Janice Erlbaum is in her mid-30s and decides to volunteer at a shelter for homeless girls - the same shelter she lived in almost twenty years before. She doesn’t fully understand her motivations, and she immediately breaks the rules for volunteers by choosing favorites, giving gifts and eventually befriending the troubled Samantha. Have You Found Her is Erlbaum’s story of that year and what she discovers…not just about Samantha (who is more ill than anyone can imagine), but about herself.
This memoir is a disturbing read, and ultimately one which is heart breaking. Erlbaum is a talented writer, slowly revealing Samantha’s problems and her (Erlbaum’s) underlying issues about motherhood, co-dependency and escapism through drugs. She builds tension with some subtle foreshadowing and the book unwinds with a sense of doom. Long before the final secret is revealed, the reader knows to expect disaster. Luckily, the sadness is balanced with a sense of fulfillment which Erlbaum finds with her domestic partner, Bill - a man who shines between the pages as a person of hope and stability in an uncertain world.
To say I enjoyed Have You Found Her seems inappropriate - who could enjoy the gradual unraveling of a young girl’s life, the sense of futility and lost hope that invades the prose? But despite this, I couldn’t put this book down. I felt compelled to turn the pages, to understand the despair which drives mental illness, to find out how it all would end.
Janice Erlbaum has written a memoir which will stimulate discussion among parents of teenagers, and those who work with disturbed or drug addicted children. Brutally honest and revealing, this is a book I can recommend.