Janet Mason Ellerby
This poignant story describes one woman’s journey through a tumultuous period of history.
"When I read memoir, I scribble the margins full of notes about writing techniques that might apply to my own passion for recording my life as memoir.
Ellerby’s Following the Tambourine Man: A Birthmother’s Memoir inspired an abundance of scribbles. It’s an excellent of example of how to tell a story. Ellerby provides immediacy whether using past or present tense. She skips around in her life with ease, sometimes writing about her adult self and her sixteen-year-old self in the same sentence. And she reflects on an era by using political and cultural happenings and lyrics from the Beatles and other musical groups popular in the 60’s. Although we belong to different time periods and Ellerby’s story is quite different from mine, I identified with her heart-wrenching drama by imagining what if the accidental pregnancy had happened to me.
Yes, that big what if of my era and hers—before The Pill. Ellerby’s privileged life in the conservative suburbs of Los Angeles wasn’t protection enough. She and her boyfriend that she loved for way too long into her adult life did it only once, and when her parents found out she was pregnant, they did what any parent with wealth and status did back then. Overnight, they shipped her off to a home for unwed mothers and covered up the incident by constructing a lie that everyone, even the father of the child, was told. One lie led to another, all under the guise of what was best for their daughter.
Ellerby wanted to keep her baby, but it was taken from her after only a moment’s glance. She didn’t argue nor did she discuss her sadness with her parents or anyone else. Instead, she spent most of her adult life living a lie, feeling lost and lonely.
There is so much more to the story: the birthmother’s guilt, her multiple marriages, and then finally the happy ending. I strongly recommend the book. "
—Story Circle Book Reviews
Please scroll down for a review from StarNewsOnline
Set during the sexual revolution of the sixties, this moving work recalls the decade’s prodigious effect on a generation of Americans that came of age during that transformative time of changing mores. Janet Mason Ellerby follows the crooked path she took from a protected and privileged childhood and early adolescence to her unplanned pregnancy and banishment and to her daughter’s birth and adoption. She then delves into the complex journey embarked on over the next thirty-five years, haunted by her first child’s memory and attempting to compensate for her loss.
Ellerby crafts an autoethnography, relating and reflecting upon the changes in middle-class American attitudes that informed the conservative suburbs of the fifties, through the political revolution of the sixties, seventies, and into today. In so doing, she provides a personal commentary on the shifts in adoption culture and describes the overlooked heartbreak that many birthmothers endure.
View other books in Writing American Women
Janet Mason Ellerby is a professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. She is the author of Intimate Reading: The Contemporary Women’s Memoir, also published by Syracuse University Press.
6 x 9, 240 pages, 12 illustrations
"It’s hard to believe, in an era when celebrities have babies all the time without bothering to wed, that once upon a time, being pregnant and single was considered a frightful disgrace - especially for "nice," college-bound, middle-class girls.
Back in the early ’60s - before Haight-Asbury, before Woodstock, before women’s lib - abortion was not an option, at least for the "nice." (The Supreme Court wouldn’t hand down its Roe vs. Wade decision until 1973.) Back then, scared, pregnant teenage girls would likely be packed off by their families to a Florence Crittenden home, one of a chain of facilities with branches in most American major cities.
Away from gossips in their home towns, the girls would wait out their terms, often taking high school courses in the process. They’d give birth. Then, politely and firmly, with the best of intentions, the home’s managers would push the new mothers to give up their babies for adoption by other "nice" families who happened to be childless.
That’s what happened to Janet Mason Ellerby, now a professor and vice chairman of the English department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
The year was 1964. Pressed to "prove her love" by an older boyfriend (on an avocado green couch in front of the family TV set), she conceived almost immediately at the age of 16. Her parents promptly packed her off to an aunt in Ohio, then to a Florence Crittenden home in Akron. Having read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, she secretly named her baby "Sorrow," after Tess’ lost infant. After an hour, mother and daughter were separated - forever, if all went as planned.
Ellerby first told her own story in 2001 in Intimate Reading, an academic study of how women writers come to terms with personal and family secrets. Her latest book, Following the Tambourine Man, supplies the rest of the story, and in personal terms.
After the birth, and after young Jan was shipped back home, her parents, conservative natives of the Midwest, treated the whole affair like Robert E. Lee in The Killer Angels: They spoke no more of it. Haunted by a family tragedy involving a troubled uncle - a story Ellerby was able to piece together only decades later - they were used to keeping family secrets.
Outwardly, young Jan conformed - although the former "Nixonette" found herself slipping leftward in the wake of the Watts riots and the Vietnam War protests she encountered in college. Inwardly, she mourned.
The trauma of the experience left her emotionally scarred and insecure. Although she built a successful teaching career and earned a Ph.D., part of her still felt like "damaged goods." An unconscious need for respectability led her into hasty marriages with unsuitable men. (Eventually, she would find lasting love with a UNCW colleague, John Clifford.)
Following the Tambourine Man ends on a positive note: Through an adoptees’ network, Ellerby was eventually able to contact her daughter, who turned out to happy, well-adjusted and eager to establish ties.
Beyond her immediate story, however, the memoir provides an intriguing yardstick to the changes in women’s lives during the past four decades.
Ellerby’s mother was unusual in the early ’60s for working full-time outside the home; now it’s commonplace. Unmarried women who carry their babies to term are celebrated by the pro-life movement. Ellerby also contrasts the stressful soccer-to-dance-class-to-tutorial schedules of modern kids with her relatively free-form adolescence as a blond Californian at the beach. (Keeping kids busy, she suggest, might not be such a bad idea.)
Unlike some modern memoirists, such as Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight), Ellerby never completely abandons her professorial persona when confronting her past. She tells her story, however, with considerable courage, even when the facts show her in a less-than-flattering light."
—Ben Steelman, StarNewsOnline