Issue 5

Nonfiction

Ghosts in the Ecotone

by Gayle Brandeis

When you take the US-50 down the mountain from Lake Tahoe to Carson City, Nevada, the landscape slowly shiftsthe abundant pine trees start to thin, start to coexist with scrubbier desert plants. This is the ecotone, the liminal space where two landscapes bleed into one another. The trees continue to fade toward the bottom of the hill; one final pine stands sentinel on a granite outcropping before the ground flattens and sage brush takes over.

We had recently moved from Southern California to North Lake Tahoe, and my whole body felt like an ecotone, full of shifting landscape. I watched the lone pine fade from view in the passenger-side mirror as my husband drove toward Virginia City, a historic mining town about an hour from our new home. I had been invited to a weekend retreat there, and I was excited to connect with other women writers from the area.

The timing was perfect. I’d been working on a memoir about my mom, who committed suicide a week after I gave birth in 2009, but between the move and settling in to my new position as visiting professor at Sierra Nevada College, I wasn’t finding much time for my own work. I planned to write like a maniac at the retreat, but I also gave myself a personal challenge: to watch the documentary my mom had been wrapping up at the time of her death. I had stolen the title for my memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis, from her film, but hadn’t viewed the movie since she hanged herself. At first I hadn’t felt ready, and then, once I started to entertain the idea, hadn’t found the right span of time. Now a whole weekend stretched before me, the DVD tucked in my backpack.

The landscape changed again. A twisty road took us from level desert into a canyon flanked by hills stripped of their ore, half their bulk sheared away. As we neared Virginia City, each sign by the roadside felt oracular, pointing toward my mom’s story: SEE THE FAMOUS SUICIDE TABLE; LYNCH HOUSE; GOLD this and GOLD that. I can’t see the word “gold” without thinking of my mom, her frantic search for the fortune she thought my dad was hiding from the family. My mom, who took the Gold Line from Union Station in LA to a random stop in South Pasadena, who somehow made her way to the parking garage of the Golden Oaks apartment complex, who lynched herself there. Gold upon gold upon gold.

We cruised past buildings from the mid-1800ssaloons and candy emporiums and souvenir shopsthen turned onto a street that led downhill to an imposing four story brick building with a broad white-pillared veranda. Wild horses grazed on the front lawn. They barely looked up when we got out of the car.

St. Mary’s Art and Retreat Center is supposed to be one of the most haunted sites in America. Originally built as a hospital for miners in 1873, it became a community hospital and asylum that closed in the 1940s when the population of the town dwindled. It has been an arts center since 1964. People still report hearing the rumble of carts and gurneys in the hall, smelling rubbing alcohol, seeing shadowy figures and bright orbs of light. People have noticed rumpled sheets after making the bed, fresh batteries running quickly out of juice. A “White Nun” supposedly appears on a regular basis; many think she was the nurse who burned to death after a mental patient knocked over a lamp. The building has been featured on television shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, and is visited often by amateur paranormal investigators armed with electromagnetic field detectors and full-spectrum cameras and Michael the Archangel scapulars. Before he dropped me off, my own Michael joked that he and our son would come back at night and make scary noises outside my window.


I don’t believe in the afterlife, and yet I’m convinced my mom’s ghost visited me about a week after she died. I was lying on my side in bed, nursing my son Asher, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. A strong, reassuring pressure. I knew it was my mom, that she had come to comfort me, to ask for my forgiveness, but I wasn’t ready. I shrugged my shoulder, shrugged her away. I felt awful afterwards. I wanted to summon her back, to feel her hand on my shoulder again, but she never returned.

The veil between what was real and what was not thinned during those postpartum days, those sleep-deprived, grief- and hormone-soaked nights. Once, I woke Michael at three AM and told him, “My nipples are cracked, my breasts are full, and they’re on speaker phone.” I told him the contestants had gone seven rounds already, and Asher hadn’t had his turn. I knew I wasn’t making sense, but somehow it was all clear in my head. I wondered if this was how my mom felt, trying to get us to understand that she was being followed and poisoned, trying to assure us her delusions were real.


Every time the door to my room rattled at St. Mary’s, I wondered if a ghost wanted in. Every time I felt a coolness on my neck, I wondered if I had brushed against a wraith. I saw no orbs, though, heard no moans. My sheets were rumpled, but only because I chose to work on the iron-framed bed.

Once I settled in to my Victoriana-filled room, I decided not to put off the inevitable. I opened the plastic case with my mom’s picture on the cover, clicked the DVD into Asher’s portable player, popped Michael’s buds into my ears. I took a deep breath as the disc started to whir. White words scrolled down the small screen, my mom’s mission for the documentary: “I would like to save others from the pain, loss, and frustration my family has endured…” There was no sound. I was worried the audio wasn’t working and turned the volume all the way up. Soon, piano chords blasted my eardrums, followed by my mom’s disembodied voice, the first time I had heard it since her death: “I fully feel that the spirits of my family have propelled me to do this documentary.”

A sob ballooned in my chest, but I held it in and heaved quietly, not wanting to startle the women writing in the quiet rooms around me. When my mom’s image appeared on the screen, my eyes were so full, I saw her through watermy mom, wavery and spectral as any ghost. My mom, once I blinked, alive and standing. My mom, speaking about illness as I sat in an old hospital. My mom, whose mental illness was never diagnosed, who may have killed herself to escape what she feared was imminent institutionalization, visiting me in an asylum.

My mom served as a docent at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and various museums in California, and she envisioned her film as a personal art tour exploring her own abstract art, paintings that addressed the illnesses she thought plagued her family. She wanted the film to draw attention to two rare diseases she felt were often mis- and underdiagnosed: porphyria, a metabolic disorder that can cause a range of symptoms from stomach pain to werewolfism, and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective-tissue disorder characterized by velvety skin and super bendy joints. (“Who wouldn’t want that?” my sister has joked.) My mom fully expected her film to change the health-care industry.

My sister and I had asked her not to talk about our own journeys with illness in the film, and we were majorly pissed off when she showed us the rough cut, where she talked at length about how she had saved her poor daughters from the dastardly medical establishment. She didn’t talk about how both of us had malingered, how we had helped her maintain her identity as mother of the sick girls. She didn’t talk about it because she hadn’t been able to hear us when we tried to tell her the truth. She was only able to hear her own story.

As I watched the documentary at St. Mary’s, I could feel myself getting pissed at her all over again, and I felt guilty for feeling angry at my dead mom. I wanted to come at her story from a place of compassion, but found that anger kept bubbling up to the surface. I hoped I could write my way toward a more open heart. And something in me must have opened that afternoon, at least a small crack, because just as my mom had felt the spirits of her family propel her to paint, propel her to make the documentary, I felt her spirit, freed genie-like from a flat silver disc, propel me to transcribe the film, to weave it into the book, to let her speak for herself.


When it was time to head downstairs to meet the other women for cocktail hour, I was shaky and raw, my mom’s voice vibrating in my bones, her image burned into my retina. As we sat around the kitchen tablewhich was covered with caprese salad, hummus, and many bottles of wineand the women each introduced themselves and their writing projects, I found myself choking back tears. Hold it together, I told myself, don’t be a wreck, but when my turn came around, I blurted out, “I’ve been trying not to cry, but I’m just going to go ahead and let myself.”

“Let it out, baby,” a woman encouraged from across the table, and I did. I shared how wobbly I felt after sitting with my mom’s moving image, and I was embraced by these women, most of whom I had never met before, all of us there to gut ourselves, to lay ourselves bare on the page.

Food and wine and a raucous game of Cards Against Humanity knocked my mom’s ghost out of me for the night, helped me feel more grounded in my own skin. They fortified for the next day, our only full day of the retreat.


I spent much of Saturday pushing play, then rewind, then play again on the DVD player, making sure I captured every bit of dialogue from the documentary correctly, filling up almost my entire pocket-sized orange notebook with quotes about art and illness and death, lines like “The family history is so profound that I think it’s a story that has to be told, not just because it’s my family, but because of lots of people’s families who are dealing with this, who don’t know what they’re dealing with, who really need help in dealing with their doctors, and I think it’s crucial to pay attention to these spirits that came to me to tell this story, and it’sI think it’s the hour of the moment of my life to be able to do this.” Here she was nodding, closing her eyes as she started to cry.

When it was time to go downstairs to join the women for our second and final dinner together, I had done very little writing, but a lot of transcribing, and it felt like a fruitful day. My memoir had found a new form. It almost felt like it had already been written in invisible ink, like all I had to do was rub one of those magic white-tipped markers over the page and the words would reveal themselves.

The dining room was bustling, the air thick with spice, when I arrived. I had been concerned that I wouldn’t find much to eat at the potluck; I was already a vegetarian, and I had cut gluten and dairy out of my diet a few months before when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and had part of my small intestine removed. I’d been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teenager, but my mom was so sure it was a misdiagnosisone of the alleged misdiagnoses she talked about at length in the documentarythat I was only getting treatment now. But there was peanut stew on the table, there was vegan asparagus soup, there was gluten-free pasta and the quinoa salad I had brought in my mom’s black Dansk casserole dish. And the conversation proved to be just as delicious, just as nourishing.

After dinner, we all read from our works in progress, and I shared the new first page from my memoir. My heart raced the whole time I stood at the head of the table. By the time I sat down again, I was shaking. A friend across the table smiled at me and nodded slowly, as if to say, “Yes, yes, you are getting there.” My heart raced in a different way as I listened to the other women read their brave, sexy, funny, profound work. Lots of gorgeous writing had been produced within those famously haunted walls.

When we talked about our writing goals for the coming year, a woman working on a memoir about being defrocked as a priest joked that she wanted to focus on combining poetry, contact improvisation, and klezmer music. “I love contact improv!” I piped up, and before I knew it, we were enlisted to give a performance. We all moved up to the ballroom on the second floor with our glasses of wine. I kicked off my shoes and soon found myself rolling around with my new friend, bearing one another’s weight, letting her pull and spin me across the uneven wooden floor. I knew I would be sore, possibly bruised, the next day, but I didn’t care. After sitting with words and ghosts all day, it felt so good to be in my body, to let my body slam and fly.


I finished transcribing The Art of Misdiagnosis the next morning. My feelings of anger had diminished. I had gotten more used to my mom’s image, less shattered by it. The transcription had started to feel more like work, less like dredging my heart. And then another feeling crept up on me as I watched the film: admiration. My mom had made a movie, an actual movie. She had started to paint in her sixties without any training and then, at seventy, made a movie about those paintings without any training. She had an idea, and she went for it. I had been too upset about the project when she was alive to see what she had accomplished. Now I could acknowledge what a feat she had pulled off. Even if much of the film was based in delusion, it was still a film, and she had made it. I had to bow to her for that.


Michael and Asher came to pick me up around eleven. As happy as I was to see them, it was hard to leave St. Mary’s, to leave these wonderful women and the support we had given one another as we wrestled with our own ghosts.

My little family spent a few hours in Virginia City. Asher panned for gold, fed a donkey carrots. We dressed up at one of those old timey photo studios. Michael was a desperado; I was a “sexy cowgirl” with a corset and a duster; Asher was the sheriff who had locked us up in jail. The photographer slipped handcuffs around our wrists, put a rifle on Asher’s lap. She was about to hand him a noose“So you can string them up if they escape,” she saidwhen I sucked in a sharp breath.

“Are you okay with that?” Michael asked me with concern.

“No thank you,” I told the woman, who quickly put the noose away. I was tempted to tell her about my mom but didn’t want to start crying before she took our picture. Besides, she didn’t need to know. Right after my mom died, I would blurt out, “My mom killed herself!” or “My mom hanged herself!” whenever someone called to congratulate me about the baby. I had no filters; it just barreled out of me, shocking unsuspecting friends and colleagues. Now I’m able to measure the way I dole out information. Writing about her death gives me a valve. The story isn’t always ready to explode from my throat. And now the book is giving my mom a valve, too, giving her a voice long after she wrenched her own airway shut.


We drove back up the mountain, watched the desert scrub slowly give way to pine trees. This is where ghosts live, I thought, if there are ghosts. This is where the veil grows thin, in the places where one landscape bleeds into another within us, the ecotone between life and death, between the real and the unreal. The “tone” in ecotone comes from the Greek “tonos,” meaning tension. Ecotone: a place where two landscapes are in tension with one another. But maybe we don’t need to think of transitional zones as being rife with conflict. Maybe we can think of them as places of connection, of transfiguration, the “tone” a complicated harmony between two vastly different voices. It’s there we find our deepest, thorniest stories. It’s there we find the stories that can save us.

Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She teaches in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is currently serving as Distinguished Visiting Professor and Writer in Residence at Sierra Nevada College.

Illustration by Leonard Peng

Issue 5