Prologue: Caged

(February 19, 1969)


I was caged.

Then, I was driven.

Driven to Cherokee.

A hazy memory of riding caged in the back of a police car.

Two shadows in the front seat, the county sheriff and a female escort.

Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” buzzing from a tinny transistor radio.

Outside, the Iowa landscape bleak:

Cloudy and cold, condensation and frost riming the windows, piles of dirty snow dotting the countryside.

I, cargo.

Destination: Cherokee’s other place, the outline on the hill.

Shifting, crossing my legs…

Please, can we stop?

Hot and steamy inside.

Shivering, my teeth rattling.

Please…I have to go!

Hear something, George?

Naw, nothin’ important.


Cargo has no voice.

Madness has no voice.

Listen, crazy girl…

Two voices: We have come to take you away, ha, ha…

“I’m crazy, crazy…”

Fragments, crazy-quilt impressions, acid flashbacks…

I, crazy?

* * * * *

From I, Driven: a memoir of involuntary commitment ("Prologue")

© 2008-2010, by Jennifer Semple Siegel

Excerpt may not be used or copied without author’s permission.


Additional excerpts, out takes, and new essays


Most Recent Post


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Excerpt--Leaving Sioux City: Dee Dee

Harley Semple, Jennifer's grandfather

Monday, May 5

I wake up at 6:00 a.m., ready by 7:00. I splurge and take a taxi to the bus station, there by 7:30--this is one bus I don’t want to miss.

I’m not angry with Mo and Dee--well, maybe a little with Mo, but only because she was so ridiculous the other day. I wish they understood that this is something I have to do and would do eventually anyway. I’m not running away to get even with them for the Cherokee bit--

I’m running to my new life.

Once, when I was four, I ran away from home. I wanted to be in the movies, and I thought that one had to run away to do that. I was not angry at anyone--it was just something I had to do. Hours later, when Dee Dee and Uncle Dude found me wandering around in the dark, they snatched me from the street, and slid me into the car.

It was deep into an Iowa winter. I wore only a red snowsuit; they must have felt relieved to find me alive and okay.

I bawled and pitched a fit; I was so angry with them for thwarting me. They just didn’t understand I wasn’t running away to leave them but to find something else.

I would come back.

Obviously, I was too young back then, but I’m not too young now...

I show my ticket to the agent and check the footlocker at the desk--fortunately, no one questions my business. I sit and wait.

Dead time, but, nonetheless, necessary.

At 8:45, Dee Dee, alone, slips through the station door.

Oh, oh.

Dee Dee spies me and slides toward me.

Before I can even open my mouth, Dee says, “Before you say anything, just hear me out.”


“I’m not going to stop you from going.”

“That’s good.”

“I just want to make one more plea--”

“My mind’s made up.”

“You’re breaking our hearts--”

“I’m sorry about that--”

“No, you’re not--you wouldn’t be leaving if you knew how much this was killing us.”

“I have to go.”

Dee Dee sighs. “Stay a few months, get a good job, save up some money--think about what you’re doing.”

“I’ve had several, long months to think.” Like I’m going to fall for that ploy again. “I’ve made up my mind.”

“You know, your grandmother was going to call Cherokee and report you as a runaway, but I told her it wouldn’t do any good.”


“She might still do it. Once she’s decided something, you know how she is.”

“I know.”

“I was hoping to reason with you.”

“Dee Dee, I’m leaving in a few minutes.”

“I see. You know, you’ll always have a home back here.” Dee pauses. “If you ever need a bus ticket back to Sioux City, just call.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I despise Jeff Brown with all my heart; he has only one thing on his mind--”

“It’s time for you to go,” I say, turning away.

Without another word, Dee Dee disappears, through the crowd and out of the terminal.

(Greyhound bus)

This is Jennifer Semple's actual bus ticket receipt--what a packrat!

The bus has just pulled out of the station, and we’re headed out of town, toward Des Moines, where I’ll pick up my next connection to York, Pennsylvania: a long journey. Des Moines, Chicago, Pittsburgh. York.

Goodbye, Sioux City and Woodbury County--

Good riddance to Cherokee and all of Iowa.

End of excerpts


Excerpt copyright 2008, Jennifer Semple Siegel.

Text may not be reposted or republished without permission.



"Hello Goodbye," The Beatles



Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Excerpt--After Release From the Institution: Denise's Tips


April 1969

(Sioux City, Iowa)

(Note: upon my conditional release from Cherokee, I was required to find a job--or return to the institution. I accepted a job at Denise's Diner, a greasy spoon on West 7th Street.)

Denise*, the owner of Denise’s Diner*, is about the hardest, wrinkliest woman I’ve ever met, a nervous, bird-like chain smoker. She’s old, probably in her late 50's, maybe early 60's, and all skin and bones. Her hair, red with purple highlights, is teased into a rather large bouffant, overshadowing her tiny body, and her teeth are yellow with dark specks between them. Her voice is deep and raspy, like a man’s--she could out-cuss a sailor.

“You’re gonna work your goddamn ass off around here, for shit wages,” she said when she interviewed me. “But you can earn some good tips.” She took a drag on her cigarette. “Just play along with the guys--they like giving the girls a hard time--and don’t get all fuckin’ women’s lib on ‘em.”

I can do that, at least for a few weeks.

“And get your ass in gear, and don’t poke. I do most of my business at lunch--these men gotta get fed fast and back to work.”

I’m glad this job’s temporary. A shitty buck an hour, plus tips, to start. But I’m just interested in staying out of Cherokee and splitting this town. Soon, I’ll be getting that $116.00 refund from the government, and I’ll save every spare penny.

“Lazy bitches don’t last here,” Denise said as I headed out the door. “Be here, at 7:00 sharp, or don’t bother comin’ at all.”


I can’t wait to quit this job. Denise is such a two-faced bitch, jabbering about working hard, but she lounges around, chewing the fat with the guys, and chain-smoking those god-awful Camels without filters. If there was ever a reason to quit smoking, she’s it. I don’t want to grow old looking like a dried up prune.

Even when it’s super busy, she doesn’t hustle her butt any--she just barks at the help to move faster. What kind of an example is that?

The guys talk dirty to her, she thinks it’s hilarious, but it’s just gross. Customers or not, I’m not taking that kind of crap. After one creep pinched my butt, I told him off.

“You better watch your step, honey,” Denise said.

I’d like to tell her to go to hell, but I need this job, at least for a few days. But, damn it, no old fart had better touch me, unless I give him express permission.


Denise is not only a bitch, but also a crook.

I was about to clear the counter in my station--it was a mess because lunch had been busier than usual, so I was behind in my cleanup--when Denise said, almost too sweetly, “Honey, you take a short break.”

I got a bad feeling--it just didn’t fit; usually, she’s yelling at me to get my ass in gear. Still, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I got myself a Coke and sat in a booth.

You can tell Denise has been at this job a long time: she had that counter cleared and cleaned in five minutes, but she wasn’t quite fast enough with her sleight of hand: from the counter she slipped a dollar bill, my dollar bill, into her pocket.

A measly one buck an hour, and your fucking boss rips you off. If this is the Establishment, then you can have it. “You took my dollar,” I said.

“What dollar?”

The gall. “My tip.”

“Lazy girls don’t get tips.”

I wanted to strangle that woman, but if I confronted her, she’d deny it, and then fire me for false accusations and insubordination.

Call the police? Right.

I’m going to quit as soon as possible and split this godforsaken town.

Where is that tax refund, anyway?


"Denise," by Randy & The Rainbows (1963) Doo Wop



*Name of person and business have been changed.

Excerpt copyright 2008, Jennifer Semple Siegel.

Text may not be reposted or republished without permission.



Monday, October 27, 2008

Excerpt--The Institution: Proving My Sanity


Staff meeting today. About 30 or so doctors and nurses sit in on this gala affair. More like the gallows. I’m not sure why they have these meetings--I feel like a bug stuck on a pin, struggling for life.

When Carrie had her staff meeting a few months ago, she ran out in the middle of it, and ended up on locked ward for two months.

Dr. Kirkus will be here--that dude scares the shit out of me.

And he’s late. This session is supposed to start at 9:45 a.m., Kirkus rolls in at 10:10.

I swear, he does it just to make me sweat.

A nurse I don’t know calls me into a room designated “Group Therapy I,” where I face an audience of unfamiliar and familiar faces, all watching, waiting to see if I trip up.

Maintain, Jennifer, maintain.

I assume a pose of certainty, but I feel dizzy and lopsided. I take my place up front, in a chair, positioned exactly in the middle. I smile at the audience as if I were going on a picnic instead of a grilling.

Dr. Brooks introduces himself and begins questioning me.

I answer truthfully, and to my surprise, quite calmly. Everything about my past six months: job, drugs, sex, boyfriends, family fights, all laid out on the table. None of it looks ugly anymore because it’s past, I can’t change it, and I’m ready to move forward. I’m well prepared for this battery, which surprises me--I thought I’d be tripping all over my tongue, but I’m not.

I like Dr. Brooks--he asks questions in a way that encourages.

I don’t feel like hiding anymore.

Dr. Favis, today an observer, peeks around another doctor, smiling--I’ve never seen him yet when he wasn’t smiling. He nods his encouragement to me, I nod back.

Dr. Brooks announces that the floor is open for questions from other doctors, and I just know whose hand will pop up.

I’m right.

Dr. Kirkus, smirk on his face, slowly raises his hand. It seems as if everyone else in the room has vanished, and it’s Dr. Kirkus and me facing off in a duel. He stares me down; I stare back. He smiles sweetly, a sarcastic “I gotcha!” smile.

“What states would you have to pass through to get to Pennsylvania?” he asks.

The very same question asked at my bogus hearing! A snap!

I nearly blurt out, “That’s a dumb question,” but I hold my tongue.

I gather my thoughts. “You would go straight west to east,” I say. “You would start out in Iowa, from Cherokee or Sioux City, cross the Iowa border into Illinois, pass through Illinois into Indiana, from Indiana to Ohio, and, finally, into Pennsylvania, where you would travel about 225 miles southeast to York.”

I have memorized the route to Pennsylvania.

As the meeting breaks up, I know I have won--I have proven my sanity, once again. I’m all smiles when, a few minutes later, Mr. Benson, my social worker, confirms I have won my case--I’ll be released in two weeks--though I haven’t quite won because I will need to stay in a foster home for a few months and work for a while to earn some bread.

We’ll see.

I applied for a town pass for Saturday. Cherokee’s nothing but a hick town, but it’s an escape from the nuthouse.

I’ll grab whatever I can.


Excerpt copyright 2008, Jennifer Semple Siegel.

Text may not be reposted or republished without permission.



Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Other Patients in the Institution: Anna on the Lam


February - April 1969

What a wild weekend. Anna, a chick who was admitted shortly after me, and her boyfriend Benito, took off from the hospital on Saturday. I knew that they were planning an escape, but I didn’t say anything to the staff. I figure it was their bag--they would have to suffer the consequences, whatever that might be.

Also, even after Anna told me about their plan, her daring escape still surprised me; of all the people I have met in here, Anna seemed the most together and the least likely to pull off such a bold stunt.

She’s smart, a natural leader, always reading the great books, and always very carefully groomed, unlike the rest of us who slouch around like bums. She’s not a pretty girl, at least in the traditional sense. She’s tall and raw-boned, swarthy complexion, but almost sapphire eyes. She has short black hair, but with a hint of gray--although she’s only 19--and it’s styled in early Beatles mop top, pudding bowl. She exudes a mannish quality, both in the way she dresses in golf shirts and slacks that look like they’re part of a man’s dress suit, and her mannerisms, especially her strident gait, like a business man on the way to an important meeting.

Goes to show that appearances aren’t always what they seem.

But, alas, Anna and Benito got caught on Sunday--they didn’t even get to the state line--and dragged back by the police and thrown into locked ward (separate, of course). God, they’ll be there forever. They might even go to jail.

Makes me think twice about just running off into the night--no money, no extra clothes.


"The Long and Winding Road," The Beatles


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

Excerpt copyright 2008, Jennifer Semple Siegel.

Text may not be reposted or republished without permission.



Friday, October 24, 2008

Other Patients in the Institution: D.J., The Mighty Sage


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.


"What a Wonderful World," Louis Armstrong

Geneticc says,

I made this video, when I was sad. It is not extraordinary, but maybe it makes you happy...maybe.

NOTE: This video describes D.J.'s attitude toward life exactly; he was one of the happiest people I have ever met in my life. He really did see the world through a rainbow.

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

Excerpt copyright 2008, Jennifer Semple Siegel.

Text may not be reposted or republished without permission.



Sunday, October 19, 2008




Excerpt--Other Patients in the Institution: Joyce


(Cherokee, Iowa)

February-April 1969

If Penny is a lost kid dumped into the institution and Carrie a bonafide wacko, then Joyce* is just plain scary. I don’t hang out with her much; for one thing, she’s too old, at least 35, married with two kids–a boy and a girl. Her husband put her here--against her will, but only because she tried to kill herself with downers, like Mom’s best friend Cee--only they found Joyce in the nick of time.

Joyce definitely needs to be in here. She’s what they call manic-depressive--she’s happy one minute and unhappy the next.

It’s true, too; she turns on and off like a Christmas tree. I feel sorry for her because she doesn’t want to be in here, and she’s totally pissed off at her husband for signing her in, but what choice did he have?

She’s on shock therapy--it sounds gruesome, but it seems to work. Before the attendants take Joyce away for her treatments, she’s sullen and morose, and, when she does talk, she counts and recounts ten ways of doing yourself in--I didn’t know that one had so many options for slipping one’s body into the sod:

“One, pills; two, rope; three, gun; four, knife; five, drowning; six, car crash; seven, smothering; eight, jumping; nine, poison; ten, strangling...” She repeats this litany, over and over, like a mantra.

But after treatment, she’s exuberant and wants to soar like a bird; she raps like a speed freak cranked up on overdrive--it’s obvious her brain is faster than her mouth; she sounds like a 33 1/3 record sped up to 78, and she doesn’t finish sentences. Hell, she doesn’t finish words, so understanding what she’s trying to say is challenging, if not mostly impossible.

For about two or three days after her treatments, she’s kind of fun being around--though I cringe at her detailed descriptions of getting jolted, I’m fascinated, too, so, after a few days, when I can finally get a word in between her non-stop chatter, I ask, “Tell me all about getting shocked.”

“Well, it’s kinda scary,” she says. “But they tell me it’s for my own good, so I go along. The first time, though, I fought the doctors tooth and nail, and they had to tie me down. Now I like how I feel afterwards, so it’s a small price to pay.”

In the shock room, they tie her down on a Gurney (which she hates, and I’d hate that too) and give her two injections, the first, some kind of insulin--why, she doesn’t know (who knows why?) and, second, a downer to calm her nerves. Then they attach some electrodes to her temples (yikes!) and in the middle of her forehead and stick some device in her mouth so that she doesn’t swallow her own tongue. And then they flip a switch.

“I’ve been told that they shoot 70-150 volts into me, depending on my mood,” she says. “But once they shoot that juice into me, I black out for hours, though when I wake up, it’s like I’m another person, not this creepy, sad person. I’m ecstatic.”

It seems so extreme to me--makes me wonder why they can’t invent a pill that would do the same thing and not be so traumatic.

I can’t believe that shooting electricity into a person’s head could possibly be a good thing, at least in the long run.

Especially since the treatments only last about a week or so, and then Joyce is right back at the bottom.

Jesus. Whenever I feel sorry for myself, all I have to do is look at Joyce, and tell myself, “That could have been me.”

She must feel very lonely.


Joyce is bugging me in undefinable ways; she seems to hover all the time. Everywhere I look, there she is, a shadow. She doesn’t say anything, she just is. Maybe it’s me.

Carrie says that Joyce’s last treatment didn’t quite work the way it should have, and, it’s true, she seems to be suspended in a state between just weird and suicidal. I just wish she’d hover somewhere else, like on locked ward.

It’s really strange, but I have seen Joyce in both manic and depressive states, and it’s almost like she’s two different people. The depressed Joyce slumps and drags her feet along the carpet--which actually crackles from the static of her slippers. Her belly puffs out, making her look at least 30 pounds heavier. She wears polyester pants and striped tops, the kind old ladies wear. Her eyes are a dull gray, almost hazel. Her hair is straight and uncombed, and she wears no makeup. She looks about 50and acts 80.

But when she’s manic, she curls her hair, and it seems to cascade all around her shoulders. She applies makeup, lots of it, pancake powder, rouge, bright red lipstick (which went out about 1962), and thick eyeliner, mascara, and eyeshadow. Her eyes are sapphire, an eye color I have never seen before. She sucks in her gut and slips into bright red, low-cut slinky satin tops--no bra--skin tight black leotard pants, and pink ballet slippers--she looks positively slender.

Then she leaps all around the ward, like a ballet dancer--she seems to walk on air–singing old songs from the late 1950's. She’s not very good at it, but you can’t help get caught up in her exuberance. She looks about 21 and acts 15.

I’ve never seen anything like that before.

But, today, she’s neither, nor. She’s kind of stuck in some strange foggy middle ground. You would think that would be called “normal,” but it’s not. Maybe normal doesn’t actually exist in her bag of mood shifts.

Joyce seems to be more like a specter caught between finite life and the infinite hereafter.


Joyce is leaving–tomorrow, in fact. She’s back on Ward 4, and told me herself. Actually, she seems much better, not quite so far into the depths of gloom or so high into the clouds of ecstasy. She’s actually acting normal, which seems strange, because normal doesn’t seem normal for her. Her face and hands are covered with a strange blotchy rash, though, like she’s been burned, kind of the way we all looked a few weeks ago with our winter rashes, what with the overheated dry, crackling air.

“My family needs me,” she says. “I’m glad to get out of here.” She sounds a bit wistful, like she’s not quite sure.

Even if I were bonafide insane, I’d be itching to split this joint. “I wish I were leaving, too.”

“Don’t worry, they won’t keep you too much longer,” Joyce says, her voice certain.

“I sure hope you’re right.”

“You don’t belong in here, Jen.”

“Tell that to Mr. Benson [social worker] and my grandparents.”

“They know it--the system’s fucked up, not you.”

Her dead-on assessment surprises me--I thought she was too wacky to know much of anything, let alone get how the system figures into the equation--I certainly haven’t figured out why they keep perfectly sane people locked up while setting free a fragile Joyce loose to contend with two kids and a husband, who, apparently, hasn’t been too understanding.

Maybe they’ve agreed to send Joyce home as a reward for never having done drugs--she’s the way she is just because of something gone awry in her mind, not because of filling her head with dope.

Still, I’m jealous she’s being cut loose, although I don’t have a good feeling about it--like, maybe, they’re releasing her before she’s ready.




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

Excerpt copyright 2008, Jennifer Semple Siegel.

Text may not be reposted or republished without permission.



Thursday, October 2, 2008

Excerpt--Other Patients in the Institution: 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.

Excerpt copyright 2008, Jennifer Semple Siegel.

Text may not be reposted or republished without permission.



Excerpt--Other Patients in the Institution: Perky Penny


I don’t know why Penny’s* here in the first place--she’s been here over a year--and she keeps flip-flopping between Wards 2 and 4--maybe it’s because she’s mouthy and sassy and takes no lip from the staff. I call her Perky Penny. She’s small, and has a cute round face and short black hair styled in a flip, which makes her look a little like The Flying Nun. But she has a loud, gravelly voice, swears like a sailor, and smokes Kools, one after another. Only 17, she has a five-year-old kid by her married boyfriend, who’s raising the kid with his wife. How screwed up is that? Penny and this man ran off to Puerto Rico when she was 11, he 24, and that’s when she got knocked up. I can’t even imagine what kind of sexual appeal an adult male would see in a kid--he must be some kind of weirdo. But she seems so together, has never done drugs, just alcohol, and not very much, at least from what she says.

“Why are you here?” I asked her.

“I’ve got nowhere else to go,” she said, and left it at that. Her parents live in Sioux City, in Morningside. Maybe they think she’s incorrigible too, so they stuck her here--evidently, that’s what happens to incorrigible kids who don’t behave according to Establishment rules.

Later, Penny told me how mad her mother got when she returned from Puerto Rico, pregnant. Wanted to disown her. Excuse me, but shouldn’t her mother’s anger be directed at the father, a grown man? Penny’s just a kid; how could she be held responsible for having sex?

Probably didn’t even know what it was.


I’ll never understand why she’s in here. She’s just a kid who got a tough break, and the system didn’t know what to do, so they committed her. I’ll never understand Iowa laws, and why the father of her baby wasn’t thrown in the slammer after he took her and ran off to Puerto Rico--especially when she came back pregnant.

Yeah, it was the 11-year-old girl’s fault.

And I was under the distinct impression that it’s against the law to cross state lines with minors without parental consent. I certainly couldn’t escape Iowa, and I’m not a minor.

Even after all the shit she has endured, Penny remains cheerful and optimistic about her life, although there’s a wistfulness about her when she talks about her child, always showing his picture around. “He was taken away from me,” she sighs from time to time. “They didn’t even ask me what I wanted. They just gave him away. But when I go home, I get to visit him.”



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

Excerpt copyright 2008, Jennifer Semple Siegel.

Text may not be reposted or republished without permission.



"Jennifer Juniper," Donovan Leitch, 1968 (YouTube)

Jefferson Airplane


Jefferson Airplane: "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love"

Jefferson Airplane performing live both "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. More