Saving Teen Souls

Former runaway finds her double, 20 years later.

“All the volunteers here have a shtick,” confides Janice Erlbaum in the beginning of Have You Found Her (Villard, $14). This memoir traces two years of Erlbaum’s journey as a volunteer at the same homeless shelter where she had lived briefly as a teenage runaway 20 years earlier, an experitraces two years of Erlbaum’s journey as a volunteer at the same homeless shelter where she had lived briefly as a teenage runaway 20 years earlier, an experience chronicled in her memoir Girlbomb. Erlbaum’s shtick — the activity that gives her an excuse to connect with the girls who live at the shelter — is jewelry. Every Wednesday she shows up in the shelter’s cafeteria with a large bag of bead-working supplies to shouts of “Yo, Bead Lady!”

Now a successful writer with a loving boyfriend, gorgeous apartment, and the sole vice of a perpetual joint in her ashtray, even Erlbaum isn’t sure exactly what made her come back to this place: “And every week, there was the unspoken question, the one I didn’t know enough to ask myself: Have you found her yet? The one who reminds you of you?”

Although strongly discouraged by the shelter’s staff from choosing favorites, Erlbaum can’t help but love a series of mainly “black and brown” teens, whose chaotic lives of gangbanging, hustling and using guarantees sudden exits and heartbreak. Then she meets Samantha Dunleavy, a white, spunky, resilient 19-year-old junkie savant, fighting to stay sober and transform her life. Despite seven years on the streets, Sam is a gifted writer and classical pianist, and reads everything from astrophysics to Nietzsche.

Erlbaum falls hard for Sam, and over the course of a year develops an unusually tight relationship that encompasses the roles of best friend, writing mentor, and big sister; she even offers to be Sam’s legal guardian. During a series of health crises that afflict Sam — a raging wrist infection, drug relapse, flashbacks of abuse that induce suicidal thought, fungemia that nearly blinds her — Erlbaum follows her charge through detoxes and psych wards, halfway houses and hospitals, desperately wanting Sam to know she is going to be okay, to know she’s cared for, even while Erlbaum increasingly resents how much time Sam is taking.

In the second half, Have You Found Her begins to read like a true crime story, the minute the author starts to suspect that Sam is not who she claims to be. Erlbaum turns detective, using her own meticulous journal entries, the Internet, and skillful interview techniques to learn Sam’s true identity, and the cause of her illnesses. Along the way, readers get to see Erlbaum mature, as she faces her own issues head on: her strong desire to be needed, her enabling tendencies, even her soft drug use.

Erlbaum’s book stands out for its unapologetic humor and honesty. Her characters and true-to-life dialogue make this memoir read like a novel. (In fact on the author’s website, readers can watch her performing the characters). And though many questions are left unanswered, we do know that the author has come to some peace by the book’s epilogue: “I’m not looking for Little Janice anymore. She’s here inside me, where she’s always been. And she’s happy.”

Yael Flusberg is a writer, nonprofit coach, and yoga teacher living in Washington, DC.