by Fran Withrow
Regina McBride was just seventeen years old when her parents committed suicide, her mother killing herself five months after McBride’s father. “Ghost Songs” is McBride’s haunting story about dealing with this indescribable loss.
McBride’s writing reminds me of Joan Didion’s “The Year Of Magical Thinking,” which I cherish and have read several times. Both these memoirs have a poetic quality, and the authors describe events in their lives in an objective way that only heightens the power and intensity of their stories.
Told in abbreviated vignettes, some only a paragraph or two long, McBride flows back and forth between the past—with all its heartbreak—and the present, with its own sadness, as she struggles to find a way to make a life for herself. The writing is spare but intense, lyrical but heartbreaking. I could not put this book down and finished it in one day.
McBride, one of four children, struggles mightily after her parents’ death. She lands in a psychiatric institute after she “can’t stop crying,” and tells the doctors she sees the ghosts of her parents. After her hospitalization, McBride’s troubles continue. Just a teenager herself, she grapples with caring for her younger sisters and trying to complete her education. She faces poverty, loneliness, and disconnect along the way.
Adding to her grief are continuing visions of her dead parents, though most of the time she won’t look at them. She calls them “enchantments.” “Spirits are drawn to me because there is a door in me that’s open but it shouldn’t be,” she explains to her therapy group.
I felt deep sadness for her entire family. Her parents’ once robust love fades as her father struggles to find work, and as both parents deal with their four children and McBride’s difficult, live-in grandmother. McBride’s mother and grandmother also suffer from mental instability, and the conflict in the home deeply affects McBride and her siblings, who respond by cutting class and doing drugs.
After her parents’ deaths and her disappointing attempts to support her younger sisters, McBride experiences a yearning to travel to Ireland, the land of her ancestors. Her plan is to become an actress in Dublin, after visiting “Yeats country” in honor of her father, who loved this Irish poet. Could this be her path to redemption, a way of reconnecting with her parents? She was particularly close to her intelligent but unlucky father, who talks to McBride about seeking “Tir na nOg.” “What is teernanog?” asks McBride as a child, and her father, pointing across the ocean, answers, “It’s the land where there is no pain or sorrow.”
Pain and sorrow are evident throughout the book, but McBride’s time in Ireland leads her to a different understanding of herself, her parents, and her siblings. In Dublin, she looks at photos of her mother, determinedly watering trees in their New Mexico yard, and decides it’s time to return home. The ghosts may still be there, but perhaps now McBride can look them in the eye.
“Ghost Songs: A Memoir”
by Regina McBride
Tin House Books