Ilene English’s memoir, Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ‘60s (She Writes Press, 344 pp. $16.95, paper; $8.69, Kindle), is a book I very much enjoyed reading as someone whose entire teen years fell within that decade. I also believe that many people not yet born during that time would find this book an interesting, enlightening look at the most significant decade in post-World War II American history.
English was born in 1945, the youngest of six children, into a family operating a luncheonette in Irvington, New Jersey. Growing up in “a household filled with tension,” English flew cross-country to live in San Francisco with an older sister and her husband shortly after her mother died. She was just sixteen.
Still a teenager, she felt destined to live a life inspired by books, beginning with the classic children’s novel, Pollyana. Before long, English writes, she had been fitted with a diaphragm, lived with three male roommates, began smoking marijuana, and lost her virginity. She later moved with a girlfriend to a place on Haight Street, got pregnant, lost her job because of her pregnancy, and had an abortion. She was eighteen years old.
San Francisco was becoming a city where it almost felt like you could overdose on life, she writes. The city “had taken me in like family. It felt so right to be there.” English began going out with black men to jazz clubs, even smoking pot one night with Dizzy Gillespie. On the pill and practicing what once was called “free love,” she dabbled in LSD while hanging out in Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park. Soon she went into analysis with a Freudian therapist. She experienced the beginning of “The Sixties” as we would come to know and remember that time period.
In 1966 English became interested in astrology and older men while commiserating with her brother who was in the Army and hoping not to be sent to Vietnam. She moved to Hawaii where she enjoyed taking college classes and new boyfriends. On a visit to San Francisco, probably in 1968, Janis Joplin sang “Happy Birthday” to her. English didn’t know Joplin, she says, but “we were both free spirits and yet both always looking for love.”
Back in Hawaii she became fascinated by stories friends told her about the big antiwar demonstrations in Berkeley. She remembers seeing American troops walking the streets of Waikiki while on R&R from Vietnam and recalls that “the blank stare in their eyes frightened me.” In 1969 she tried magic mushrooms and managed to make it to a concert by Jim Morrison and The Doors, which, she writes, was “both fascinating and shocking.”
At this point, we’re half way through the book, which continues into the Eighties. English then leaves Hawaii, and spends the next phases of her life on the West Coast of the U.S. where she gets married, has a child, and watches love come and go more than once.
This is a devastatingly honest memoir, bolstered at the end with updates about all the main people and places English mentions in the book.
The author’s website is hippiechickmemoir.com
–Bill Mc Cloud