Janet Louise Langlois passed away peacefully at her home in Detroit May 22, 2021, with family members nearby. She is survived by her husband, Andrea di Tommaso, daughter Mia di Tommaso, stepchildren Dante, Matteo, and Ivana di Tommaso, grandchildren, a sister, and brothers.
Janet was a leading scholar, a legendary teacher, and a dear friend and mentor to many of us. During her long illness she courageously studied legends about deathbed visitations at hospices. In the spring of 2021 she received the Linda Dégh Award for Lifetime Achievement in Legend Studies. Her last book, Other Worlds, which analyzes hospice experiences, will be published later by the University Press of Mississippi.
Janet’s work includes the book Belle Gunness: The Lady Bluebeard and many articles:
- “The Belle Isle Bridge Incident: Legend Dialectic and Semiotic System in the 1943 Detroit Race Riots”
- “Belle Gunness, The Lady Bluebeard: Narrative Use of a Deviant Woman”
- “‘Mary Whales, I Believe in You’: Myth and Ritual Subdued”
- “‘Hold the Mayo’: Purity and Danger in an AIDS Legend”
- “Mothers’ Double Talk”
- “‘Celebrating Arabs’: Tracing Legend and Rumor Labyrinths in Post-9/11 Detroit”
Janet Langlois is the 2021 Recipient of the Linda Dégh Lifetime Achievement Award for Legend Scholarship, and a month ago, to her delight, she already received both the framed certificate and the trophy.
We will remember her kindness, her generosity, her intelligence, and contemplate her loss.
The Executive Council of ISCLR
Thanks you. Wonderful, loving tribute to a beautiful soul, dear colleague, and cherished friend. Her loss is immense for her family and friends as well as for her professional world. May Janet rest gently in perfect peace.
Like many I suspect, my introduction to Janet was her making me her best friend at a conference, the first of OSU’s graduate student conferences if I recall correctly. Janet had that ability to find you simply the most amazing person she had ever talked to, and in the process you became that. And we became friends. I have tried to emulate her as much as I can, though I suspect there is no way that I could ever rival her energy, wit, and warmth.
Janet was a superb scholar and a most delightful person, a friend and an inspiration to many. She will be missed, but will remain a guide. – Gary Alan Fine
Janet was a dear friend, folklorist and long-time buddy, almost since graduate school. We exchanged books, letters, ideas, even gifts during the long years of our friendship. She was a much-loved friend.
I found this poem by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh, that I wish to post in her memory.
The Great Poet Basho Begins His Journey
After lengthy preparations
the great poet Basho begins his journey.
The very first day he happens
to walk past a sobbing child
abandoned by his parents.
He leaves him there, by the roadside
because, he says, such is Heaven’s Will.
He walks on, northwards, toward the snow
and things unseen, unknown.
Slowly the imperfect cities’ sounds grow still,
only streams hold forth chaotically
while white clouds play at nothingness.
He hears an oriole’s song, delicate,
uncertain, like a prayer, like weeping.
Janet Langlois was the definition of a selfless scholar and a perfect friend.
Clear-eyed, Janet took on the toughest topics: the Detroit race riots of 1943, the September 11 attacks, AIDS, and, most notably, Belle Gunness, the “Lady Bluebeard,” who lured suitor after suitor to her farmhouse and murdered them all. Janet was unafraid of approaching these legendary figures and topics head-on. To do justice to Belle Gunness, Janet moved to LaPorte, Indiana, site of Belle’s last known home, and lived there for a year, discovering day by day what Belle meant to the people who lived down the street from the killer.
But Janet’s fearlessness could never compete with her compassion. She was acutely aware that so many of her—and our—chosen topics were toxic. The legends that she studied were imprinted with pain, but they also often inflicted pain. Janet was committed to endure the pain that legends inflicted, but at least equally sworn never to pass on that pain whenever it was possible to find and transmit a better message. The years ca 1990 marked the time of the Satanic Panic, an era during which the devil was invoked as the principal figure in almost every legend that we studied. I recall a time in the early 90s when Janet faced us all to say that she had been giving the devil more than his due, that her obsession with Satanism was obscuring the fact that American legendry itself was taking a turn toward other, often less poisonous and more hopeful topics. In fact, Janet was critiquing all of ISCLR, but rather than blame any one—or all—of us, she blamed herself. That was Janet’s way.
Janet had been battling cancer for well over a decade. I was lucky enough to share time with her during the 2020 virtual meeting of AFS, when she joined online to respond to Jeanie Thomas’s legend panel. If for nothing else, we have covid to thank for this chance to see and hear her, as Janet had not been able to attend AFS for some years. The last time I was able to see Janet face-to-face and hold her hand, was in 2011 at AFS in Bloomington. I am one of many who learned so much from Janet but who misses every chance, and every second to have known her more.
Until the very end she made me laugh and I will always be in awe of her perceptiveness and courage.