Volume 20, Number 51 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | MAY 2 - 8, 2008
The author of Have You Found Her
Finding the truth and then some
By Will McKinley
Janice Erlbaum is a lot of things, but shes no liar.
Over the past two decades, the 38-year-old author of the new memoir Have You Found Her has been a teen runaway, slam poet, journalist, dotcom executive, stand-up comedian, East Village art star, blogger, writing instructor and most recently an acclaimed memoirist. She has been there, done that, and written about it.
But in the wake of widely publicized revelations of fabricated memoirs, Erlbaum can understand why readers might have a hard time believing her stranger-than-fiction follow-up to Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir.
Its natural to want to embellish your life story. People do it all the time, the longtime Downtown resident says over lunch at a 14th Street diner. But I dont, not in the books. As a writer and a teacher of memoir, its so disheartening. And its bad for business.
Thanks in part to high-profile prevaricators like James Frey (phony 12-stepper), Margaret B. Jones (fake gang member) and Misha Defonseca (sham Holocaust survivor), the mainstream memoir has devolved into what Erlbaum calls a competition for who has the worst life. The no-holds-barred battle for shelf space, media attention and Oprahs blessing has bastardized an art form that she loves and respects. And, she believes, it has done a disservice to readers.
I show you what my guts look like so you can say, Thats what my guts look like, too. That is the profound gift of the memoir, Erlbaum says. Thats where the connection happens. But these overblown, exaggerated books are an alienating experience, rather than one that draws us together.
Readers and critics were drawn to Girlbomb by the first-time authors unflinching confessions of her often less-than-sympathetic adolescent behavior. The deeply touching and disarmingly witty memoir was recognized by the New York Public Library as one of their 25 Books to Remember for 2006, and selected as one of the 2007 Books for the Teen Age. As Erlbaum enjoyed the accolades, and began working on her planned second book a novel she decided to return to the young womens shelter that had briefly been her home 20 years ago. What started as an effort to give back as a volunteer arts & crafts teacher turned into the perverse, real-life mystery that would become Have You Found Her.
What Erlbaum found was Samantha, a charismatic 19-year-old recovering junkie. And, although the shelter guidelines demanded that volunteers show no favoritism, Erlbaum chose to ignore the rules, just as she had done when she was a resident. She lived to regret that decision as she became emotionally enmeshed in a troubled young womans spider web of deception.
Janice Erlbaum may not be a liar, but the girl she found and tried desperately to save certainly was. That sad truth becomes evident perhaps sooner to the reader than it did to the writer, and it imbues Erlbaums already sympathetic narrative voice with an almost saintly pathos. As the story unfolds against a familiar Downtown backdrop of hospitals, rehab clinics and Union Square Park, we share in Erlbaums frustration as her dreams of redemption for Samantha and, ultimately, herself -- are dashed by forces too powerful to combat.
Have You Found Her is a perfect sequel to Erlbaums first book, a sort of Girlbomb II: The Next Generation, with a sharper edge and a more reportorial tone. And while you dont need to have read the first to enjoy the second, awareness of the obstacles that Erlbaum overcame in her own troubled teen years makes this tale all the more resonant. Either way, the unpredictable twist that morphs the third act of the book into a detective story is guaranteed to shock readers, just as it did the writer.
When it was all over, the nearly two years of tribulation took a heavy emotional, physical and spiritual toll on Erlbaum. But she got a book out of it, so that makes it okay. Right?
No way, she protests. Im a person first. I prioritize my sanity over my work, and I dont feel any compunction to invite drama into my life just to get a book out of it. I dont want something terrible to happen just so I have material.
Nor does Erlbaum feel the need to get prior authorization from everyone she chooses to write about even if what she writes might cast them in a less than positive light.
With memoir, you have a responsibility to be honest and fair, but you have to be hardest on yourself. Then, if you make other people look bad, youve probably made yourself look worse, she says. My job is to write the truth.
Janice Erlbaum will be reading an excerpt from Have You Found Her and participating in a panel discussion on Authors and Activism on Monday, May 5 at 7 p.m. at Housing Works Used Book Café, 126 Crosby Street. Free. housingworks.org, 212-334-3324.