“One Sunday afternoon, as I was driving down Haight Street, I saw a large group of people gathered in the Panhandle, that part of Golden Gate Park that borders the Haight-Ashbury district between Oak and Fell Streets. I parked my car and walked down the hill to see what was happening. Some guys were sitting on the edge of a big flatbed truck giving away sugar cubes that were apparently laced with LSD to people strolling by. Without hesitation, I held out my hand and popped one in my mouth.”
— Ilene English, in her memoir Hippie Chick.
The feeling of creating a community of unknown but like-minded souls is intoxicating. Jumping into new opportunities with no strings but a little childish naiveté attached epitomizes the emancipation so many teens had been seeking in the recent and restrictive past. English unquestioningly ingesting a hallucinogen offered from a stranger in the back of a truck seems not only acceptable, but brings a yearning to walk in her shoes.
Ilene English’s life as a flower child in the 60s is a provocative tale of wild and honest freedom. Her memoir falls in the just-one-more-page category for readers; hard to put down due to her constructing a tantalizing world of possibilities. This is not to say that the book is built on California sunshine and free rock concerts in the park. She has more than her share of miseries, and perhaps this is what makes her so open to investigate this seductive call of freedom, the kind of freedom young women especially had never seen.
English grows up in a house with a chronically ill mother who shows her no respect, and a father who keeps his distance except to yell at his children. As the youngest of six, there is an unspoken agreement that she will be the one to take care of their aging parents. When her mother collapses, teenage Ilene is confused by the paramedics and the commotion. When she asks about her mother, she’s told flatly that she’s dead and to go make phone calls to the rest of the family. There is no time to grieve, and no one to comfort her. Harboring guilt and unresolved issues, she is determined to find people who care, and sometimes ends up risking too much.
She is fortunate to have her older sister Carole take her under her wing. Carole convinces their father to let Ilene live with her and her husband David in California, and the trip begins. Carole and David are much more permissive that their parents. In 1964, English is living with three male roommates who introduce her to marijuana, and one casually offers to “teach you to have intercourse?” Since her sister has already taken her to get a diaphragm, and she likes the roommate, she agrees.
English details her affairs with jazz musicians, an illegal abortion, a party with Janis Joplin, the death of her beloved sister and temporary parenthood of her baby, life in a commune with a slightly sketchy leader, and many more fascinating tales. She has issues with controlling men, but finally realizes that she can stand on her own and tell her truth. And with her far-out ideals finally blossoming into reality, what a groovy truth it is.