Gimme shelter

Janice Erlbaum recalls her attempt to save a homeless addict.

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THE LOST GIRL Erlbaum reflects on the troubled woman who inspired her new book.

THE LOST GIRL Erlbaum reflects on the troubled woman who inspired her new book. Photograph: Richard Kern

“People who want to read about homeless kids obviously want to buy expensive handbags,” Janice Erlbaum notes, slightly sarcastic but pleased to be the center of attention. A swanky prepublication party for her memoir Have You Found Her, about her doomed attempt to help a runaway teen, is in full swing at the Dooney & Bourke flagship store in midtown. In the front window, copies of Erlbaum’s book are stuck jauntily in plaid purses. The fete is compliments of Vanity Fair, which has hosted similar soirees for other women writers in their thirties, including Curtis Sittenfeld.

Erlbaum, 38, fits the bill, although her book’s subject seems a less obvious match. Have You Found Her is about the author’s all-consuming friendship with Samantha, a 19-year-old junkie she met in 2004 while volunteering at a Hell’s Kitchen homeless shelter. Sam—whose traumatic backstory was replete with abuse and drug use—was startlingly smart and charismatic. Erlbaum was instantly, intensely drawn to her. “It was a very painful experience,” she explains, “falling in nonromantic love with this young woman.”

The book traces Erlbaum’s relationship with Sam as the girl moves from the homeless shelter to a hospital, a rehab facility, a halfway house and back again, with the writer and her savior complex following doggedly. In between Sam’s relapses and bouts with illness, the two make big plans: They’ll travel, write a book together. Sam will go to college. Erlbaum will become her legal guardian. In the end, everything unravels: Sam turns out to be even more messed up than anyone knew, or could handle. “She almost died,” Erlbaum says with deliberate vagueness. “And she almost didn’t.” The author hesitates to discuss what, exactly, happened to Sam, preferring not to give away the book’s detective-story elements and M. Night Shyamalan–style surprise ending.

Though Erlbaum wrote the book while still reeling from the experience that inspired it, the tone stays hopeful until very close to the end. “There were scenes that were incredibly hard to write because they made me so angry,” she says. “And then there were scenes where I thought, Oh my God, I miss her. I didn’t expect to feel nostalgia like that.” Her writing is remarkably honest, with moments of almost discomforting earnestness. There’s something deeply moving about the purity of Erlbaum’s feelings in all their rosy naïveté. “When I read the book, I watch myself—I want to tell myself what’s going to happen,” Erlbaum says.

This isn’t the first time Erlbaum, who grew up in Manhattan, has used her personal experience as fodder for her writing. More than 20 years ago, when she was 15, she ran away from home and lived for a few months at the Hell’s Kitchen shelter where she would later volunteer. Back then, she was prowling New York’s still-gritty streets, sneaking into clubs and doing drugs—classic bad-girl behavior that would become material for her compulsively readable first book, Girlbomb—named one of 2006’s “Books to Remember” by the New York Public Library.

The author enjoys talking about the tricky challenges that memoirists face. “Sometimes you have to invade people’s privacy or say things that are going to hurt their feelings, or make them angry with you, and that sucks,” she reflects. “But I went to my high-school reunion last year, and nobody threw a drink in my face, so that was good.”

The conclusion of Girlbomb finds Erlbaum approaching stability, moving into her own apartment and enrolling in Hunter College. She later earned a master’s degree in writing from NYU, and from 1999 until early last year she was a columnist for Bust magazine. It was while she was writing the first book that she met Sam. “A lot of my motives for volunteering were to better understand myself as a kid,” Erlbaum says. “I was so eager to see a younger version of myself in Samantha that I didn’t see who she really was.”

With the new book, she may have found a better way to understand what happened between them. Sam’s not around to tell Erlbaum what she thinks of Have You Found Her, or to know that her problems inspired one at all. “Samantha is gone,” Erlbaum says simply. “I am the one who gets to tell other people this story.”

Have You Found Her (Villard, $14 paperback) is out now. Erlbaum reads at KGB Bar Feb 26.

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