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Book Review: Giving Up the Ghost by Eric Nuzum

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Eric Nuzum really is afraid of ghosts. Or, he used to be. In his memoir Giving Up the Ghost: a Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper and What It Means to Be Haunted, Nuzum delves into his painful past, faces his fears, and comes up with a new understanding of his personal phantoms.

Growing up in Canton, Ohio, Eric Nuzum was a nonconformist punk rocker, with the clothes, piercings, and attitude to match. He had one special friend, however: Laura Patterson. A year younger and a good student, Laura would call Eric and they would “hang out,” which meant driving around or parking the car in a secluded spot. They would talk, listen to music, smoke, drink. Once in awhile Laura would let Eric give her a goodnight kiss, but mostly not. And she most emphatically never talk about herself, so Eric heard nothing about her family, other friends, school plans.

Eric confided in Laura something he could not really share with others: that his house was haunted, that he was haunted. Strange noises came from the attic of his house, and at night, he had a recurring dream, of a little girl in a blue dress, screaming at him in gibberish. Eric’s fear of her made him sleepless and anxious and led him to seek relief in drugs.

After he graduated from high school, Eric commuted to a local college but stopped attending classes, lied about his whereabouts, and contemplated suicide. He became so distraught he ended up in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. Laura was the only friend who came to see him there, and her encouragement gave him the motivation to pull himself together. Eric was heartsick when, a few years later, Laura is struck by a car and killed.

As Nuzum tells the story of his youth, he intersperses stories from 20 years later. Renewing an old acquaintance gives Eric the impetus to face his past, the reverberations of which remained in his fear of closed doors and his refusal to listen to or watch any ghost story whatsoever. What he decides to do is go ghost hunting, to find out once and for all if ghosts are real. He visits increasingly spooky places, including the battlefields of Gettysburg and the Mansfield Reformatory, the abandoned Ohio prison where some of The Shawshank Redemption was filmed. He has experiences that folks who believe in ghosts would say prove that they exist, but Eric is clearly not convinced.

Eric Nuzum is both a brave man and a good writer, bringing both warmth and humor to his difficult story. In taking on his relationships with both Little Girl and Laura, he provides a much-needed portrait of mental illness: one of a recovery. He stood on the brink but turned back. Today he is an award-winning writer and radio producer and has a wife and son. He is also scarred by his past, something he readily admits. His quest provided no neat and clean answers, which is another useful aspect of the book: a reminder that life is not necessarily understandable, but we can come to accept it.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.