I’m the Only One in My Family Who Can’t See Ghosts

As the youngest in a family of witches, I interpret the world my own way

Photo: Frederic Cirou/Getty Images

I call it “spook.” To get technical, spook is a sixth sense, but they don’t treat it with any kind of reverence. It’s not special. To hear them talk about it, spook is as unremarkable as a lazy eye or the state of your digestion. It’s just part of who you are. Spook isn’t a mystical female thing, either. Anyone can get spook, and no one makes fun of it. Spook does demand a healthy dose of respect, however.

My mother has it, and so does her sister. People call them le streghette, the witches. Their childhood stories include late-night encounters with the specters of dead ancestors on moonlit paths and houses where the spirits made too much clatter and kept everyone up all night. When my mother dreams, it will contain at least one dead grandparent, one biblical animal, and a vague warning that leaves her edgy until something occurs that justifies the warning. And something always occurs to justify the warning.

My mother is also the one everyone calls to lift the evil eye. Even if she’s feuding with someone, the moment they call to ask her to sfasciare il mal’occhio for their grandchild, Maria drops everything to be of service.

It’s not surprising that spook exists. The setting demands it. My parents grew up in the velvety green hills that carpet the calf of the Italian boot. The region was settled by the Piceni tribe before the founding of Rome, and you can feel its venerable age in the travertine marble rippled with time; the bridges on the ancient salt road; the rotten stink of the thermal springs percolating under the rock; the isolated villages so discreetly tucked under cliffs that you can only spot them in your rearview mirror as you drive past. If it weren’t for the clothing, the cars, and the devices, you could easily imagine you’d stepped sideways in time.

I like to imagine I’m seeing expressions of energy in the air. Not ghosts or spirits, but just energy.

Remember how easy it was for your young mind to imagine monsters hiding under your bed despite the night light’s comforting glow? Some villages in the region didn’t get electricity until the 1950s — so when night fell, it was total inky darkness. My ancestors went to sleep when the sun went down, and the long night provided ample fodder for overactive imaginations.

But their religious beliefs also encouraged spook. The Bible is packed with signs and warnings that indicate whether you’re on the right path — multiplying fish! a burning bush! another resurrection! Ignoring these messages led to death, pestilence, and suffering. To survive in the world, you have to know how to read these signs, to discern the meaningful patterns you need to survive. My ancestors drew comfort from religion and spook; the rituals reassured them, and helped them build closer ties to their community.

Galleria Borghese, Rome, September 2019

As a kid, I wanted spook so bad. As the writer in the family, the nonscientific one, the nonconformist, I thought myself a natural candidate, but I don’t dream about snakes or dead relatives. I’ve had a few friendships and relationships whose intensity made a compelling argument for past-life connections — but I’m also a writer, so I can’t discount my ability to chase romantic notions.

Sometimes, I wonder if I did inherit spook but it just feels normal to me — so normal I almost don’t notice. Like my oversensitivity to changes in frequency. Or the patterns I see when I open my eyes in the dark. Orange-brown clouds that undulate and disappear. Triangular kaleidoscopes in toothpaste green. Thousands of purplish points of light, as though a Perseid shower were happening in my bedroom.

Perhaps my eyesight is slowly releasing a day’s worth of contractions, unfocusing from the endless lines of letters I process all day. But when I’m feeling more whimsical, I like to imagine I’m seeing expressions of energy in the air. Not ghosts or spirits, just energy. The exhalations of the many cats in my neighborhood. The detritus of voices released into the air. The dispersal of heat that accumulates in sunlit windows.

Perhaps if I were a scientist, I could explain all this away. If you are a scientist, please do not disabuse me of these notions. I like pretending I’m special.

My mother did teach me how to lift the evil eye, but I’m not proficient yet. I have a witchy sister with whom I practice our baby spells, but the closest thing I have to spook is my sensitivity. I don’t mean I am easily offended or hurt. I am highly aware of, and responsive to, the feelings of others. So, yeah, I can read signs, but they don’t have to be spooktacular for me to take notice.

When I walk into a room, I notice everyone’s body language at once. It’s a tsunami of data, and I immediately register the combined energies of everyone in that room. I’ve had to switch seats in cafés because the distress of the person next to me made it too hard to focus. Strangers on the bus tell me their life stories. Homeless people frequently want to talk to me or (during one particularly strange week) touch me. Small animals tug on their leashes to prompt my sympathy.

Being able to read the world serves me well as a writer. The downside is that truths continue to rain down on me, regardless of whether I’m in any kind of mood to receive them.

Some days, it would be so much easier to dream about dead people.

I am reconciled to the fact that I am not on the traditional spook spectrum. I will leave the prophetic dreams and premonitions to other members of my family. But I can tell stories. I can transform observations into moments that transmit ideas and feelings. I can draw portraits that reflect the beautiful and complex universe of individual souls. I reflect the world in the hope that it will help others better understand something about themselves and their experiences.

I don’t have to wait for the signs to appear. As a writer, I am the maker of signs. I am setting bushes on fire and multiplying the fishes with my words. And that’s definitely cooler than spook.

Creative Director + writer in Montreal. Functionally weird. Perpetually underestimated. Inadvertently cool.

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