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July 5, 2012

Katie Crouch on Her Childhood with Ghosts


Katie Crouch is the author of THE MAGOLIA LEAGUE, a novel set in Savannah about teen debutantes who tap into hoodoo magic to cast love spells and fight a dark curse. Its sequel, THE WHITE GLOVE WAR, which she wrote with her best friend Grady Hendrix, is out now. Check out the trailer at

I grew up in Charleston, where ghosts are so common their mention doesn’t even raise an eyebrow at the ever-frequent cocktail parties. We had one, of course, in our house, a century-old Victorian in the belly of the oldest part of town. His presence did not alarm us much. He rearranged our shoes and touched my father’s shoulder sometimes. Though once he did manage to produce a dark chill in the living room so sudden that my best friend from high school, who lived in a modern ranch house in a new neighborhood, ran screaming to her car. We spoke of him sometimes, but by the time we grew up, we sort of believed he was fiction¾until the subsequent owner, a Northerner, sold the house less than a year after purchasing it, spooked by everything we had described to ourselves (but had failed, during the sale, to mention to him).

My mother worked full time, so when we were small she hired a woman named Doris to take care of my brother and I. Doris never mentioned the ghost, but she kept a close eye on spirits. She was from a South Carolina Gullah family, which meant she subscribed to certain beliefs and practices derived directly from Africa. We were never to leave hair in our combs and brushes; instead we were to bury the old strands in the yard so spiritscouldn’t hang onto us and make trouble. She instructed us daily to clean lint off our carpets, because, she said, dust and lint are what’s left of dead things. She also sang hymns once it became dark to keep evil at bay. Once she took my father, a doctor, aside and asked him politely to please remove a curse her neighbor had put on her. (My father gave her two aspirin.)

Growing up with spirits as daily conversation, I took the special nature of our household for granted. I didn’t understand until I was older that not everyone put salt on the threshold in the morning, that putting a knife under the bed was not a medical practice for cutting pain. It wasn’t a matter of whether we believed these things or not; it was just that we lived with them, the same way we lived with the coffee can of bacon fat on the stove and bits of ham hock in our vegetables. My brother and I just thought everyone in the world did that.

Doris died when I was fourteen. Her funeral at the A.M.E. Church on Calhoun Street was opulent and deafening. Strangers clung to my brother and I, handing us candies and pictures. When we went to the burial, family members passed babies over the grave, a practice to ensure a proper goodbye.  Mourners left flowers and chocolate and wine on her stone, so she would be satisfied and not come walking as a ghost to ask for more.

My mother couldn’t bear to hire anyone else for a year. But because of her heavy workload at the university, things began falling apart, and one night, after stepping in not one but two piles of dog poop in the hallway, my father threatened to call the Health Department. Mary, the woman who appeared shortly after, was strictly Baptist. She didn’t care what we did with our combs, and when we cheerfully mentioned the ghost, she shooed us away.

Gullah Culture is very hard to tap if you are not an insider. Later, I read many texts on its history, wrote an incoherent college thesis on the topic, and recently wrote THE MAGNOLIA LEAGUE, a novel featuring Hoodoo, the Gullah practice of magic. Still, the details of her practices remain mysterious memories. Soon after Doris left us I became a full-fledged teenager, much too interested in boys to remember to remove and bury the hair stuck in my sticky, mousse-clogged volumizing brush. Dust and lint ran rampant. The salt stayed in the shaker. Well, the spirits descended immediately. I remained constantly unlucky in love throughout high school, which was surely a result of their meddling. I finally fell in love in college, when Doris decided to give me a break from the grave.