Riveting true story of a runaway and the devastating lies she tells.
In her mid-30s, Erlbaum (Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, 2006) was on the brink of happiness. Her boyfriend had just moved in, and her career as a writer was burgeoning. But she had never entirely dealt with the trauma of her past. To properly exorcise her childhood demons, she started volunteering at the New York City shelter that helped save her life when she was a teenage runaway. There she met 19-year-old Samantha Dunleavy, “a tall, rangy white girl with a shaggy mop of brown hair” who told stories about traveling the country with her meth-cooking father and junkie mother, who forced her daughter to hustle when money was tight. Sam had amazing talents: She wrote metered poetry, made casual references to astrophysics and could hold intelligent conversations about books and philosophers. Erlbaum fell in love with this “junkie savant.” Despite all the rules—“No favorites. And no buying them stuff,” the counselors warned—she served as Sam’s coolheaded mentor, steady through desperate phone calls and late-night pleas. Erlbaum was there by Sam’s side when the accident-prone girl wound up in the hospital: a broken wrist, then sepsis, then the psych ward, rehab, pneumonia, meningitis and a slew of subsequent medical problems. Soon, the force of Sam’s neediness began to overwhelm Erlbaum’s life; even her wedding plans were shadowed by the specter of her young friend’s life-threatening ailments. Desperate to find Sam appropriate medical help, the author uncovered a jaw-dropping secret that turned everything preceding its discovery into one giant question mark. What started out as a memoir becomes a disturbing, fascinating detective story.
Erlbaum treats her troubled subject with humanity, sensitivity and care, making this an intensely rich reading experience.