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.
However, I don't make my living as a writer, at least not yet.
I have published one book: Are You EVER Going to be Thin? (and other stories) and several short stories, essays, and articles. I have also published three academic articles, one of them in a major publication. However, academia alone does not define me.
I have just completed I, Driven: memoir of a teen's involuntary commitment and am currently shopping it around. More about this memoir later.
I am currently working on And God Won, a novel-in-progress that involves the web presence of Jane Godwin, the main character, and others.
I am also developing a startup domaining enterprise, a field that mixes business, website work, and words. I have some good ideas for developing creative ad writing to create interesting landing pages and still sell services and products.
Perhaps an introduction to a writer/fledgling domainer should begin with a short autobiography; after all, a writer's past informs a writer's work in a major way--at least it should.
I was actually born on October 12, 1950, to Mary Lou Semple Carson and Robert B. Carson; my legal birthday is October 10, 1950. 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 the above photo, my grandmother Mo (Olive Semple) came to visit me, age 4, 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."
She died in 1979; officially, her liver gave out, but I believe she really 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 me.
Instead, they found themselves embroiled in a huge custody battle, lasting nearly six months, 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 the above photograph, with a dog named "Midnight," I was four and lived at a day/night daycare; I had nightmares about that yard.
In the above photograph, my grandmother showed her penchant for snapping backside pictures. Fortunately, I was little and cute back then.
The above photograph, 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 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 Anne 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 be Thin? (and other stories). I plan to finish Twin Candy Bings some day, hopefully before I die or fall into the Alzheimer's pit, which is the same as dying.
Therefore, I'm a defacto 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.
Some day, I want to talk to Michael about that twin thing, but I haven't mustered up the courage yet.
After my 1968 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 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," 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 $70,000 house) last year were nearly $3,000. But my husband and I live in a pretty neighborhood that embraces ethnic diversity, so we stay.
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.
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 having one of the oldest fairs in the country; everything stops during fair week (which actually last ten days in early September: tacky but fun). Also, we claim to being the first capital of the U.S., even before Philadelphia, but as a non-native I have my doubts.
I teach as an adjunct at a local college. In his memoir Teacher Man, 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'm invisible inside the school as well, but I cannot allow that reality to define me as a professional, and I won't.
I am currently branching out in "domaining," which involves buying domain names cheap and developing some of them into web portals and virtual real estate and reselling the rest.
I have been married to Jerry Siegel since 1984. In 1988-1989, 1997, and 2004-2005, we lived abroad: Yugoslavia, Belgium, and Macedonia. 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.
Skopje, Yugoslavia: Stratum (Unpublished, and shall remain so).
--Plainfield, Vermont (Goddard College): What Happens When the Fat Lady Sings (Morphed into my published book).
--Brussels, Belgium: Mystical Bodies (Unpublished, and I don't know...It could be a romantic pot boiler).
--Skopje, Macedonia: I, Driven: memoir of a teen's involuntary commitment (Will publish, I hope).
Two Skopjes, same place. Like me, a dual entity dressed up in two identities.
I have four grandchildren, all girls, the oldest 14, the youngest two and a half.
Not a boring current life, but not one that drives great literature.
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. I, Driven covers my life from Christmas Eve 1968 to May 9, 1969,
with some flashbacks to Fall 1968 and early life.
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.
--Eric'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
In early 2008, I'm 57, finally finished writing about that time in I, Driven. As I wrote that memoir, I felt 18 all over again because I wrote 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 three years, from first draft (700 pages) to what I hope is the final version (415 pages).
In my published book, 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'm thinking 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 one, and fully intend to publish the memoir, but I reserve the right to change my mind.
I'll reserve comment on Stratum.
Are You EVER Going to be Thin? (and other stories) is a done deal, so no use rehashing that now. Buy or borrow the book, and see for yourself. See Amazon links on this page.
Mystical Bodies, a potboiler that may never see light of day, depicts a few days of a young woman's life. Christina, an underweight nun, has an affair with a Jewish philanthropist. And the writing is really bad and very trite. But I had a blast writing it--that's what's important. Maybe I'll create an eBook.
I don't what made me think I could write about an underweight nun because I have been neither underweight nor a nun, though writers are often told (in M.F.A. programs) to write beyond themselves. And I did grow up Catholic, went to Catholic schools, and lived one block from a Catholic Church, so I knew a lot of nuns and saw their holy underwear hanging on the convent wash line. (I still haven't figured out some of those contraptions.)
I wrote Mystical Bodies when I lived in Brussels; behind our apartment building on Square de Leopoldville (Etterbeck Commune), trains ran night and day; I loved the sound and incorporated a sexy (but not pornographic) train scene in the book. Despite walking a lot, I was very fat at the time, but I wasn't really unhappy.
I miss Brussels, but I also miss Skopje and London. On some level, I also miss Sioux City, but I would never want to live there again. I could live in Brussels, London, or Skopje, however.
I don't miss Cherokee at all.
I'm only slightly fat now, having, within the last year, discovered an insulin problem, which can be controlled by diet. I feel happier with each passing day, even though the last 30 pounds remains in some kind of stasis. I'm coming to terms with my body as is; I actually feel good and am quite nimble despite not exercising at all. When I was over-exercising, I felt sore and cranky at the time. Go figure.
I had been posting on Diet Survivors, a non-dieting website, at one time a good place for me, but not at the moment. 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.
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 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 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 fifty-something woman says, "F*** 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.
I really don't like cuss words, but I do use them too much, although not in my classes. I'm an adjunct, after all, and I have to be on my best behavior, though sometimes I'm not.
I'm going to take another look at Mystical Bodies, see if there's anything worth saving--but not until I get I, Driven sent on its way and published.
If you have read this far, then God Bless You. You will have done your Corporal Works of Mercy (the original title for the nun book), 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.
Jennifer Semple Siegel
Addendum: I haven't revealed everything about myself. It's the internet, for goodness sake, and I have to keep some secrets.