New York native Janice Erlbaum finally snapped and left home at 15 when her violent, creepy stepfather reconciled with her mother for the umpteenth time. But as Erlbaum notes in her memoir Girlbomb, whenever she told her story, listeners seemed vaguely disappointed over the lack of beatings or molestation. Somehow, because her problems weren't as bad as human experience gets, they were easy to slough aside. But in the wake of revelations about JT LeRoy and James Frey, when every memoir is a minefield of potential untruths, Erlbaum's is notable for its relative restraint. She lived in a shelter, but never on the street; she did every drug available, to the point of overdose, but never wound up in jail; she slept around, frantically seeking personal connections, but never wound up diseased or pregnant. While she warns that her debut book is "narrative nonfiction" with some details blurred or omitted, Girlbomb feels wrenchingly honest, if only because Erlbaum's experiences seem to sum up life among her peers rather than outdoing them all in misery.
Girlbomb opens in 1984, when Erlbaum moved out, then backs up to cover her history—a blur of disappointment and loneliness as her mother endured a series of contentious relationships and bad matches, making and breaking promises that the next time would be better. When her stepfather returned yet again, Erlbaum moved into a Hell's Kitchen shelter where, as the only white girl, she was an immediate target for abuse. Girlbomb focuses on the details of the shelter lifestyle—boredom, hostility, instability, and above all a system that judged and condemned as much as it helped.
Erlbaum writes with the sophistication of her present age, but the in-the-moment perspective of her 15-year-old self, who doesn't understand why a boyfriend of three weeks wouldn't be eager to marry her, or why she continues screwing a guy who only cares about her when he can't have her. Girlbomb can be frustrating in this mode, as Erlbaum sabotages her life without providing any adult insight into the desires that drove her. Still, that opaqueness is true to its own moment, when Erlbaum didn't understand herself and couldn't see her own options. Simple curiosity over whether she'll ever figure it out, and where her troubled life will lead next, makes Girlbomb compulsively readable.