About Memoir Madness: Synopsis

Prologue: Caged, February 19, 1969

The memoir opens with 18-year-old Jennifer Semple being driven to the Cherokee Mental Health Institute via a caged police car.


I. Going to Cherokee (Chapters 1 - 54)

In the Iowa lexicon of Northwest Iowa, “going to Cherokee” is synonymous with going crazy; at this point, the teen has no idea that she is well on her way; Stoney, her drug-dealing boyfriend, and she are just grooving on LSD, a youthful indiscretion foreshadowing what is yet to come.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, through the haze of LSD, she realizes that her life is worth more than just getting high. This is not a linear realization, for during this period, she continues experiencing upheaval, ecstasy, discovery, backtracking, hurt, and anger.

In Part I, the teen begins a journey toward coming of age, continuing as she stumbles toward self-discovery and culminates in a double-generational clash with her guardian grandparents and Woodbury County, Iowa. An altercation with her grandfather occurs at the Sioux City bus depot and continues at the police station, thus setting into motion trumped-up legal paperwork, designed to put the girl, an “incorrigible” teenager, away.


II. Verdict (Chapters 55 - 56)

This part is divided into three sections:

Section one opens with the grandmother’s voice as the older woman 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, the grandmother’s final passage of the memoir, remains unanswered.

Section two (Special Insert) presents the teen’s court records, word for word, unedited. Woodbury County, in its bumbling, inept manner, speaks for itself.

Section three closes with the grandfather’s lament: “Where have we gone wrong? It’s enough to drive a sane man crazy.” This, too, is the grandfather’s final passage.


III. Driven (Chapters 57 - 62)

This thematic part, a pause between Woodbury County’s decision to commit the teen to Cherokee and her actual commitment, depicts the myriad ways of being “driven.”

Chapter 57 (February-April 1969) describes the rest of the police car drive to Cherokee, the teen’s drive to forget those first hours, and her drive to escape from the institution.

Chapter 58 (February 1969-April 2002): A much older Jennifer has been “driven for 33 years: to keep secret my commitment.”

Chapter 59 (April 2002): Jennifer finds old letters, exchanged 33 years ago between Jeff Brown (later her husband, now her ex) and her, and she feels driven to reread them. At the time she is experiencing an impasse in her writing and personal life.

She emails Cherokee for her hospital records, again driven, this time to have some unanswered questions finally answered.

Chapter 60 (May 15, 2004) depicts a convergence of two milestones: husband Jerry’s upcoming Fulbright in Skopje, North Macedonia, and the impending birth of their granddaughter while they are away. “I don’t want to go overseas,” she says to her husband. “I want to be there for her birth, to hold her minutes, even seconds, after she’s born.”

After reaching a compromise, in which they would return to the U.S. in January 2005, she decides to follow her husband overseas, to use the year abroad as an opportunity to write her memoir.

Chapter 61 closes on August 29, 2004, with Jennifer’s final decision to revisit Cherokee.

“I’ll drive you there,” says Jerry.

Chapter 62 (August 30, 2004) continues the literal and symbolic meaning of being driven: Jennifer, now the visitor to the institution instead of its inmate, says, “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 63 - 85)

“Oh-my-God. I can’t believe they did this to me,” Jennifer laments on February 19, 1969, as she is admitted to the institution..

Thus begins the teen’s Cherokee incarceration, continuing until April 15, 1969, and ending with her conditional release from the institution. During the two months there, she copes with doctors, staff, and social workers who would meddle with her future.

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

Letters from Jeff, Jennifer’s boyfriend after Stoney, have become her lifeline to the outside world as they exchange ideas on books, popular culture, music, movies, and politics. However, he admits to experiencing mixed feelings about their relationship – there is another girl – so in these pre-email days, their relationship takes on a snail-mail high drama as the two teens banter back and forth, from Iowa, to Pennsylvania, and back, via the United States Postal Service.

Meanwhile, Jennifer interacts with various patients: a psychopathic predator 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 the teen. 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,” the girl says, on the day before her 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 86 - 87)

“Hooray! I’m out!” the teen says on April 16, her release date. She has been released on one condition: that she remain in Sioux City for at least six months. She has refused to live with her grandparents or a sympathetic aunt, so the state of Iowa arranges for her room and board at a local boardinghouse.

The girl finds a job in a diner, the owner a bitter woman who mistreats her employees. Within 10 days, Jennifer quits that job, deciding to split for Pennsylvania, long before the required six-month residency requirement, but, first, she must wait for her tax refund, a result of her short-lived job in Hollywood.

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

Her sense of urgency increases as she, for the next two weeks, awaits the refund check.

Finally, on May 1, the refund arrives. On May 5, after a minor confrontation with her grandfather at the bus depot, Jennifer leaves for Pennsylvania.

This part concludes on May 6 as she steps off the bus in York, Jeff awaiting her. “It’s been a long, long journey,” she narrates, looking forward to this new phase of life.


VI: Released: August 30, 2004 (Chapter 88)

This part wraps up Jennifer’s 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, Jennifer and Jerry leave Cherokee and head back to Sioux City. During their return trip, she flips through the book and scans the Chronicle Times, the town’s newspaper: the ordinariness of the stories strikes her as profound.

“No section called ‘Cedar Loop News’ [institution address] for the institution,” Jennifer observes as they 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

In a short clinical passage, Jennifer’s psychiatrist offers the final diagnosis for her: “Adjustment Reaction of Adolescence.”


Epilogue: A Final Update (December 2012)

Jennifer offers a short update on her life since August 2004 and a short, albeit incomplete, history of the institution, culled from the Cherokee Mental Health: 100 Years of Serving Iowan’s [sic] where she discovers some surprising details about the institution’s history and how it might relate to her story.

The long and winding road to and from the Cherokee Mental Institute. Photo by Jennifer Semple Siegel, August 2004 

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