About Memoir Madness: Notes on Narrative Threads (Flashbacks, Other Voices, and Dramatization)

Primary Narrative Thread

Christmas Eve 1968 to May 1969. Although the prologue is from the perspective of Jennifer Semple Siegel’s current persona – thus, mostly past tense – the primary narrative thread (the bulk of the memoir), recreates Jennifer Semple’s 18-year-old voice through the present tense.

The goal: to place the reader in the middle of that volatile time and into the life of a rebellious teen –

To show readers what their grandmothers were doing back in the day – well, perhaps not all grandmas, but many of them.

The writer incorporates other narrative approaches as well:

Secondary Narrative Thread

August 18 - 30, 2004: Beginning in Chapter 11, Jennifer’s youthful voice is interrupted by Jennifer the adult attempting to make sense of her past.

August 18, 2004: as Jennifer ponders a return journey to Cherokee, she addresses some issues she had not really addressed in the primary thread: her unhealthy relationship with Stoney, her drug-dealing boyfriend, and guilt over a “Dear John” letter she had written in November 1968 to a fiancĂ©, a Marine stationed in Vietnam.

August 29: after experiencing some anxiety, Jennifer decides to make the journey to Cherokee to take pictures and remember.

August 30: Jennifer describes her return to Cherokee, Iowa, as a sort of catharsis. While there, she experiences past emotions, feelings, visions, and smells. She speculates about the current incarnation of Cherokee.

She also contemplates living abroad for the upcoming year (2004 - 2005) and reflects on the convention of letter-writing as a tenuous connection between long-distance lovers.

These intermittent present tense passages include Chapters 11, 26, 35, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 64, 68, 70, 75, 77, 79, 88, and “Epilogue: A Final Update...” (2012).

In terms of length, these passages are short interruptions but important in that they offer a distant perspective of my past and a glimpse of young Jennifer’s future.


Flashbacks to Fall 1968

Although these Hollywood events occur in close proximity to the primary narrative thread, the main focus of the memoir begins on Christmas Eve 1968. Yet, some revealing and important events have occurred before that time. These flashbacks, interspersed throughout the book, are written in the past tense because, for young Jennifer, they were well into the past.

For clarity, most of the Fall 1968 flashbacks have been afforded their own short chapters, which are interwoven contextually (thus, not necessarily in chronological order) throughout the primary narrative: Chapters 3, 9, 15, 17, 19, 25, 27, 31, 33, 37, 39, 42, 66, 72, 76, 82, and 84.


Childhood Flashbacks

In addition, three flashbacks to Jennifer’s childhood – short italicized, present tense, dream-like passages – are included within the primary thread, not in their own chapters.

These passages include a near-death experience at age six (in Chapter 34), her younger sister Robin being taken away from the Semple family (in Chapter 46), and a nightmare, at age four, about bed-wetting and snakes (in Chapter 85). These memories tie in with events occurring in the primary thread.


Perspective of Jennifer’s Childhood Guardians

Harley D. Semple, Jennifer’s grandfather, passed away in 1974, Olive Semple, grandmother, in 1987. Therefore, for their first-person narratives, Jennifer has referred to interview summaries contained in her hospital records – interviews conducted and summarized by her psychiatrist (and other hospital personnel).

Jennifer has also relied on her personal knowledge about the people who raised her. “Their voices, which I have recreated, are what I remember,” Jennifer notes, adding, “During this time in my life, I was harsh and judgmental toward my grandparents; as an adult looking back, I owed them an opportunity to tell their side of my story.”

These short present tense narratives have been placed in their own chapters, intermittently occurring between December 31, 1968, and February 19, 1969; these include Chapters 5 (Harley), 7 (Harley), 13 (Harley), 21 (Harley), 22 (Olive), 29 (Olive), 43 (Olive), 45 (Olive), 47 (Olive), 49 (Olive), 52 (Harley), 55 (Olive), and 56 (Harley).



In Chapter 54-Four, Jennifer has included a dramatized scenario between her grandfather and Opal Casey, the Sioux City police matron, as they draw up the papers required for her court hearing, ultimately resulting in her involuntary commitment.

This dramatic scene, complete with recreated dialogue, has been based on her actual court papers, in which Harley Semple’s name, as “Informant,” has been scratched out and replaced with Opal Casey’s name.

“I feel confident that the gist of this dramatization is accurate, given the information presented in the informant report trumped up without my consent or knowledge.” Jennifer says of her decision to include this short scene. “It took me 33 years to muster up the courage to request my mental health records and another two years to act on them. I found them quite telling.”


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