I started reading Janice Erlbaum’s autobiography Girlbomb at the library last Tuesday when I went in to look for something else. I checked it out and then I couldn’t put it down until I finished reading it at four in the morning. Since I had to get up at six, I then got to experience the brain-fried exhaustion in which the protagonist spent her adolescence, which made the accounting that much more real for me.
Long story short: In 1984 at the age of 15, BUST columnist Erlbaum fled her abusive stepfather and abuse-junkie mother in Brooklyn and went off to live on her own in Manhattan, first in a Hell’s Kitchen shelter, where she was referred to as The White Girl, and then in a multi-ethnic group home on the Upper West Side. She went downtown every day to hang out with her Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n Roll crowd from school and party nearly every night. And yet, impossibly, she manages to carve a normal adolescence out of this mess: She stars in the school play, has crushes on boys, holds down a part-time job and gets into the college of her choice.
In fact, if you substitute “work” for “school”, her experiences are not very different from that of me and my friends in the mid-80′s…except we were ten to fifteen years older than Janice and her friends at the time. Which means that they grew up too darn fast, and we grew up extreeeeeemly slowly.
Also, unless she’s hiding something major in her story, she escapes unscathed save for a broken heart and a near-OD. Some of her peers are not that lucky…one 12-year-old girl is seen hooking at the Port Authority after she disappears from the shelter, one of the most popular senior boys gets his brains bashed in as a result of a drunken antic in a subway car, and three of her friends from her part-time job get busted for robbing the till the day she calls in sick.
There are some who would say that these kids are lawless because their mothers have careers. But it’s Janice’s mother’s earnings that make it possible for her to ultimately underwrite her daughter and possibly stop her from making the same mistakes.
Rather than physical absence, I think the kids’ dysfunctions are rooted in the way that their mothers had had kids without first doing even the most preliminary work at growing up emotionally themselves. Janice’s mother adapts the opinions and behavior of every jerk who tells her “I love you.” Janice’s friend Hope has a mother who’s about to give up her apartment to move in with her boyfriend without making the slightest provision for where and with whom her 17-year-old daughter will live. But it’s not like she doesn’t care: When she finds Hope smoking pot in the house, she whales the shit out of her. After all, Hope was smoking her private stash.
As crazy as my crowd from 20 years ago could be as we celebrated our last over-aged hurrah before actual adulthood set in, none of us were making that final leap while dragging a small child behind us like a rag doll. We were aware that we were wrapping up some unfinished business. Although if we had had kids, I would hope they’d be as resilient as Erlbaum turned out to be. And this holiday season, I’ve made a note to write a check to a home for wayward girls for some Christmas gifts. Apparently, even pre-teen crack whores really, really like nail polish.