By Janice Erlbaum.
Villard Books, $21.95.
At the beginning of Erlbaum’s coming-of-age memoir, we watch as her 15-year-old self is harassed walking the streets of New York, looking for a shelter. Her mother has taken her abusive stepfather back for the third time, and, true to her previous threats, the adolescent Erlbaum leaves home. What follows is a harrowing account of shelter and group-home life, a minefield Erlbaum negotiates while simultaneously navigating high school and all its empty-headed drama.
Unfortunately, about halfway through the book, Erlbaum becomes more fascinated by the ins and outs of her teenage friendships, relationships and drug use. What starts as a struggle to survive in a shelter where she is repeatedly threatened turns into a rumination on the crow’s feet in the corners of her dreamy boyfriend’s eyes.
Which brings us to two things normally not discussed in book reviews: the author’s note and the acknowledgements. In the post-Frey era of memoir, the book begins with Erlbaum alerting us that “Names and identifying details have been changed, and some major characters are composites.” If this life story is not true to her life—if major characters are faked—what worth does this story have as a memoir? If, say, one of those composites was her stepfather, how seriously should we take her flight from home? Her author’s note ends with, “I had to leave out a lot of the good stuff. Sorry.” After finishing the book, we couldn’t help wondering why we read the version that was missing the good stuff.
In the acknowledgements, Erlbaum offers “Much love and gratitude to my father, Larry, and my beloved stepmom.” Is this the father from whom her mother and she fled in the middle of the night, and whom she later describes as “scary,” before dropping him entirely from the book? Is her reconciliation with him some of the good stuff we’re missing, or is he a composite? Honesty and clarity are the best stuff of writing, and we can only wish the grown-up Erlbaum was as true to her word as the 15-year-old.—Jonathan Messinger