The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was on. We’d seen it before, but who can resist a romantic fantasy between a young widow and the ghost of a ship captain in a seaside English village? Certainly not my mother, who loved England, romance, and ghosts. My mother communicated with ghosts regularly. This was such a matter-of-fact part of her life that I had taken it for granted from the very beginning; I wasn’t sure what I believed about ghosts themselves, but knew for certain that, whatever they were, my mother saw them, sensed them, and spoke with them. Stories about the ghosts of former residents alerting her to their presence at open houses for coveted real estate, chats with those who’d passed to the other side, et cetera: these were simply part of the ongoing family conversation about multiple realities unfolding simultaneously.
“You know, I had to help this guy who died out there a little while ago,” she said, waving a hand over her shoulder at the Puget Sound. I was back on Bainbridge Island between periods of travel. My mother was house-sitting the big waterfront home of some people who worked for Microsoft and had gone to Australia. She sat tucked into the corner of the sofa, wrapped in a blanket and holding a cup of tea.
“Really?” I said. It was the word that came out of my mouth most often on visits to the island, in a way that meant, “Please tell me more, and I’m also not sure what to think about this.”
“I saw a crew out searching for him one evening,” she said. “He was a diver for some official department. He’d gone missing.”
“My God,” I said.
“So I spoke to his ghost,” she said. “He was very confused. Like, Whoa, where am I? What’s happening? He didn’t get that he was dead, you know? He had a lot of cocaine in his system. I had to break the news to him.”
“Jesus,” I said. This was new. It could’ve made an interesting contemporary update of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which is about a woman, played by Gene Tierney, who rents a house on the English coast that’s haunted by an irascible sea captain, played by Rex Harrison. She helps him write his memoirs from beyond the grave. It has a remarkable ending for a romantic comedy: in her old age, Tierney’s character dies, united with Rex Harrison at last.
“I had to tell him gently, of course,” she said. “It’s best to be gentle with a ghost that doesn’t know it’s dead. It can come as quite a shock to them.”
I thought about all of this for a moment. “So you helped a coke ghost cross over,” I said.
My mother laughed. “A coke ghost!” She liked that. “Well, he was a good person.”
“Poor guy,” I said. “I wonder if a lot of divers use cocaine on the job. Are they like the long-distance truckers of the sea?” I later looked up the details of the case. My mother shunned the news, generally feeling it to be a conspiracy of negative vibes, fear-mongering, et cetera, et cetera. “Not in my home” was her attitude toward the news, as though it were a kind of pornography. (Lord knows it can be.) She was sensitive to the world, like me. And she wasn’t wrong about the news, exactly. I, however, occasionally swung to the opposite extreme. I wanted to know everything, especially everything scandalous, criminal, tragic, everything indicative of human evil, folly, and misguided passion. “Evil and disaster are part of a well-rounded diet,” I used to say to her, when I tried to persuade her to listen to the news. “They’re part of the informational food pyramid.” The diver, I learned, had been just twenty-four when he died of “salt water drowning” and acute cocaine intoxication. I had just turned thirty.
Ghost talk interested me because it often sidestepped the personal. Or, to be more exact, it seemed to me like a way of repurposing personal details in riddles, fables, and metaphors. The only times it rankled were when my mother said things like, “You’ll know when I die, because I’ll come visit you.” Meaning, in other words: “Don’t worry, I’ll haunt you when I’m gone.”
I didn’t mind being visited by the spirit of my dead mother in theory, but it seemed like a potential violation of the well-protected private life I’d worked so hard to cultivate. Could one make a convenient appointment for visitations by one’s dead mother, in the same way that one made sure to call every couple of weeks? Or did the ghosts of dead mothers know when to show themselves without making a scene? I had read that Oscar Wilde had experienced a ghostly vision of his mother on the night of her death across the country, so maybe it was just her Irish side coming out. Delightful Oscar, who wrote of Salome requesting the head of Jokanaan on a silver platter as a reward for her dancing. The subject of being eventually visited by my mother’s ghost brought me back around to those images—those decadent Aubrey Beardsley drawings with their insectile human figures, Salome feverish and floating on air, her eyes gazing deep into those of Jokanaan’s severed head.
In any case, ghost life was a branch of my mother’s supernaturalism that I rather enjoyed. Another branch, the existence of aliens, also entertained. On another visit I’d sat in a similar formation with my mother—her on the couch, me sitting across from her in a chair—but in my childhood home, which had recently been rebuilt after a freak fire left it half-collapsed and charred. I listened to her speak at great, almost trancelike length about Paul Hellyer, the ninety-one-year-old former Canadian defense minister who around that time decided to announce that world leaders were hiding secret documents that confirmed the existence of UFOs and alien species. Aliens, he said, had been visiting earth for thousands of years; they were, he said, unimpressed with the way we lived, feeling that we spent too much money on military expenditures and not enough on helping the poor.
“So the aliens are leftists?” I said, throwing this into the whirlwind of my mother’s speech about aliens.
She continued repeating and riffing on Paul Hellyer’s claims, frightening me a little with her fervor, passionately agreeing that certain modern technologies, such as the Kevlar vest and LED light, had been helped into existence by aliens. Certain species of aliens, according to Hellyer, passed for human, among them a group referred to as “Tall Whites.” This makes me laugh, since it described me as a person. The “Tall Whites” were working with the U.S. Air Force in Nevada. Why was it that aliens always seemed to be pale and to prefer hanging out in the American desert? One rarely heard rumors of, say, aliens roaming Saudi Arabia or Sudan. And the public would have taken immediate issue with reports that a species of aliens known as “Tall Browns” wandered the planet, passing for human. I eagerly awaited the publication of the alien equivalent to Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance novel Passing. What American literature really needed, I thought, was an Alien Renaissance. Maybe it was already having one.
But far be it from me to discourage anyone’s passion for aliens. Even I had my moments in that regard—I was only human. I’m not sure what’s real or true. And, unlike Hellyer’s aliens, I’m often impressed by the way we lived. Human beings built architectural marvels of storytelling around their beliefs; even paranoia, harnessed and applied with focus, can create mental hanging gardens of breathtaking sublimity, reflections of the human psyche at its most baroque. Stories, novels. Essays.
However, it saddened me sometimes to venture out onto the branch of my mother’s growing preoccupation with past lives, which, having moved on from the coke ghost, we began to do there in the living room of a high-earning, absent family’s seaside home.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Lady Duff lately,” my mother said.
I knew what this meant. My mother had been fascinated by past lives for … well, longer than I’d been alive. By the time I came on the scene—a story replete with its own significant paranormal touches, including an Indian guru who, my mother said, astral-projected himself into her bedroom to hang out with her while she was pregnant—her interest in things like hypnotherapeutic past-life regression and speaking with the dead was already firmly established. She’d experienced a crack-up shortly after my birth, owing, to hear her tell it, to a mix of severe postpartum depression and being overwhelmed by the wide-open, wildly swinging doors of perception. During that time my brother and I were briefly placed in the care of friends and family. My mother and I were separated for two weeks. I don’t remember any of it. I’ve had my own crack-ups over the years, including a brief but intense and humbling one a couple of months before turning in my book of essays. It runs in the family. It fascinates me. A relative a couple of generations back, pushed to see how long he could spend inside a hot tank in the desert during his army training, lived the rest of his life after that with a permanently fractured psyche. Another spent her final days in Ypsilanti State Hospital, setting for the book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, in which a social psychologist makes three men, each of whom believes he is God, spend time together to see what they’ll do. (They went on believing.) In any case, my earliest memory of my mom talking about past lives involves a skit on the children’s TV show Sesame Street that reduced me to hysterical tears. I was a little boy.
Everything was unfolding like normal, the usual colorful, festive parade of multicultural puppets and humans living and singing in relative harmony—my mother wept years later when Jim Henson died—until a segment came on that terrified me. In it, confirmed bachelor housemates Bert and Ernie, whom I normally enjoyed, explored an Egyptian pyramid. (They naturally refrained from identifying this as a tomb.) Bert’s Egyptophilic enthusiasm did nothing to quell the creeping fear of Ernie, who followed his companion with reluctance. They came upon two ancient statues that, eerily, wore faces identical to theirs. I became nervous at that point. Ernie told Bert he wanted to go home, that he was frightened, but Bert insisted on staying. He left Ernie by the statue to investigate a dark tunnel around the corner. Then, while Ernie’s back was turned, the statue in his own likeness momentarily came to life, tapping him on the head with his crook. Ernie wailed in fear, calling for Bert, to whom he explained the source of his panic.
Bert sighed. “This statue here, made of stone thousands of years old, it tapped you?”
“That’s right, Bert,” said Ernie.
“Ernie,” said Bert, nasal and skeptical, “Ernie, don’t you think maybe you were using your imagination, hm? It didn’t really tap you, you’re just imagining it, hm?”
Bert once again left Ernie, that clownish imagination-user, who tried to talk himself down. With confidence tenuously restored, he said to the statue, “You didn’t tap me, did you, statue?”
“Sure I did,” said the statue, coming to life again, its voice echoey. Its laughter, uncannily Ernie-like, a staccato hiss, threw me into a state of terror. My screams and crying summoned my mother, who must have thought I’d hurt myself.
“What’s wrong?” she said. “What is it?”
Afraid to look at the TV, I pointed at it, blubbering about Egypt and statues. “It came to life,” I said, still crying. “It came to life!”
My mother held me on the couch, comforted me. “Shhh,” she said, “it isn’t real.” Like many children, I was fascinated by ancient Egypt; I wanted to bring home from the library as many books about the pyramids, the Sphinx, and the pharaohs as I could. Maybe this supported my mother’s impulse, at that moment, to introduce the idea that I may have had a past life in ancient Egypt.
I stood up next to her on the couch, holding her hands, and sniffled, curious.
“I’ll bet you were a pharaoh then,” she said.
Thus the idea of past lives became part of the family language—nothing unusual, really, just the taken-for-granted reality that one had lived before in a time and place other than this one, and that one would likely live again, live elsewhere.
For my mother, affinities for another time and place suggested a literal lived relationship to them. A fascination with Paris in the twenties, as culturally prescribed or insisted upon as that fascination might be, hinted at having once walked through the era oneself. I have many thoughts about this. At my most critical I consider suspect the aspirational quality that marks many past-life fantasies—that and a certain received cultural nostalgia, modes of historical fantasy that limit the variety of lives we’re meant to imagine we’ve lived. Patterns in past-life fantasies—much like fantasies about one’s present life—have their own loaded preoccupations. They reflect our desires and our frustrations. Then again, I’m intrigued by childhood psychology studies reporting that, at a certain age, usually shortly after children begin to speak in coherent sentences and stories, many people have been known to spout uncannily cogent narratives that have the appearance of memories from another life. My former drag mentor Glamamore once told me that when she was a little boy she suddenly began speaking Gaelic to her mother and grandmother. And my younger sister had, in fact, told a fully formed and uncanny story when she was little, one that my mother says was a family memory from an earlier generation: a boiler bursting, a house exploding, everyone running outside into the snow.
So my attitude toward past lives remains a tangle: curiosity, skepticism, willingness to accept the limits of my own understanding. I’m a little bit Ernie, a little bit Bert. As with any instrument of human meaning-making, it gets played in different ways, sometimes virtuosically (as though it were, in fact, the one doing the playing), sometimes in clumsy practice or with suspect motives. Which brings me back to the open question of my mother and Lady Duff. Having broached the subject, she produced a printed copy of a photograph from a pile of papers on a folding card table by the window.
“It’s in the eyes,” she said, handing it to me. The photo showed Lady Duff Stirling Twysden with Ernest Hemingway and four other figures, all of them at a table in a café in Pamplona. The eyes of Lady Duff did, indeed, gleam with creative fire, a radiant zeal and lively wit that my mother shared to a certain extent. “Do you see it?”
“Yes,” I said, “in a way.”
There was so much I felt I shouldn’t say. These past lives seemed important to my mother, part of a creative process of some kind. My sympathies lay with the creative process and my mother’s relationship with it. She, too, was an artist. Her creative energies seemed to me to be funneling more and more into past lives in which she’d been a woman in the shadow of some legendary male author. Lady Duff, inspiration for Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, was one; she’d also discovered that she’d been the wife of the Irish poet and songwriter Thomas Moore. Why not be Thomas Moore himself? Maybe, I thought, these acts of imagination amounted to a feminist reclaiming of sorts. Was my mother traveling back through time in order to liberate the ghostly lives of women who, flesh and blood and brains, were remembered primarily for their roles in the existential dramas of literary men?
Maybe the ephemeral form this creative energy took satisfied her, though. Maybe it was just me, driven by my fear of annihilation, who wanted to turn living magic into monuments. I wanted us all to stay here, now, in this life. (My mother and I later identified my terror as possibly stemming from those weeks of abandonment when I was three months old. Maybe her going off to be Lady Duff or whoever else felt too much like that traumatic primal separation for me at the time.)
“We’re still trying to figure out who you were back then,” she said. By “we” she meant the other seers and psychics she consulted regularly, and, possibly, the spirit world itself. “We’re thinking Faulkner.”
Though I’d grown outwardly quiet, I couldn’t help but laugh. She said it the way one might suggest a holiday destination. Part of me didn’t particularly like having my soul dragged through history with hers—it was hard enough carving out an independent place for myself in the world without being asked to believe that I was, at any given moment, accompanying my mother on an endless literary Grand Tour through nonlinear time. Maybe I should be more grateful. I don’t know. I complained about it once when she claimed that I’d been around during her tenure as Thomas Moore’s wife. I was the handyman who worked on their cottage.
“So not only do I have to escort you through history,” I said, “I have to fix your house while I’m at it?”
She laughed, but it was as though she feared abandoning me in her time travel experiments. Part of me wanted to say, “Please, Mother, go be Thomas Moore’s wife! I’m a grown man. I can take care of myself.” Shortly after voicing my complaint, however, I was not cut loose from the fantasy, but instead promoted within it. I had not been a handyman after all: I had been Lord Byron. The Right Honorable Lord Byron, notorious and strong-nosed. The mercurial, flamboyant mess of myth responsible for Don Juan, a poem of eunuchs, androgynes, and a hero whose decadent effeminacy makes him the object of lesbian desire in a sultana’s harem. Byron, plagued by rumors and malicious gossip about an affair with his half sister, which, along with those of his homosexual proclivities—a taste for “Greek love,” as it was sometimes referred to—drove him out of England. The role suited me fine: a bit showy, pale, dark-haired, full of unpaid debts and ill-starred love affairs. I could live with having lived as Byron.
Only later would I learn that Thomas Moore—my mother’s past-life husband and Byron’s literary executor—had, after a concerned, contentious gathering with publisher John Murray and several others, been present at the burning of Byron’s memoirs. Moore fought against this injustice. He protested the destruction of the memoirs. Not hard enough, apparently: the opinion of those who found the memoirs scandalous and debauched prevailed. They were torn up and thrown into the fireplace of the publisher’s home on Albemarle Street in Piccadilly. Now they will never be read.
Evan James received an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has received fellowships for his writing from Yaddo, the Carson McCullers Center, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the University of Iowa, and the Lambda Literary Writers’ Retreat, where he was a 2017 Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow. His personal essays and fiction have appeared in, among others, The Paris Review Daily, Oxford American, The Sun, The Iowa Review, Travel + Leisure, Catapult, Ninth Letter, and the New York Times. His essay “Lovers’ Theme” was selected as the winner of the 2016 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, judged by Eula Biss. Born in Seattle, he now lives in New York and teaches creative writing and English at the Pierrepont School.
© 2020 by Evan James. Excerpted from I’ve Been Wrong Before, by Evan James, out tomorrow from Atria.