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.
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.