“Mr. Joe: Tales from a Haunted Life” by Joseph Barnett and Jane Congdon. Bettie Youngs Books. 2013. 238 pages.
By Cat Pleska
WV Book Team
“Mr. Joe: Tales from a Haunted Life” is an uncommon memoir. It’s about the life of a working-class man, Joseph Barnett, who sees ghosts and experiences other paranormal phenomenon.
For another unusual aspect, Barnett and his sister Jane Congdon co-wrote Joseph’s life story, a rather remarkable feat since they had barely been in touch once they left home as teenagers.
What is common are memoirs that are stories of perseverance, and in that, “Mr. Joe” is a tale of lifelong struggle — family, economics, health issues, self-esteem — and overcoming those struggles, despite frequent setbacks.
It’s a tale about how to survive and eventually thrive.
He was born in Glen Ferris, his mother stayed home and his father worked at EMCO, a chemical plant. Barnett’s parents were his first great struggle, a sorrow that has haunted him all his life.
His mother, an abusive alcoholic, frequently tried to choke him, and mostly referred to him as a “son of a bitch.”
His father, though not physically abusive, was nonetheless neglectful, even though at times he protected his son from his wife.
“Mine was a childhood … that swung between freedom and fear,” Barnett writes.
Despite fights and disturbances, even when his mother would walk through town drunk, few residents knew about Barnett’s and his sister’s difficulties. Since the book was published, Barnett noted, “We’ve been surprised that our friends from home did not know our childhood secret.”
The haunting of a ghostly sort began early when his grandfather, his beloved protector, passed away when Barnett was 12.
Soon after, as Barnett stood looking in a mirror, his grandfather appeared directly behind him.
Though paralyzed by fear, he noticed that all he could see was his grandfather’s face and that he appeared to be thinking.
A few years later, Barnett’s father died and his ghost appeared in Barnett’s bedroom and sat down on his bed for a little chat.
Barnett’s lack of good fortune haunted him throughout most of his working life.
Laid off after 27 years at a food processing plant, he reluctantly took a job as a school custodian.
Embarrassed by what seemed a step down career-wise, he soon enjoyed the company of the children, who christened him “Mr. Joe.”
He also realized just how difficult custodial work is, that it’s exacting and intense, a job he eventually viewed with pride and a sense of accomplishment.
Yet, once at the school, he is truly haunted.
The building was built near, or possibly on, an old cemetery.
He was not the only one at the school to experience apparitions, noises and objects moving.
But he seemed to be the one most sensitive to the appearances, and one ghost invaded his dreams for years, terrifying him.
Barnett, with the aid of his sister, Jane Congdon, the more experienced writer of the two, tells the story in chapters which switch between the past and the present: real hauntings and metaphorical hauntings alternating with a difficult childhood and life.
Each time they return to the past to continue the story of struggle, they move farther forward in time.
Barnett is unflinching in listing his own faults, but he never excuses his choices.
He painstakingly shows his development beyond past mistakes and missteps.
He also shows the difficulties in being a single parent, once he gained full custody of his two sons.
Although I found many paragraphs contain multiple subjects, which often disrupted the flow of the narrative, Congdon wisely helped Barnett retain his voice, and it is clear and strong. Working together proved helpful to the overall story.
“Our combined recollections of childhood enriched the writing and the book itself,” Congdon said.
Another twist is that Barnett and Congdon had barely been in touch for over 40 years prior to writing the book.
Ironically, it was their mother’s failing health that served as the catalyst that brought them together.
It’s obvious that Barnett’s most powerful life lesson is the power of forgiveness, a gift given him as he helped care for his mother in her final days.
Once their mother died, the siblings discovered they not only had a difficult childhood in common, they had also become good friends.
Congdon had already begun her own memoir, “It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me” (Bettie Youngs Books, 2011).
It seemed natural that Barnett should tell his story too.
All of us have something in our lives that haunt us, and I’m not speaking of apparitions or poltergeists. Past wrongs or mistakes can float in our peripheral vision, leading us to persevere or to flounder, sometimes both.
Barnett has laid his ghosts to rest and has reflected about how all that transpired in his life helped him become a loving, supportive brother and father. “You saved those boys,” his sister once told him.
Now, no more ghosts haunt Mr. Joe, and his book is testament to how to thrive at last.
“Mr. Joe” may be ordered from BettieYoungsBooks.com, Amazon.com or BarnesAndNoble.com and is available in paperback and electronic formats.