edited to add the mp3 of John Doe #24; please let me know if it doesn’t work, as this is the first time I’ve tried to embed an audio link.

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m agnostic, and that I prefer science to religion when it comes to trying to sort out the big mysteries. Also, it’s probably clear that I don’t pray to any god or gods, and that I don’t believe in life after death. Now, the idea of life after death is appealing, but I can’t find a way to make myself believe in it. I love the whole world view that goes along with reincarnation, but in the same way I love the idea of Oz. A wonderful story, but no more than that.

On the other hand, I am cautious enough and maybe intellectually curious enough to admit that many things in the universe are beyond human understanding. Which is akin to saying: maybe there is some kind of greater intelligence out there, steering things. But if so, it’s happening in a way that’s completely beyond the confines of my brain.

And on the topic of the brain: it’s a big mystery. So much we don’t understand. So I’d have to say that I am open to the possibility of extra sensory perception, but to be really convinced I’d need some hard data.

What’s all this about, you’re wondering. I do have a point.

I don’t believe in life after death, which means, logically, that I don’t believe in ghosts. And I don’t. Not in the sense of the spirits of the dead hanging around on earth, sometimes making themselves known. Waiting to move off to another level of being. Nope, none of that works for me. It strikes me as both sad and fitting that a human being lives out a life, gathering information and sensation and experience, and then all that dies with him or her and soaks back into the earth. I don’t believe my father’s ghost is still on this earth, though I would like it if it were. If he were nearby watching, and commenting, that would make me feel protected in the same way a small child feels safe, lying in bed at night hearing adults talking in the other room.

So I don’t believe in ghosts, but here’s the thing: my characters often do. Ghosts pop into my stories on a fairly regular basis. They are as talkative dead as they were alive. Hannah has experienced this. In Homestead there was one particularly stubborn ghost, he just couldn’t stay out of things. He was absolutely real, in that story, for those characters and within that context, he was and is real to me too. He surprised me and made me oddly happy. As if a wild animal approached without warning to offer a paw in friendship.

The point is, in telling stories characters take on life, and the things they believe and know take on a kind of life as well. It’s vaguely schizophrenic, believing/not believing self/other all in one, but that’s part of the draw of writing. That ability to experience things through your characters that are less available to you in the mundane day-to-day.

Write this whole odd post off to (1) weariness; (2) general worries; (3) way too much Mary Chapin Carpenter. John Doe No. 24 always puts me in one of these moods. I think about him often. From the book about his life, this summary:

Police found John Doe No. 24 in the early morning hours of October 11, 1945, in Jacksonville, Illinois. Unable to communicate, the deaf and mute teenager was labeled “feeble minded” and sentenced by a judge to the nightmarish jumble of the Lincoln State School and Colony in Jacksonville. He remained in the Illinois mental health care system for over thirty years and died at the Sharon Oaks Nursing Home in Peoria on November 28, 1993.

Deaf, mute, and later blind, the young black man survived institutionalized hell: beatings, hunger, overcrowding, and the dehumanizing treatment that characterized state institutions through the 1950s. In spite of his environment, he made friends, took on responsibilities, and developed a sense of humor. People who knew him found him remarkable.

Award-winning journalist Dave Bakke reconstructs the life of John Doe No. 24 through research into a half-century of the state mental health system, personal interviews with people who knew him at various points during his life, and sixteen black-and-white illustrations. After reading a story about John Doe in the New York Times, acclaimed singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote and recorded “John Doe No. 24”
and purchased a headstone for his unmarked grave. She contributes a foreword to this book.

As death approached for the man known only as John Doe No. 24, his one-time nurse Donna Romine reflected sadly on his mystery. “Ah, well,” she said, “God knows his name.”

15 Replies to “ghosts”

  1. How very sad. When I hear a story like this all I can think is, he was someone’s child. Suddenly I feel the need to go to my daughters’ school and hug them both.

  2. I’ve a friend who is a preachers son, and we’ve had a lot of long talks on faith and religion. Never “believed” myself, but I gotta admit sometimes that I envy those that do.The comfort they get from there faith is very appealing. I do believe in our survival instincts though and I always thought of religon as a way to insure our continued survival in a hostile world. Any rallying point where we can gather for the common good of our communities has gotta be good. Sadly, I don’t see a lot o charitable organizations out there that aren’t backed by one religon or another. Probably why I don’t knock religon as much as much as my other-wise cynical,stubborn nature would want me to.

  3. Rosina, I agree when you say: “And on the topic of the brain: it’s a big mystery. So much we don’t understand”.

    It is very hard to understand with our brain in tune with the frequency of our worldly life. We have to see before believing, even though we know the existence of many things we cannot see. But then, without believing the life becomes so meaningless, and science still has a long way to go. That makes me think of what apostle Paul said centuries ago: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

    Maybe the hard data will never be enough to convince us. It is another frequency. Maybe our mind will need to be renewed, and then, we will believe.

  4. I’m glad you have the ability to separate out yourself from your characters. It’s important to know that you don’t believe in ghosts, since logically, I think that means you don’t also bake really bad cakes. Or is that too much logic for fiction?
    I’m new to writing fiction – cannot separate myself out from my characters yet. There aren’t many of them, mind you, but there’s one who follows a religion and questions it at the same time, and that is me all over. Hard to imagine what I’ll do if this character decides finally for or against the religion. Good to know I don’t *have* to do what the character does, in order to write about it believably. That whole “write what you know” argument again.

  5. Didn’t work for me, but it looks like it would be a great CD so I’ll get it anyway. What a sad and anger making story. That’s a bit of a personal nightmare for me – being caught in a system I can’t get out of.

  6. Wow – what timing!

    Sunday Mark Cahill spoke at my church. He is the author of the book One Thing You Can’t Do In Heaven, which I’ve been reading the past couple days. Not to spoil it for you, but the one thing you can’t do in heaven is talk to non-believers about Jesus.

    Anyway, I’ve been reading that book and praying that God would give me a chance to witness to non-believers, which I’ve never really done and which is very intimidating to me. But here came this post, and I knew it was an answer to my prayers. So if you’d like to discuss religion with me, please send me an email. Don’t worry – I won’t judge; I’m just as interested in hearing about what you believe as I am sharing my beliefs with you. I might not respond right away, but I will get back to you.


  7. Sara, I understand that you are offering me something of great import to you, something precious. I hope you will understand if I don’t take you up on it. These are discussions I’ve had many times with many people, some of them close friends, and I’m not in a place right now where I feel the need to take up the subject again.

    I absolutely respect your beliefs, to be very clear. I imagine your belief in heaven and Jesus is a great comfort to you, but it’s no something I could ever share.

  8. Keziah: it’s one of my all time favorite albums. Let me know what you think of it, okay?

    I’m thinking that maybe people on macs will be able to make the audio work, and people on pcs won’t.

  9. AUdio worked,lucky me, I’m a soft touch for a woman who plays an accoustic and sings well.

  10. Rosina the audio link worked. I will show my ignorance here but I hadn’t heard of Mary Chapin Carpenter before your post. I listened to her song and really liked it. Thank you for introducing this beautiful singer to me. I particularly loved the accoustics and her singing voice. I was also touched when I read she purchased a headstone for John Doe 24 unmarked grave. What a sad story it makes one ask how could something like this happen to another human being. Thank you Rosina for bringing this story and singer to my attention.

  11. I’m so glad it’s working for most people. I love MCC. She writes most of her own songs, some raucus and funny but many like John Doe #24, extremely thoughtful and engaging. She’s one of a small handful of women songwriter-performers who are my first choice in music.

  12. This thing wants to load QuickTime by Apple on my PC. Nope! So I won’t hear it. No big deal; you wanted to know if there were problems.

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