Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Memoir Madness: driven to involuntary commitment (Synopsis)

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Prologue: Caged, February 19, 1969
The memoir opens with my being driven to the Cherokee Mental Health Institute via a caged police car.
I. Going to Cherokee (Chapters One to Fifty Four, pages 2-176)
In the Iowa lexicon of my youth, "going to Cherokee" was synonymous with going crazy; at this point, I had no idea that I was well on my way; Stoney, my drug-dealing boyfriend, and I were just grooving on LSD, my youthful indiscretion foreshadowing what was yet to come.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, through the haze of LSD, I realized that my life was worth more than just getting high. This wasn’t a linear realization, for during this period, I continued experiencing upheaval, ecstasy, discovery, backtracking, hurt, and anger.

Part I begins my journey toward coming of age, follows me as I stumble toward self discovery, and culminates in a generational clash with my guardian grandparents and Woodbury County, Iowa. An altercation with my grandfather begins at the Sioux City bus depot and continues at the police station, thus setting into motion trumped-up legal paperwork, designed to put me, an "incorrigible" teenager, away.
II. Verdict (Chapter Fifty Five, pages 177-193)

Part II is divided into three sections:
Section one opens with my grandmother’s voice as she tries to figure out what has gone wrong with her grandchild. At the end, she asks, "What has this world come to when you send a sweet, deeply religious girl to California, and she comes back as a dirty long-haired hippie, addicted to drugs, with no morals left?" This rhetorical question, her final passage of the memoir, remains unanswered.

Section two presents my court records, word for word, unedited. Woodbury County, in its bumbling, inept manner, speaks for itself.

Section three closes with my grandfather’s lament: "Where have we gone wrong? It’s enough to drive a sane man crazy." This, too, is his final passage.
III. Driven (Chapters Fifty Six to Sixty One, pages 194-207)
This thematic part, a pause between Woodbury County’s decision to commit me to Cherokee and my actual commitment, depicts the myriad ways of being "driven."

Chapter Fifty Six (February-April 1969) describes the rest of the police car drive to Cherokee, my drive to forget those first hours, and my drive to escape from the institution.

Chapter Fifty Seven (February 1969-April 2002): I was "driven for 33 years: to keep secret" my commitment.

Chapter Fifty Eight (April 2002): I found old letters, exchanged 33 years ago between Jeff Brown (later my husband, now my ex) and me, and I felt driven to reread them. At the time I was experiencing an impasse in my writing and personal life.

I emailed Cherokee for my hospital records, again driven, this time to have some unanswered questions finally answered.

Chapter Fifty Nine (May 15, 2004) depicts a convergence of two milestones: my husband Jerry’s upcoming Fulbright in Skopje, Macedonia, and the impending birth of my granddaughter while we are away. "I don’t want to go overseas," I say. "I want to be there for her birth, to hold her minutes, even seconds, after she’s born."

After reaching a compromise, in which we would return to the U.S. in January 2005, I decide to follow my husband overseas, to use the year abroad as an opportunity to write my memoir.

Chapter Sixty closes on August 29, 2004, with my final decision to revisit Cherokee.

"I’ll drive you there," my husband says.

The opening of Chapter Sixty One (August 30, 2004) continues the literal and symbolic meaning of being driven: "This warm summer day, I am driven to Cherokee, northeast of Sioux City, to revisit the Mental Health Institute. Metaphorically, this trip has taken 35 years and thousands of detours and dead ends."
IV. Cherokee (Chapters Sixty Two to Eighty Four, pages 208-365)
"Oh-my-God. I can’t believe they did this to me," I say on February 19, 1969.

So my Cherokee incarceration begins, continuing until April 15, 1969, and ending with my conditional release from the institution. During the two months there, I cope with doctors, staff, and social workers who would meddle with my future.

I develop a strong bond with the psychiatrist assigned to my case; from the beginning, he has realized that my commitment was an egregious mistake and works toward my timely release. I also develop an ongoing clash of wills with a young and straitlaced social worker, yet, despite my sassy behavior, he also works for my release.

Letters from Jeff, my boyfriend, have become my lifeline to the outside world as we exchange ideas on books, popular culture, music, movies, and politics. However, he admits to experiencing mixed feelings about our relationship–there is another girl–so in these pre-email days, our relationship takes on a sort of snail-mail high drama as we banter back and forth.

Meanwhile, I interact with various patients: a psychopath who preys on other patients, a 17-year-old unwed mother, a teen cutter with strange obsessions about rats, a young married mother enthralled with "10 ways of suicide," and D.J., a 42-year-old mentally challenged man and 25 year resident of Cherokee, among others.

Of all the patients, D.J. has the most impact on me. A kind man, he shows that freedom is relative, for in his mind, Cherokee is exactly where he wants to be–that, for him, release would be a burden. "His day-to-day life is here, always to be the same, following the seasons, nurturing new plants, mourning the dying and dead," I say, on the day before my release. "If I were to return 25-35 years from now, I might find him, an old man, in this same spot, the fir tree a mighty sage."
V. Leaving Cherokee (Chapters Eighty Five to Eighty Six, pages 366-396)
"Hooray! I’m out!"

April 16: I have been released on one condition: that I remain in Sioux City for at least six months. I have refused to live with my grandparents. Also, with regret, I have declined staying with a sympathetic aunt; I didn’t want to place her in an awkward family situation. So the state of Iowa arranges for my room and board at a local boardinghouse.

I find a job in a diner, the owner a bitter woman who mistreats her employees. Within ten days, I have quit that job, deciding to split for Pennsylvania, long before the required six months, but only after I have received my tax refund.

To my dismay, Jeff has decided to visit the other girl, who lives in another Pennsylvania city.

My sense of urgency increases as I, for the next two weeks, wait for my tax refund check.

Finally, on May 1, my refund arrives. On May 5, after a minor confrontation with my grandfather at the bus depot, I leave for Pennsylvania.

This part concludes on May 6 as I step off the bus in York, Jeff awaiting me: "It’s been a long, long journey."
VI: Released: August 30, 2004 (Chapter 87, pages 397-401)
This part wraps up my 2004 journey to Cherokee, both actual and metaphorical. After buying Cherokee Mental Health: 100 Years of Serving Iowan’s [sic], an incomplete history of the institution, my husband Jerry and I leave Cherokee and head back to Sioux City. During our return trip, I flip through the book and scan the Chronicle Times, the town’s newspaper: the ordinariness of the stories strikes me as profound.

"No section called ‘Cedar Loop News’ for the institution," I observe as we cruise into Sioux City. "On this day, as it was for me in 1969, these are two distinct towns, one wide open and transparent, the other shadowy and secret--just a no-name outline on the map."
VII. Final Diagnosis: May 9, 1969 (pages 402-403)
In a short clinical passage, my psychiatrist offers my final diagnosis: "Adjustment Reaction of Adolescence."
Epilogue (Summer 2010) (pages 404-414)
I offer a short update on my life since August 2004 and a short, albeit incomplete, history of the institution, culled from the book Cherokee Mental Health: 100 Years of Serving Iowan’s [sic] where I discover some surprising details about the institution’s history and how it might relate to my story.
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Memoir Madness Excerpts: Table of Contents

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Before the Institution

Prologue: Caged


Chapter One: The Crystal Ship


Chapter One: Blue Moons


Chapter Two: Dark Side


Chapter Two: Flying Solo


Chapter Two: Weed and Seeds


Chapter Two: Funny Little Naked Clowns


Chapter Two: Decision Time


Chapter Two: Thirteen Tabs


Chapter Three: Wallich's Music City and Eleanor's Radio


Chapters Four and Six: New Year's Eve, 1968--Fire


Chapter Eight: Rudy


Chapter Ten: Cops


Chapter Eleven: The Luckiest Hand


Chapter Twelve: Downers


Chapter Twenty Three: Sioux City Blues


Chapter Twenty Four: ..."While I Kiss the Sky"


Chapter Twenty six: The Miracle of Google


Chapter Thirty: There Must be Some Way Outta Here


Chapter Thirty Eight: What to Do With My Life?


Chapter Forty One: My Country 'Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Tyranny


Chapter Fifty One: Nabbed at the Bus Station


Chapter Fifty Three: "Let's See What the Police Have to Say"


Chapter Fifty Four: A Possible Scenario at the Police Station


Chapter Fifty Six: Driven


Chapter Fifty Eight: Driven 2

Memoir Madness Excerpts: The Institution

The First Five Days


The Other Patients: Perky Penny


The Other Patients: Carrie the Cutter


The Other Patients: Joyce


The Other Patients: D.J., The Mighty Sage


The Other Patients: Anna on the Lam


Proving My Sanity

Memoir Madness Excerpts: After the Institution

Denise's Tips


Leaving Sioux City: Dee Dee


Epilogue: A Short History of the Cherokee Mental Health Institute

Memoir Madness Excerpts: Flashbacks (Fall 1968)

October 1968: Rev. Arthur Blessitt and His Place


October 12, 1968: A Mother's Warning


October 12, 1968: The Birthday Party


October 1968: Wild Man Fischer's Merry-go-round


A media-rich version of these excerpts (with photos, artwork, videos, out takes, essays, etc.,) can be accessed here.

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About Memoir Madness...


Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment (Amazon)
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About Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment...

Christmas Eve, 1968: history is made as Apollo 8 astronauts deliver their Christmas message from orbit around the moon.

On earth, at The Crystal Ship, a rock and head shop near Hollywood, California, Jennifer Semple listens to the iconic broadcast and, through the fog of drugs, ponders the future.

In the ensuing days, the 18-year-old girl experiments with LSD and other drugs; juggles a crumbling relationship with a notorious drug dealer; and tries to make sense of life at 2001 Ivar Street, a Hollywood, California, apartment complex where hippies, drug dealers, freaks, strippers, groupies, college students, Jesus Freaks, counterculture gurus, drag queens, rock stars and wannabe rocksters, svengalis, and con artists converge during one of the most volatile periods in history.

Then her grandfather finds the girl and coaxes her into returning to her Iowa hometown, where, unknown to her, she is still considered a minor.

After a series of events and blowups with her grandparents, she is dragged into the Iowa court system and involuntarily committed to the Cherokee Mental Institute in Cherokee, Iowa.

While incarcerated, she corresponds with Jeff, a new boyfriend, and also interacts with other patients: Wolfie, a psychopath who preys on other patients; Penny, a 17-year-old unwed mother; Carrie, a teen cutter with strange obsessions about rats; Joyce, a young married mother enthralled with “10 ways of suicide”; Drew, a young man facing a stiff prison sentence for possession of marijuana; and D.J., a 42-year-old mentally challenged man and 25-year resident of Cherokee, among others.

Finally released from the institution, Jennifer flees Iowa and settles in Pennsylvania, where she still lives today.

As young Jennifer narrates her late 1960’s memoir, how will the older and wiser Jennifer, now voluntarily returning to Cherokee as a visitor, reconcile that painful time in her history with her current ordinary life as a wife, mother, grandmother, and teacher?