Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Other Patients: Carrie the Cutter

(Cherokee, Iowa)

February 1969

I’m worried about Carrie*, a 15-year-old girl I have befriended. She shuffles between Ward 2 (wacko unit) and Ward 4, depending on her behavior. She’s on 4 now, but I’m afraid she’s headed back to 2 very soon.

She babbles about wanting to stick a dead rat up her vagina, and when I ask why, she says, “Just for something to do.”

Should I say something to the staff? I dunno. I wouldn’t want anyone narking me out about some dumb comment I made during a bull session. We all say crazy stuff just to be bull shitting, but, somehow, I suspect Carrie really means to harm herself. I’ll wait and see, and hope her doctor is keeping close tabs on her.

Carrie goes to Heelan but is out of school because of being here. Besides, she’s too fucked up for school, which fucks kids up anyway. She landed in here because she carved “Father Falon*” all up and down her arms; she showed me the scars, and, sure enough, his name is still faintly visible.

“I love him,” she says when I ask why she did it. Father Falon teaches at Heelan, and, I must admit, when I was there, I had a crush on him, too. But it wouldn’t have occurred to me to carve his name on my arms. I have never heard of such strange stuff.

Behind her back, I call her Carrie the Cutter.

Mean, I know, but she pissed me off when she suggested, as we were bathing, that we have a Lesbian relationship. I politely declined, and she let it go at that.

In the bath area, three tubs, no curtains, so everyone can see each other naked. Makes me uneasy--I like my privacy too much. But Carrie seems to like company when she bathes. Never again; from now on, I’ll take my baths late at night, when I’m alone and away from all prying eyes.

Carrie appears slightly retarded; her mouth droops open a little, she hunches slightly, and she has yellow teeth, pointy buck teeth with a wide space between them, but I don’t think she is actually mentally lacking. She’s too wily and dreams up all these complicated plots for escaping this joint, complete with accomplices and getaway cars. All talk, I’m sure. Still, it takes brains to think up these schemes.

She loves shocking and burning herself on the coils of those huge electric cigarette lighters stuck on the walls. The shocks are just static electricity, but they hurt, and most of us try to avoid them, but Carrie loves hearing the zaps snap against her index fingertip. She goes from lighter to lighter, finding the one offering the biggest thrill.

These lighters are ominous oblong bronze boxes that hum like those strange electrical contraptions in old horror movies. Rube Goldberg apparatuses, some inventor taking a simple object and complicating it. It’s funny to watch someone light a cigarette; it looks like they’re kissing the box. The state is afraid we’ll burn the place down if we’re allowed matches or lighters, but I’ve figured out a way to create a flame by sticking a piece of loosely rolled paper to the coil--not that I’d ever show Carrie how to do it. This is my secret.

I have no desire to set a fire, but it’s always good, in a pinch, to know these things.

With due respect to Carrie, this place needs a humidifier like bad; every time you touch metal--the box lighters, water taps, TV, stove in the communal room--ZAP! Crackle! Pop! When I comb my hair, it crackles and sticks out. Feels funny, like I’m going to take wing, via my hair, which takes longer to get dirty, and my skin is so dry it cracks. Lip balm is my best friend. You’d think the state could pop for some humidifiers, instead of sticking innocent teenagers in here to fry themselves.


I’m worried about Carrie; for the past three or four days, she’s been complaining of horrible chest pains. She told the attendant she wanted to see a nurse, but the nurse refused--said she was faking. So Carrie asked to see the night doctor; he refused. Although Carrie’s a bit batty, I still like her, and I don’t think she’s faking this. It’s just been going on too long. I kept after the attendants and nurses, and still they refused. Two nights ago, Carrie’s pain was so bad I was scared to go to bed--that if I left her alone, she’d be dead by morning. So, I blew up at the R.N. and told her to get the damn doctor in here. They took her to the infirmary.

I don’t know what’s wrong with Carrie--she looked better when I visited her today--but even if her illness is in her head, it’s better to err on the side of being wrong than being sorry. It’s scary being at the mercy of the system--they can decide life and death matters, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, other than make lots of noise.


After two weeks of ailing, Carrie’s back on 4 from the infirmary.

When I ask her what had been wrong with her, she just shrugs. “They don’t know, but it’s not my heart. Probably panic attacks.” She laughs like a fiendish little elf. “So you didn’t save my life, Florence Nightingale.”

Like I would hope for something serious so I could play the big heroine? “Well, it could have been serious.”

“But it wasn’t!”

“Okay, I get it.”

“You screwed up, and landed my ass in the tank for over two weeks!”

That’s what I like about Carrie: her utmost gratefulness to a friend who was trying to help her when no one else gave a shit. “Yeah, I guess I screwed up.”

Yeah, I screwed up, all right--the next time she has palpitations, I’ll just look the other way. Actually, I’d like to distance myself from Carrie anyway; she has become obsessed not only with the idea of sticking a rat up her vagina, but now she’s talking about larger animals, such as cats and dogs. Where does she come up with all this stuff, anyway? Sooner or later, she’s going to end up on locked ward, or, worse, in isolation, which, I hear, is a padded cell.

I’ll just hang out with Penny from now on.


*Names and identifying details of other patients and some have been changed.

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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?