Spirits, Good & Bad

Spirits, Good & Bad

Halloween was brought to the New World by my ancestors, refugees from the Irish Potato  Famine of 1845-1849. My amateurish genealogical sleuthing has churned up relatives in the Irish diaspora of rural Kentucky. Burkes, Flynns and Kilroys first appear during the Famine years. Place of birth on their official census records simply say: Ireland. Lineage dead ends there since the British, who ruled Ireland at the time, destroyed native records. Of eight million people, one million died and 2.1 million poverty-stricken souls emigrated during the four years of the Famine.

In 1844, English politician Benjamin Disraeli explained the “Irish problem”: “a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, an alien-established Protestant church, and in addition, the weakest executive in the world.” 

England left the Irish to die.

No wonder the Irish brought their dead ancestors, their heritage, their superstitions to the United States. When the harvest season ended on the night of October 31, Irish immigrants welcomed the spirits to walk among them. It was a celebration, a comfortable reunion between the world of the living and the familiarity of their dead. Little Patricks and Deirdres traipsed door-to-door on that one hallowed night seeking food for the incoming family spirits.

In short order Halloween in America became scary. Demons and witches took over, leaving me with nightmares, still. I cannot, will not watch fright movies. I get the heebie jeebies just looking at trailers for the entire Halloween franchise with Jamie Lee Curtis (though I love her).

The only reason I ever watched the movie, The Exorcist, is that the writer knew my parents and named the demon-possessed girl, Regan, after me. It chills me now even writing about her.

I’ve never been visited from beyond-the-veil by the devil, dead relatives or friends. Poets say spirit ancestors are flying around in the bodies of birds, particularly cardinals. Ethnologists have discovered that every culture honors spirits. From Christian angels to Buddhist arhats, depictions of creatures trapped between the living and the dead grace every ancient wall.

New research suggests people who experience the presence of ethereal beings, immerse themselves in practices that make the brain more porous, more receptive. I do that. I call it meditation. I don’t have the same experiences as indigenous peoples, but my twenty-minute practice of imagining my thoughts passing by on clouds, brings one nanosecond of pure joy. I choose to call this God, bypassing all the intermediaries. 

Author and mystical scholar Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes had a visit from a dead aunt as a child. She shared the experience with the multiple generations of relatives sitting on the porch of their Gullah home in South Carolina. “Let us know if she comes to you again,” said one of the aunts. Their Africana heritage incudes a shared belief that the dead come back and talk to you.

My Irish-American parents buried their heirloom traditions, including the dead visiting the living, in order to assimilate into conventional white America. Halloween was a peasant holiday to be avoided. As was St.Patrick’s Day. 

Yes, the notion of the presence of the supernatural still scares me.

But I do love birds.

Call My Name

Call My Name

My name evoked unwelcomed curiosity in the John-and-Mary 1950s.

“Say in a loud voice ’It’s from Shakespeare,’” my mother Agnes demanded of me as soon as I could talk.

When strangers asked the inevitable, “Where did that name come from?” Agnes greeted the question as an accusation. She silently goaded me into defending my name with a withering look meant for the questioner but sent my way. She hated talking about it or anything else having to do with her children.

Catholic clergy intimated my name wasn’t written in the Book of Life, and the gates of heaven might be closed to me. “Hmm, Regan. That’s not a saint’s name.” They’d muse aloud. “Is that your middle name?”

In King Lear, Regan is the king’s middle daughter. She’s a power-hungry evil sister who tries to flatter her father into giving her the family fortune, then drives him out into a raging storm. In the end, Regan’s jealous older sister poisons her.

Six months out of a psych ward in 1971, I picked up the besteseller The Exorcist at the Main Street Drug Store in Belmar, New Jersey, and headed to the diner. Sipping on a coke, I opened the book while waiting for my grilled cheese. An hour later I was in my Volkswagen Bus in the diner parking lot, bewitched by the story.

The book’s demon-possessed twelve year-old protagonist? Regan. Exorcist Regan’s name came from King Lear. In the book, Regan’s mother was an actress who frequently entertained her director, Burke Dennings, with too many martinis. My father, whose last name was, of course, Burke, loved too many martinis. Exorcist Regan lived with her mother in Georgetown. My family had lived in Georgetown.

I finished the book and serpentined down the road in second gear to my mother’s house. The dizzying story of Regan’s demon possession plundered my recovering nervous system. I blasted through the front door and slammed The Exorcist down on the coffee table. 

“Who’s this author? How do you know him? Why didn’t you warn me about this? How could you let me read this?”

Though an avid reader, Agnes was oblivious to the summer blockbuster. She speculated that author William Peter Blatty was one of the hordes of anonymous acquaintances who’d attended parties at our Georgetown home when I was a toddler.

Years later, a friend ran into Blatty at a political event and asked if he’d named Regan after me. Blatty’s reply: “Absolutely! That name always haunted me. Who would name their little baby after one of Shakespeare’s most craven females?”

When The Exorcist became a movie in 1973, my then-husband started calling me “Babe.” The movie uncloaked such evil that he was afraid to even say Regan. The Exorcist was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. For years afterwards whenever I met someone new, I’d get, “The Exorcist, right?” Right. 

What’s worse: having the name of an evil literary character and horror film freak?

Or, not having a saint’s name? 

1971, 25 Years Old and Still Alive

In June 1971, I turned 25 years old and celebrated my first six months of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.

That same month, the release of the Pentagon Papers set off a firestorm of I-told-you-so outrage by Vietnam war protesters like me. All through the 1960s Washington insiders had been leaking to the press that the White House was lying about our involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. Anti-war organizations published newsletters and held NYT-pentagon-papermarches screaming at the government to pullout of Vietnam because there was no good reason for us to be there. When my son was born in 1967 I started sending streams of letters and postcards to the President and Congress begging them to end the draft. I didn’t want my son growing up in a world where he would be forced to kill another mother’s son.

My imbalanced emotional connection to the 60% of Americans who were against the war drove me to protest, argue, march and drink myself into oblivion. In December 1970, defeated, I finally collapsed, failing to escape the world of war, within and without.

Then, in my first year of recovery, the Pentagon Papers confirmed that Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all lied about why we were in Vietnam. We stayed simply to save face, refusing to admit defeat. Troop numbers fell from 500,000 in 1968 to 156,000 by the end of 1971, the year The Pentagon Papers were published.

And so what? The world went on. Jim Morrison died in his bathtub in Paris. I read The Exorcist, rocked out at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and women were allowed to run the Boston Marathon.

The Pentagon Papers’ exposure of the government’s lying treachery slow-cooked beyond my consciousness. My AA meetings in Point Pleasant, NJ, seduced me with a new recipe for living, replacing the bitter stew of the wearying world. A wise woman at my meetings gave me two pieces of advice: 1) don’t comment at meetings about outside issues and, 2) wear a bra. I did both and managed to attract a ne’er-do-well fellow AA’er, ten years older. Ed professed some kind of love, so I moved in with him.

Julius Roehrs Garden Center hired me to make terrariums in glass bowls, a new fad. It 805160-03-1was my first job as a sober adult. I spent all day in a greenhouse planting miniature sedum and echeveria while having LSD flashbacks and dancing around to tunes only I could hear. My son, Joe, had been living with his grandparents for his kindergarten year and came to live with Ed and me. Disney World Orlando had just opened, so we read up on how to camp, then packed our new tent, camp stove and sleeping bags into Ed’s Mustang and drove down I-95 to the Yogi Bear Campground.

It rained. Ed and I fought. He got drunk and disappeared.

I drove Joe home—1,000 miles back to New Jersey.

When Ed showed up a few months later, we got married.