(Above photo [taken in August 2004]: Cherokee Mental Health Institute, where, on February 19, 1969, I was escorted by a Woodbury County sheriff and a female escort.)
In January 2006, as I was wrapping up one of my numerous revisions of I, Driven...
(then titled Driven to Cherokee
), Oprah Winfrey discovered, via TheSmokingGun.com
, that James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces
, had basically fabricated much of his memoir, which had been an Oprah Book Club Selection. Say what you will about Oprah, but she wields a lot of power in the book industry, and one does not want to get on her bad side.
Well, as a memoirist, I felt as though I had already gotten on Oprah's bad side, and I hadn't even shot out of the gate yet. It was just an unfortunate time to be wrapping up a memoir and getting ready to shop it around. The publishing industry was undoubtedly shutting their collective purses, holding back those six-figure advances from authors of bad boy, bad girl memoirs. On national TV, Nan Talese, Frey's agent, was thoroughly spanked by Oprah--I was glad NOT to be an agent or a publisher. In fact, I was relieved at not being a known memoirist.
The only good thing about this time: my memoir wasn't really ready to make its debut rounds to agents. It was too long and too, well, weedy, filled with newspaper clips that, while interesting in themselves, did not serve my story well.
Also, the Frey debacle gave me a chance to reflect on the truthiness
aspects of my own memoir and cut passages that I simply couldn't substantiate with facts and/or vivid memory. The basic facts of my memoir are correct. I have court and hospital records, and I have 90-plus letters exchanged between Jeff Brown (who I later married and then divorced 10 years later) and me; those records document the minutiae of my Sioux City and institution life between late January 1969 to May 1969. Also, internet sources were able to confirm what I remember about social change and cultural events.
But, in the end, I still had to rely heavily on memory about events that had transpired 35 years ago. While the letters were helpful and my records illuminating, I had to reach back and pull "feelings" back to the surface. In essence, I had to revert back to being 18 again. It was an odd place to be, especially as a 54-year-old woman with a grown son and granddaughters.
I even developed a bit of a crush on my ex-husband Jeff, but even then I understood where those feelings were coming from and why they were necessary. When I told Jeff about my literary crush, we had a good chuckle over it; we are both happily remarried to other people.
Paradoxically, I had forgotten some important events (which the letters eventually jarred loose), and had carried with me some minor memories and images, such as this one:
What if Stoney [my then ex-boyfriend] showed up, in full armor, galloping up the Cherokee hill on a white steed, totally off dope and no longer dealing, ready to rescue me? Would I go with him? I honestly don't know.
Even now, I can envision Stoney riding on that white steed, coming to sweep and rescue me from the institution.
What I hadn't remembered (but what was written in a letter):
[Stoney and I] didn’t have much to talk about, now that I think about it, and I don’t even know if he was that smart–he didn’t really talk that much about anything, except dope, and toward the end, not even the sex was all that great.
For years, I had carried a romanticized image of Stoney; if nothing else, writing this memoir has knocked some reality into my head, forcing me to remember him as he was: a misogynist, drug addict and dealer, user of people, and male chauvinist pig.
In essence, even in the best of times, memoir writing is a risky proposition:
- Memory can be flawed and/or skewed. What I remember about that time may differ from what my family and friends remember--such a disconnect could cause family strife. In the case of my ex-husband, I actually gave him drafts of the book to read. Over the years, we have maintained a good relationship, and I didn't want to blindside him with a published "tell-all" book. I figured that any fallout should occur before publication. It was a good call; at first, he was a bit uncomfortable with having his past uncovered--I can't say that I blame him. Surprisingly, he eventually came around and is now looking forward to seeing the published version. I did delete a few problematic passages from the final version--sometimes life forces us to make compromises.
- "Outting" other people and their foibles and youthful indiscretions can be embarrassing and actually harmful to them. I made a commitment to protect when I could and to minimize when I couldn't completely shield a person.
- Exposing one's troublesome past not only affects people from the past, but also people currently in one's life, such as children and new spouses. I have had to come to terms with the fact that my granddaughters will some day read my book.
- My life will suddenly become an open book to strangers; it's one thing to couch truth in one's fiction, but a memoir should be what it purports to be: The Truth as the writer sees it.
After Frey's frying at the hand of Oprah, I reworked my author's note:
Some names and/or minor characteristics of real persons have been changed to protect their privacy. Nicknames have been used for some real persons, most notably, Stoney.
Some minor locales have been changed. The Crystal Ship was a real rock/head shop, but the name and locale have been changed.
For coherence and literary purposes, some passages have been compressed, expanded, or shifted around. Some scenes and dialogue have been recreated.
The time lines, late 1968 to May 9, 1969, April 2002, and August 2004 are accurate, and the facts of the case are correct, including the amount of time I spent in Cherokee, Iowa.
Events for which I have no documentation and/or memory of exact dates have been presented as flashbacks.
For my late grandparents’ first person narratives, I have referred to interview summaries contained in my hospital records–interviews conducted and summarized by my psychiatrist (and other hospital personnel). I have also relied on my personal knowledge about these people who raised me. The voices I have recreated are the voices I remember, and may not reflect the memories and viewpoints of my family. Chapter 54, the scene in the Sioux City police station, is a possible scenario that occurred between my grandfather and the police matron. The chapter is based on textual clues contained in my court records. When the paperwork for my hearing was being filled out, I was not present; I was locked in another room.
Minor factual errors, albeit unintentional, are mine alone.
I suspect that my note may be overkill, but better to be safe than sorry.
I can always revise it again.