Prologue: Caged, February 19, 1969
The memoir opens with my being driven to the Cherokee Mental Health Institute via a caged police car.
I. Going to Cherokee (Chapters One to Fifty Four, pages 2-176)
In the Iowa lexicon of my youth, "going to Cherokee" was synonymous with going crazy; at this point, I had no idea that I was well on my way; Stoney, my drug-dealing boyfriend, and I were just grooving on LSD, my youthful indiscretion foreshadowing what was yet to come.
On Christmas Eve, 1968, through the haze of LSD, I realized that my life was worth more than just getting high. This wasn’t a linear realization, for during this period, I continued experiencing upheaval, ecstasy, discovery, backtracking, hurt, and anger.
Part I begins my journey toward coming of age, follows me as I stumble toward self discovery, and culminates in a generational clash with my guardian grandparents and Woodbury County, Iowa. An altercation with my grandfather begins at the Sioux City bus depot and continues at the police station, thus setting into motion trumped-up legal paperwork, designed to put me, an "incorrigible" teenager, away.
II. Verdict (Chapter Fifty Five, pages 177-193)
Part II is divided into three sections:
Section one opens with my grandmother’s voice as she tries to figure out what has gone wrong with her grandchild. At the end, she asks, "What has this world come to when you send a sweet, deeply religious girl to California, and she comes back as a dirty long-haired hippie, addicted to drugs, with no morals left?" This rhetorical question, her final passage of the memoir, remains unanswered.
Section two presents my court records, word for word, unedited. Woodbury County, in its bumbling, inept manner, speaks for itself.
Section three closes with my grandfather’s lament: "Where have we gone wrong? It’s enough to drive a sane man crazy." This, too, is his final passage.
III. Driven (Chapters Fifty Six to Sixty One, pages 194-207)
This thematic part, a pause between Woodbury County’s decision to commit me to Cherokee and my actual commitment, depicts the myriad ways of being "driven."
Chapter Fifty Six (February-April 1969) describes the rest of the police car drive to Cherokee, my drive to forget those first hours, and my drive to escape from the institution.
Chapter Fifty Seven (February 1969-April 2002): I was "driven for 33 years: to keep secret" my commitment.
Chapter Fifty Eight (April 2002): I found old letters, exchanged 33 years ago between Jeff Brown (later my husband, now my ex) and me, and I felt driven to reread them. At the time I was experiencing an impasse in my writing and personal life.
I emailed Cherokee for my hospital records, again driven, this time to have some unanswered questions finally answered.
Chapter Fifty Nine (May 15, 2004) depicts a convergence of two milestones: my husband Jerry’s upcoming Fulbright in Skopje, Macedonia, and the impending birth of my granddaughter while we are away. "I don’t want to go overseas," I say. "I want to be there for her birth, to hold her minutes, even seconds, after she’s born."
After reaching a compromise, in which we would return to the U.S. in January 2005, I decide to follow my husband overseas, to use the year abroad as an opportunity to write my memoir.
Chapter Sixty closes on August 29, 2004, with my final decision to revisit Cherokee.
"I’ll drive you there," my husband says.
The opening of Chapter Sixty One (August 30, 2004) continues the literal and symbolic meaning of being driven: "This warm summer day, I am driven to Cherokee, northeast of Sioux City, to revisit the Mental Health Institute. Metaphorically, this trip has taken 35 years and thousands of detours and dead ends."
IV. Cherokee (Chapters Sixty Two to Eighty Four, pages 208-365)
"Oh-my-God. I can’t believe they did this to me," I say on February 19, 1969.
So my Cherokee incarceration begins, continuing until April 15, 1969, and ending with my conditional release from the institution. During the two months there, I cope with doctors, staff, and social workers who would meddle with my future.
I develop a strong bond with the psychiatrist assigned to my case; from the beginning, he has realized that my commitment was an egregious mistake and works toward my timely release. I also develop an ongoing clash of wills with a young and straitlaced social worker, yet, despite my sassy behavior, he also works for my release.
Letters from Jeff, my boyfriend, have become my lifeline to the outside world as we exchange ideas on books, popular culture, music, movies, and politics. However, he admits to experiencing mixed feelings about our relationship–there is another girl–so in these pre-email days, our relationship takes on a sort of snail-mail high drama as we banter back and forth.
Meanwhile, I interact with various patients: a psychopath who preys on other patients, a 17-year-old unwed mother, a teen cutter with strange obsessions about rats, a young married mother enthralled with "10 ways of suicide," and D.J., a 42-year-old mentally challenged man and 25 year resident of Cherokee, among others.
Of all the patients, D.J. has the most impact on me. A kind man, he shows that freedom is relative, for in his mind, Cherokee is exactly where he wants to be–that, for him, release would be a burden. "His day-to-day life is here, always to be the same, following the seasons, nurturing new plants, mourning the dying and dead," I say, on the day before my release. "If I were to return 25-35 years from now, I might find him, an old man, in this same spot, the fir tree a mighty sage."
V. Leaving Cherokee (Chapters Eighty Five to Eighty Six, pages 366-396)
"Hooray! I’m out!"
April 16: I have been released on one condition: that I remain in Sioux City for at least six months. I have refused to live with my grandparents. Also, with regret, I have declined staying with a sympathetic aunt; I didn’t want to place her in an awkward family situation. So the state of Iowa arranges for my room and board at a local boardinghouse.
I find a job in a diner, the owner a bitter woman who mistreats her employees. Within ten days, I have quit that job, deciding to split for Pennsylvania, long before the required six months, but only after I have received my tax refund.
To my dismay, Jeff has decided to visit the other girl, who lives in another Pennsylvania city.
My sense of urgency increases as I, for the next two weeks, wait for my tax refund check.
Finally, on May 1, my refund arrives. On May 5, after a minor confrontation with my grandfather at the bus depot, I leave for Pennsylvania.
This part concludes on May 6 as I step off the bus in York, Jeff awaiting me: "It’s been a long, long journey."
VI: Released: August 30, 2004 (Chapter 87, pages 397-401)
This part wraps up my 2004 journey to Cherokee, both actual and metaphorical. After buying Cherokee Mental Health: 100 Years of Serving Iowan’s [sic], an incomplete history of the institution, my husband Jerry and I leave Cherokee and head back to Sioux City. During our return trip, I flip through the book and scan the Chronicle Times, the town’s newspaper: the ordinariness of the stories strikes me as profound.
"No section called ‘Cedar Loop News’ for the institution," I observe as we cruise into Sioux City. "On this day, as it was for me in 1969, these are two distinct towns, one wide open and transparent, the other shadowy and secret–just a no-name outline on the map."
VII. Final Diagnosis: May 9, 1969 (pages 402-403)
In a short clinical passage, my psychiatrist offers my final diagnosis: "Adjustment Reaction of Adolescence."
Epilogue (Summer 2007) (pages 404-414)
I offer a short update on my life since August 2004 and a short, albeit incomplete, history of the institution, culled from the book Cherokee Mental Health: 100 Years of Serving Iowan’s [sic] where I discover some surprising details about the institution’s history and how it might relate to my story.
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© 2008, by Jennifer Semple Siegel
Excerpts may not be used or copied without author’s permission.