“I suggest, therefore, that sanity or psychosis is tested by the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons when one is sane by common consent.” R. D. Laing
Bertrand Russell remarked somewhere that if everyone frequently saw ghosts we would treat ghosts as matter-of-fact, mundane realities, but because few people see them we treat them as illusions and the people who see ghosts as deluded.
A few months ago I came across a review of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl. I think it was in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I’m not sure. Anyway, when I saw a copy in the public library, I decided to read something by a woman described as a rising star in the world of dark fantasy. It was the first work by her I’ve read, and I plan to read more.
Stripped down to its skeleton, the supernatural part of the tale is one of the endless variations of the Phantom Hitchhiker Tale: driver finds strange girl wandering desolate road at night, picks her up, later on finds out she’s a ghost.
But this isn’t just a ghost story. This is a ghost story that is also a meditation on whether we can trust our perceptions and memories.
The narrator is a young woman who goes by the nickname Imp. She is a painter and short story writer living in Rhode Island who ekes out a meager existence working as a salesclerk in an art supply store. Imp, like her mother and maternal grandmother, has been assigned the diagnostic label of schizophrenia. In order to keep her symptoms somewhat under control, she must take medication she really can’t afford (isn’t for-profit medicine wonderful?) that has debilitating side effects.
In telling her tale, Imp will abruptly shift into talking about herself in the third person. Some readers have been put off by this, but I think it is an expression of Imp’s schizoid perception of herself. While she is writing her account she also describes what’s going on while she’s writing the story, which also seems to have put some readers off.
Imp is trying to relate a ghost story, a true story that happened to her. Perception and memory aren’t all that reliable at the best of times, but most of us don’t realize that and have the delusion that we perceive things as they are and remember reality as it was. (Just one very simple example: you blink a few times a minute but don’t see the momentary blackness when your eyes are closed. Unless you are paying attention, you perceive a continuous visual feed of the external world. You are hallucinating it.)
Unlike most of us, Imp does not have the delusion that one can trust what one sees and remembers. She knows how difficult it is to be sure of anything. Nonetheless, she is doing her best to tell the truth and to untangle what really happened to her. As I read the text, she eventually settles on a version of events that is pragmatically true and allows her to get on with her life.
The Drowning Girl is hardly a straightforward narrative, and some readers may find its non-linear structure confusing, but I thought it was beautifully done.