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 not forget.
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 crime.
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.
Challenge 1 (Significance):
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.
Challenge 2 (Memory):
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 supposition?
If so, is this part of my memoir still memoir, or is it fiction?
Challenge 3 (Disclosure):
I will disclose this part of my life.
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 internet.
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.