Kim's Reviews > Have You Found Her

Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum
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's review
Dec 29, 2007

really liked it
Read in December, 2007

I'm at the bitter stage of life where I resist reading memoirs by people somewhere around my age, simply for that self-involved reason that they've written it and I haven't. I'm so glad that "Have You Found Her" landed in my mailbox and broke me out of this sad, jealous, self-limitation. I read this energetic, flowing narrative in two sittings, and was so struck by the honesty of Janice Erlbaum's story and its compelling ideas of change and growth that I'm re-examining my own resistance to writing.

Almost 20 years after spending two and a half months in a New York City shelter, Erlbaum returned to volunteer. At first she only barely breaks the "no favorites" rule, allowing herself to particularly care about some of the more engaging girls who come to her jewelry-making sessions, but one after the other. "Have you found her yet?" she describes not asking herself. "The one who reminds you of you?"

Then she meets Sam, and while she quickly stops trying to draw parallels between Sam's horror stories and her own experiences, she opens herself up to loving and caring for this street-smart 18-year-old like a mother. Sam faces challenge after challenge, and Erlbaum and two other concerned adults stand in with her. Then events unfold further, even collapsing in on themselves, and the real challenge is the one that Erlbaum herself has to face.

The surface read of the title, and indeed the book, is that the "Her" of the title is Sam. Sam certainly needs finding. Her intelligence is fierce, and so are her emotional reactions to events. Those reactions lead to new difficulties, and both Sam and Erlbaum have to deal with the fallout. But it also becomes apparent that the real search is the one that Erlbaum is conducting for herself... her caring, intelligent, adult self.

In working to help Sam, she has to set aside her own ideas of herself, her visions of herself as heroic volunteer and selfless savior, and look hard at who she really is and what she wants from life. And give her credit for the spotlight she trains on herself, her actions, and her motivations... she isn't worried about being likable all the time, or glowing with goodness. Instead she uses the opportunity of helping Sam (and the later opportunity of writing "Have You Found Her?") to get down to the nitty-gritty, to self-evaluate, and to change.

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