Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Chapter 58: Driven 2

April 2002

(York, Pennsylvania)

Ignited by writer’s block and a spark: driven to question.

As I stared at a blank screen and keyboard, my foot bumped against a chest.

My letters to Jeff, his to me.

At first, just a gentle nudging, eventually an incessant nagging. I tried ignoring the impulse to read them, those reminders of a past that no longer existed, not even as a puff of fog

I don’t want to become like some older people who dwell in the past, who talk incessantly about the “good old days”

I couldn’t remember too many good old days. Yet the letters tugged at me, chanting like sirens, “Read, read, read us.”

So I opened the chest, selected a letter, and read.


Holden Caulfield.

I folded the letter, postmarked February 14, 1969, and slipped it back into the envelope.

I married Holden Caulfield.

Drawn on the front, just below the canceled 6-cent stamp, a G.I. firing a rifle, his bloody target a shirtless barefoot Viet Cong in the defensive position. The caption below the address:
Jeff. A long distance courtship, a child, a marriage, a divorce, another husband–in that precise order. A whole slew of letters, intense, hot, yet oddly ambiguous love dispatches, saved for over 33 years, last read, God knows when.

Years ago, my brother-in-law Keith built and finished a small cherry chest for me as a Christmas present; I gathered together all the letters Jeff and I had exchanged between December 1968 and May 1969, arranged them in order according to postmark, put them into the chest, then forgot them. When we divorced in 1980, I asked Jeff if wanted my letters to him back–I didn’t offer him his letters to me.

“Naw,” he said. “Throw ‘em away.”

Why would you want to keep souvenirs of a failed marriage?

But I couldn’t bring myself to toss them. They represented history, a painful and, at times, ugly history, but it was an important personal history, chronicling in some detail a landmark in my life. I hadn’t thought about those letters in years. They simply existed, tucked away underneath my work table, waiting for an opportune time to open a fissure.


Driven to read.

It took three full nights to read the 90+ letters. I read them covertly after Jerry went to bed–a guilty secret. What would I find in those dispatches from the past?

My own letters, a disappointment: I had remembered them as being great art, the inner workings of a young girl-woman who had taken on the Establishment and won. Instead, young Jennifer recounted, sometimes endlessly, the minutiae of life in a mental institution. She often obsessed about her relationship with Jeff, the tone of her letters often immature, manipulative, and rambling, some implying future self-destruction should Jeff decide to ditch her. Still, I perceived some insights, epiphanies, self discoveries, and a vague sense of searching for meaning out of a horrifying experience.

Jeff’s letters hinted of a vividly curious mind that it hardly seemed possible that he would even consider me as a future mate. Yet he loved me as only an exuberant 18-year-old boy can; in a March 8, 1969, letter, he wrote:
I can get out your picture, and imagine (if I try real hard) you’re here: your voice, your matter-of-fact way of speaking (always as if you’re explaining something somewhat important–as much, or more, to yourself than anyone else–with a casual formality of tone, and abundance of asides [“and you see,” and “it’s like this”] and very expressive hand movements), your smile (much too sunny and radiant for a street chick. You’re a hopeless idealist!), your old hat, brown outfits with yellow handbags and shoes, very light freckles, skin too white to ever allow you to be a native Californian, and long, brown hair, sometimes dyed black, that, I enviously recall, could blot out your whole face when you combed it.
What girl wouldn’t melt at such a description?

Throughout our brief, but intense, correspondence, his letters, for the most part, retain the optimistic exuberance of a young man who saw a formidable challenge ahead, but who knew that the outcome would be positive.

I was jealous of his letters, even after all those years.

And, yet, despite the superficiality of my own letters, I realized that I just had to read between the lines and reach deep into my memory for the fear, anger, sadness, guilt, and ecstasy I felt back in 1969.

Perhaps I would write a book. First, I needed my hospital records.

I took a deep breath and emailed Cherokee.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated.

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?