Why I Write: Jennifer’s Story
Selfie shadow. Hilton Head, South Carolina, April 2017
“Fasting would surely come into fashion again at some future date, yet that was no comfort for those living in the present. What, then, was the hunger artist to do?”
– Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”
“In all her life she had never been afflicted by ill temper and she looked upon it now as a demon which, along with hunger, was taking possession of her soul.”
– Andre Dubus, “The Fat Girl”
Writing is pretty much like breathing: I would shrivel up and die if I couldn’t write.
I don’t make my living as a writer – I probably never will, but that’s okay.
On Amazon, I have self-published – no longer such a dirty term – a memoir, short story collection, and play.
In addition, I have published several short stories, essays, and articles in juried publications, including three academic articles, one of them appearing in a major publication.
However, academic writing, a means to an end, has never defined me.
Jennifer, age 1
I was born in October 1950, to Mary Lou and Robert B.; my legal birthday is two days before my real birthday. I’ll return to this annoying discrepancy later.
I had to look up my father’s middle initial because I never knew him very well – I last saw him when I was 14. He bought me the Beatles Second Album and then forever disappeared from my life. He died a few years ago, but I don’t know exactly when. I heard, through the family grapevine, that he had Alzheimer’s.
I hope I haven’t inherited that gene from him, but I’m not taking any chances; I have lit the proverbial match under my own rear end and revved up my writing career, just in case.
For the first few years of my life, I lived in Yuma, Arizona, and Los Angeles, California, with my mother and various fathers and boyfriends. My mother, an alcoholic, worked as a stripper under her professional name of Jan Durrell; she worked in some of the same clubs frequented by Lenny and Honey Bruce.
So much for my indirect brush with fame.
In this photo, my grandmother Mo (Olive Semple) came to visit me, age four, at a day/night daycare where my mother had boarded me.
Mother posed for cheesy pulp fiction covers, for example, a notable literary masterpiece: Devils Dance in Me (1963), by Lee Shepard. Caption on the cover, next to Mom’s picture: “Her body ruled her brain. She lived in a town where female flesh was willing, waiting – and dirt cheap.”
Mother died in 1979; officially, her liver gave out, but I suspect she committed slow suicide with a beer bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
In 1957, when I was six, my baby sister and I were run over by a truck. Neither of us was hurt, but that incident started a chain of events that changed my life forever.
Olive and Harley Semple, my grandparents, got wind of the near tragedy, and drove out to L.A. to rescue us.
Instead, they found themselves embroiled in a huge custody battle, lasting nearly six months, tussling with my mother and the state of California.
My father was nowhere to be found.
An old, old story of yet another dysfunctional family, but at a time when “dysfunctional” wasn’t yet a buzzword, and when fractured families were only whispered about behind closed doors.
In this photograph, with a dog named “Midnight,” I was four and lived at a day/night daycare; I had nightmares (involving the moon, snakes, and water) about that yard.
My grandmother showed her penchant for snapping backside pictures. Fortunately, I was little and cute back then.
Another backside shot depicts me at age seven as I ascended the steps to the L.A. courthouse, probably for one of the court proceedings, perhaps to be interviewed by the judge.
These last two photographs seem to define, in some odd way, the markers of my life. Bad luck and awkward timing seem to follow me, but, somehow, I seem to escape adversity and ascend above it.
Besides, I can’t complain; my zig-zag life has offered valuable nuggets for my work.
A burning question: why did my grandmother love backside pictures so much? She took a lot of them, but I like these the best. I think she missed her true calling as an artistic photographer...
My younger sister Robin, who had a different father, was sent off to be raised by my stepfather’s sister. I didn’t see her for almost 30 years, a baby when she left, a married woman with two children when I saw her again.
I can’t even begin to explain that disconnect.
The custody battle for me ended when my mother suddenly changed her mind and signed the custody papers. Olive and Harley whisked me off to Sioux City, Iowa, where I lived a rather unremarkable life – that is, until I graduated from high school.
Which brings me to my dual birthday.
When I was nine, my grandparents adopted me, and Iowa reissued my birth certificate with my grandparents as my parents and the wrong birthday. Some minor bureaucrat must have been experiencing a very bad day...
The error seemed like too much bother to fix, so I have lived with my split birthday; I try to use my official birthday for official situations, but sometimes I forget, causing all kinds of bureaucratic hassles. I still have my original birth certificate as well, so, in a sense, I am truly two different people, the adult Jennifer a sort of psychic twin to the child Jennifer. In fact, twins have always fascinated me, and in 2002 I started writing a book called Twin Candy Bings, about Samantha Mallory, a 50-year-old woman, who discovers that she has a twin who needs a kidney/pancreas transplant – the same main character depicted in my published book Are You EVER Going to Thin? (and other stories). Twin Candy Bings has been slowly migrating into my BIG, fat novel The Fat Lady Sings. Hopefully before I die or fall into the Alzheimer’s pit, which is the same as dying, I will finish THE BIG NOVEL.
Therefore, I’m a de facto twin; one of my M.F.A. advisors, Michael Klein, is a twin – a happenstance that cannot be a coincidence; I don’t believe in coincidences, given that I now have twin nephews, Owen and Henry.
Someday, I want to talk to Michael about that twin thing, but I haven’t mustered up the courage yet.
After my high school graduation, I escaped from my overbearing grandmother and flew out to California to live with my mother, another stepfather, and two new brothers.
Metaphorically speaking, I took a slight life detour. I ended up in the Hollywood Street Scene: psychedelic drugs, drug dealing, sex, and rock music. The flower child movement was at the tail end of its innocence, but no one had clued me in. An angry and disappointed Harley (my grandfather) hauled me back to Iowa, where I was incarcerated – well, in a manner of speaking...
...Fast forward to the present.
I currently live in York, Pennsylvania, (York County) about 30 miles west of Lancaster, 30 miles east of Gettysburg, 20 miles south of Harrisburg, and 45 miles north of Baltimore – an anonymous town in the middle of everything: Interstate 83 runs north to south through the city, and Route 30 runs east to west. Yet, York itself seems to sink into some kind of nowhere inversion, a town defined by ancient racial rifts – Google “Lillie Belle Allen” (Wikipedia) and you will get a glimpse of York, past and present – and current drug and gang activity. In addition, the town wallows in serious financial problems, the schools chaotic and sinking even more. Our taxes (on a $100,000 house) last year were nearly $4,000. But my husband and I live in a pretty neighborhood that embraces ethnic diversity, so we stay, although a woman was shot just behind our house and a man killed across the street (on Route 30), both within about three months.
York County is home to Dover, the flash point for that wacky Intelligent Design trial, which took place in Harrisburg during late 2005. I include this factoid only because my ex-husband Jeff Brown had been part of the school board that had started all the silliness; he, however, had been one voice of reason and resigned in protest long before the ID trial even began. I’m proud that he stuck to his beliefs because it confirms that, from a genetic standpoint, I chose my son’s father well.
Jeff is also an important presence in Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment.
Not too many Amish live in York County, but we are the home to York Barbell and one of the Harley-Davidson plants. We also brag of hosting one of the oldest fairs in the country; everything stops during fair week (which actually lasts ten days in early September: tacky but fun). Also, we claim bragging rights for being the first capital of the U.S., even before Philadelphia, but as a non-native I have my doubts.
I used to teach as an adjunct at a local college. In his memoir Teacher Man, the late Frank McCourt, sums up the lot of a teacher: “When I taught in New York City high schools for 30 years, no one but my students paid me a scrap of attention. In the world outside the school I was invisible.”
As a college adjunct (part timer), I was invisible inside the school as well, but I have not allowed that reality to define me as a professional.
I have been married to Jerry Siegel since 1984. In 1988-1989, 1997, 2004-2005, and 2009-2010 we lived abroad: Yugoslavia, Belgium, and Macedonia. For the first three ex-pat experiences, Jerry was a Fulbright Scholar. I was just along for the ride, and between traveling to exciting places like London, Rome, and Athens, I wrote books.
However, I claimed 2009-2010 as my own Fulbright experience.
The birthplaces of my books, published and non-published:
– Skopje, Yugoslavia: Stratum (Now Luna Drive. Except for a few excerpts online, unpublished, and may remain so).
– Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont: The Fat Lady Sings (Morphed into the short story collection, but I am currently revising this longer version).
– Brussels, Belgium: Bride of Christ, a romance (I don’t know...It could be a pot boiler). Another book that kind of died and went nowhere: And God Laughed. The premise is a good one: Jane Q. Godwin, a college professor and atheist who has been caring for her ill husband (dementia) has been shot in a school mass shooting; she visits “God’s waiting room,” where she meets people from her past and Sylvia Plath. Again, I have written a few excerpts offline and created a sad-looking home page for Jane.
– Return to Skopje, Macedonia, now North Macedonia: Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment (Excerpts) and Corpus Delicious (unfinished).
Two Skopjes, same place. Like me, a dual entity dressed up in two identities.
I have four grandchildren, three girls and a boy. One girl is now a young, married woman. My, how time marches on.
Not a boring current life, but not one that drives great literature.
So flashback to a more exciting time in my life...
My incarceration, February 19, 1969: after my grandfather hauled me back to Iowa, I rebelled and tried to split again, this time trying to head east to York, Pennsylvania, and Jeff Brown.
Woodbury County, Iowa, however, meddled in our family dispute, held a hearing, and deemed me fit for commitment in the Cherokee Mental Health Institution, involuntary commitment, that is. Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment covers my life from Christmas Eve 1968 to May 9, 1969, with some flashbacks to Fall 1968 and early life and flashes forward to 2004.
An encapsulation of my life after the institution:
– Unofficial release from institution: April 16, 1969.
– Escape to York: May 4, 1969.
(All roads seem to lead to that York inversion.)
– Official release from institution: May 9, 1969.
– My son’s birth: June 1970.
– Marriage to Jeff: July 18, 1970 (the truth is out, if it was ever really hidden).
– Harley Semple's death: March 16, 1974.
– Mother's death: April 24, 1979.
– Divorce from Jeff: June 1980.
– College graduation: May 1982.
– Marriage to Jerry: April 19, 1984.
– Olive Semple’s death: October 21, 1987
– M.F.A. graduation: February 1994.
– Publication of first book: July 2004
– My own Fulbright year in Macedonia: 2009-2010
– Kindle publication of memoir: 2012
– Kindle publication of play: 2012
– Kindle publication of first book (2nd edition, with added content): 2012
– Print publication of play: 2013
– Print publication of memoir: 2013
In mid-2011, I finally finished writing about my involuntary commitment in Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment. As I wrote my memoir, I felt 18 all over again because I narrated my story in a sassy 18-year-old voice. And I was very sassy (and angry) back then. Maybe I still am...
I revisited the institution in 2004 and, somewhere deep inside, I was afraid they’d make me finish out my “sentence,” my involuntary commitment revisited. I broke into a sweat and nearly threw up. My husband had to comfort me when I went into a kind of fugue state, but I got through it. A lot of memories flooded back...
I had no choice but to go back and face that demon; it took me seven years, from first draft (700 pages) to finished work (To location 8693 on Kindle, 420 pages in print).
In Are You EVER Going to be Thin?, about 25% autobiographical, there’s no mention of an institution because I spent years hiding the fact; I knew no one would ever find out (unless I snitched); mental health records are kept confidential. But I have always known that my past, if not faced head-on, would continue to hold me back from making a significant difference in this world before slipping into the sod.
I don’t know how many years I have left, but I do know this: I didn’t want to spend my remaining time harboring this great big ugly secret.
When I told my grown son Eric about my incarceration, he already knew. How, I don’t know. He doesn’t know either. He simply said, “I’ve always known.”
The mental health system stunk back then, and I can only hope that it’s much better now, but I have my doubts. I have thought about starting a forum for people who have experienced the mental health system at its worst, but I’m not sure I have time for such a project. I have some other loose ends to tie up first; I have a tendency to start projects and then not following through on them – an A.D.D. thing. I’m getting better, though. I have finished writing four books, published some.
I owned a “food issues” website: Food for Thought, now re-purposed into Like This Page, a general blog. Now that I have discovered a physical component to my weight problem, I feel as though incorporating behavioral techniques would be like going through talk therapy to cure a tumor. I returned to Weight Watchers twice since 2011, but for reasons I have discussed in this post, I have decided to back away from WW. Despite my decision to back away, WW offers one of the best diet programs out there, simply because it can be tweaked to my personal liking, keeping me satisfied. And it’s less “diety” than other programs.
Diets have always been the bane of my life, even more so now that my diet is, more or less, permanent.
One of my most vivid memories of the mental institution was the lousy food; I remember losing 15 pounds without even trying because I refused to eat such delicacies as green eggs, overcooked cauliflower, and shoe-leather pot roast.
I wasn’t crazy back then, and I don’t think I’m crazy now, but I am post-menopausal, which has its own set of rules.
It’s more of an attitude: facing mortality makes one cut to the chase, so if a sixty-plus-something woman says, “**** you,” she’s just being impatient. My husband has learned this, although he doesn’t cuss and is nine years older than me.
No time for niceties.
No time to lose.
I really don’t like cuss words, but I do use them too much, although not in the classroom. I was an adjunct, after all, and I had to be on my best behavior. After my eight-year-old granddaughter caught me cussing (and calling me on it), perhaps it was time to set up that “Cuss Jar.” I never did.
In 2009, I was awarded a Fulbright Award of my own, to Skopje, Macedonia. I taught at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje for nine months (2009-2010). While there, I was not treated as a lowly adjunct, but as a respected visiting scholar. Can someone go on a nine-month high?
I swear I was walking on clouds the entire time!
If you have read this far, then God Bless You. You will have done your Corporal Works of Mercy (the original title for The Bride of Christ), and She will tick up for you an Indulgence or two.
If you’re Catholic, you'll know exactly what I mean; if you're not, don’t worry about it.
I haven’t revealed everything about myself. It’s the internet, for goodness sake; one must keep some secrets.