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.