Do you believe in ghosts? I have no particular reason to. But I don’t feel like I should rule them out, either, although I don’t believe in things like God or even an afterlife.

I had a professor in graduate school — a professor of analytic philosophy — who believed in ghosts. One night at the bar near campus he told a bunch of us a story that had happened several years ago. A female professor had been visiting that year from Sweden or some such place. Several of the faculty had been out at dinner, including my professor and the Swedish professor. They were discussing strange phenomena and the philosophical question of whether to believe your own senses when you perceive something utterly strange and inexplicable. The Swedish professor was maintaining that she had never experienced any of these phenomena, anything strange enough to make her doubt her own senses.

My professor pressed her on this.”Are you sure? You’ve never had an experience so strange that you pushed it aside and refused to believe it?” The Swedish professor held firm. But suddenly she remembered something.

When she was a girl, her grandfather lived with her and her mother. One night she woke up and saw her grandfather standing at the foot of her bed. But she understood that it wasn’t him — it was his ghost. “I am here to say goodbye,” he said. “Everything is alright.” Then he disappeared.

The next morning she went downstairs and found her mother preparing breakfast. She and her mother had a strained, difficult relationship. “Grandfather died last night,” she told her mother. “I know,” her mother said. The girl told her mother about the visit from her grandfather’s ghost and what he said. Her mother said the same thing had happened to her. They sat together and talked about the experience and about the grandfather and how much they loved him.

The Swedish professor told the dinner guests that she had forgotten about the whole incident until now, hadn’t thought about it for years. This was all the more remarkable because it had been one of the few times she and her mother had shared real emotional closeness — so it wasn’t a meaningful event just because she loved her grandfather, or because it was a strange encounter with a ghost, but because it was a key incident in her relationship with her mother. Yet she had forgotten about it, suppressed the memory all these years. She said she couldn’t see any way to fit it in with her materialist philosophical position.

“So you see, there can be good evidence for the existence of ghosts,” my professor said. “I myself think that this story and some others are trustworthy enough that they give us a reasonable basis for believing in ghosts.”

At least one fellow graduate student told me later that he was floored by this statement and lost all respect for this professor when he said it. I’m not so sure. Ghosts are pretty unlikely, especially since, setting aside any direct evidence for ghosts of course, we have no reason for believing that thinking is really the result of anything “over and above” our physical selves — while this “over and above” stuff is what most theories of ghosts are all about. Still, ghosts seem less metaphysically strange than God, for reasons I won’t bore you with.

I myself have never seen a ghost. The closest thing to a ghost sighting I’ve had happened in grad school, the year before that discussion with my professor.

My first year, I lived in a house off campus with both graduate and senior undergraduate students. I got into a habit of hanging out on Thursdays with a group of undergrads. We’d smoke a bowl and then head down the hill to a townie bar about 15 minutes’ walk from where we lived. Thursdays were “hippie” nights, drawing townies and students alike, and a number of the kids in our group identified with that scene. It was a fun bar, with pool tables and foosball and without the attitude of the frat-soaked bars closer to campus.

So one Thursday I was quite high when we got to the bar, and whatever I was drinking that night wasn’t helping my sobriety. Then I saw a guy walk past to the back of the bar, towards the pool tables. He was my friend Matt from my junior year of college. Only, of course, Matt had died in a car accident three years ago. And this guy looked older, more haggard. Could it be Matt? Of course not.

But I wasn’t in my right mind, so I couldn’t convince myself it wasn’t him. I got up to go to the bathroom and on my way got a better look at him. But what would Matt look like, three or four years later? I convinced myself that this wasn’t him, that he simply looked too old (older than me, though I had been three years older than Matt). Not a ghost.

Matt had moved into my apartment building midway through my junior year of college. Just a few months before, he had joined the Mormon church in his hometown in Connecticut. To be baptized a Mormon, he had also quit drinking and using drugs, which he had done in various forms since his mother’s death from cancer when he was 13. Matt quickly became friendly with my roommates and me. I think my roommates and I were attracted to the freedom that his past represented, and I think he found us different, less uptight maybe, from the usual students at our religious university. I also had a bit of a crush on Matt.

Sometime that spring, Matt and I were watching TV and saw a news item about a price war among airlines for flights to Europe.

“We should go to Europe,” Matt said.

“Dude, I would love that. We should go,” I said.

“Do you really mean it?”

I didn’t know. All of the sudden, I realized that I could go to Europe if I wanted to. I had a passport. I had some money in the bank. I had some time during summer vacation when I didn’t absolutely have to be working. I was 23 years old and fully capable of taking a trip to Europe.

“Let’s do it,” I said. “Absolutely.”

So we got our plane tickets and our Eurail passes. We would spend a month in Europe, traveling all over, seeing the great cities of the continent.

I had another agenda for the trip. Around the time I met Matt I had also begun to come to terms with my sexuality. And a big part of that for me was coming to terms with my religion. I saw that I couldn’t be both gay and Mormon, not with any kind of dignity. So should I stay Mormon and follow Mormon prescription for those with “same-sex attraction” (i.e., live a life without sexual intimacy), or should I leave Mormonism, something I had loads of other reasons to do anyway?

I wouldn’t figure that out this summer, but I decided that while I was in Europe I could take a vacation from Mormonism. I would try out whatever came along, just to see. I even went to K-Mart and bought a few pairs of regular boxer shorts; I changed out of my Mormon temple garments as soon as I got to our first hostel room.

When we arrived and went to our first English pub, though, I hesitated when Matt ordered himself a beer. I had known that he had started drinking again before we left, but he didn’t know I knew. He got very tipsy from that one pint and kept apologizing to me, saying he just needed one more fling before he really committed to Mormonism. He knew Mormonism was the right path, he said, and he wanted to be a missionary.

Well, this put me in a bit of a pickle. I somehow felt responsible, as a lifelong Mormon who was also a bit older than Matt, to show him the way, be a good example. A good example, of course, of something I wasn’t sure I believed in. But that was how I was thinking.

Anyway, I didn’t drink for the first couple of weeks of our trip. Matt, meanwhile, drank and smoked, even found a guy with some hash in Paris. I wanted to join in — I had promised myself to try whatever came along — but I just couldn’t.

Finally, in Vienna, I decided the situation was ridiculous. I went with a girl I had met out to a small winery in the suburbs; we had dinner and I had a couple of glasses of wine, my first. (The girl wanted me to come back to her apartment with her, but even though I’d decided to try anything, I somehow couldn’t get into the idea of doing “anything” with a girl.) The next evening, having moved on to Prague, Matt and I shared our first beer together. We got drunk every night (and most afternoons) of the trip after that; we had an amazing time and became really close. I was able to break out of the protective older brother role I had adopted since Matt took his first apologetic drink in that pub and just be his friend.When we got back, he moved with me and another roommate into a new place. He just needed a place for the summer, he said, and then he would find something more long-term. I considered my little experiment with non-Mormonism closed for the moment, and besides I was much too paranoid to drink in the heart of Mormonland, but I knew he had found some other friends he would go drink with. A slightly self-righteous neighbor told me he’d seen Matt smoking a cigarette on our porch. “Thanks,” I told him, trying to sound as icy as possible.

A month or so after our return from Europe, I came back after a weekend away and found Matt’s stuff mostly gone, along with some CDs of mine. About a month after that, my other roommate, who was managing the condo we lived in, got in touch with Matt’s father to find out about getting some back rent that Matt hadn’t paid. Matt’s father told him Matt was dead.

We found out that he had gone on tour with some friends, following Phish or one of the other jam bands that he loved. Widespread Panic, I think. Toward the end of the tour, he was talking with his friends about getting back on track, by which he meant the Mormon track, getting off drugs, really quitting smoking. They had been on their way back east, on the way home, when somewhere in the Midwest the car went over a bump. No big deal, except that Matt, asleep in the back seat, had been bounced against the roof, hitting his head. His brain started to swell. He lived long enough in the hospital for his family to see him alive but in a coma, and then he slipped away.

There are parts of your past that don’t fit together, events and people and feelings that you can’t force into a unified story. For me, Matt remains one of those figures who straddles biographical frontiers. When I met him, I was a moderately devout Mormon, still closeted even to myself. When I last saw him alive, I had discovered I could travel in territories beyond the borders of Mormonism. And Matt himself is hard to fit into a single category. He was a good friend, a fun-loving and sensitive person; he was also an addict who was holding on to some terrible demons, and I didn’t know how to help him or even recognize fully that he needed help.

I don’t regret our time in Europe, either the first part of the trip with distance between us or the second part of the trip when we drank together and shared a deep understanding. I do regret the time after we came back, when Matt continued his reversion to the drug-using hippie kid he once was and I straightened up into a passable facsimile of a BYU student, at least for a while. I withdrew from the friendship we had formed over cheap beers in Prague. Maybe that’s what haunted me that night in the bar in grad school, seeing the ghost of Matt, seeing not-Matt and being absolutely shaken — that there I was, sitting in a seedy bar, having left Mormonism behind altogether, openly gay, long used to drinking and pot-smoking, the vices Matt had been running away from and I had been sampling for the first time, there I sat having a beer with my friends after setting aside this border-time from my past, this unbridgeable fissure, this knot.

I don’t know about ghosts, but I don’t believe in ignoring those utterly strange and inexplicable events in our lives. I’ve had a few experiences I can’t explain and all I can do is set them aside in epistemological limbo; if nothing else, they remind me to keep my mind open, to avoid, in the words of that ghost-believing philosophy professor, the “hardening of the categories.” If nothing else, the possibility that we could be confronted by someone we’ve lost might help us keep hold of all the disparate bits our our past that seem beyond the understanding of our present selves.

3 responses to “Ghosts”

  1. Bryan Waterman says:

    Your discussion of ghosts & materialist philosophy & the death of a friend reminds me of a scene in Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799), in which a friend returns from the grave (in a dream?) to remind the narrator not to tell anyone that he had cherished heretical beliefs at one point in his life. Caleb Crain has an interesting take on the scene in American Sympathy, and I write about it too. I think Caleb and I are the only ones who have recognized the biographical resonance with CBB & his dead friend Elihu Hubbard Smith, whose diaries are central to my book. 200 years later I find it interesting that the same issues still play out: families, religion, materialist philosophy, ghostly visitations. Thanks for your story.

  2. Missy says:

    Dave, I want to say that this is gorgeous, or great, or something. But those words all sound too emphatic–I want to say it’s soft or gentle in an old jeans kind of way, or that it’s thoughtful, but that sounds too much like something I’d write on a student essay. But it is all of those things. I love that you took your discussion from the recent grad school past to the deep-from-the-vaults past of BYU. I like the way the ghostliness of the experience is as much the ghost of your mormonism, or the ghost of your liminal maybe-mormonism, as it is of your friend. I wish there were ghosts; I want there to be ghosts, especially since my office is in an old church building–DePaul’s main chapel is part of this building, and my office is just above where the priests used to live. There must be some nice, Gothic, crazed-Monk-with-violin type ghosts here. The idea of ghosts never scared me growing up, but I was always terrified by stories of Satan showing up in missionary apartments, or showing up in the background of developed photographs–you know it’s him because a) he wasn’t at that mutual fireside and b) his forked beard–or just paralyzing your body while you are sleeping. I used to practice raising my hand to the square, so I could banish him if he showed up, but could never decide if I should banish him via the priesthood my father held (because I wasn’t sure he was that good at exercising his priesthood) or using the priesthood of my grandfather, who I didn’t know very well, so it seemed like an abuse of his priesthood, or if I should just go straight to the source and invoke Jesus’ priesthood.

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