The memoir Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ’60s fulfills the promise of its title. Ilene English confesses details of her young life, loves, psychoactive substance use, personal challenges, communal experiences, and spiritual insights. But if my math is right, her narrative carries not only through the Sixties but well into the Nineties. Her story leaves off after she turns 40. Perhaps that’s when she thinks coming of age is done? (I can’t disagree!)
English’s narrative is mostly told, rather than shown, in heart-to-heart first person. So, her story isn’t so much a movie as a yarn you’d hear at her knee. She does pepper the tale with some dramatic and heart-rending dialogue scenes, including milestone events with boyfriends, lovers, and her first husband.
The recounting is mostly chronological. English tells about her childhood in an Italian-Jewish neighborhood Irvington, New Jersey, where her father owned English’s Mill Road Sweet Shoppe. She was the youngest of six kids. Her close relationship with her sister Carole continued to be a major influence on her even after Carole’s premature death. Loss of their mother from heart failure, while they were both young, was also decisive and fraught.
One of the important themes of Hippie Chick isn’t alternative lifestyles but emerging feminism and self-empowerment. English learned to defend her self-esteem as an independent-minded woman through the cultural phases of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who today would probably be judged a rapist, and Hugh Hefner’s playboys, who bragged about “chasing skirts” and overtly offensive behavior.
English relates how she emigrated as a teen from Irvington to join Carole and her husband David in San Francisco. And no hippie history would be credible without a stint in the Haight-Ashbury district as the movement went from fad to transformative cultural phenomenon.
English is frank about her intimate relationships, beginning with learning to use a diaphragm and then enjoying the relative freedom of The Pill, only to agonize through an abortion, the first of two she would undergo. About this period, she talks about her friendship with Birgit, a free-spirited Dane, her sessions with therapist Dr. Amini, and her romance with Earl, an almost-famous jazz musician. She describes her first experiences with psychedelic drugs, and even today she judges those to have been mostly beneficial, both socially and personally.
Her life journey continued to Hawaii, then back to California, onward to a collective community called The Farm in Tennessee, and eventually to Eugene, Oregon, where she pursued artisanal glass-making and helped manage the local craft fair. Along the way, she fell in love with and married Zen-Buddhist practitioner Larry and bore their child, Sarah Grace, the joy of her life.
During her time in Eugene, English and Larry divorced, Sarah Grace stayed with her after a threatened custody battle, and the author took up with Paul, whom she paints as a long-haired sage and a generous, but non-monogamous, lover.
The sadness of Paul’s demise, when English was in her forties, is about as far as she’s willing to take her story. She’s in her seventies now, working actively as a licensed marriage and family therapist, and married to Don, whom she mentions only briefly in an epilogue.
I wanted her to continue her story, including why and how she became a counselor, along with much more about her relationship with Don. (Maybe that’s her next book?)
Hippie Chick is published by She Writes Press, an independent small press specializing in women’s voices. In today’s increasingly complex and frenzied book marketplace, She Writes falls into the category of hybrid publishers. Like mainstream houses, She Writes claims to be selective about which titles it takes on. But, unlike conventional publishing contracts, the author subsidizes editorial and production design expenses. I don’t mean this to be a negative. These days, the big labels reject me too. I self-publish all my books under my own small-press imprint. What’s more, although memoir may be the most common genre attempted by first-time authors, mainstream houses have mostly turned their backs on these writers and their audiences. Unless your name is a household word (rock star or former president), your memoir will be politely rejected with predictable consistency.
But Ilene English’s memoir – and the period of our history it underscores – is the kind of generational wisdom that Boomers need to share among themselves – and with their children. These stories must be told and retold as we struggle to learn from our life choices and build new communities.
Kudos to English for her personal bravery in telling all and to She Writes for giving her a bullhorn!
Advance review copy provided by the author’s publicist
Photo credits: Ilene English personal collection
Gerald Everett Jones is author of the recent novels Clifford’s Spiral and Preacher Finds a Corpse. He is host of the GetPublished! Radio Show.
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