Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum

“While all of the incidents in Have You Found Her are true, certain dialogue has been reconstructed, and some of the names and personal characteristics of the individuals involved have been changed. Any resulting resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”

So, Have You Found Her is Janice Erlbaum’s memoir of volunteering at the homeless shelter where she was once an inmate or a client or whatever it’s called these days. And while at the shelter, Janice meets Samantha, a troubled homeless junkie with a charismatic personality and surprising talents that amaze Janice and the rest of the therapeutic community that builds itself around Samantha to try to help her overcome her horrible past of abuse and addiction.

The story continues as Sam travels through treatment center, hospital, psych ward, hospital again, halfway house, and detox getting ever sicker even as she tries to kick her addiction and regain her health. Janice becomes more and more committed to her unofficial ward and makes promises: “I am going to be in your life from now on.” “You can call me anytime.” “One year sober, and I’ll take you to Disneyland.” And finally, because Sam’s family is completely dysfunctional and unavailable, “I’ll be your legal guardian if you’ll sign the papers.”

At that point the story takes an unexpected turn, and as an empathetic reader, I was confronted with some very difficult questions. How far does commitment take you? If you love someone, is it forever? Really? What if the person you love rejects your love? What if he or she isn’t the same person you thought she was? What if the person you committed to love is much sicker than you thought? What if you don’t know how to love someone without enabling the very behaviors that are making her ill?

I thought this story was fascinating and disturbing. And if you’ve ever met or known someone like Sam, someone who preys on the co-dependency of people who need to give, you’ll find it a gripping memoir of “one woman’s quest to save a girl’s life—and the hard truths she learns about herself along the way.”

I really want to say something more about this book, but this last part enters into spoiler territory. So if you haven’t read the book and you intend to do so, stop reading now. I knew how this story would end about halfway through the book, or maybe even sooner. I think that’s because a) the author foreshadows the ending in some of her statements about Samantha early in the book and b) I’ve lived with a compulsive liar. No Munchausen’s syndrome, but definitely I know what it is like to deal with someone who tells stories to dramatize and enlarge themselves and to gain attention. It is tempting to think that if we just hang on hard enough and love strongly enough, we can “fix” someone else, that my love is the key to another person’s recovery and health. But it’s not true. I can pray, and I believe that God uses those prayers somehow to reach into the life of the one I’m praying for. But only God through Christ and the person himself in cooperation can change a person who is mentally ill and/or spiritually emaciated.

I needed to remind myself of that tonight, and thanks to reading this book and writing this review, I just did.

3 thoughts on “Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum

  1. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: January 31, 2009 at Semicolon

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