I had gained enough wisdom to revise the line: “I’ve been haunted once before / suppose it happens again.”
I wanted more than anything to believe that I could be haunted but not become a ghost of a person. I wanted to believe that what haunts me does not have to define me.
This is a carryover of a philosophy I have about teaching, that if you tell a student they are bad they will see their behavior problems as insurmountable because you have told them that this behavior is a part of their character. If a student is led to believe that their behavior is a fundamental part of who they are, they will never see another option, or they will at least never show it to you.
But if you tell a student they are good, and have only done something bad, they can change. By separating the action from the person, you can remind students of their fundamental potential for goodness, and they can work toward that ideal self. I know this logic is simple, but if so, then why is it not in place in classrooms across America?
One ghost that continues to haunt our nation is the notion of actions we label inhuman. In an essay about Ted Bundy and the notion of psychopaths, Sarah Marshall writes: “Ted Bundy and others who commit crimes like his are not born irreparably wrong, are not unavoidably evil, do not belong to a separate species from the rest of us. This is a frightening conclusion to draw: that the actions and crimes and atrocities we so often call ‘inhuman’ do, in fact, belong to humanity, because they are committed by human beings.”
It seems that every time we learn of yet another, practically daily mass shooting, we look for ways that the person who committed the act was not in fact a person, but something less, something worse, something apart from what we are.
Stated another way, in his song “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” about the serial killer who murdered 27 boys, Sufjan Stevens closes with a confession: “And in my best behavior / I am really just like him / look underneath the floorboards / for the secrets I have hid.”
I know that men have done monstrous things that we would like to separate ourselves from and believe we are incapable of. Somehow, however, calling them monsters has yet to stop the continuation and proliferation of such horrors.
What makes us so sure that nothing exists outside of what can be seen? What makes us so sure it is not bound up with us, with everything else in this world?
Among the many Christian devotional and inspirational memoirs I read when I was in college and preparing to be a youth pastor, a common thread between the authors (unsurprisingly, all men) was that they would write about very minor infractions they had made against their wives or children, and how it taught them a valuable lesson they had then spun into a moral tale for the reader.
I am not suggesting in any way that minor infractions should be dismissed, but I wonder at how none of the men in any of these popular books—to my recollection, at least—had committed any more terrible act that haunted their lives and which they wanted to correct. Had any of them done something they hadn’t acknowledged as wrong? Harmed their partners and others in deeper ways? Had any been racist, or sexist, or homophobic? Would they even consider those actions to be sinful?
I am sure that some of them certainly have, but my early experiences often centered around the Christian author’s story of mistake-making as a relatively light and often “goofy” affair. “You’ll never believe what I learned after I forgot my wedding anniversary” certainly cannot be the worst thing these men have done.
The lesson seems to be that vulnerability—at least in the model of so many religious spaces I have been a part of—is welcome, but only to an extent. You can admit to personal sins to the extent that the group has drawn a boundary line, then no further. But if truth-telling has a boundary line, is it still truth-telling?
Or perhaps I am wrong about the world, and what Christian men are able to admit, as the #MeToo movement sparked a reckoning, yet its limits have already been tested. Andy Savage, a megachurch pastor, was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in the youth group he pastored twenty years ago. The woman came forward with her story, which happened when she was 17. At the time, she was told to stay quiet about it by a senior pastor and had only felt emboldened to come forward when #MeToo gained momentum.
In a sermon after the accusation, Savage admitted to his current church that he had done it.
He was met with a standing ovation from his congregation.
Although he later resigned, his initial statement—in which he felt he had already sought forgiveness and taken responsibility—as well as the church’s uncritical celebration of his confession, was an affront to the girl he assaulted and victims of sexual abuse everywhere. This is an example of what Lili Loofbourow recently called the “male self-pardon,” wherein males who have been accused of, even found guilty of, sexual misconduct or abuse, find a way to pardon themselves and maintain positions of power.
The #MeToo movement is certainly the unveiling of a ghost, one that will haunt victims of sexual assault, until men who have pardoned themselves from the consequences waiting for them are landed by some force that has yet to be seen.
Of my many crimes, among the worst were times when I pretended that I was unaware of how much I meant to a person before disappearing on them, leaving only the shadows of our memories and a question of whether they really happened. Having been on the receiving end of this, I know that these were not minor transgressions but the cause of great grief to those who thought more of our relationship than I showed.
After breaking up with a partner, we met to apologize for things said towards the end of our relationship and gain some kind of closure. I told her that I had been unkind, and that there was no excuse. I did not want to explain myself: I just wanted to apologize. I did not expect forgiveness, and I said as much.
When she accused me of only apologizing to ease my own conscience, I was offended by the suggestion. I told her that I genuinely wanted to apologize, that I did not need forgiveness to be sorry. I have yet to understand which of us was right in that moment, if there was a gray area between being compassionate and selfishly wanting to be absolved of my sins.
So many modern-day apologies are only pseudo-apologies, from “sorry not sorry” to the many variations of “sorry you took it that way, but here’s what I actually meant.” The power of a true apology seems to rely on the amount of accountability it contains, both in word and deed.
On the Game Show Network, a reality show called Baggage invites guests to reveal to potential dates their smallest, medium, and largest baggage. The baggage ranges from the mundane (eating french fries three times a day) to the absurd (collecting human skulls). What has always fascinated me about the show is that, after revealing their baggage, contestants are given an opportunity to explain themselves, to spin their baggage into a net positive: “Yes, I collect human skulls, but only because I’m the most famous skeletal scientist in the biz.”
The human need for narrative often causes us to look for the bit of good in the bad. If someone is confessing to some sin, we need them to have a sound explanation and a sincere apology in order to complete a successful redemptive arc.
How would our world look different if people were simply to acknowledge the harm we have caused, to own our bad parts and not try to explain them or absolve ourselves? What would a just world look like, where actions are met with fair consequences, and we do not try to cover our sins with the right words? To cast a light upon our wrongs?
Although Germany formally apologized for the Holocaust, the United States has never done so for slavery. Only nine states have individually apologized. In March alone, a Fox panelist stated that she felt the U.S. should get more credit for being the first country to ban slavery (she later corrected this to “one of the first”) within 150 years.
The trouble with reparations seems to be that people do not want to answer for the sins of ghosts long gone.
No, the trouble with reparations seems to be that people do not want to answer for the sins of ghosts still here.
I equate haunting with that which we are disturbed by and cannot overcome by normal means. Mary Ruefle says, “Nothing I understand haunts me. Only the things I do not understand have that power over me.” Each of us could make a list of what haunts us, then we might start to recognize what we do not understand. We might even become more empathic toward that which haunts others.
I am troubled by the concept of “ghosting,” in which people completely disappear on someone they were in contact with. It’s a byproduct of our social media age, where we are hyper-connected but have already developed ways to disconnect from people we had briefly attached ourselves to. I have both ghosted and been ghosted, including people I had barely known and people I have even lived with.
Why do we call it ghosting when we disappear from someone’s lives? The presence of a ghost suggests that someone has not disappeared, but lingers.
We are told always that our generation is more connected than anyone prior, yet we are also told we are the loneliest. Are we responsible, in real time, for fostering this loneliness in one another, for setting each other up for distrust of everyone we might love?
I guess I am asking if you still think of me, dear friend, if I haunt your days like you still haunt mine.
Having struggled with social anxiety throughout my life, I am constantly haunted by the thought of being around other people, of my friends betraying me, of what people say when I leave the room. I have abruptly ended countless numbers of friendships because of this, having never properly figured out how to overcome it, and it often overwhelms me to think of the friends I have unnecessarily lost to this private ghost made public.
The National frequently sums up these feelings for me, and I often turn to this particular lyric when reflecting on my fear: “You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends.” The poet Tony Hoagland once told Ruefle that fear is the “ghost of an experience” haunting us. I wonder, then, if I was always destined for social anxiety or if it is merely the continual ghost of my experience with betrayal when I was 12 years old, when I was bullied for a year, and how I have spent the rest of my life bracing for such an impact again.
Ruefle: “The height of insanity says I was not there. The height of insanity says I have not had a happy life.” When I am asked about how my anxiety manifests, how it is present in most moments I am in the room with people, even moments I am enjoying, I will just tell them that later—when the evening is over—I will greet the height of my insanity again, alone in the room together.
After ghosting an entire group of friends I met through my first teaching program, I thought that I had walked away with a clean slate so that I did not have to face the hurt caused to me and the hurt caused by me. I did not calculate how small this city would turn out to be.
How many years will pass, how many words will I put down, before I am able to articulate the year I almost stopped the words from coming?
In the therapist’s office, on the survey, I check yes, in the past I have considered it, and yes, I had planned it out. I tell the therapist, my partner, my mom, that no, it does not cross my mind anymore. I promise not to be haunted like that again. That said, the memory of those thoughts are enough to sideline me when the conversation comes up.
I have been learning throughout my relationship with my spouse that I must work to not let that which haunts me become something that haunts us. In a relationship that preceded ours, I was on the receiving end of emotional abuse, leading me to further mistrust people I was close to. Over and over, this ghost which I did not cause became a shadow lingering over every relationship I entered into, and I became too quick to cast blame on others for harm they had not done to me.
I am still trying to understand why some of us must rid our rooms of ghosts we are not responsible for inviting in.
It seems increasingly that people—myself included—will see quotes from long past and marvel at how they are still applicable today. We find ourselves shocked that society has always had certain awful qualities we think we should have evolved beyond. Books like It Can’t Happen Here, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 are called prophetic, timeless, pressing. I stumble upon words by James Baldwin that may as well have been written this morning.
In Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, about a ghost that comes to haunt a family, Jojo’s grandmother tells Jojo that when she passes she will still be here, in the earthly realm. When Jojo asks how this can be possible, Mam replies, “Because we don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.”
Maybe history is not repeating itself, but is only a continuous loop of the same human collisions, our reactions to them. That some stories remain prophetic perhaps means we have not yet learned how to listen to the warnings we have been given. But maybe other ghosts are not bad for us. Maybe the notion of spirits guiding us is something I have not given enough energy to in my quest to not be haunted.
David Wood writes in What Have We Done, his book about our modern wars, that moral injury is a condition that is often confused with PTSD but takes a more subtle form, in emotional rather than physical responses such as “sorrow, remorse, grief, shame, bitterness, and moral confusion,” and that moral injury is a “jagged disconnect from our understanding of who we are and what we out to do and ought not to do.”
Will our nation, our communities, and each of us as individuals be haunted by the moral injuries we have inflicted, that have been inflicted upon us? This ghost nation cannot survive on dreams hollowed out by inaction.
Perhaps one way to think of heaven is a place where you go where you are no longer haunted by ghosts. Thus, heaven could be here, and we could be a part of its realization.
Friends are people we bring our pain to, and it seems to me the best are those who carry our pain, too, so long as it affects us. One way we can walk with each other, then, is to say, “If it haunts you, it haunts me, too.”
As my prayers have transformed into me holding space for myself and others, I believe that we can allow ourselves to be haunted by what haunts those who we love, and in this manner work to become whole. If something is not haunting us, then, perhaps we should not say that we love another person. This applies to individuals and communities alike.
Listen to what pains another person—the personal, private, systemic, institutional, all of it—and practice saying this: “If it haunts you, it haunts me, too.” Do you believe in that ghost now?
Or can you still not believe in what you have not seen?
- Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Truth About Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury, 2017).
- Sarah Marshall, “The End of Evil,” The Believer, https://believermag.com/the-end-of-evil/.
- Sufjan Stevens,“John Wayne Gacy Jr.” Illinoise (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2005).
- Jules Woodson, “I Was Assaulted. He Was Applauded.” The New York Times, March 9, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/opinion/jules-woodson-andy-savage-assault.html.
- Lili Loufbourow, “Junot Díaz and the male self-pardon,” Slate, https://slate.com/culture/2018/06/junot-diaz-allegations-and-the-male-self-pardon.html.
- Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey (Wave Books, 2012).
- Christina Zhao, “Fox News Analyst on Reparations: America Should Get ‘Credit’ for Ending Slavery ‘Within 150 Years’,” Newsweek, March 19, 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/fox-news-reparations-america-credit-ending-slavery-150-years-1368737.
- The National, “Mistaken for Strangers,” Boxer (Beggars Banquet Music Ltd., 2007).
- Mary Ruefle, “How It Is,” Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2010).
- Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2017).
- The David Wood quote came from my reading of Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River.