Monday, December 1, 2008

Chapter 26: The Miracle of Google

August 2004

(Delta Flight #5883 to Omaha, Nebraska, on approach)

I yearn to understand my mother, but I doubt if I ever will.

I Googled her as Jan Durrell, her professional name. Mary Lou “Marilyn” Semple Carson Kraft Whalen was a burlesque dancer who performed under the Durrell name.

On “Java’s Bachelor Pad,” accessed through Google, a full body pinup of Mary Lou, scantily clad in a red feather bikini and high heels, her short hair platinum, adorns the cover of Devils Dance in Me, by Lee Shepard (Chariot Book, 1963), accompanied by the blurb, “Her body ruled her brain. She lived in a town where female flesh was willing, waiting--and dirt cheap.”

A pulp fiction cover.

Her pose, by today’s standards, is mild: Jan Durrell, head haughtily tossed in the air, her chest thrust forward, legs slightly apart, right hand on lower hip seems to dare the men gawking at her to try any funny stuff.

Even knowing what my mother was, I’m still shocked by the pinup.

She’s my mother, for God’s sake.

Of four defining early events in my life, Mary Lou dominates three.

One: Mother’s chronic alcoholism. In 1979, Mary Lou died of liver failure--a slow suicide. She was just 48. To this day, her shadow trails me--as if she’s tapping on my shoulder, begging forgiveness. It’s difficult, though--probably why she continues to plead--but my inability goes beyond her lifestyle choices. I would forgive for that.

Two: Robin, my younger sister, and I being run over by a truck. Mary Lou was in bed when it happened--hung over. Robin and I escaped unharmed, at least physically, though, at six, I got a crash course on the concept of death. Experts insist the age of reason comes later, but I know better; it comes when it’s awakened.

Three: Robin and I being raised apart, she in Arkansas, I in Iowa. I’ll always feel a profound sadness and loss and, yes, anger. If only Mary Lou had reconciled her life, my grandparents would not have been forced to choose between raising Robin and giving her up.

Mom, if you were alive, I would tell you: your own mother Mo carried the guilt of that decision to her grave. As I grow older, I understand why she and Dee Dee gave up my sister, though knowledge doesn’t lessen pain. It only affects how I choose to forgive; she did what she thought was best and made a decision that offered little clarity of hindsight.

But it was the wrong decision. Thirty years later, in 1987, when I finally reunited with Robin, how could I blame her for preferring ties with her Arkansas kin? She remembers nothing about Mother or me, so how could she possibly love us?

Mother, your part in this drama is unforgivable. I’m still working on forgiving Mo and Dee Dee, now long dead. Perhaps this year’s trip to Sioux City will be one leg in that process. I concede that you had little to do with Cherokee, defining event four; by this time, you were remote from my life. But you should know that I’m about to undertake one of the most important journeys of my life. I’m going to the Woodbury County Courthouse, obtain my commitment records, accept whatever they reveal.

I might even go to Cherokee again.

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Memoir Madness Excerpts: Table of Contents


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.


About Memoir Madness...

Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment (Amazon)

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?