Magic, Mystery, and Love: The Story Behind ‘I Was Never There’

Janet Stilson
Published in
4 min readAug 6, 2023


Jamie and Karen Zelermyer in the remains of The Underground Railroad bar, now housed within the garage of Marsha Ferber’s one-time business partner, Randy “Squeak” Williams. Photo Courtesy of Jamie Zelermyer

Jamie Zelermyer grew up in a world that was a lot different than what most kids experienced in the 1970s and ’80s. Until she was in sixth grade, her family was part of a Back to the Land enclave that involved radical politics, music, and communal living in and around Morgantown, W. Va.

There was a real mystery element to it, too. A close friend of Jamie’s family, Marsha “Mudd” Ferber, disappeared without a trace — never to be seen or heard from again.

That’s all explored in a podcast that I found riveting: “I Was Never There,” which Jamie co-hosted with her mom, Karen Zelermyer.

As the episodes roll by, the duo investigates the disappearance of their friend — talking with acquaintances, police detectives, and musicians. And listeners come to realize not only how much Jamie and Karen love each other, but also how different they are, despite their commonalities.

If you met Jamie today, there’s nothing about her that would suggest that rather unique past, other than a certain glint in her eye. She’s seen a lot of things that might seem crazy to the average Joe or Jane.

Jamie and I swim in the same showbiz “pool” in New York. And we have some colleagues in common. So after listening to the podcast, I just had to get in touch to find out more about the production. And I also wanted to find out what’s in store for Season 2, which is now in the works.

“I Was Never There” is riding on a lot of momentum, given the response to Season 1. The podcast hit Apple’s list of Top 20 podcasts after it debuted, and № 5 on its True Crime list. It won praise of luminaries like Stephen King and debuted at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival last year.

Inspiration Behind ‘Never There’

One of my burning questions about the first season was: Why, after so long, did you choose to investigate what happened to Marsha Ferber? And along with that: What inspired you to delve into the story of your upbringing, which (in Karen’s words) was sprinkled with “music, magic, and marijuana”?

Jamie explained that the story idea developed over time. One impetus was an event that took place in the late 1990s, when she returned to West Virginia with her mom to attend the funeral of a friend. “It was this beautiful, homegrown memorial on top of a mountain,” she relates. “That trip recemented my love for West Virginia and reminded me of the beauty of the Back to the Land community — this idea of communal spirit and communal living.”

Flash forward to recent times, when podcasts became popular. As Jamie was listening to some of them, she realized that an exploration of Marsha’s mysterious disappearance could be folded together with the story of her childhood world.

Marsha wasn’t only an extended member of Jamie’s family and one of her mother’s dear friends. Words like revolutionary and luminous were used to describe her by some people that Jamie and Karen interviewed for the show.

To hear them talk, she had a pronounced sense of irony and a wicked sense of humor — a short, wide woman with a Jewfro who ran a bar called The Underground Railroad, which was a hot music scene. There was a picture of Harriet Tubman on the stage’s back wall.

Marsha opened two communal-living houses, Earth House 1 and 2, where the Zelermyer family — including Jamie’s father and sister — lived at various times. Marsha also helped start a food coop. Plus, Karen and Marsha were part of a feminist, anti-war theater group, which Jamie also performed in.

The Earth Houses and bar were kept afloat by Marsha’s business selling weed. “She was definitely living on the edge,” Jamie says. “I knew a lot of what was going on. My parents had another friend who passed away in his 30s who was a big drug dealer from Jamaica. The drugs were not a secret in our childhood.” In fact, in one episode, Karen describes how she was busted for growing pot.

Uncovering the Mystery

But Jamie didn’t know everything that was going on. She says that what surprised her, as the investigation dug deeper, was that Marsha and another family friend were essentially international drug smugglers who got into some pretty dangerous situations. And the drugs went beyond marijuana. “I don’t think my parents even knew any of that stuff,” she says.

Was Marsha killed? Did she decide to start a new life, leaving everyone who loved her behind? Is she part of the U.S. government’s Witness Protection Program? No spoilers here, but all those questions are explored as the episodes unspool.

“I Was Never There” also delves into the unique relationship between Jamie and Karen, and how different their personalities are. Karen — who divorced Jamie’s father, came out as a lesbian, and eventually moved to New York — wouldn’t give Jamie a curfew when she was young. Jamie had felt she needed that guardrail. Karen just told her daughter to come home when her friends did. “None of my friends really had a curfew either,” Jamie says.

The second season explores a completely different story, but with some similar traits. “We’re helping another mother and daughter tell their story,” Jamie says. “It’s a cult story, to be honest. There’s a detective element to it, but in a slightly different way. My mom and I will still be the cohosts.”

Exact details on when the second season will debut have yet to be determined. But look for it to drop sometime in the first half of 2024.

I, for one, can’t wait.



Janet Stilson

Janet Stilson’s novel THE JUICE, published to rave reviews. A sequel will be released in May 2024. She won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.