By Alexandra Murphy
In his nonfiction chapbook Ghost/Home: A Beginner’s Guide to Being Haunted (Ricochet, 2020), Dennis James Sweeney draws tender parallels between our homes and our bodies, both of which are susceptible to the kind of empty spaces that attract ghosts. You may know these ghosts by other names—illness, anxiety, repression. Ghosts inhabit us, haunt us, prevent us from healing until we become the ghosts in our own homes.
At its most stripped down, Ghost/Home is an account of Sweeney’s battle with Crohn’s disease. The book is divided into three parts, with each consecutive part offering more vulnerability as it moves deeper into Sweeney’s journey of discovery, comprehension, grief, and eventual acceptance.
In the first part, “Getting to Know Your Ghost,” Sweeney discovers that ghosts are more than “a pale girl with wet long hair” waiting for him on his childhood bed. They are the things we cannot make sense of, the things that consume us and keep us from loving others, and, more importantly, from loving ourselves. But how does one become inhabited by a ghost? And what does it look like? Sweeney cleverly pairs his compelling prose with simple diagrams to answer these questions. He describes what it feels like to be haunted:
I could feel the ghost trying to convince me that I was it and sometimes I felt I was, to the extent that a ghost cannot heal but rather lives on a wound.
The second part, “Between Ghost and Home,” is where Sweeney draws the connection between our bodies and our homes after he visits his parents’ new house. It is a house that has all the familiar objects of the house he once lived in as a child, yet it isn’t the same—just like his own body before and after his Crohn’s diagnosis. This section includes intimate interviews with his parents and a reading of Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier, whose protagonist, Virginia, also experiences an uncanny homecoming. Even more interesting than the parallels Sweeney draws between himself and Virginia is the way in which he presents them; split columns run parallel down the page allowing for simultaneous narratives.
Sweeney’s experiences, interviews, and reading of The Chandelier lead him to a terrifying yet appealing consideration:
But what if we do not have to give our ghosts up?
Sweeney explores this thought in the final part, “What Is Left Out Is the Haunting.” In this section, he redefines what it means to be haunted as he takes us through honest and revealing recollections of loss, embarrassment, and acceptance.
Ghost/Home is successfully ambitious in its themes and structure, using a patchwork of diagrams, interviews, readings of Clarice Lispector, and photographs that are held together by the delicate mercy of Sweeney’s beautiful prose. Regardless of what you believe, Sweeney’s intimate journey with Crohn’s disease is an insightful lesson on living alongside our biggest insecurities—our own ghosts—whatever they may be.