The Ghost’s Daughter Speaks

by Rachel McKibbens

Some days I am completely incapable of dealing with loss, no matter how inconsequential. Living with both bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders means I do not have an “ordinary” stress response; the frontal lobe of my cerebral cortex sends out the same distress signal for a nuisance as it does a catastrophe.  The short version: there are days when I misplace my car keys and want to die because of it. Part of me recognizes this as an irrational idea. The keys will eventually be found, life will go on—deep inside my skull’s flawed machinery, I know this to be true—but sometimes the crush of stress and panic becomes unmanageable, a colossal beast in a too-small house and within minutes, this feeling develops into another person inside myself, whole in its contempt for my body, so capable of losing things. The voice of this person becomes the most dominant voice. I call it The Bad Fuel. This voice encourages the body to stop. To come to an end. A simple solution, driven by perverse logic:

The loss is the fault of the hands that have no memory.
The loss is the fault of the brain in all its clutter.
Chop off the hands. Crush the brain. Destroy the loss.


I grew up in an extremely violent household. Nights when my face throbbed, when my struck skin howled from every pore, I would lie in bed and try to vanish. I was not old enough to understand what death was, exactly, but I recognized loss; I understood it was a kind of absence and I was determined to become that. I would close my eyes so tight I saw stars, I truly believed I could stay inside the hard clenched black and flip myself inside-out, becoming the reversal of light. Often, I would pray myself into a catatonic state: Let me go away. Let me stay in the dark. Let me be gone, over and over until the sun came up. I would go several days without sleeping, trying to manifest my end with heartbroken prayer. Sit for hours in front of the television, staring into the static between channels. I mistook the humming of my sleep deprived brain as a step closer to vanishing. It was the only thing I wanted. All the time.

This is the earliest version of my suicidal ideation I can recall.


What I can’t remember, no matter how hard I try: when I was around two-years old, my mentally ill mother placed me in the Albert Sitton Home, a large institutional-type building that housed abused and neglected children. She also gave me a different name while I lived there. A name to un-daughter me, so she was not abandoning the child born of her body, but the child born from her brain. This is how she survived herself. And though I remember nothing of this place, I know it is where The Bad Fuel did all of my speaking.

Rachel displays characteristics of dual-personality
disorder. The behaviors of Rachel and [Alternate
Name]are dramatically different. Rachel is sullen and
withdrawn while [Alternate Name] is hyperactive and
speaks in a high-pitched voice. This is most likely a
result of trauma and has the potential to subside
if treated properly. Rachel displays this condition most
often when she has been with Mother. It is imperative
that Mother cease from calling Rachel by [Alternate
Name] during visitation. Both Mother and Father have
been encouraged to remain consistent, calling Rachel
only by her given name.

* * *

 My best friend often praises my detailed memory: I can’t believe you still know the first and last names of every one of your classmates, all the way back to preschool. Names and people were easy. I searched for my potential within each one, a patchwork ghost. It is what many survivors do out of habit: rebuild. In grade school, I’d spend months studying the mannerisms of classmates. Ambidextrous, I wrote with my left hand like Scott Whitter, with my right like Salma Sanchez. I took Valentina Rivera’s sibilant ‘S’. Stole Stephanie Carson’s entire name.

Some days I find poems on my computer I do not remember writing.

* * *

Who is writing this now?

* * *

While I am drying a plate, I forget I am drying a plate, so I set it down on the windowsill above the sink. I occupy myself by doing twelve other things until the plate becomes nothing, so forgotten it hardly exists. Three hours later, I hear a crash in the kitchen. The plate is in pieces, some of the pieces have fallen down into the garbage disposal. I stand in the kitchen and my body fills with gallons of The Bad Fuel. The plate is broken. I have five beautiful children who I love, five children who rely on me to protect them, but the plate is broken, I am useless, I can’t even keep a plate intact, I don’t know why I am allowed to be alive, there are thousands of people who’ve been killed in Afghanistan who probably never broke a plate. I am such a fucking failure, I can’t even remember to keep washing the dishes. Millions of families were destroyed during the Holocaust and I can’t take care of a fucking plate. I need to be dead. I need to be dead. I need to be dead.


The first story I ever wrote was in third grade. It was about a child who found a small door at the back of  his bedroom closet. It led to a bright green field. At night the boy would crawl through the doorway to safety as a snarling monster tore through his room and swallowed his bed. My teacher entered the story in a contest called, “What Sparks My Imagination.” The story won an award. A ceremony was held and a local theater troupe re-enacted the story for my entire school.

I imagine this is the single greatest moment of my entire childhood.
I have to imagine it because I was not there.

When they announced me as the winner, I did not march up the aisle of the auditorium to receive my first place plaque. I did not get to watch the story I had written become a truth, re-enacted onstage. My father had smacked my eye swollen shut the night before so I had to stay home from school to recover. The children in the auditorium clapped as the actor pantomimed crawling through a door no bigger than a shoebox. The man who played the boy playing me escaped and I did not see it. I wrote my escape, it came true and I did not see it.


My mommy doesn’t live with us, she died when I was born.
My mommy doesn’t live here, she died of cancer when I was two.
My mom can’t come to the door, she’s sleeping.
My mom is never home because she is an astronaut. She died in that space shuttle explosion. The one everyone watched on t.v. Her name was Judith Resnik. She was an astronaut. No, not the teacher one. The pretty one.
My mom is psycho. She kills our pets and leaves them on our doorstep.
My mother is cuckoo. She thinks Satan sends messages to us through the radio. She says that’s why we’re bad.
My mother is looney. She was raped by her stepfather. Her mother shot bleach into her vagina with a turkey baster when she found out.
My mother is fucked in the head.
My mother suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and Narcissistic personality disorder.
No, for real you guys. My mother is totally Kray.[1]


I am running out of room. My compartmentalized brain has been folded into itself for so long I am losing the names for things. There are days when I cannot remember the word for whisk. Days when a chair is not a chair but that thing over there, in the corner. With the yellow cushions and the wooden legs. I worry I will forget the things I don’t want to forget. I wish I could get rid of every bad thing that is taking up space, dig them out with a fork or a pair of scissors. I deserve to have more room for joy.


Solve the Equation:

This is the woman you have neither seen nor
spoken to in twenty years, which amounts to
seven thousand three hundred days of absolute
Loss. If your mother’s brain had four times the
number of rooms your brain had when you last
saw her, how many rooms will her Loss-
riddled brain have developed over the span of
twenty years if each of the original rooms split
in half every five?

Show your work.


Excerpt from a college entrance essay I never sent: I am a poet because I have considered suicide since I was a child, and it wasn’t until I discovered poetry that I learned there are other languages for my sorrow—death is not the only one.


I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.
I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.
I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.
I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.
I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.
I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.




  1. Restore (a dead person) to life.
  2. Revive the practice, use, or memory of (something); bring new vigor to.


After Miss Clemons led the class in the Pledge of Allegiance, she directed the students to get in a single-file line and make their way to the school auditorium. Rachel, the tallest kid in class, was at the very end of the line and took the last empty seat in the auditorium just as the lights began to dim. All of the children and faculty applauded the brief and exciting darkness.

When the lights came back up, a man in pajamas was standing center stage. The children knew the freckles painted on his nose and cheeks meant he was supposed to be a young boy. After letting out a full-bodied yawn, the boy curled up on the ground and went to sleep. A violin playing “Rock-a-Bye Baby” began to play over the loudspeaker. The boy began to snore dramatically and the entire auditorium became a flock of giggles.

Suddenly, a snarling, monstrous roar exploded from backstage, then the stomps of undoubtedly large footsteps, CLOMP! CLOMP! and the boy sprang from his bed. As the roars grew louder, the boy ran circles in his room before leaping into his closet, pulling the door closed behind him. He crouched all the way to the back, past his shoes and toys, until he was pressed tight against the corner. Just then, he noticed a sliver of light escaping from beneath a small door, no bigger than a shoebox. He pushed it open and saw a bright green field on the other side. Green and green for miles and miles. The boy’s heart sank as he heard the monster clawing at his mattress, reducing it to metal coils and cotton. The boy got down on his belly and inched his way through the doorway, the good gold sun hitting his face as the audience stood up and cheered.

[1] Twin brothers Ronald “Ronnie” Kray and Reginald Kray were notorious gangsters in London’s East End during the 1950’s and 60’s. Ronnie was rumored to have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was later judged to be criminally insane and spent 30 years in a secured mental hospital.

The Ghost’s Daughter Speaks

17 thoughts on “The Ghost’s Daughter Speaks

  1. Rachel,

    You’re so wonderful and brave to have written this. It takes a lot to describe the kind of pain you went through as a child, but it takes a lot more to do it with such appreciation of words and the gift of writing. Let the memoir begin!

    Love to you,



  2. roxane stafford says:

    I expected amazing, and it was, and is. Wow. Incredible journey, I just wish there was more to read.


  3. Exiting the box, escaping the room, so many people are trying to do that every day. If you can see escaping the box-in writing, in your family, or anything else-you are already on your way. The way these fragments weave together says so much.


  4. Leslie McGrath says:

    Rachel, you’ve created beauty out of absolute horror. And you’ve shared it.

    I wish I could say I didn’t understand the fear you lived with as a child, or the saving grace of dissociation that you describe so well. I give praise to your imagination and to every single fragment of you.

    Thank you for writing this. And take care of yourself. We need you.


  5. Debbie says:

    Rachel, this was amazing in so many ways. I really just want to give you a big, huge hug right now. Thank you for writing this and thank you for sharing something so intimate. It gives so much insight.


  6. laura davila says:

    this is beautiful, as they say the soul know what to do to heal itself, the challenge is to silince the mind. May God give you peace and happiness!


  7. Anna C. says:

    Rachel, I’m totally astonished by this beautiful piece of soul, that I forget how to use the language properly express my feelings. I hit the “delete” button every time I typed a letter, but finally decide to write words that jumps to me right now. This article may not heal me, but resonants with my damaged messy mind, and somehow gives me the courage to survive. Thank you, Rachel, thank you.


  8. Laura says:

    I find it very compelling that as you posted this on January 9th, I can imagine where I probably was. In my room, crying, in shock from an assault that occurred only one week prior. It’s humbling to put my experience in perspective this way because it reminds me that I am not alone in this world. Exemplification of the human condition. Thank you for sharing this with me and the rest of the internet. I am glad to have discovered your existence.


  9. I want a small door in a closet. It is made out of writing. I admire you for writing what cannot be written, sharing what no one wants to share. For remembering beyond your memories, into ours. Your success here makes me feel so much better bout my failure. Thank you.


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