Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Girl's Guide to Homelessness (memoir)

There are people who have such sordid, distasteful stories from their pasts, that one has to wonder how such stories can be true, and not imagined, made up, or at least embellished. Brianna Karp is someone with a trailer-full of such stories. Growing up as a Jehovah's Witness (a sect which she vehemently calls a "cult"), she relays stories of terrible abuse and neglect at the hands of her parents. Headstrong and determined, however, she carves out an independent, successful life for herself in young adulthood, only to fall victim to the economic downturn of the last few years, losing her job and being forced to move back in with her bipolar, abusive mother. After a dramatic confrontation, Brianna is thrown out of the house by her mother, and with nowhere to go, she ends up living in a trailer (inherited from her biological father upon his gruesome suicide) in the parking lot of a local Walmart - officially "homeless." Equipped with a laptop (and nearly-free WiFi from a nearby Starbucks), a cell phone, and a P.O. Box, she spends her days job-hunting, sometimes picking up temp work, and blogging about her life as a homeless person. Along the way, she meets a man online who runs a website dealing with homeless issues, and they quickly fall in love, but this also ends badly.

Some quick research online reveals that there are people who claim to know Brianna and call into question the truth of the stories she outlines in her book. Is everything she claims about her childhood - or even her present circumstances - completely true? I have no idea. I do know that her stories from her childhood and young adulthood - especially those concerning her family - rival my own stories - stories of which a lot of people would probably have a hard time believing (right down to Brianna's mother making her drink dishwashing detergent for some infraction; my own mother made me drink Ivory Liquid detergent for telling a lie when I was all of seven years old).

In any case, I was drawn in by her utterly violent and dysfunctional upbringing, which resonated with my own childhood memories. The main reason I bought this book in the first place, though, is that her story takes place right in my city. She grew up in the town where I live, attended high school right down the street, and set up camp as a homeless person in the parking lot of the Walmart I've shopped at hundreds of times. It was a little surreal reading about places so close by and familiar to me.

She brings to light the plight of the homeless person and attempts to break down stereotypes, preconceived notions, misconceptions and prejudices towards the homeless, reminding us that we on the outside of homelessness have no idea what each homeless person's story is, and to make sweeping assumptions is wrong. She also illustrates how easy it can be for someone to lose everything, especially if they have little to begin with. Perhaps fewer of us are immune than we imagine.

If the book remained focused on this topic, it would be a better book. I enjoyed reading about her resourcefulness and ingenuity, and her outspokenness about prejudice against the homeless. Unfortunately, it strays off course about halfway through and becomes focused on her love affair with the man she meets over the internet - a love affair that, I think, anyone older and wiser can see from the beginning is doomed. Her writing is gritty and real - and definitely the voice you would expect from a street-wise yet somewhat naive and immature twenty-something girl.

It's a quick read, and worth it, I think, for the sake of making the reader think about homelessness.

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