About a girl: Among troubled young women, a standout It all started with an e-mail.
I’d just come home from my second shift as a volunteer at a homeless shelter for teenagers, a shelter where I myself had spent a few months at the age of 15. Now 34 and (relatively) stable, I wanted to give something back to the place that had helped save my life; I wanted to find a young woman like the one I’d been, and make a positive difference in her life.
So far, what I’d found was blowing my mind and breaking my heart.
Cheryl is nineteen and pregnant. She has a two-year-old daughter who’s currently in foster care. She also has a criminal record. Cheryl owns one sweatshirt, one pair of pants, and no bra . . . I poured it all out in an e-mail to three of my best girlfriends, told them everything I’d seen, thought and felt over the course of my four-hour shift. I just couldn’t keep it to myself, what these girls were dealing with every night while we blithely made dinner, watched TV, surfed the web. I hit “send,” and my friends’ responses were rapid: Oh, wow. So sorry to hear it. And, tell us more.
Thus began a series of e-mails I called the “Volunteer Notes.” Every week, I updated my friends on the rotating cast of characters I met at the shelter: Mandy, the meth addict with the beautiful singing voice; Marisol, the gangbanger who wanted out. After a few months, one young woman emerged as the star of the “Volunteer Notes,” and one of the stars of my life: Samantha.
Samantha had been on the streets since she was 12. Her abusive, drug-addicted parents had prostituted her since she was a kid; finally, she escaped them and made her own way through the slums of the U.S., dealing drugs and turning tricks. Now 19, she’d come to the shelter to get sober and clean up her life. I was instantly drawn to Sam for her tremendous charisma, her vast intelligence and her great writing talent, and she was drawn to me in return.
Over the next year, I chronicled my friendship with Sam in my journals and my “Volunteer Notes,” as I followed her from the shelter, to detox, to a psych ward, to rehab, to a halfway house and finally to a hospital in the Bronx, where she lay near death, suffering from the late stages of a virulent autoimmune disorder.
By this time, I knew I wanted to write a book about my volunteer experiences, which was handy, since my publisher was expecting me to come up with a second book to follow my debut memoir, Girlbomb, and they wanted it soon. I asked Sam’s permission to include her as a major character in the book – I’d been showing her much of what I’d been writing about her throughout our friendship – and she agreed, pleased that her story would live on after her.
Then came a revelation about Sam’s illness, a turn of events so shocking that I thought, I really must be a character in a book, because this can’t be happening. Over the next few weeks, I came to realize that Sam was sicker than anybody suspected, in ways nobody could have guessed. I discovered that truth really is stranger than fiction – and, often, just as hard to write.
So how was I supposed to write a book about events that were still unfolding? Well, first I got an extension on my deadline from my (wonderful, patient) editor. Then I scheduled a bunch of extra therapy sessions with my shrink. I collected all the e-mails and journal entries, and read them in one fell swoop. And then I sat at my desk and wrote as honestly as I was able to write. Sometimes I broke down and cried; other times, I slammed the laptop shut and pounded my fists on the desk. But mainly, I tried to tell the truth as I understood it, even as the truth kept changing on me.
It was a grueling experience, living through the ordeal with Sam, and then having to relive it while the pain was still fresh. But once I’d pushed myself through it, my perspective changed: I was able to see myself as a character, the events as a story. And now it doesn’t have to live in my head and my heart the way it once did. It lives safely between the covers of a book – a book I can now call closed.
Janice Erlbaum is a former columnist for BUST magazine. Have You Found Her is her second book. Her previous one, Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, was named one of the New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember. Erlbaum lives in New York City.