May 2008

Aysha Somasundaram

nonfiction

Have You Found Her: A Memoir by Janice Erlbaum

To posit that Janice Erlbaum’s Have You Found Her: A Memoir is a love story may be a peculiar way to begin a review of it. It may also be worth clarifying that the aforementioned "love" is devoid of a sexual dimension -- though not entirely of romance. But in its barest form, Have You Found Her is about mutual recognition, faith, dependency, disillusionment and the connective tissue that ties us to other human beings. The memoir conjures up the object of Erlbaum’s love: Sam. Sam, predictably, like virtually all the protagonists that inspire novels or copious amounts of "journal writing," is brilliant, troubled, manipulative, drug addicted, vulnerable, charismatic, and childlike. Sam is also a teenager in a homeless shelter, where Erlbaum, who was briefly a resident in her own teens, first encounters and then befriends her.

Memoir writing itself now seems to be a charged undertaking. It has grown to be a somewhat embattled genre fraught with ambiguities and the taint or suspicion of inaccuracies and embroidered truths -- if not outright fallacies. Why then would anyone opt to write a memoir -- to lay bare your life’s events to public scrutiny? Erlbaum’s decision to chronicle her friendship with Sam appears to be rooted in the same psychic impulse that leads her to return as a volunteer to the shelter.

Her self-examination during the shelter’s orientation video reveals much. The narrator of the video intones, “With your help… we can make a difference in [the residents’] lives. We can give them more than just food and shelter -- we can give them hope.” Erlbaum immediately tries to recollect whether her time spent at the shelter in fact gave her hope or merely standard issue institutional meals, a metal framed bed, a three dollar weekly stipend of spending money, and daily handouts of douches. And, then, her reverie is interrupted by a nun on the videotape saying, “Your first responsibility with these young people is to listen. First and foremost, you have to listen to them, and you have to take what they say seriously. And they may not always be telling the truth -- in many cases they won’t be; they don’t know how. But even if you don’t believe the facts of what they’re saying, you still have to believe in them, and believe you will eventually get the facts.” Erlbaum notes downs this advice and writes simply, in response, “Now I remembered the hope.”

The nun’s heartfelt "mission statement" of sorts sums up the many skeins of the plot line and, perhaps, some of difficulties posed by memoir writing in general. How factual a narrative can you pen that still manages to contain revelatory emotional truths or hold the attention of a jaded reader? Erlbaum is telling her own story -- honing and culling sound bites of familial disconnects and reconciliations, of committing to a loving relationship and man, of her own daily idiosyncrasies (smoking pot and running) and of meeting Sam. Erlbaum also cobbles together and narrates Sam’s story -- in what may arguably be the most compelling aspect of the narrative -- transposed with her own fears, needs and blind spots.

Throughout Erlbaum’s demeanor is critically introspective and honest. Peculiarly, the only tinny notes are the ones devoted to describing her love interest. Erlbaum’s life serves as the backdrop for the relationship she cultivates with Sam and incisively reexamines in Have You Found Her.

Have You Found Her: A Memoir by Janice Erlbaum
Villard Books
ISBN-13: 978-0-8129-7457-7
342 pages