Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum

I first encountered Janice Erlbaum’s life in Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir. At the time, Erlbaum was fifteen and tired of her mother cycling through boyfriends who introduced chaos and anger into the house, and sometimes thrown home goods. Though she’d never been physically assaulted, Erlbaum ran away from her New York City home for her own safety and arrived at a shelter. I mention Erlbaum never having been assaulted physically because the other girls at the shelter question her right to be there; they’ve been physically, sexually, and mentally abused, many are teen mothers, and most are black or brown while Erlbaum is white. She feels unworthy of shelter, so turns to drugs and boyfriends to self-sooth.

Twenty years later, working as a writer, dating a supportive man, and living in a posh New York City apartment, Erlbaum feels the pull back to the homeless shelter for girls. After a brief interview, she’s accepted as a volunteer and begins bringing in beads for craft projects. The rules are simple: no physical contact, no receiving or giving gifts, and no favoritism. But Erlbaum finds herself repeatedly discovering a favorite girl, only to lose her new favorite when the girl is moved to permanent housing. Then comes Sam, a tall, nineteen-year-old girl whose intelligence and talent draw Erlbaum in, sucking her up like a thirsty drain. How she met Sam and what happens over the course of a year is written in Have You Found Her. Please note that you do not need to read Erlbaum’s first memoir to enjoy this one.

I love that the title is written out in beads.

There are three things that stand out about Have You Found Her. Firstly, there isn’t nearly as much introspection as her first memoir. In the beginning, I was annoyed, seeing a missed opportunity; however, as the pages flew by, I realized Erlbaum was intentionally not pulling me out of the story to read her reflections about her relationship with girl Sam. Instead, what you get reads more like fiction, a thriller, to be more specific.

My eyes were so thirsty for this book, which is a key element of thrillers. We have to know what happens next! While I fail at mystery novels because I never see the clues that add up to a big reveal, throughout Have You Found Her, my “stranger danger” feelers kept going up. Things aligning too neatly, too many coincidences. Would another reader notice what I did? I’m not sure. My employment history has made me a suspicious person — I’ve had to weed through poor student excuses (did grandma really die again?), take training in a correctional facility to protect myself from being manipulated, and navigate the families of people with physical and mental disabilities who may hyperbolize situations. Thus, while reading Have You Found Her, I kept coming up with theories on why Erlbaum should be more cautious in her relationship with Sam, reading hurriedly to see if my ideas were confirmed.

No matter how fast you may read, it’s impossible to gloss over how possessive Erlbaum is of Sam, claiming to hospital staff they are “like sisters” after knowing Sam six weeks. She’s jealous of other adults Sam works with to get her into rehab for heroin use, out of the girls’ shelter and into permanent housing, and — what seems like a constant problem — get Sam out of the hospital after she suffers various infections. Although it seems like Erlbaum is oblivious, and maybe she was at the time, her tone indicates she now sees what a savior complex she had, calling herself “the noble volunteer.” Everyone in Erlbaum’s personal life knows of Sam because Erlbaum talks about her relentlessly, even jeopardizing her relationship with her boyfriend. What is a friendship/mentorship over the course of one year reads more like a desperate high school (platonic) romance.

The whole time I was read Have You Found Her, I kept thinking, “what is happening???” If you’re someone who doesn’t like nonfiction, I would recommend you try Erlbaum’s memoir for how much it reads like a novel. If you’ve ever thought about volunteering — maybe to add to your *resume or because you want to do something to help the less fortunate — I would also recommend Have You Found Her. Like I said, my personal experiences and advice from friends has led me to be weary about donning the “selfless volunteer” cap too casually. There’s a lot more to giving your time and emotions than you may think, and it’s important to establish ground rules and boundaries before you ever offer assistance. In fact, the people you want to help may not want your help, or even trust you:

. . .when I started, I thought the girls would be so grateful for any kind of sympathy or attention that they’d fall all over the volunteers, but I’ve seen them turn their backs on a lot of people, watched them size up a bunch of white women in high-heeled shoes, out to do their annual Good Deed for the Poor Little Black Girls, and seen them “put it on frost,” as they say, ice up like snowmen.

i actually really hate that high school students are almost forced into volunteering to pad their college applications. no one teaches them what volunteering entails, how to be emotionally safe, and how to think about the people for whom they are volunteering. it’s important we don’t consider volunteers “heroes” and those being assisted as “helpless” or “needy.” community group work / activism is much more effective, in my opinion.

19 comments

  1. This sounds fascinating, but too stressful for me to read. Like you, I have had to become suspicious as part of my job – partly because of parsing student excuses (very important to know if someone who is about to become a registered nurse will lie to get out of trouble!), but mostly because of my work in child protection and safeguarding. Lots of charming and likeable people can be good at manipulating healthcare professionals.

    To your broader point about volunteers being considered “heroes”, I totally agree with you – I think this wildly simplifies a complex situation. Here in the UK at the start of the pandemic there was lots of feting healthcare staff as “heroes” when really most of them are doing their actual jobs that they trained for, just in tougher circumstances than usual – which is the case for most people who are in employment. I know a lot of healthcare professionals who really did *not* like all the hero rhetoric.

    I do think that some volunteer work in secondary school is a great idea, maybe at a foodbank, toy library, or similar, because it exposes people to worlds very different from theirs and introduces the idea of helping without expecting financial reward. However, it should not be with people as vulnerable as domestic abuse survivors – you should always get proper training if you’re working with vulnerable people!

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    • And it sounds like where the author is in New York City that this girls’ shelter would take just about anyone with free time who is willing to watch a brief video about rules of volunteering. Even when I was teaching in prison we had about 12 hours of training, and that including not only how to avoid manipulation, but self-defense, too.

      I’m not sure how I would feel about the “hero” label if I were in health care. Because the whole industry seems both hard and selfless, it makes me think “everyday hero” — meaning before and after COVID.

      “Casual” volunteers, folks who only want to do something once in a while, do seem like they would be better off with a simple task that may not have such an emotional attachment. Even something like cleaning a space is valuable.

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  2. Great review! I remember being intrigued when you reviewed Girlbomb, so I enjoyed the follow-up. I’m curious, how many years apart were these written? It’s interesting that the author takes such different approaches in tone/style, that the reflections in Have You Found Her are much more subtle and take a backseat to the storytelling. Did you find this second volume more effective, or is the content different enough that both simply work in their own way? I suspect I’d like the thriller-like approach of Have You Found Her better, but I’m more drawn to the content of Girlbomb- always difficult to please, haha.

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    • Girlbomb was published in 2006 and Have You Seen Her was published in 2008. The events were about twenty years apart, but the books came out fairly close together, meaning she put some distance between herself and the story of her own homelessness, which I appreciate! I feel like both books are doing their own thing and thus wouldn’t compare. I appreciated the in-depth analysis of Erlbaum’s homelessness and drug use because otherwise I feel like I’m wallowing in downers. Have You Found Her didn’t need tons of analysis at first because it would have ruined the momentum of the story.

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  3. Wonderful review! This sounds absolutely fascinating, and I really appreciate that the author calls herself out on her past savior complex. That kind of self-awareness is admirable and refreshing. Adding this to the TBR 🙂

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    • I’m so glad! I was pretty impressed that the author is able to switch writing styles based on what best serves the content of the book. Many authors have trouble switching between adult and young adult books, and this lady completely changes her storytelling powers.

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  4. This sounds fascinating. I agree with your final point, particularly about young people being essentially required to volunteer. I did stuff like that in high school with absolutely zero training and it does strike me now as a potentially unsafe and not particularly helpful.

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    • Teens can be both a danger to the people they serve and be harmed themselves! I remember spending a weekend at a fairly uncomfortable Christian camp at which I was volunteering on the word of a girl who was my kinda-sorta friend because if I didn’t get in a ton of hours really fast, I couldn’t be accepted to the National Honors Society. I mean, I didn’t know a single adult there and didn’t have my own car at the camp to get home if things got weird.

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      • Oh, geez, that could potentially go really wrong! I can remember volunteering at shelters in the downtown east side of Vancouver, sitting with the men and women (but mostly men) who came in for a meal. We were encouraged to chat with them but I always struggled to know how to connect or what to ask them.

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  5. This sounds like a fascinating memoir! I like memoirs, but I don’t know how I’d feel about one that reads more like fiction. Sometimes what I like about memoirs is how predictable they are. I usually know what happened to the person in advance, and I’m reading the memoir for the details.

    You make interesting points about high school volunteering. I think it makes sense for schools to have a volunteer requirement, not to pad resumes but to give students experiences outside of their bubbles. That said, it should be carefully managed. Not every student is appropriate for every public interest opportunity. I’m a public interest lawyer at a nonprofit, and I often get inquiries from high school students who need to fulfill a requirement. Our place just isn’t right for them.

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    • When I was still teaching at Holy Cross College, there was a service requirement for all students, and from my understanding, it was part of a course and organized by professors and outreach people. It was a great opportunity, but it was carefully coordinated and handled. That’s interesting that you have so many high school students who approach you. For some reason, I would never think of looking into volunteering with a lawyer. They seem so busy!

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  6. This sounds really interesting and well-told – also glad she seems to have got some distance from and understanding of her behaviours. All volunteering can carry a heavy emotional load and I’m glad you point that out.

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    • I think it’s common for us to feel like we’ve done our good deed for the day, to the point where it’s a saying: “I’ve done my good deed for the day.” But offering assistance without boundaries is emotionally dangerous, and sometimes physically. And so for this woman to entangle herself with a homeless teen, who is technically an adult at 19, is pretty scary.

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  7. Oh boy, even as I read your review, I started to get this sick sense of dread. The idea of volunteering in shelters or prisons makes me nervous for the exact reasons you state-getting too involved with someone who I may not trust myself around, or who I may not trust myself. Also, this idea that they are needy, and they are desperate for people like us to help them is something I never thought of-I’ve tried giving homeless people food on the street, and I usually get it thrown back at me, which honestly is a good lesson. When I volunteer, I typically do it at an organizational level, because that’s where my comfort level lies. I’m just not the kind of person that wants to build that emotional relationship with people, I’m way too anxiety-ridden for that.

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    • If you do want to work with people more closely, join an organization that has training first to teach you how to navigate different situations and conduct yourself in a healthy way. That book I reviewed not long ago, Motherhood So White, talked about how parents who want to adopt have to go through foster parent training first, which takes a long time and there are people who don’t make it all the way through. Even volunteering in a prison you have to do training. It’s not just a background check.

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  8. Catching up again. Your comments made me think of volunteering from the other side. Years ago my mum agreed to foster – short term – a teenage girl, without realising I think how dependent on her the girl would get. I really felt for her when she was moved on.

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