The Rumpus Interview with Janice Erlbaum

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Janice Erlbaum’s debut novel, I, Liar, is centered on the fragile patchwork that exists between mothers and daughters. Her two previous memoirs, Girlbomb (2006) and Have You Found Her (2008), recount her homelessness on the streets of New York and subsequent recovery. Erlbaum incorporates her experience with the street and families into her new work, telling the story of a young daughter, Elizabeth Madigan, hell-bent on squeezing some love from her self-absorbed mother and indifferent stepfather.

Erlbaum masterfully weaves a tale of frustration and longing between mother and daughter, the latter who will create any story to collect some time in the maternal spot light. As Elizabeth grows older, she begins to wonder which of her own myths are true. This is a novel of reinvention, of women and their relationships with each other and themselves. As Nietzsche wrote, “No being without chaos in them can give birth to a rising star.”

I interviewed Erlbaum via email recently about the subjects she haunts, unavailable parents, the state-of-the-nation homelessness, living the faux life and lighting out for the territory.

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The Rumpus: Having written two memoirs, how was it changing gears and jumping into fiction mode with your first novel?

Janice Erlbaum: Going from memoir to fiction was fantastic. I had been afraid to move away from memoir; I’d written some novel drafts, but they weren’t well received by my agent at the time, and it had been drilled into me that “memoir outsells fiction two to one” (not sure if that’s true anymore, or if it ever was), so I felt like the only smart thing to do, professionally, was to keep mining my life for painful moments to recapitulate.

bestliarLast May, I was working on a memoir about the death of my mentally ill mother, and it had become excruciating, but I wouldn’t let myself quit, because that would be quitting. So I decided I’d take a short break and do a fun exercise for myself only and write about something I’ve been fascinated with for years: people who lie and manufacture illness.

My second memoir, Have You Found Her, is the true story of my relationship with a young woman with Munchausen’s Syndrome who faked her identity, lied every time she opened her mouth, and repeatedly risked her life so that she could be hospitalized. She injected yeast into her eyeball to simulate the fungemia caused by late-stage AIDS. What the hell is that? What makes somebody do that? What does it feel like to need attention so badly you stick a needle in your eye?

I tried to put myself in the head of someone like the girl I knew, and it turned out I empathized with her more than I’d expected. The narrator’s voice came out right away, and that gave me the momentum I needed to press forward without a real-life series of events to draw from. Not knowing what was going to happen or who she was going to meet was thrilling. You don’t get that in memoir, where so much is predetermined. In writing fiction, you’re not beholden to the truth, or to other people, and that’s a relief. I sat down at the keyboard every day and made shit up. It was a joy.

Rumpus: Did you ever consider writing your first memoir, Girlbomb, in novel form?

Erlbaum: No, I always saw Girlbomb as a memoir. It was the story that defined me (or so I thought): “I was a runaway who lived at a shelter.” That experience was the most interesting thing about me, the thing I was most eager for people to know, and I’d been writing about it since my early twenties. One of my first published pieces, back in the early ’90s, was for New York Press’s “First Person” column. It was called “Shelter Happens,” a title I recycled a decade later as a chapter title in Girlbomb.

I was writing Girlbomb in 2004 during a memoir boom, when Augusten Burroughs and James Frey were big; I thought I was about to join their ranks as a famous-for-being-fucked-up memoirist. Five weeks before Girlbomb was released, James Frey was exposed as a fabricator, and suddenly being a “memoirist” was not such a great, cool thing.

Rumpus: Was it difficult writing about your rough times and dredging up unpleasant memories? Was it therapeutic to write these things out of your system?

Erlbaum: Yes to both questions. You read so much about the healing power of memoir, but you don’t read about the wounding power it has first.

The recollection of past events is not, in and of itself, therapeutic. Those of us who obsess over every word and action are constantly recalling past events, but that doesn’t make them any less painful, nor does it help us transcend them. To write memoir, you have to not only recollect past events, you have to revisit them. You have to get back to the mental and emotional state you were in during those events. For me, that meant I had to actively feel all this fear and grief and loneliness and shame I’ve been running from for the past twenty years. I didn’t want to feel it in the first place! Why would I want to feel it now?

Because the only way around it is to go through it. So I did. I confronted the writhing shame that came with publicly admitting that I sucked my thumb during high school (and college; I finally quit at age twenty-five), even though there was a night after the book was in production when I sat bolt upright in bed at 3 a.m., like, “STOP THE PRESSES.” And now I am 95 percent less ashamed than I was before.

So, yes.

Rumpus: What was the initial response to Girlbomb? I suspect you connected with a thankful audience?

Erlbaum: The initial response was a barrage of emails from people I hadn’t heard from in years: Old friends, casual acquaintances, a guy who lived across the street from me when I was seven years old. That has to be one of the weirdest things about publishing a memoir, girlbomba bombardment of various eclectic people from the past.

The initial press was mostly very good, and that was encouraging. And when I started hearing from readers, their reactions were quite positive. But it only took about a week or two for the first one-star reviews to start showing up from readers who not only disliked the book, but very much disliked the author and objected to her life choices.

In the eight years since the book’s publication, I have continued to receive many personal emails from young women who are experiencing similarly unhappy circumstances at home. They want to know what they should do about their abusive or addicted parents; they want my opinion on whether or not they should run away. I take each of these emails very seriously, and have in established ongoing communication with several correspondents.

Then there are the old broads who remember being all screwed up when they were in their teen years. They too are big supporters, and some of them have even become friends.

Rumpus: Your experiences in Girlbomb took place in 1984. Do you think resources for young adults that are in the situation of abuse and homelessness have improved since then? At least for those in larger cities?

Erlbaum: I remain an active volunteer in the field of at-risk youth, so I’m pretty familiar with the landscape as it stands now, but I don’t have any qualifications or an exhaustive body of research to back up my observations.

What I do see is a greater understanding of why young people leave home. It was true in my day and remains true today that LGBT teens make up a disproportionate percentage of homeless youth, and there are a number of organizations that serve that population, which was not true in the 80s.

Also, when I was at Covenant House in the 80s, it was one of very few organizations serving homeless youth, and it was only in New York. Now CH is in almost every major urban area in the US, and there are even some branches in other countries, and it’s no longer the only game in town.

However, and I’m not sure if this is a nationwide policy change or not, they can only house kids under eighteen for a maximum of three days before they go to foster care. Whereas I was fifteen, and they housed me for six weeks, then I went to a group home, and was able to avoid “the system.” That was fundamental in keeping me somewhat autonomous after leaving home.

Finally, there is now a larger network of street kids, travelers, and “crusties”—and I’m not recommending that anybody join this tribe!—but it exists, and is easier to connect with than such street kid subcultures were in the past.

Rumpus: The lack of male characters in I, Liar, is almost a character in itself. With the exception of some cameos with mediocre stepfathers it is an all-woman cast. Was this intentional or just the way it worked out?

Erlbaum: I didn’t set out to write a book with no real male characters, but men were not important to my narrator, who was much more interested in maternal and pseudo-maternal love, so they were unimportant to me. I didn’t even notice the lack of men in the story until I finished it. But once I did notice it, I was kind of delighted. Apparently, my subconscious is totally sexist.

However, I did make a conscious decision to leave out a lot of physical description of the supporting characters, especially as it pertained to skin color or ethnicity. A few characters are explicitly described as white, and one is described as being of Columbian descent, but aside from mentioning that some of the narrator’s roommates and co-workers are black, there’s no ethnicity or skin color assigned to the players. If a reader imagines all of the supporting cast as white, that’s on them. In my mind, they’re a mixed bag of skin colors and ethnicities and trans/cis orientations, like you expect to find in New York City. I didn’t feel like saying, “My co-worker Jennifer, who is black and masculine-of-center, said to me…” Jennifer is just a co-worker. You make of her what you will.

Rumpus: One of the many things I admired about I, Liar, was how you handled the mother/daughter relationship. You avoided territory that comes with writing about such relationships including, clichés, over the top sentimentality, and/or ceaseless rants. How difficult was it to write about this emotional tightrope walk?

Erlbaum: My relationship with my mother, who died in 2012, was very turbulent; she was mentally ill. It was just serious neuroses and anxiety and co-dependence when I was young, but in the last few years of her life, she was manifesting full-on schizotypal behavior, and when I look back at her past actions, I see how long those seeds had been growing.

While I was working on the book, I honestly and with a straight face insisted that I was not writing about my mother, that I had created a character from my imagination. I had a picture of this character on my laptop, and a picture of the grandmother in the book, too. I saw a news story about a woman who’d hired a hit man to kill her mom, and the accompanying picture of them in happier times made me think, “Oh, yeah, that’s what these characters look like.” So I had those two women in my head as I was writing.

Then I finished the book, and one of my first readers was my dad, who had been divorced from my mom for forty years by then, but still recognized her in the character of Annabel, and gently suggested to me that maybe Annabel wasn’t a full-fledged creation of pure imagination. And I started to see how much I had based the mother on my own mom, and how much of our relationship was in there. My mother moved us around from man to man in my childhood, she remained emotionally elusive, she was an object of frustrated desire to me, and, as the mother in the book does, she chose a man over me, which is how I wound up at Covenant House. So our relationship was definitely not cliched or sentimental. And I’ve already done a lot of ranting in my nearly twenty years of therapy, so I was able to avoid that in the book.

In sum: The emotional tightrope was easy to walk because I was in denial about how high off the ground it was.

have you found herRumpus: How did you parents react to the publication of your first two memoirs? Did it help bring any understanding to your relationships?

Erlbaum: My mom was aware that I was publishing a book about my teenage years, and she sent me congratulations in one of our bi-annual exchanges of letters, telling me how proud of me she was. She didn’t actually go out and get a copy and read it, for which I’m grateful. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to not read it, as she wasn’t really making a lot of conscious decisions by that point, but I think she sensed that it would be upsetting to her, so she decided to leave it at, “My daughter is a published author! I must have done something right.”

My dad was also very proud of me, and though the portrayal of him in the first book was not flattering, he accepted that this was my experience of him during those years. Both of us have done a lot of work to repair our relationship, and in the second memoir, he’s a very supportive presence, as he is in life. I’m extremely grateful that he and I are able to have a real friendship now, and to be in close, frequent touch.

Rumpus: I want to ask you about the feedback you received from your second book, Have You Found Her. The focus of your book was a young homeless girl you befriended while working as a volunteer in the shelter where you yourself stayed years before. The young girl, Samantha, attracted you with her intelligence and vulnerability though in the end, you discovered she had Munchausen syndrome, in which the victim obsessively fakes illness for attention. What interest in this malady did your book stir up?

Erlbaum: I got some very interesting emails and feedback after Flounder came out (the husband and I call it “Flounder”; saves us some syllables). I was amazed to hear how many people had similar experiences with friends and loved ones, and it seemed like every time I talked to a book club, one of the members would say, “Yeah, this woman in my office pretended to have cancer,” or something. I exchanged email with the foremost US authority on Munchausen’s, Dr. Mark Feldman, who was tremendously helpful in vetting the book for accuracy and adding insight, and for a while, I entertained fantasies of starting some kind of non-profit funded by insurance agencies to collect and study data on the syndrome, since there really hasn’t been a long term longitudinal study of it. But as much as I’d like to help foster understanding of Munchausen’s, I wasn’t interested in making it my life’s work, even for a few years. It took up enough of my life already.

Rumpus: Spoiler alert for those who have not read “Flounder“: you never saw Sam again at the close of the book. Is she still MIA? Did you ever hear from her parents again?

Erlbaum: Back in 2010, I got the idea to put her real name on my website, along with a few other names so hers wouldn’t stick out. Since I hadn’t been able to find her online, I thought maybe anyone else who might be looking for her would at least find me, and we could compare notes. Within twenty-four hours, she contacted me, and we exchanged emails. She said she’d gone to rehab, as we knew, and that she hadn’t been honest with the folks there about what her real problem was, but that she had “worked the steps” on her own issues, and had been healthy for the five years since we lost contact. She said she was back in her family’s hometown, attending family therapy with them, and trying to live an honest life. Of course, this was probably bullshit, but at least she was bullshitting about being healthy instead of bullshitting about being sick, and that’s an improvement. I didn’t keep up communicating with her, so I don’t know what’s happened to her since, and I never heard from her parents again.

Rumpus: How do you feel toward the young women you write about in both your fiction and non-fiction in terms of how they misrepresent themselves. Are they victims, con artists, or something else altogether?

Erlbaum: I feel a lot of sympathy for the young women I’ve written about, including Younger Janice. I think that all of them (me in Girlbomb, Samantha in Have You Found Her, and Elizabeth in I, Liar) had some early family trauma that contributed to their dysfunctional methods of dealing with the world, but I wouldn’t call them/myself victims—survivors, maybe, but not victims. Nor do I think of them/myself as con artists. Anybody who severs their own Achilles tendon (as Samantha did), takes blood thinners to induce a hospital stay (as Elizabeth did), or beats themselves with their fists (me, ages sixteen through twenty-five) hurts themselves as much, if not more, than they benefit from the attention they derive from their actions. Con artists usually benefit from misleading others without sacrificing anything themselves. All my girls have sacrificed plenty.

I think they/we all had Borderline Personality Disorder (or, as author Michelle Tea calls it, “the beeps”). Borderlines suffer from an excess of emotionality, especially in relationships with others, that causes them to act in maladaptive ways, causing a vicious cycle of alienation and desperation. For a really good insider’s look at BPD, I recommend Stacy Pershall’s Loud in the House of Myself. Or, you know, any of my books.

Rumpus: Now that you have separated yourself from the days when you ran away and lived in a shelter, do you ever have flashbacks to that time?

Earlbaum: You know, I never left New York City—I’m forty-five, and I still live just a few blocks from where I went to high school. So I’m surrounded by my own history, with flashbacks around every corner. But the power of those memories is diluted by time, and by repetition. If I had a flashback to my adolescence every time I walked through Washington Square Park, I’d have no neurons left. I am still surprised every once in awhile by something coming back to me with real emotional clarity, but having written the book on those years, I “processed” them pretty effectively. I don’t have to cart around all those memories because I know they’re there in those pages if I need to recall them. It also helps that the city has changed so vastly since then. I mean, I hate most of the changes the city has gone through, but they do provide a kind of buffer for me.

Rumpus: What’s the next big thing on your plate?

Erlbaum: What’s next: I finish working on the memoir about my mom, the one I had to put down because it was making me miserable. And I know, the world doesn’t need another memoir about somebody’s mom, but I know too many people in the position I was in before she died—trying to negotiate a way to deal with an aging mentally ill parent that doesn’t drive you as crazy as they are—and I’d like to share the insight I gained from my experience, which is this: Your life gets better when they die. Just hang on and outlive them. They’re so much easier to love when they’re dead.


David lives in central Ohio and works for a sports newspaper. He is a regular contributor to Nervous Breakdown and Andrei Codrescu's Exquisite Corpse. More from this author →