The Vietnamese people hold a belief that if a person dies violently, prematurely, and subsequently fails to be buried in ancestral land, then the person becomes hồn ma – wandering souls. The wandering soul is vengeful, full of hate, full of hurt. Restless, they are angry at the living. They are angry, because their lives were cut short. Most of all, they are angry at being forgotten. This is a belief that shapes Vietnamese culture, even in modern times. It has been documented by anthropologists, and there are many accounts that remain mysteries, and defy explanation. One of the more interesting accounts I heard about, through a radio series the BBC aired a while back was the following: (available UK only - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00h35kj) (transcript for those elsewhere: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/encounter/wandering-souls/4057898#transcript) Mai Lan Gustafsson: Sam was an American I met. He’d been injured during the war; he had lost a limb. He returned to Vietnam in the ‘90s to live. He felt he needed closure. When I met him he had a Vietnamese girlfriend. He was working as a mechanic. He seemed quite happy; he said he was happy. He was adjusting very well. He loved the country, loved the people. But he was possessed by the spirit of a North Vietnamese soldier who had died in the same area where Sam had lost his limb back in 1968. The girlfriend was telling me how at night Sam had these terrible dreams, these night terrors. He would be so violent in his shaking that their bed, which was a very heavy wooden bed in traditional Vietnamese style, it would move across the floor it was that bad. Cathy Fitzgerald: Did the tone, the manner of his voice change? Mai Lan Gustafsson: Oh yes, very much so. That’s why we were afraid. It was Sam’s voice, choked with rage. I have never heard anyone so enraged before. Just shocking, because Sam is a very quiet person, humble man—not timid but mild-mannered—and then to have him raging in perfect grammatical Vietnamese with anger: it was shocking. The worst thing, the most disturbing thing to the girlfriend and to Sam was that he didn’t know how to speak that language in life. And the spirit was very specific about what it wanted. His mother was not able to receive his death benefits because he wasn’t officially dead, hadn’t been returned, he was just missing. So his old mother was living in extreme poverty. And the reason her son had chosen Sam to haunt is that when Sam was injured, as he was being helicoptered out, one of his American Army buddies gave him a souvenir to take with him: the ID card of a North Vietnamese soldier that they had killed during that battle. Cathy Fitzgerald: And so what happened? What happened after that? Mai Lan Gustafsson: After Sam went to the mother of the dead man who was possessing him, they became friends. The mother was very glad to know what had happened to the son, she didn’t blame Sam for her son’s death, and they became very close. When Sam married his Vietnamese girlfriend the mother of this man sat at the head table and has kind of adopted Sam as her son. They maintain a relationship and it all started with night terrors. After reconciling with the mother of the deceased Vietnamese soldier, Sam ceased to have night terrors. This got me thinking. In fact, the whole radio show has got me thinking. In a lot of ways, since I’ve been young, I’ve been living my life possessed. When I was very young, I didn’t have words for what this was. My severe phobias were my dark secrets. The knowledge of my gender was my darkest secret of all. There was a crisis when I hit my teens, and I became dissociated, severely depressed. My theory behind this is the same theory and reasoning as to why psychotic behaviours and psychic phenomenon are prevalent in young teenagers, around the age of twelve when the hormones kick in. For instance, most poltergeist activity happens around young teenagers, notably young girls—usually around the time of the menarche. In primitive societies, it is known that this is a sensitive, vulnerable period where the energies of the emerging person are very ‘open’. It is my theory that most of those who show marked changes during this time would have been trained as shamans or healers. In our society, the answer is usually to medicate. This might work in some extreme circumstances – but are we missing the point? Are we missing the unique talents of these individuals? Is this one of the reasons why our modern society is so sick? I was ‘wise’ beyond my years. At the age of fourteen, I felt I’d lived it all, seen it all, done it all, and I did not want to participate in this world. But, most of all, I felt that if I was here, I was here for a reason, even if that reason was not clear to me. Even though ‘here’ didn’t make any sense. When I tried to relay this feeling to my peers, they mocked me and called me ‘Gandhi’. I can’t deny that I’ve seen, heard, and perceived things in this world that most would have trouble believing. But, most of all, I feel lost. Like a broken limb, my days wander by aimlessly. I repel people. People, for no apparent reason, attack me. They instantly dislike me. I put people at unease. I trust no one. I am a rock. A large part of my energy is trapped, shut off. It has been like that for years, since those crisis days. My soul, like the the Vietnamese hồn ma is wandering. It is mine – yet a large part of it is else where. That is why my presence feels a million miles away, because it is a million miles a way, through space, through time. If we dissolve those barriers of space/time, that energy is still there. It is in Tay Ninh, in the swirling dust of the trucks coming into base. It is in the kerosene crap hot smells, the damp humidity of a thunder storm, in the dagger sharpness of a man thrusting himself through me, a bullet throbbing through my left arm, the jungle sounds way up high, the bush, the bush, the bush, dark, dark eyes, and her helplessness beneath me. Those pot-bellied kids, those crying old Papa-san hands, liverspotted, wrinkled, pleading. The gut-wrenching emptiness that follows that which should never be done, but it is. The blood that just don’t wash away. It’s lying in a cage somewhere, soiling itself, stick thin. In an estranged wife, Christmas day, she’s a million miles away, and you know your marriage is gone, and never was. Crying inside, you still love her, but it’s gone, and never was just like the smoke in your hand. It’s your kid, holding his hand, full of scarlet blood. The blood dripping down his wrist, crying, the kid is crying, just like they cried, and the blood… and the driving, the driving to get away, to drink away the sorrows, but nothing touches. You drive right up to their doorstep, poise your fist to knock, but stop at the last minute. It’s the river you stared at, way up in the mountains where Peter’s rests, and you know, just one drop to the depths below and it’ll all be gone. But you haven’t the guts. It’s a brother who takes you fishing, sits with you, and doesn’t say a god-damned word of war, only peace, and here, and the lake, and the trees, and the crystal clear mountain sky. It's a brother you never got to say goodbye to. But he saw you. When you heard the ukulele, and the soft lullabies, you yearned to be by him there in paradise without knowing why you wanted to go back there, there where you have never been. In the wandering he saw you, just as you were, so strong, so young, and smiling, where he sat withered, and frail. Death shining through the rain. Now, what do I do? Where do I go from here? Am I possessed, or reclaiming my soul? My energy – my life. I’ll close this with a quote from the BBC radio show, from an American veteran of the war. Spent two years in the army, I have an honourable discharge and a Purple Heart. I came home very angry, very, very, very angry. I was drinking an awful lot of alcohol and doing an awful lot of drugs, trying to just, you know, block a lot of things out. I don’t believe in closure. I think closure is denial. And it’s: ‘I’ve got closure so it’s all in the past, didn’t happen.’ Well, it’s not in the past. The past is with you always. ....there’s a lot more here than westerners can grab onto. That feeling is… you cannot deny it; it’s physical. Cathy Fitzgerald: What is that feeling? Jim Doyle: Actually, it’s peace. Cathy Fitzgerald: Jim Doyle seems at home in Vietnam. This is his twenty-first visit since the end of war. He doesn’t believe in closure, but he’s found something here that helps him live with his past. Jim Doyle: There were people who are walking around today who are wandering souls, because they haven’t found that missing part of themselves. And I think deep down inside they know where to look, but they’re afraid to look because there’s alot of bad images in their memories. When I returned here, the bad images are replaced by wonderful, beautiful images. And it’s not closure; it’s… there’s a completeness. Cathy Fitzgerald: Accepting all of your past. Jim Doyle: Exactly.