The Thread: Ghosts at the Door


I remember watching the white Bronco driving down an empty freeway, followed by a police escort. My grandparents’ den. Sitting on the soft beige carpet. We had just arrived for a visit and found my grandma glued to the television, watching a white van.

I didn’t know who OJ Simpson was; I was thirteen years old and a theater kid. What I gathered was the he played football and grew up in San Francisco. My grandparents thought he was fantastic. They had no idea—nobody did—what this car chase would lead to: the trial, the famous lawyers, and arguably, the Kardashians. All we knew was that Simpson’s wife, Nicole, had been murdered, and that OJ was fleeing in a white van. It made for boring television, I thought, and opened a book.

At thirteen, I read suspense fiction, page-turner paperbacks I checked out from the library: Dean Koontz, Sidney Sheldon, Anne Rice, L. J. Smith. I longed to be supernatural like the Mayfair witches in New Orleans. I understood how violent men stalked and killed (or sometimes failed to kill) the women they fixated on, often women they claimed to love. There was always something wrong with these men: abused horribly as boys or born without souls. They were religious zealots or conjured beings, never the boy next door, never the dad down the street. Never the popular football player, handsome and smiling for the camera.

My grandma read these books, too, though more and more lately, she had been reading true crime. My mother thought it was crazy; my grandma lived in a big house in a major city. My grandma religiously set her burglar alarm. Reading about the horrible things men did to women (and it was always men killing women in true crime, never the other way around) would only make her more paranoid. Or, in my mother’s laws-of-attraction parlance: you create everything that happens to you. As far as she was concerned, my grandma was just asking for it.

I wasn’t sure about the laws of attraction; my body was doing things I didn’t want, even as I focused on my old form. The changeling spell that happens in adolescence, that turns a girl into a ghost, was happening to me. We stand for a year, maybe two, bare feet on the threshold of girlhood, the fire of woman on the other side. By fifteen, I was fireborn, my first iteration of something not quite of this plane. I crossed the threshold to a place where there are only a few ways to be seen.

True spirits can only be seen by certain types of people: mediums, psychics, children. People who have access to the great beyond. Women, on the other hand, could potentially be seen by anyone at all, if they looked for the person instead of the specter. If they looked for the heart of her instead of the size or the shape of her. If they look for her wholeness instead of a hole.

I did not know—nobody did—that this moment in my grandparent’s living room, watching a white Bronco speed down an empty freeway, was a catalyst. That the national conversations around domestic violence would finally, after decades of advocacy, get attention (and federal funding). I had no idea that these changes would give me more personhood than my foremothers. That, even though I would become a ghost in so many ways, I might be seen more fully than they had imagined.

For as long as there have been patriarchal societies, women have been treated, legally and socially, the same as other living property or chattel. A cow could feed a man, a dog could protect him, and a woman could bear his children, raise them, keep his house, cook his food, and provide him with companionship, if he wanted that. Naturally, if his chattel misbehaved, he could beat them however violently he deemed appropriate, even to the point of death, with little consequence. In America, Rachel Louise Snyder writes, the Puritans wrote laws against wife-beating, but they weren’t enforced. In the late nineteenth century, some states passed laws prohibiting domestic violence, but they required a victim with severe and visible injuries, and even then, it was often assumed that the wife had provoked the attack. The founding of the American Society Against the Cruelty of Animals predates laws against cruelty toward one’s wife by several decades. A federal law prohibiting domestic violence wasn’t passed until 1984. And it wasn’t until OJ Simpson killed his wife, and the nation listened to her terrified 911 tapes, that the federal government put even the smallest share of our taxes toward the problem, passing the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.

Even so, violence against women continues. Last year, more than ten million people were abused by an intimate partner in the United States. One in four women, and one in seven men, will be a victim of severe domestic violence (strangling, burning, beating) in their lifetime. Philosopher Kate Manne writes compellingly, in the introduction to Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny about how strangulation (a particularly dangerous and disturbingly common form of domestic abuse) serves to erase women’s voices at the source, silence them metaphorically and literally, and leaves no visible mark, all while inflicting lasting damage. Strangulation is misogyny’s perfect weapon. Rachel Louise Snyder’s 2019 book on domestic violence was titled, aptly, No Visible Bruises. “No visible bruises,” of course, is the phrase written in police reports, time and again, when they investigate allegations of domestic violence. It’s a phrase that implies the violence was minor, that the victim is overreacting, that maybe this is just a lover’s quarrel, a family matter, something to be settled in the privacy of one’s own home. Because although we treat women as though they are invisible, their bodies can bruise, can open under a knife blade, can bleed out and die.

Nicole’s body was found at the base of an outdoor stairway near the entrance to her Bundy Avenue condominium. She lived there with her two children after fleeing the famous Brentwood estate she’d shared with OJ. Her neck had been stabbed so deeply and so many times that she was nearly decapitated. (A schoolyard joke began: Did you hear about OJ Simpson’s Pez dispenser?) She was in the fetal position, in a pool of blood. But the bottoms of her feet were clean, a detail which, experts suggested, meant she’d fallen in that spot and died there.

Ghosts are threshold beings: they live in the world we live in, but not everyone sees them. They are invisible, but not gone. They are creatures of the imagination, or maybe they are energy, directed at someone or coming from someone. People who believe in ghosts point out that matter cannot disappear. Disbelievers say that no science has ever proved ghosts are real.

Ghosts, like women as people, are just a theory.

If heterosexual domestic violence is misunderstood, queer domestic violence is nearly invisible.

Abusive girlfriends are a cultural oxymoron. Partially this is because violence between women is rarely acknowledged, and when it is, it’s minimized. We even have a cutesy name for women hitting other women: catfight. Is it a coincidence that this phrase also makes women into domestic pets (again) and strips them of their personhood? Her victims whisper their stories of her abuses, they share anecdotes of her techniques, and they carry what may be invisible scars from her abuses in their psyches. But no statistics, no science, no data can prove that she is real. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s fact sheet, “Who is Doing What to Whom,” puts it simply: “Throughout our research, we were unable to find data that quantified how often women were identified as the primary abuser in the relationship. Anecdotally, we know they exist, but we were unable to find statistics that clarified how prevalent they may be.”

In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, casts a sheet over these forms (women, lesbians, emotional abuse) and allows us to make out their shapes. The titular Dream House is an average house in a college town, with nothing remarkably creepy about it. “The Dream House is real,” Machado writes in the opening pages. “It is as real as the book you are holding in your hands, and significantly less terrifying.”

It’s important that the Dream House is a real place. That you could go there, if you had the address. So much of her memoir is about things that can’t be mapped or found. The Dream House is both the metaphorical construct that holds the book together, and a real place with an address.

Emotional abuse doesn’t leave a bruise; it leaves its victims marked in ways that are slippery, unbelievable, and hard to define.

Machado uses Saidiya Hartman’s phrase, “the violence of the archive,” to explain that “sometimes a story is destroyed, and sometimes it is never uttered in the first place; either way something very large is irrevocably missing from our collective histories.” The archive is faulty; it is a product of gatekeeping and the bias of archivists. Whole lived experiences are swallowed up in its silences. These silences, these places where stories have not been told but where experiences exist, where the archival record is empty, are the ghostlands women inhabit generally. But even more so, this is where women who have been abused by women are hidden away.

If beautiful, wealthy, white Nicole Brown can be erased from the archive (we call it “the OJ Simpson case,” after all), how can we trust the archive? If we cannot trust the archive, we are left with uncertain histories. And gaslighting thrives on uncertainty; its victims can grow to distrust everything they see, hear, feel, believe. It makes ghosts of us. We question our version of reality; we question our existence when there are no words for it, no records, no science, no facts.

The same year that OJ Simpson drove his white van down the freeway, I was cast as Peter Pan in a community theater production. I flew on a wire so thin it couldn’t be seen from the audience. The kids who saw me thought I was magic, that Tinkerbell was real. The production was designed to make an impossible thing seem actual. A child flying. A fairy. We are all susceptible to believing what we’re told is the story and forgetting to look in the blank spaces for what has been left out or erased.

As a half-baked person in a fully baked body, I stumbled around, awkward as a fawn. I looked to the archive, to the books and the movies and the nightly news, trying to understand what I was becoming. There was America, ready to spread me. There was America, ready to devour me. There I was, on my grandparents’ beige carpet, absorbing that womanhood meant I was a projection or a conjured fantasy. That womanhood meant I was vulnerable, stalkable, stabbable. That womanhood meant whatever happened to me, I had brought it upon myself. Or as OJ Simpson wrote in his book, If I Did It, “nice people don’t go around getting themselves knifed to death.”

My grandparents’ house was built in the early twentieth century. As I stood in my grandparent’s living room, and walked through the kitchen to the stairs, I forgot the details of that murder, that crime scene, that moment. I walked through hundreds of doorways after, forgetting and forgetting again.

This is “the doorway effect,” or the sense of blank slate emptiness that can come over a person when they pass through a doorway into another room. Thresholds are more than just liminal spaces—they are supernatural spaces. They are erasers. They are incantations that undo our memories of what came before.

Each life contains countless doorways, places we cross to forget and remember and forget again. I glide between worlds, through mystery and moonlight, into glimmering darkness. I am a door to life, and I push through. Doorways all the way down. I am a ghost in so many directions. A poltergeist, whining for attention, shattering glasses with my rage. A survivor of slippery violences, where coercion and consent became crosswired, where the gaslight was often dimmed, and I cannot say for sure whose hands were on the switch.

I leave this room, pass through a doorway, and my thoughts go blank again. I erase and reset. I forget. I recall. Do you see it? Can you tell? Something unnameable and unrememberable is coming through the door.


Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.


The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Leigh Hopkins. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.

Marissa Korbel is managing editor at The Rumpus, and a critically acclaimed essayist. You can also find her writing at Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch Magazine, and The Manifest-Station. She lives and works as a public interest attorney in Portland, Oregon. Marissa tweets @likethchampagne. More from this author →