Outtake: Three Challenges and a Triumph (?)
This essay, originally written in 2008 (and updated in 2023) – along with 350+ other pages, did not make it into the final version of Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment, now available on Amazon.
I have posted some of these “outtakes”
on this website. See Table of Contents: “Outtakes.”
After years of
mulling my mental institution experience, my serious memoir journey began in
late September 2004, when I traveled to Skopje, Macedonia, to spend the
2004-2005 academic year with my husband Jerry Siegel, a Fulbright Scholar.
The plan: to finally tell my story.
I lugged photocopies of articles, letters, and hospital and court records
across the ocean, a hefty file of sources.
In my carry-on bag – I couldn’t risk losing these primary sources
somewhere in Eastern Europe.
After recovering from jet lag, I, not quite sure where to start, sat down
at my laptop.
I needed to figure out my purpose for writing this book:
To achieve some kind of closure, to work
on forgiving my grandparents, long deceased, and even the state of Iowa, and to
In February 1969, Woodbury County, Iowa,
in cahoots with my grandfather Harley D. Semple, committed me, an 18-year-old
hippie chick, to the Cherokee Mental Health Institute. At a competency hearing in Sioux City, I
admitted to using LSD – evidently enough testimony to force an involuntary
commitment, culminating in my loss of freedom. I had not been convicted of a
My incarceration seemed unfair, and in 2023, it probably would have been
illegal as well. But this was 1969, at a time when unfair situations could be
fixed by those wielding power over a powerless teenager.
In an attempt to tell my story, I faced three challenges.
I had a story, but how compelling was it?
Technically, my imprisonment was inconsequential. Designated as a “screening
center patient,” I was tested and warehoused while my psychiatrist lobbied for
my release; then, after two months, I was discharged.
But for me those months
represented a significant bubble in my life – time itself stopped and expanded
far out of proportion to actual time. I was livid, my anger at “The
Establishment” palpable and constant, persisting for years and affecting the
course of my life. No matter how minute, it was still time not mine.
I must write
about my incarceration at Cherokee and the events leading up to it.
How much of my story could I remember?
Letters between my ex-husband and me during my commitment helped to fill in
major gaps, but how would I contend with the drug-crazed Hollywood months
leading up to it? I remembered major incidents, but details felt hazy.
Do I fill in with
If so, is this part of my
memoir still memoir, or is it fiction?
I will disclose this part of my
Scary thought, even now,
after the fact.
I’ll face whatever consequences befall
me; however, my family and friends have not chosen to have their past lives
sliced open and bled dry.
I changed most names and
minor details about people. Nonfiction purists may claim I have skirted the
truth, but what, exactly, is truth? Yes, this memoir has slashed open some
psychological wounds and exposed them, but it also has minimized inflicting
pain on others. I had a moral and, maybe, legal obligation to protect
identities, especially those of other ex-patients and ex-hippies who may have
indulged in youthful indiscretions and don’t really want to have that part of
their lives exposed.
I used my ex-husband’s
actual name, an issue faced head on: I presented to him an unfinished draft and
showed him every subsequent draft and final product. I’ve read horror stories
about ex-lovers, parents, siblings, family, and friends being blindsided by
published memoirs, their secrets exposed, without any warning. Who could blame
them for being upset?
Before embarking on my
ex-pat life, I had told my ex about the proposed memoir; he didn't threaten to
sue, though he expressed some unease about exposing our past drug use. We have
an adult son, after all.
“But it’s a necessary part
of the book,” he said. “It has to be in there. So I’ve been overruled.”
By sharing, I have offered
him a voice in my project.
My caution paid off: he proved
to be an important ally, instead of a bitter enemy.
Catharsis, to finally leave Cherokee behind,
retracing, via the power of the keyboard, my past – drug use, involuntary
commitment, and eventual discharge – revisiting 18-year-old Jennifer and
attempting to make sense of what happened and why.
Ultimate triumph? Now
published through Amazon, perhaps Memoir Madness will find its place in
the literary canon.
But, if not, that’s okay,
too. At least I have my story out there, at home in its small corner of the
I have attempted to explain why I needed to tell my story and the
challenges I faced in revealing the past that might have remained hidden and how
my story intertwined with the stories of others around me.
For more about the impact of writing a memoir, see The Politics of Memoir and the Making of Memoir Madness.
______________________“Outtake: Three Challenges in Search of a Triumph,” © copyright 2004 - present, by Jennifer Semple Siegel, may not be reprinted or reposted without the express permission of the author.