Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Other Patients: D.J., The Mighty Sage

(Cherokee, Iowa)

February - April 1969

I meet a new friend today--it’s kind of cold, a cruddy day, but I have to get out of that stuffy ward and take a walk, get away from Carrie and her wild escape stories.

Try not to think about Joyce and her ten ways of suicide.

Clear my head, figure out this thing with Jeff and his sudden feelings for that 17-year-old-chick who suddenly popped up.

I will go mad if I don’t go out and kick some snow banks.

A middle-aged guy, carrying some two by fours, is tromping through a snowbank when he drops the boards to the ground, stumbles over them, and then falls flat on his rear.

I run over to help. “You okay?” I assume he’s part of the maintenance staff.

“No, no, I mean, yes, I’m okay.”

“Let me help you.” I grab his hand and help him up.

“Thank you.” Very formal.

“You’re not hurt?”

He laughs and brushes himself off. “Nope.” He sticks out his hand. “I’m D.J.*”

He looks about 35, a big man but not fat, with dusky, reddish skin and slicked back shiny black hair, blue eyes, and thick lips. He wears a red knitted winter cap with ear flaps. No mittens or gloves.

I take his hand. “I’m Jennifer.” D.J. has the biggest hands I have ever seen, broad like paddles, with long thick fingers. His handshake is tentative, respectful.

He wears no winter coat, but he’s obviously layered in several shirts, the top one a gray flannel. A matching scarf wrapped around his neck. He’s clad in brand new overalls and old rubber boots, the kind with those lattice metal buckles that we all wore as kids. He looks a bit unsteady on his feet.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I’m always tripping over my own feet. I got a little bit of palsy.” Then he says, with a bit of a stutter. “I’m-m re-tard-ed.”

“I see.” I help him pick up his boards and walk with him to the maintenance shed, just to make sure he’s really okay. We rap--mostly, he raps--all the way to the shed.

D.J.’s kinda cool, and he’s only slightly retarded--if he hadn’t told me, I would’ve just thought a little slow. He works on the grounds, but he’s also a patient.

He’s been here for 26 years, since he was 17!

Oh-my-god! I can’t even imagine being here when I’m 43. I’ll be an old lady, one foot in the grave.

But D.J. seems happy. When I asked him, “Don’t you want to split this joint?”

He shrugged. “Not really,” he said. “I been here almost all my life. I got a job, my own room, and three meals a day.”

“But what about your freedom?”

“To do what?”

“Well, you could get an apartment, a job on the outside, an old lady--”

He shook his head violently. “Naw, no, I don’t think so. See, I don’t add and subtract too good, and I can’t read or write none too good either.”

“You like it here?”

“I dunno. It’s all right, I suppose. I don’t know any different.”

I hadn’t considered the possibility that someone would actually want to stay.

Maybe that’s what happen when you get stuck in the system and can’t get out.


I go to Donohoe to shoot baskets and then go for a walk and see D.J. again. I only ever see him when I’m outside, walking around on the grounds, never in the dining room or at any of the events.

When I ask him why he never goes to the social events, he says, “I’m too shy.”

I tell him he should go to the dance tonight, but he just shakes his head violently. “Too many people.”

I can’t imagine isolating myself like that. Scary to think that I might be D.J.’s only friend.

“I went to a dance once, when I first got here,” he says. “Some boys called me ‘re-TARD-do,’ and boxed me into a corner.”

Some guys are so immature, picking on someone like D.J., who’s about as sweet as they come. “Didn’t the attendants do anything?”

When Wolfie the psycho danced me into the corner, they were on him like a fly on shit.

“Naw, they just laughed.”

Man, this place must’ve really sucked back then. “It’s probably different now. You might have fun.”

He shakes his head, so I let it drop.

“How did you get in here, anyway?”

“My mother told me I had to live here.”

“Oh.” How must he feel, being rejected by his own mother?

“My dad left when I was five. Said he didn’t want to live with no retard. Mom tried her best, but when I turned 17, she got sick. I had to go to court.”

“Yeah, I know all about that.”

“You had to go to court?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Are you retarded, too?”

I laugh. “Just stupid.”

His face brightens. “My mom visited me every week, but then she died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. It was a long time ago. But she’s still right here,” he says, his hand over his heart.

“You have a good attitude, D.J.”

“Do you get visitors?”

I picture Mo and Dee Dee driving to Cherokee, via icy back roads, only to be turned away. “A few. All my friends live far away.”

“I don’t get visitors no more,” he says.

“Oh, D.J.”

“But it’s okay.” He outstretches his arms and twirls around. “This is my family now.”

I can’t even imagine it.


I’ll be so glad to split this joint--

But not until I say goodbye to D.J.

I find him watering a fir tree. “Hey, D.J.”

He nods.

“Well, this is it; I leave tomorrow.”

“I know.”

“I just want to say goodbye.”

“I hate goodbyes.”

“I do too.”

“Will you visit me?”

“I’m going to Pennsylvania, D.J., and it’s far away.”

“Yeah, I know. To see Jeff.”

“That’s right.”

“Thanks for inviting me to the dance. It was fun.”

“Yeah, it was.”

“I’m gonna miss you.”

“Me too.”

He continues watering the fir, lightly shaking the hose as if to nudge the water out faster. Then he puts the hose down and hugs me, a tentative, holding back hug. I’m going away, after all, out of his sphere, and he has already begun the process of disconnecting.

My life is about to take a dramatic turn--how it eventually plays out, I’m not sure--but I’ll be out of here and into the world, doing my thing.

But D.J.’s day-to-day life is here, always to be the same, following the seasons, nurturing new plants, mourning the dying and dead.

If I were to return 25-35 years from now, I might find D.J., an old man, in this same spot, the fir tree a mighty sage.


*Names and identifying details of other patients 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?