Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir by Janice Erlbaum

Although I can’t remember why I purchased Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir by Janice Erlbaum, I do know that nonfiction books in which real people are frequently inebriated or engaging in promiscuity aren’t my typical read. It’s so easy for an author to describe every last stomach-turning detail, from passing out and waking up with strangers to how many times he/she threw up and promised to never do it again. While those experiences are real and shape millions of people’s lives, I find it hard to read when the narration is practically detached from the author because she/he can’t actually remember what happened due to being so intoxicated/high. Basically, I feel bad and then I don’t know what I was supposed to get out of the memoir.

Even though Janice Erlbaum’s teen years do include hook ups, drinking, and drug use, she’s able to supersede other addiction memoirs by humanizing people she meets, getting her point across with imagery instead of description, and reflecting on her time as a “halfway homeless” youth.

In the 1980s, Janice Erlbaum’s perpetually not-single mother continually dated, and sometimes married, men who did not belong around young Janice. Though she admits no one ever sexually assaulted her, boyfriends and step-fathers were not above smashing furniture and making threats. When Erbaum’s mom discovers she is pregnant by her boyfriend, she marries him. The smashing and threats continue, and Erlbaum writes, “. . .I balled up even tighter, dense as a star, and wished one of us, any of us, was dead.” The mother says she’s going to leave this man, especially when he starts threatening to take away his newborn son, but they always reunite. During one break, which the mother swears is permanent, Erlbuam says that if the step-father comes back, she will pack a bag and leave that night.

Erlbaum’s mother must not have taken her seriously, because when the disastrous couple reunite, it’s a “surprise” when Janice Erlbaum stops making dinner, walks into her room, packs a bag, and goes to a homeless shelter run by nuns. One theme that runs through Girlbomb is the question of what defines abuse. Other homeless teen girls are pregnant, have endured sexual trauma, and have been thrown out of their homes. Most of them are black or brown, while Erlbaum is white. I thought this was an interesting topic. We know that witnessing violence is injurious, but are prompted to ask ourselves if this “unharmed” white girl who chose to leave home is “taking up” a bed that could be used by a physically and sexually assaulted brown or black girl who has no choice. Prompting readers to rethink their definition of who is in danger and worthy of assistance is especially meaningful to me as a reader in the United States, where resources are so few and life-threatening violence is ubiquitous.

But the nun who processes Erlbaum’s entry to the shelter kindly says, “We’re glad you came to us tonight.” Other individuals, even ones we aren’t meant to like or trust, are given enough details that they are fully human. This includes the various boys Erlbaum sleeps with in hopes of coercing one of them into marrying her. It’s the logic of a girl, one who thinks marriage means stable family and safety. After each rejection, it’s as if her “heart fell like a drunk down the stairs.” Even the boyfriend she has longest, who initially comes off as a slacker pothead, is fully realized into this person you care for and watch with fascination as he and Erlbaum accidentally (is there such a thing?) become addicted to cocaine and use other drugs.

I never felt like I was reading an addiction memoir, though, because the author is able to write her experiences with a dash of something to ponder. Consider this: “Acid elucidates all those things you would ordinarily take for granted: the color of the clouds, the frailty of the social contract, the disgusting miracle of the human body.” Using three examples, Erlbaum is able to capture just how tenuous our lives are, how things like home, family, and life can disappear without warning, a connection further strengthened when one of her high school friends parties in a car with friends and accidentally (there’s that word again — perhaps it should be “failed to consider the stupidity of”) smashing in his head while it was thrust out the car window.

While trying to finish high school, get a boyfriend or husband, starring in the school musical (wait, what?), and using intoxicants, Erlbaum still must go “home” every day to the shelter where rules are strict:

“It was overly hot in the brownstone, but residents weren’t allowed to open or close windows or blinds. We weren’t allowed to take things out of or put things into the fridge. We weren’t allowed to touch the stove, the lights, or the counselors’ phone. We had to walk around like amputees.”

The combination of shelter life and the freedom she tries to obtain while outside it are remarkable juxtapositions. Though she has a bed at the shelter, social services try to convince Erlbaum to return to her mother’s, an idea that is both hopeful and terrifying: “The bile rose in my stomach, even as the old zombie hope started clawing its way out of its grave in my chest.”

The author’s descriptions — amputees, zombies, a drunk falling downstairs — are placed just so to make the memoir engaging. She tends to keep her powers of description out of her sex and drug experiences (by this I mean what she was doing physically), so I never felt like I was wallowing, but I did get a strong sense of drifting down, down, down while a teen girl tries to play a Grown-Up Somebody/Anybody.

The ending is clever and allows the author to reflect on what happened to her in a way that doesn’t feel like a moralistic ending on sitcom TV: everyone hugs and clears up misunderstandings. Instead, Erlbaum shares an essay she had to write for college applications, an essay that asks about “A Significant Experience.” The essay still sounds like her as a teen — she inappropriately includes some swear words and sifts through her life in a slightly more shallow way that an adult looking back would. I found the conclusion a success, giving Erlbaum a chance to let her younger self speak, instead of a more mature adult fitting her old teen experiences into a framework suggesting everything worked out okay through the power of writing and perseverance. A highly recommended memoir.

20 comments

  1. Hmm this sounds really good, especially because it sounds so well-written! I especially like the quotes you included, they are impressive and make me want to read more 🙂

    Like

  2. Great review! I tend not to read many memoirs- if I don’t know who the author is or have a pre-existing interest in the subject I just have a hard time getting interested enough to pick them up. But your thoughts on this one made for a very interesting read and sparked an interest in homeless teen narratives I hadn’t been expecting. I think there’s something very brave about a girl leaving a home situation she’s not happy with, knowing she wants something more even though she doesn’t yet know what it is or how to get it. And it does open a fascinating question about what qualifies as abuse, and whether “home” is always the right place for a kid to be.

    Like

    • I thought she brought up great points, but she also wrote in a way that didn’t turn me off. I’ve read both of Marya Hornbacher’s famous memoirs, and the first one was all despair while the second was so patchy because she literally could not remember everything that happened to her. I see that a lot (patchy memoirs) from people who experience different abuses (physical, emotional, substance). It was a compelling book, and I’m going to get the follow-up memoir about her returning to the girls’ shelter to volunteer as soon as the library re-opens.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s a really great analysis of why the memoir worked when it might not have. I have a young relative in almost the identical situation – mother has new partner (though not multiple partners!), daughter feels both excluded and expected to mother her younger siblings, leaves home, experiments with drugs, ends up in hospital. After two years, from 14 to 16, things have settled down a bit and things may work out. To be clear, her mothers former and current partners have not been abusive, but it’s important that girls feel able to go to refuges when they feel threatened, no one should have to wait for an actual assault.

    Like

    • Thanks for the compliment! I worked really hard to figure out what worked for me in this memoir because I knew that if I did not, I wouldn’t be able to “sell” it to you guys, either.

      I think you make a great point about young people not waiting for an assault to leave. I’m not sure what was up with the author’s other relatives (aunts/uncles? grandparents? she probably noted this but I forgot) but I would hope an entire family would trust each other to move a young person into a different home, even if to give the parents and child space to get some perspective.

      Like

  4. I don’t think this is for me given all the abuse – but I appreciated reading your perspective on it nonetheless! Memoirs like this hit a little too close to home unfortunately. I don’t want to call it a “trigger” that’s too strong, but I read to escape and this is definitely not that.

    Like

    • I’m glad I was able to steer you clear of a book that’s not a good fit for you, then! I know sometimes authors get mad about negative reviews, but a negative review can lead a person to want to read the book. It’s true vice versa, too: the strengths of a book maybe what doesn’t work for another reader.

      Like

  5. Like you, this isn’t the sort of memoir I’d pick up. But you had me riveted throughout the entire review. Well done! First, kudos to your ability to write a compelling and strong review. ❤ Second, I now want to read this. In fact, Girlbomb might be a spectacular book club book. What do you think of that?

    If I pick this up, I’ll need the audiobook, I think. I find that non-fiction for me requires an audiobook to keep me engaged. I can process more connections and questions such as you pose above when someone is reading to me. If I’m doing the reading, physically, I find I need to discuss with others to get the most out of the text. What a weird quirk!

    Like

    • Thank you for your kinds words! I had to really think hard about this review, as it IS the kind of book I’d normally not like, but I didn’t want to write a review in which I stated, “I really liked it, but I can’t explain why.” I’m really interested in the follow-up memoir, which I can get as soon as the pandemic is over!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha. When I have a book where my review is, “I really liked it, but I can’t explain why”, I just don’t write a review. XD I don’t want to pressure myself – particularly if I don’t think I’ll do the book justice. Circe was like that for me. I adore it, but each time I sat down to write a review I couldn’t come up with any meaningful words.

        Like

        • And I think Goodreads is a great place for thoughts like that. For me, Goodreads is more like a diary because any book that is wildly popular is unlikely to get me any attention as a reviewer. Thousands of people have posted reviews before me, so I basically leave some sketchy notes for future me in case I wonder, “Did I even read/like that book?”

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes! I wish I was better at articulating briefly what I enjoyed or didn’t enjoy about a book. I like to always leave a few sentences at least. Also, Goodreads is owned by the Amazon machine, so any of my text I post is owned by them… and I don’t know how I feel about that.

            Like

Leave a Reply to Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s