Clever Elsie is the name of a Grimm’s tale. After I stumbled across it I found myself kind of obsessing about it. This poor girl. She needed a happy ending! (Would it have really killed you to fudge the ending Grimm boys?) So I started to create a story for Elsie.
Then one day I got an email from my brother, Craig. It contained a medical file from a mental institution in Pendleton, OR. It was for our great-grandmother who had been dead the necessary number of years that her medical information could be released to my cousin who passed it along to my brother.
I know right offhand this may not sound like a fun and interesting thing. But it was exciting to me.
My family didn’t talk about this great-grandma Jessie. I imagine my grandma had a lot of sorrow and maybe some shame associated with an institutionalized mother. I don’t know. I was never brave enough to ask her while she was still alive. After her passing I asked my Grandpa about his mother-in-law once and he dismissed it. “Oh, she had a goiter.”
As if that explained everything and should satisfy any questions I had about the tragically mysterious woman.
Here’s the thing. Any information is better than nothing. This file has some fascinating things in it. Some of it’s a little scary and sad. It was the 1930’s. She didn’t have access to the same kind of treatment we have today.
But a small picture of Jessie emerges from these pages. Everyone who dealt with her describes her as even-tempered and well-mannered. She was well-groomed and always neatly dressed. She was polite. On the surface everything seemed fine.
But she fought some serious demons.
I also learned that Jessie lost a close sister to a ruptured appendix. A year later Jessie had a baby girl, my grandma, whom she named for this sister. Elsie.
Keep in mind my story had already started to form. But this information about Jessie was so fascinating and exciting to finally get my hands on. I found myself obsessing over these pages the way I obsessed over my writing. It was inevitable that the two would meld into each other.
The idea of using mental illness as an undercurrent in the story has been in the back of my mind since early on. But it wasn’t until this past year that I got brave enough to incorporate elements of it in the draft I was working on.
Clever Elsie is not a retelling of my grandma’s life. It’s not a commentary on her relationship with her mother. I don’t know what that relationship was. But I can imagine. These women are simply part of my inspiration and I think it makes the story richer and more meaningful.
I hope that my grandmothers would be pleased with what I’m doing. I hope to do justice to a topic I’m still learning so much about.
And if I’m very lucky maybe I can spread hope that it’s not 1930, and we don’t have to battle our demons alone.