The flashbulbs of invisible paparazzi popped in my head as everyone turned to scowl at us—who were we? Why we were the hot, underaged girls, thank you. You couldn’t have a party without us (193)
Popular culture has a love affair with actual memoirs, reality television, and movies based on a true story. While real life can make a fascinating read, it’s just as often true that "real life writes real bad" (attributed to both John Irving and Timothy Findley), and that claims of reality often bolster stories that may not be worth telling intrinsically. True-life stories often resemble religious tracts: the narrator drags out his or her struggles, and readers learn about the dangerous x lifestyle while vicariously experiencing it.
Janice Erlbaum’s Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir appeared in 2006 to great acclaim. Like Evelyn Lau's edgier Runaway, this is a well-written account of a teenage life out of control, and therefore a better read than most of the current crop of confessional true-life accounts. Like so many other non-fiction bestsellers, however, the need to adhere to the basic details of an unfinished life results in a fairly shapeless story. Individually, incidents in Girlbomb make for good reading. Overall, the book is repetitive, especially in its second half. Teenage Janice decides she's in love with a boy and sleeps with him, or vice versa. The relationship doesn’t last. Janice, who has problems, does drugs. The strategy fails to improve the situation. Janice aggressively does stupid things which she knows will cause her further trouble. Further trouble ensues.
The problems begin at home.
At fifteen, Erlbaum becomes frustrated with her mother’s abusive boyfriend. Her mother welcomes him into their life, throws him out, and then welcomes him back. His remarks towards his stepdaughter grow creepy. She tells her mother that allowing him to return once more will mean that she leaves.
The man returns. Janice leaves home.
I'd already had a run-in with square-head Treece and Sherri the pregnant psycho, my very first week at the minors’ wing. They were hanging out in our room one night after lights out, dancing by the window, fucking around with some guys standing down on the street, flashing them and miming blow jobs, whooping it up like it was Disney World. I was tired, and I knew Big Perla was trying to sleep, too, and if the nuns had to come upstairs to shut us up, we would all get punished.
"Oh my gawd!" screeched Sherri, her big belly throwing distended shadows as she lurched around the room, heaving with laughter. I wasn’t interested in a 7:30 pm curfew or cleaning the stairs with a toothbrush, so I pulled the pillow over my ear and grumbled, "Shut up."
The men on the street were forgotten. "Shut up?" said Treece, suddenly behind me. She reached out and slapped me on the head. "I know white girl didn't just tell me to shut up"(28).
The first, and most interesting part of the book relates her experiences in shelters and halfway homes. She faces violence, treachery, and racism at a Catholic-run shelter in Brooklyn. Later she lives in a group home where girls find themselves either because they have serious troubles or have guardians who find them seriously inconvenient. She’s no longer in constant danger, but the home has its Kafkaesque leanings. Group therapy sessions amount to organized bullying and even an "inappropriate" haircut can lead to lockup.
Desperate for male attention but lacking any model for stable relationships, she indulges in drugs, alcohol, and unsatisfying sex. "PCP," she observes, "didn't make sex better, but it did somehow make it less worse"(130). The boys washroom at her high school allegedly has an entire stall wall dedicated to her.
Despite her difficult circumstances, she lands the female lead in her high school’s production of Guys and Dolls. The school provides opportunities such as this one to develop her own abilities, and they do boost her confidence. She abandons them because they interfere with her drug use. She does, however, return home after her mother finally, permanently bans her stepfather. Living with her mother, now on meds, is "less like having a mom and more like having a thirty-nine-year-old roommate"(150).
A half-hour later, Leland’s eye was swollen shut. He yelled pirate songs as we staggered up Sullivan Street— "Yo ho! Yo ho! Yo! Fucking! HO!" There were maybe ten of us in a loose pack, girls, Boyses, and groupies—- weaving our way toward Washington Square, the Boyses stopping here and there to piss on shuttered store windows or hurl their empty bottles against walls. It was almost two in the morning, and the park was unusually dead. We fell onto a stoop across the street from the park, Leland singing at the top of his lungs(157)
Here the book becomes repetitive, with changes in the drugs used, the boys slept with, and the 80s Manhattan locales. Janice finally finds some friends—though as characters, they’re even less developed than the short-term acquaintances from her days in the halfway homes and shelters. Often, they fall into cliché, and while this is true of real teenagers, the story would benefit from further attempts to explore the identity of the supporting cast. Still, the book contains some interesting observations about these teens, as they play-act an inept version of adult relationships. The contrast between the desperation of Janice’s halfway home associates and the forced hardcore attitudes of her schoolmates, for example, reflects nicely on much contemporary pop culture.
She spends most of her final year of high school selling, using, and quitting cocaine, destroying her relationships, and avoiding school. She nevertheless graduates at the book’s conclusion; this is either a tribute to her brilliance or an indictment of the New York public education system.
Girlbomb has developed a following, and this does not surprise me. It reads like the typical story written by a certain kind of teenage writer: the protagonist explores sex, drugs, and alcohol, and then somebody dies. The crucial differences: Erlbaum can write, and she experienced her story.
Erlbaum’s planned sequel examines her return to the world of the halfway-homeless, as a volunteer worker. Possibly, the two books together will tell a more complete tale. Possibly, the passing of time and the perspective of age will give shape to her larger story.
Or perhaps, she might take her difficult years and shape them into fiction, which, when written well, sometimes illuminates the human experience better than some factual accounts.
First published: 2006