Written By Jared Lynch
In the introduction to her book Gothic Hauntings: Melancholy Crypts and Textual Ghosts, Christine Berthin discusses the findings of French psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok. They explain that when haunting is transgenerational, it “takes the shape of a secret transmitted within a family or a community without being stated because it is associated with repressed guilt, shame or is the result of a trauma that has not been worked through” (4). When the ghost is transferred, it becomes “a lost object to the unconscious of the child, the living subject or ‘phantom carrier’” (4). This transgenerational concept of haunting is evident in Maxine Hong Kingston’s chilling essay “No Name Woman” in which Kingston learns from her mother that her father had a sister who had committed suicide after bringing shame to her family. Kingston’s mother tells her, “‘We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born’” (2704). This transference of the No Name Woman’s story from mother to daughter marks the inheritance and continuation of a repressed specter, and Kingston becomes a “phantom carrier.”
Kingston’s aunt became pregnant, despite the fact that her husband had been gone for years. Her actions disrupted tradition and brought shame to her family who, disgraced by her infidelities, dismissed her existence entirely. In their minds she was already dead, and they said to her, “You’ve killed us. Ghost! Dead ghost! Ghost! You’ve never been born” (2710). Her family denied her presence, but they kept her, forcing her to take meals at the “out-cast” table where “the Chinese family…hung on to the offenders and fed them leftovers” (2707). Throughout the remainder of her life she was a walking, breathing ghost, despite the presence of the life growing inside her. On the night the child was to be born, the villagers raided the houseand slaughtered their stock, smearing the blood of the animals on the doors and walls. Kingston’s mother reflects, “‘We stood together in the middle of our house…and looked straight ahead’” (2705). Later that night, after the villagers had left, her aunt gave birth to the child in the pigsty. The next morning Kingston’s mother discovered the bodies of her aunt and her child in the bottom of the family well. She tells Kingston, “‘Don’t let your father know I told you. He denies her’” (2705). After her death the No Name Woman loses her placement in the physical world entirely, until she inherits a “phantom carrier.”
The author perpetuates this concept of haunting by internalizing and embodying the spirit in her essay. The spirit is housed in the pages, and through reading “No Name Woman,” the reader also becomes a “phantom carrier,” continuing the existence of the ghost. Berthin writes, “the phantom, or unconsciously inherited secret, lodged in the ego of a subject or protagonist as in a crypt, remains untold but distorts the text of the ‘phantom carrier’s’ life with alternative and lateral meanings” (5). The physicality of the essay provides a crypt for the phantom to inhabit. She is a physical entity once again that cannot be ignored, incarcerated in a cyclical redundancy of resurgence, truly embodying the essence of haunting and resurfaced repression.
In her life, Kingston’s aunt marked a disruption in the linearity of her family’s timeline, and, after her suicide, they drove away her memory, refusing her a home even in death. Kingston writes that her aunt’s ghost is “drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her” (2712). The disruption has surfaced, and the reader participates in continuing the resurfacing of the No Name Woman. Through inhabiting the essay, the ghost wanders across the retelling of events in her life that led to her sorrowful death. The author, the words, and the reader provide her with life in a melancholy posthumous existence. Kingston again acknowledges her presence at the end of the essay writing, “I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide” (2712). Although the author has provided the ghost with physicality, and therefore empowered her, she has forced the No Name Woman to reside in eternal torment, where she continues to be a “spite suicide” until the physicality of her crypt is destroyed, and the words are no more, or until there are no more eyes to read the words, never drifting far from her watery grave.
Berthin, Christine. Gothic Hauntings: Melancholy Crypts and Textual Ghosts. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “No Name Woman.” From The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976). The Heath Anthology of American Literature, vol. E. 5th ed. Ed. Paul Lauter, et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 2704-12. Print.