My favorite class in high school, taught by my favorite teacher, was all about writing memoirs. We learned the art of the memoir – making a story that is all about you relevant to someone else – and we were challenged to use what we learned to write. Although I’m not sure I ever really accomplished the task clearly, I did learn enough to know when someone else has done the job well, and I know that Eric Nuzum is one of those authors. Giving Up the Ghost by Eric Nuzum is a brutally honest tale of self-discovery, friendship, and growing up.
In Giving Up the Ghost, we meet Eric Nuzum in his present-day life, where he has a wife and a child and is trying to hunt down haunted places to see if ghosts really exist. We learn from his story of the past that there were times when he felt haunted by a ghost – The Little Girl – and he learned to avoid any possible encounters with ghosts in his life to avoid feeling haunted. He was a slightly atypical, unadjusted midwestern teenager struggling with emotions, expression, and understanding himself. The Little Girl haunted his dreams, his thoughts, and the attic in his parents home where he heard bumps in the night and the door opening on its own. It terrified him, and he turned to drugs and alcohol. Whether it was the influence of the ghost, the lack of sleep, his incomprehension of normal relationships, or the influence of mind altering substances, his mental status began to decline until the point where he was admitted to the mental ward of a local hospital.
The honesty with which Giving Up the Ghost is written really impressed me. The self-deprecating humor felt like something I would’ve written. He didn’t make light of the situations, or even the actions he took in his darkest times that most people would’ve shied away from even sharing with the public. Instead, he penned a straightforward account of what happened, when it happened, and how it worked to affect his life. He went from a semi-normal, punk rock kid to a 22-day stint in a mental ward – not an easy transition – and somehow transformed his life to what we know of his present day where he appears on CNN and even works for NPR. In a way, it’s hard to believe that the kid who went through that phase growing up was able to rise above it at all, but he did. The truth of his tale is one of the most compelling reasons to read it.
In addition to the honesty, I also found myself drawn to the parts of the story that were kernels of my life. For example, part of his educational career was through Kent State University – I studied there too. My road wasn’t as hard, deep, gritty, or drug-addled as his was, but there were so many similarities that I felt like we almost led the same life, only he did it more emphatically. We even have had the same sense of being haunted. Although I still steer clear of anything remotely related to ghosts, I think after reading this book that I might be more compelled to face my fear and not letting it win. To me, that’s the most powerful message from this memoir – Nuzum laid out the back story of why ghosts so terrified him, in grizzly detail, and then he proceeded to tell us how he faced his fear and what he learned.
The friendship that was most influential in Nuzum’s teenage years and early twenties was with Laura Patterson. We were treated with descriptions of his outings with her, how she made him feel like the most important person in the world, but also how she kept him at an arm’s length away. We learned about Laura through the same bits and pieces that Nuzum picked up along the way – never her whole story, never much at a time, but we read along as their relationship unfolded. From the first time they hung out to their regular appearances at a gas well or at the Rocky Horror show in Cuyahoga Falls (been there too!), I was equally frustrated with how little we actually knew about Laura. We learned early in the book that she had passed away, but most of the way through the book I found myself speculating how and why and taking every detail to try to fit it into a picture that might explain why she was gone from his life. Friendship can be a very powerful force, especially when facing mental illness, but in Nuzum’s case it was also one of the most confounding forces in his life.
One of the hardest parts of this book to read and understand is Nuzum’s time in the mental ward of the hospital. I doubt that most people, outside of those who did spend any time at all in such a facility, could understand and relate to what he was describing and may even feel uncomfortable reading about his mental decline and hospital time. While most of his real recuperation happens outside of the hospital, his path begins to be altered while he is there. We see him in the darkest of his days, and I think it’s safe to assume that anyone who has reinvented him or herself could understand the feeling that comes together with that process. On the other hand, we see his present-day character facing his fears – this too, is a portion of his growing up. He has taken that which terrified him in his past and relentlessly pursued it, forcing himself to overcome the negative feelings which were associated with that dark period in his early life. His path to growing up is an excellent example that it is possible to rise above dark days.
With this review I broke one of my cardinal book reviewing rules. I read other reviews before I finished the book and before I wrote my own. I was so pumped, so excited, so amazed to find myself in this book – I was sure that everyone else would love it as much as I did. Unfortunately, I found several negative and scorching reviews. I couldn’t believe that these people didn’t find anything funny in the story. I read a review that called the work “pathetic” or “uncomfortable”, people who said that they had to force themselves to read it, and I was just startled. To me, this book is not only an outlet for the author (as any memoir is), but it’s also a call-to-action and an example for the rest of it. Maybe it’s just because I lived nearby and I had a similar Midwestern teenage wasteland youth that it was so powerful to me, but I think that many people would benefit from reading this book. For example, teenagers now in the Facebook era could learn not only what good music is, but also how someone was able to recover from the folly of youth. Perhaps they could also learn a lesson about friendship – there is so much press about bullying now, maybe people could learn how to be a better friend, more like Laura. I think parents of troubled children and anyone with ghosts of their own pasts to overcome could also benefit from reading Giving Up the Ghost.
Ultimately, I loved this book. It was one of the books that I have taken the longest to read, but only because I wanted to prolong it. I wanted to be able to return to this book, to this writing of a person whose life I seem to have lived in a pale shadow – from the best to the worst of details, and it reminded me that facing up to our past is not only necessary, but it can be healing as well. Growing up is hard, but it’s not always the worst part of our lives and it doesn’t always happen all at once. Giving Up the Ghost by Eric Nuzum is a powerful read about growing up, friendship, and self-discovery.
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- Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted
Disclosure: I received this book for free from the publisher to facilitate my review. My opinions are honest and my own.
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