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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Monday, November 28, 2011

At Home With a Ghost - 7




The jeweler ordered Vivian and me not to move. He grabbed a pen flashlight and dropped onto all fours, scouring the floor for the two cat’s eye gems that had vanished from his spatula.

Vivian whispered to me, “Your grandfather doesn’t want you to change the ring.”

“I don’t care what he wants,” I muttered back. “I have better taste than he does.”

I had in mind what the psychic had told me: that Grandpa, when he was alive, was accustomed to having his own way and was easy to work with if you followed along. I thought, well, I’m headstrong, too. I figured that with a ghost, it was the same as with children and pets: you had to establish who’s in charge at the beginning of the relationship; otherwise they will become unruly and scorn your wishes.

The jeweler continued his search of every nook and cranny of his office, even asking us to remove our sandals and brush our skirts. Finally he gave up, looking both desperate and mystified. “It’s very strange. I saw them fall…Maybe you can leave your number, in case they turn up.”

“No,” I said. “I’ll pick out another pair.”

I had him open the tissue to look at the remaining gems, and selected two that matched. They weren’t anywhere near as nice as the missing ones, but I was determined to get this done and show Grandpa who was boss. The jeweler took no chances this time, placing the envelope a millimeter away from the stones and quickly sweeping them inside.

A week later, the ring was ready. I returned with Vivian. We knocked; the jeweler opened the door. His brow was furrowed; he looked thoroughly flummoxed now. “You won’t believe this,” he said. “After you left last time, I took apart everything in the office looking for those stones. I couldn’t understand how they could have disappeared so completely. They were a financial loss to me. Finally I had to let the cleaning crew in to vacuum. Then, just now, a minute before you arrived, I happened to look down at my feet. And there they were – in plain sight, in the middle of the floor.”

He opened his palm, displaying the two missing gems. Then he gave me a look of nervous suspicion. “This isn’t one of those rings, is it?”

“Yup.” I knew what he meant: an heirloom with spooks included. I imagine that jewelers once in a while experience weird stuff when they handle pieces that carry a paranormal attachment. Curses, tragedy, or just mischief.

I knew I could have insisted that he remove the inferior stones to replace them with the original pair I’d chosen, but the jeweler was clearly anxious to be rid of my ring. I didn’t want to tempt more trouble either. I emerged on the street with the band of gold on my middle finger. The diamonds were history, and in their place two nondescript cloudy cat’s eyes flanked the center stone. I’d won.

I wear the ring to this day. It’s discreet, rarely attracting notice, the way I like it. A secret in plain view.

In time I would get used to my grandfather’s attempts at imposing his will on me. His favorite signals of displeasure were breaking glass and making things jump. Or sometimes he would just be reminding me that he was here, that I wasn’t alone.

But right now I’d let him have his way with one thing: I would write the music he was pressing upon me. The sooner I completed what it was he wanted me to do, the sooner he would stop plaguing my sleep, funneling melodies and images. He might even go away.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

And Now For A Brief Commercial Interruption...

A reminder to those who haven't read my paranormal mystery JANE WAS HERE: ebook downloads (Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc.) are only $2.99 until Tuesday November 29. Enjoy the trailer:

Monday, November 21, 2011

At Home With a Ghost - 6

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I left the bank with Grandpa’s ring in hand. I felt myself aligned to his spirit now. He’d made me a gift, which I accepted, and in doing so I accepted his presence as my protector. The ring could have been made of brass and paste for all I cared; I felt there was love in it.

When I showed the ring to Mom, she didn’t remember ever seeing it. Then again, she hadn’t been in that safety deposit box since Grandpa died seventeen years ago. I asked if I could appropriate it for the time being. (Meaning, indefinitely. Otherwise known as: forever.) She said that the plan had always been to let each of us children pick one piece from the box when we got married. Two of my three brothers were married already and had each taken something for their wives. Didn’t I want to wait?

Was she kidding? I’d told her a hundred times I was never getting married. A legally binding state-sponsored commitment was anti-romance, and besides it got in the way if you wanted to jump ship. Which was kind of a pattern with me. So no, there was no point in waiting for that happy day that would never come.

In short order, the ring became mine. Next there was the matter of those two pesky diamonds. I wanted to swap them out for a pair of cat’s eyes that would match the center stone. My friend Vivian offered to escort me to the Diamond Exchange in New York, a completely foreign territory where I didn’t speak a word of gemstone. Since Vivian was Jewish and grew up in the garment industry, she was the perfect translator.

And that was how we came to be wandering around the warren of dismal shops in the Exchange, looking for someone who sold cat’s eyes. Nobody did. When we were about to give up, somebody suggested we try a little cubbyhole at the end of a corridor, saying that the owner sold offbeat stones but often wasn’t there. We knocked. No response. We turned to go and almost ran into a narrow little Indian man who had his key out to open the shop’s door. Yes, he had cat’s eyes.

Once inside, he examined Grandpa’s ring, puzzled why I wanted to get rid of two perfectly nice diamonds. They’re not to my taste, I said. He offered to remove the diamonds and put in two cat’s eyes as an even trade. I assumed he was getting the better end of the deal but I didn’t care.

He rooted around a cardboard box until he found the right size of gem, carefully opening a folded tissue on his desk so I could examine my choices. There were about ten of them. Most of the stones were milky and too small to show the hypnotic shifting band of light that characterizes cat’s eyes. But there were two, and two only, of the same green clarity as the center stone: two with the bright vein gliding over the surface.

“I like these two guys.” They were so small I couldn’t pick them up with my fingers, so the man separated them from the others with his little spatula. He gave me a loop so I could see them magnified. Then I was certain: “They’re perfect.”

“Good.” He held a small manila envelope ready as he slipped his spatula under the pair of gems. He lifted them carefully to transfer them to the envelope. As we all watched, the stones sprang up from the blade and disappeared.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

At Home With a Ghost - 5

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


The attendant in the small local bank brought me a long metal box and withdrew discreetly. I turned the key in the lock, lifted the lid, and beheld the family bling.

I went into shock, recoiling.

I’m not into diamonds, or any faceted jewels. They trumpet their presence, they glare, they garish (garish really should be a verb). Usually anyone who can afford to wear jewels is too old to be calling attention to their decrepit selves. For example, the diamond collar I unwrapped first must have held up somebody’s wattles in the previous century. I pawed through more gaudy stuff, pendants, brooches, thinking it all very ugly and unseemly. I deplore the conspicuous display of wealth. It’s an attitude I got straight from my parents, so it’s worth the digression here to explain.

My Dad was deeply embarrassed by his parents’ affluence. He remembered riding with them to his first day of boarding school in a chauffeured towncar, at the height of the Depression, even though he’d begged them to take the train. His parents didn’t seem to realize that wealth made other people feel bad: resentful, envious, diminished, denied. They were, after all, Republicans.

Almost as bad as their being wealthy, they were indolent. His father didn’t even bother with a college degree, or read anything beyond lurid murder mysteries; he didn’t even compose music much after the war. Instead he played the market a little, ran a vanity music-publishing company, but mostly frequented half a dozen private clubs in New York and three more if you count Tuxedo Park and Martha’s Vineyard.

In reaction to his parents’ lifestyle, Dad made it his mission to pursue the opposite route. He refused any money from them, and threw himself into his studies, earning first a Harvard BA and then a law degree from Columbia. A beloved professor, he taught tirelessly at Columbia Law for the next five decades.

Mom and Dad were both compulsively thrifty. World War II rationing shaped their sense of economy forever. We bought cheap, or we did without. Eventually my father’s teaching career seemed assured. By now they had four children; it was time to buy a house. They bought a piece of land in the ‘burbs and started building a modest house befitting Dad’s income. And then Grandpa died.

Dad, being the only child of an only child, inherited the fraction that remained after his father’s lifetime of hobknobbing. He sold two of the houses but kept the Martha’s Vineyard cottage for rentals. The money he stuck in a bank and then tried to ignore it. We still lived within his income. We kids had no idea we were anything but middle-class. We did get a slightly bigger house out of Grandpa’s bequeathal (a good thing because a fifth child was in the future); and one time we got to go to Europe.

So for me, staring into this safe deposit box was like looking into a bygone, very unreal world that I didn’t feel remotely related to. Mom and Dad weren’t party people. On the rare occasions they did dress up, other than her engagement ring I never saw my mother wear anything but costume jewelry. Not only that, they were Democrats. Socialism good! Excess bad! No wonder my parents hid this shit away and never talked about it. The contents of this box were…Republican. I couldn’t help a shiver of revulsion.

To be fair, Grandpa and Grandma weren’t so into the bling either. Most of the pieces in the safe deposit box came from the generation before: the Belle Epoque. You never see Dad’s parents wearing jewelry in the photos that survive. However, Grandpa clearly liked small, understated pinkie rings. There were five or six of them, and fairly alike, so maybe he bought Grandma a few that matched his. At any rate, I was looking for a ring, and these didn’t call to me.

But the last one did. The center stone was a cat’s eye, a stone I’d never seen before: pale green, cloudy like a moonstone, with a vertical vein like a cat’s iris that shifted as you moved the ring, similar to a portrait whose eyes follow you.

Too large for my pinkie, it fit nicely on my middle finger. It was totally cool, and very inconspicuous – except for two tiny diamonds that flanked the cat’s eye. As I’ve said, I don’t like diamonds. But they could be removed.

Or so I thought.

(To be continued.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

At Home With a Ghost - 4

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

The only person privy to my haunting was my friend Vivian, who had sent me to the psychic in the first place, and who had no trouble believing my story. She had long claimed to be, God love her, a white witch. So anything of a paranormal nature gave her a boner, so to speak.

“What about the ring?” Vivian pestered me without cease. “He said there’s a ring for you somewhere!”

The road to that information led once again back to the parents. I still quailed at the thought of telling my dad what was behind my sudden interest in his father. Consider what was in the balance: either the ghost did exist or I was psychologically in deep trouble. I wasn’t even sure myself. But my mother could be relied upon to give me tons of slack; within the family, she was known to be fantastically gullible.

When I finished telling her, Mom was silent. Her face carried an expression I’d never seen before. Then she related her own story – or rather, it was her father’s story. He had told it to her in strict confidence. But this seemed like the appropriate occasion to bring it to light.

At this point I should insert the title “The Other Grandfather.”

My mother's background was similar to my father's, both raised in old-money wealth. Born in 1920, she grew up on a huge estate in Chicago. She and her four siblings were raised by a string of governesses (there was high turnover). Her mother had zero interest in mothering. Once, when Grandma didn’t want to deal with Mom coming home from boarding school for the holidays, she had her daughter delivered to a hospital to have both her tonsils and appendix removed. Her children marinated in constant uncertainty; you never knew where you stood with her. She seemed only intermittently engaged by their presence; she had an air of absence.

Mom’s father was physically absent much of the time, first serving in World War I, then serving as Roosevelt’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, then running the European Red Cross during World War II, then serving as Truman’s Under Secretary of Commerce. My mother had a hardcore case of hero worship - and who can blame her. I chiefly remembered him for his ubiquitous glass of whiskey, his chain of unfiltered Camels, and his rumbling cough (he died of emphysema eight years before this conversation took place).

His own mother (hope I’m not confusing you here) died when he was a young man. He had been very close to her. He missed talking to her. Around the time he fell in love with my grandmother, he was working very hard and late into the nights. One night his attention strayed from the page he was writing on; it was the wee hours, and he was exhausted, starting to lose focus. And then his right hand, with its pencil paused on the paper, started to move. Of its own accord, as if separate from him, it started writing. He watched his hand in dazed fascination as the words formed, in a script that was all too familiar to him. The handwriting was not his own, but his mother’s. She was talking to him.

He became hooked on nightly bouts of “automatic writing," communicating with his mother. She comforted his feelings of loss. She encouraged him in his ambitions. When he asked for advice, she gave wise counsel, just as she always had when she was alive...until the night when he asked her about a fascinating girl who had beguiled his heart. He wanted to propose to her. What did dear Mater think of her?

His mother replied that it would not be a good match. Contrary to his own nature, the girl was irresponsible and spoiled. Ultimately he would not be happy.

He was shocked by her reply. It was not what he wanted to hear. In that moment, he realized what he was doing, that he was in thrall to a dead person whose power over him increased with every night he sought her company. What he had allowed to happen was utter madness. That very night, he broke it off. Not with his fiancĂ©e, but with his mother. Never again did he petition the “other side” for comfort, love, or sustenance. For that he would go to his wife.

Mom’s implication, in telling this story, was that in the end her father didn’t get much of comfort, love or sustenance from that corner. The marriage indeed disappointed him, and became part of the reason for his long absences. (After his death she, who had never learned to economize, blew through his entire fortune.)

It occurs to me as I write this that I got the ghost from one grandfather, and the receptivity from the other.

My mother had held this secret for a long time. Who would believe it anyway? This account came from a man who was the opposite of fanciful, a wielder of facts and figures: in short, a man of the world and not the beyond. Mom believed him because he was her father whose every word was golden.

Thus she had no problem believing I was being contacted by a family member who happened to be deceased. If I was crazy, that would mean her dad was crazy, an impossible thought to entertain.

So when I asked Mom if there was an old ring passed down to us, her response was immediate. She gave me the key to a safe deposit box.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

At Home With a Ghost - 3

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

“Why?” My father looked at me skeptically when I asked him for a photo of his dad. I couldn’t very well tell him I was in communication with his father’s ghost. And I’d never before shown any interest in my grandfather. Maybe because Dad didn’t talk about him much.

Dad still resented both parents. They had fobbed him off on nannies from the time he was born. Once they even left him for months with a strange couple in Italy while they blithely toured Europe. They were emotionally restrained; my grandmother wouldn’t greet him or give him a kiss whenever he came home from school because she was afraid he’d become a mamma’s boy. They stuck him in St. Mark's boarding school when he was only 12. He was passionate about music, and Grandpa provided him with the piano and teachers but never gave him a word of encouragement when he started to compose seriously. Dad once said, “Why did they have me if they didn’t want to be around me?” He became estranged from his mother, finally, when he was in his twenties and mentioned that he was going to an analyst. His mother hit the roof. “You can’t do this to our family! People will think you’re crazy!” They had a falling out; possibly he pointed out that he had to go to a shrink because of his parents’ utter failure to be parents.

So he wasn’t that happy to dig up a picture of his father for me. I told him lamely that I was just, um, interested in Grandpa, without giving a reason. Dad gave me what I wanted, and off I went to Frank Andrews, the psychic, for a second visit.

I started to give Frank the photo when he stopped me: “Don’t tell me anything, and put the photo face down.”

He started off by describing the man in the photo without having seen him. I still have my notes from this session: “Sloping forehead, hair receding on either side, used to be thicker.” He got that right, judging from the headshot I’d brought. But I had no way to corroborate the rest: “Beautiful hands, long tapering fingers, with a big puff of Venus [the part under the thumb]. He has a Mercury forehead – all mind, too fast a thinker. Used to having his own way but easy to work with if you’re doing it his way.”

Frank looked up. “I see him darting, pacing, agitated around you. Impatient. You’ll get signs, like things falling off the wall, or he’ll steal things. Do you know his birthdate?” I didn’t. “I’m getting that he was a Sagittarius, Gemini rising. Healthwise, his heart was his weak spot. I’m surprised he got married because he was an independent sort. He was buried with a ring. Another ring of his will appear in due time. Did he have an east coast retreat, in the Cape Cod area?” That much I could confirm. We had gone as a family to Grandpa’s beach house in Martha’s Vineyard after he died, a trip I remembered very well because we got trapped in a major hurricane. “You should go there,” said Frank. “Something’s there for you.” Oh yeah, I wondered, whatever happened to that house?

At length I blurted out my problem: that I was being bombarded by music before waking and I didn’t know what it was for. My recording career was over and I wasn’t performing anymore. I’d stopped writing songs – until now.

Frank said, “When he was alive, he was working on a long piece like an operetta, which he never completed. He wants you to complete a similar type of piece, kind of like Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins. And then he might go.”

“Might?” I look at these notes now, and I have to laugh at the “might” part. Because he did go…but then he came back. He goes and he comes back, still to this day.

It’s 36 years later and I’m still stunned how accurate Frank’s reading was. Some of it I could corroborate when I got home afterwards and got my Dad to talk a little about his father. I found out Grandpa’s birth date. Yes, he was a Sagittarius. No birth time was recorded so the Gemini rising wasn’t verifiable, but he certainly sounded, from Dad’s description, like a quick-witted, impatient, dominating man. As for the physical characteristics, you can see for yourself from this photo of Dad with his parents:


Grandpa did get married later in life, age 37, after a lot of clubbing and partying. And he did die of a heart attack – in the Martha’s Vineyard house, in fact, while he was getting dressed to go out for yet another night of carousing with his rich WASP mates.

Some other details given by Frank took longer to confirm. I’ll write about the ring later. But things like Grandpa’s hands: Frank had described pretty much what my dad’s hands looked like, so I figured he got them from his dad. None of the other pictures I ever saw showed my grandfather’s hands. It wasn’t until 2008, a year after my dad died, that I finally saw them. We had just sold Dad’s house, and my brother and I were clearing out the attic when we came upon a decrepit oil portrait of Grandpa. He was seated in front of his piano. A cigarette dangled between his beautiful, very long and slim tapering fingers. They looked like a cast of Chopin’s hands I once saw in a Paris museum: made for playing music. And there was a handsome ring on his pinkie.

And the house on Martha’s Vineyard? There was something there for me after all. But I didn’t get it until ten months ago. I was finally able to buy the house next door.



(To be continued.)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

At Home With a Ghost - 2

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

My grandfather was a composer and music publisher. He was also, according to the New York Times, one of the wealthiest young bachelors in New York, and very social, belonging to a host of exclusive clubs plus the Freemasons. Thus his output as a composer (mostly songs and choral music) was relatively small. It reduced to a trickle after he served in World War I, married my grandmother in Paris, and returned to a life of hobnobbing and carousing, dividing his time among his three homes. Soon after they were married, my grandparents got the son-and-heir thing over with by begetting my father and then turning him over to the household staff and a string of governesses.

My father, too, wanted to be a composer when he was in his twenties. Like his father, he too retreated from composing after serving in World War II. Instead he became a professor of law at Columbia and raised a family. I became the next generation of composer in the family in my mid-twenties, when I landed a recording deal with RCA as a singer-songwriter. My first album, House of Pain, came out in 1974. I had composed most of the songs for my second (Beat Around the Bush) when I had my first encounter with Grandpa’s ghost.

I mention my musical provenance because, not long after I opened myself to communicating with him, I began to receive fragments of music in my dreams. I would be on my way to waking, in that twilight between states of consciousness, when a phrase or snatch of melody would come, along with an urgency: memorize this so you can recreate it when you wake up. The figure would repeat and repeat until I had it down. Upon waking, I would go directly to the piano and pick out the notes, transferring all to music notation paper and then building a song on them. It was a bit like taking dictation, except that once I started fashioning the song it became my own.

Sometimes instead of music I would be shown a story for the basis of a song. For example, right before waking I witnessed a scene unfolding between a pre-adolescent girl and her new stepfather in his study. I even got his name; she called him Mr. Sloane. (The resulting song can be downloaded from my website sarahkernochan.com.) It was a feverish time, as if I was on speed. Sleep became work from which I would awake to more work, the borders dissolving between conscious and unconscious. I knew where these directives were coming from. I had opened the door, after all. But the increasing force of creative imperative started to frighten me. I felt like I was being blown around in a gale.

I was also feeling more than a little crazy. There was no one to talk to. My shrink admitted she didn’t believe in ghosts and kept trying to link these episodes to my early life, especially to my relationship with my father. And I was totally reluctant to talk to my dad, because my dream-time interlocutor was his deceased father, or so I believed. Dad was also an avowed atheist who often said that death was the end, period, and nothing followed.

I called the psychic, Frank Andrews. “You told me I have a spirit around me, a man whom I knew when he was alive. I’ve figured out he’s my grandfather, and I need some advice now.” Frank said, “Don’t tell me any more. Come back to see me, and bring a picture of him.”

Great. The only way to get a picture of Grandpa was to ask my father for one.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

At Home With a Ghost - Part 1




It always amuses me to listen in on people debating whether or not ghosts exist. For me, there’s no debate. I have one.

When I was 27 I didn’t believe in life after death. The proof just wasn’t there for me. In that same year, on the recommendation of a friend, I visited a psychic (Frank Andrews) for the first time. I had a problem.

I had moved out on my boyfriend and was temporarily without digs, spending nights in an upstairs guest room at my parents’. I’d never used this room before, but after I went to college my old bedroom had been taken over by my dad as a study. I didn’t sleep well from the beginning in this unfamiliar room. I would start to fall asleep, and then strange things would happen: sounds like something rolling across a wood floor (the room was completely carpeted) or once I had the sensation my head was in someone’s lap who was stroking my head. Another time, I felt my toes being yanked sharply, as if someone was impatiently demanding my attention. I was frightened, and didn’t know where to turn for help. A friend suggested I see this psychic.

Towards the end of the reading, and without my prompting, he mentioned there was a spirit around me. “It’s male, and you knew him. Don’t worry,” the psychic said, “he’s protective.”

I returned to the guest room without fear, and was able to identify, from clues in the room, exactly who my ghost was. In fact, I don’t know why I didn’t see it right away.

My grandfather was not someone I remembered much of. We didn’t see him that often. I recall his knees and his fancy cane. I recall the circus he sent us tickets to. I recall his house in New York City. He died when I was eight.

But here in this room were his furniture, his books, his portrait, and a bas-relief of his family crest. My parents had stashed all these things up in this guest room to keep them out of harm’s way (we were five rowdy children and a couple of dogs).

The question remained: why me? Why was he trying to make contact with me? I stood and addressed the room: “I know who you are now. I’ll try not to be afraid anymore, if you find some way to communicate with me that doesn’t frighten me as you’ve been doing. I’m open to knowing what it is you want from me.”

Thus began a relationship between a family phantom and myself, which has endured, off and on, until the present.