Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Girl's Guide to Homelessness

I have just about sorted through all my misgivings about Brianna Karp’s memoir, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, but I am still not entirely sure how I feel about the book.  So, perhaps, it is best to start at the beginning – with the book’s title.  While it is true that the author may have met the “technical” definition of homelessness for a good portion of the book, I am not convinced that she ever met the “spirit” of that definition.

According to Karp, she lost her job and could no longer afford to lease the “tiny cottage near the beach” in which she had been living.  Consequently, on February 26, 2009, she found herself living in a travel trailer on a California Walmart parking lot (as part of a tiny community of trailers parked there with the tacit blessing of the company).  She did have to rely on retail businesses for bathroom facilities until she found a cheap gym membership that gave her access to the gym’s showers, but Karp had a private shelter all her own to sleep in each night.  Too, it appears that Karp was unsure enough about calling herself “homeless” that she decided to include a rather definitive definition of the word at the beginning of the book.  Two portions of that definition can probably be stretched far enough to qualify her (italics are mine).

            “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence”

            “a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings”

Wisely, Karp held on to her laptop and her cell phone and turned the closest Starbucks into her daytime home until she found work again.  Unfortunately for her, whatever work she found was either of the distasteful variety or never paid enough for her to make much headway in saving the amount of money needed to move to permanent housing.  She was faced with some hard choices – and she did not always choose wisely.  To Karp’s credit, she did reluctantly find a new home for her large dog after realizing that leaving him cooped up in a small, hot trailer all day while she was out was both cruel and dangerous.  

That was smart.  Not so smart, was the way she handled her relationship with a British homeless advocate she met on the internet.  After the two grew close, Karp used most of her precious savings to fly him to California to make sure that they were as compatible in person as they were virtually.  She even paid for a second round trip after the man had to return to Scotland to deal with the birth of his illegitimate child there.  She bought him a netbook – and she bought herself a roundtrip ticket to Scotland to surprise him at Christmas.  But she was still “homeless.”

Much of The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness covers the dysfunctional, fourth generation Jehovah’s Witnesses family in which Karp grew up; the suicide of her abusive father; and her continuing, poor relationship with her mother and sister.  And the longest section of the book deals with her romance with her British lover and its unsurprising culmination, so, despite its title, this is hardly a book about homelessness.

Brianna Karp
I include the following quote because it makes me question the overall accuracy of Karp’s presentation of her life.  It is something she supposedly said to her British boyfriend when he complained about the quality of television news programming in the United States:

            “Baby, you can’t watch this.  This is Fox News.  It’s not real news.  No wonder.”  Duh.  I grabbed the remote from his hand before he could hurl it at Nancy Grace’s monologuing face.  “How about we try a little CNN?  That should be more to your taste.”

Since Nancy Grace has long been a mainstay of CNN’s Headline News channel, I have to wonder if Karp was as careless with the rest of the “truth” in her book as she was with this gratuitous attack on Fox.  She and her Harlequin editors, in their apparent zeal to take their shot at Fox News, twist the real picture to suit their purposes (or could they really be that clueless?) – making me wonder what else in the book may have been distorted.

I’m rating the The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness at three stars because it makes for interesting reading.  I only wish I were more confident that it all really happened this way.

Rated at: 3.0


  1. From what you're saying, this book sounds like it kind of isn't quite what it claims to be. I think I'll pass on it, but thanks for the thoughtful review!

  2. Ha, ha, I'm still wondering how come this homeless person had cable TV!

  3. Both the book and her life sound like a mess. I haven't read it, but I suspect that you were kind to give it 3 stars.

  4. Megan, it's most definitely not what its title implies. That's for sure.

  5. That's a great point, Sally. A lot of this story just does not make good common sense, but reads like a trashy romance novel, instead.

  6. The author has a website, Susan, that leads me to believe that things have not changed a whole lot for her other than that she is "working" as a homeless advocate now and doing some real good in the process. Whether she has finally gotten her act together is still questionable, IMO.

  7. I just finished reading this book and I would say some of her choices were questionable at times but she is only in her very early 20s and it doesn't change the fact that the girl had no fixed address! I think she overcame so much adversity in her short life and still remained steadfast in her goals.
    Why are we so skeptical about people's account of their own personal journey? Its like she hasn't been punished enough for some of you.
    I think you should read it before making a judgement.

  8. Anonymous, I think the general reaction of skepticism comes from the author's attitude about her life choices. It seems to many readers (and they HAVE read the book) that her problems are largely of her own making. I applaud the good work she is doing at present, but I do think the book was a bit over the top regarding her homelessness by bad choice.

  9. My wife and I read the book a few months ago. The more I read, the less I believed, and by the end of the book I found myself seriously doubting that anything in the book actually happened. That's a nice way of saying that the entire book is fiction. I want my money back, and if I ever see ms. Karp, I will make every legal effort to get it from her. I have already thrown the book away.

  10. I found on the title page a disclaimer stating the book was fiction. Also, I can't find her blog anywhere. Any ideas??

  11. Good luck with that, Anonymous. You obviously feel much stronger about any potential misrepresentation of fact and the author's claims about the truth of the book, but I don't think it will work for you. I do suspect that the young author has received a good deal of heat in the last few months because so many of her readers don't believe her.

  12. Fiona, I can't check to see if that disclaimer exists in the copy of the book I read because it was borrowed from the library. I don't think I would have missed it, though, and I wonder if it was added to a later edition of the book. Can I trouble you to scan that page and email the scan to me? Thanks.

    As for the blog, it was still there last time I checked. I wonder if it has been shut down?

  13. I just finished reading the book ~ library copy ~ no disclaimer saying it is fiction ~ it is listed as a biography ~ "The names and identifying details of some characters in this book have been changed."

    Her blog is still online ~ easily found via web search for Brianna Karp.

    The title was deceptive in that the book is not a guide to homelessness, it is a memoir.

    She did not make up being given an internship at Elle; nor about the interviews, nor about Homeless Tales and Matt Barnes ~ it was registered at Technorati ~ now defunct (as she reported in her memoir).

    People who live in their cars or in Brianna's case, a RV camper parked in a Walmart lot are just as homeless as those who sleep on sidewalks.

    The book was a hard read ~ in that, I got bored ~ with the romance.

  14. Pretty much agree with everything you said, Anonymous. Make that everything for sure if you agree that she was no longer homeless when she parked her RV on the property of a friend...seems like a home to me.

  15. Okay, so let me get this strait, you think that she fabricated the blog, time stamps, pictures, interviews, etc all just to public a fictional book as non fiction? WHY?

  16. No, dear anonymous, that is not at all what I am saying. My point is that she was relatively seldom "homeless" in the commonly accepted definition of the word and the implication of the book's title. Her homelessness was more the result of choices she made and her rather reckless behavior and lack of judgment .

  17. There was another anonymous comment that said they felt it was fiction. I just think this is ridiculous. I think that a lot of her problems were due to poor choices, but I also think that anyone could end up in that situation. Where you go from there would depend on your decisions afterward. I thought the book had a lot of feeling though and i think it was a good memoir.

  18. I agree, Christina, that this is a pretty good memoir. The author exposed herself to the possibility of a lot of criticism, especially because of her behavior at the end of the book, so she was certainly pretty honest that part of her life.

    My complaint is basically that she wasn't exactly living in an alley or doorway at any time and that's what most people will expect from the book title and cover. She had a camper parked in Wal-Mart parking lots for months and then moved onto a friend's ranch, etc., never really trying to get ahead by the money she managed to get her hands on. Poor choices...and she was honest to share them. I'm not at all sorry I read the book, just think that she exploited her self-made situation to the point of being just slightly on the dishonest side about the book...OK, maybe dishonest is too harsh a word, but I think you can tell what I'm trying to say. Thanks for the comment.

  19. As someone who one time got laid off and had to sleep in my car for a couple of months, it certainly feels like homelessness. I'm educated and hard working and was able to pull myself out of it by taking a job that provided room and board. She may not have been sleeping next to the train tracks, but I can guarantee that sleeping in a Wal-mart parking lot is still pretty stressful and it's a story that deserves to be told. Now, I felt that it focused too much on her painful romance and she did make some poor choices on that front. I don't even think that the author would argue with that. But I think that the whole point of the book was to show that someone who is "homeless" doesn't always fit the image we have in our heads.

  20. Thanks for your comments, anonymous, about the more all-inclusive definition of homelessness. Your points are well taken.

  21. Since it's been more than a year since the most recent post on this thread, my 2015 addition to it may be pointless, but I'll leave it anyway.

    I am about a third of the way into this book, but after only a couple of dozen pages, I was having difficulty with it. For several years, I worked in a program providing emergency and transitional housing to homeless families with children. Prior to that, I worked in a program that housed and helped people with severe and persistent mental illness, most of who had been in and out of institutions for much of their lives. I think I chose social services as a line of work, at least partly, due to my own experiences growing up in a troubled household. When I was 16, in the mid-1960's, my family, of two parents and six children ranging from one to 16 years in age, experienced several years of an economic downward spiral, which culminated in a brief period of homelessness. Fortunately for us, we had some relatives who were able to help us relocate and get re-housed within a few weeks, and at that time, factories were hiring and humming, and my parents got back into the workforce relatively quickly. Still, everyone was left with scars from years of trying to keep a family intact at a time when homelessness was a word that was rarely, if ever, heard, and people tried to cope without services or public revelation of their struggles. The environment is very different today, though stigma of failure and reluctance to admit personal problems remains a huge obstacle to changing lives.

    Over the years, I have read voraciously on the subject of poverty, homelessness and related conditions. When I came across The Girl's Guide to Homelessness at a used book sale a few months ago, I was intrigued. Flipping through the pages, it seemed not quite what I had expected, but for fifty cents, certainly was worth taking home and exploring more thoroughly. In the beginning, I felt like I could relate somewhat to Brianna's experiences, but that quickly ended by the time I was less than a hundred pages in. Brianna's tone just didn't ring true for the most part, at least so far, although her recitation of the details may have been mostly factual.

    What bothers me the most about this book is its addition to the vast amount of material almost romanticizing homelessness, unemployment and poverty. Another young woman, Linda Tirado, who wrote an essay posted on gawker last year about her own hand-to-mouth existence. This was picked up Huffingpost, went viral, and Tirado was off to the races. A crowdfunding project was established which eventually accrued more than $60,000 before she took it down (its goal had been around $30,000). She has now written a book, appeared on Bill Maher in November, 2014, and has a website where she apparently is raising consciousness and promoting methods of changing the world, or at least America, so that economic conditions will be more equitable. She has certainly seemed to have changed her own, and I hope that what she's learned and benefited from can be spread out and change the lives of the millions of people in the U.S. who struggle quietly and anonymously to keep the wolf on the other side of their own doors. More and more of them are being left behind, while loquacious individuals who can write and speak reasonably well and don't mind going public with it, advance themselves and set themselves up as gurus to the poor and homeless. What a testament to the society we have become via a mantra of "do what I say, not what I do". I'm going to try to finish this book, but I don't think it's going to be easy.

  22. Thanks for leaving your comment.

    I pretty much agree with your perception of the book. I don't think it rings entirely true, and I felt as if the author were exploiting the reality of homelessness into some fictional account to justify her own poor decisions that kept her homeless much longer than she ever should have been. Even the title of the book, to me, seemed to poke fun at the harsh reality that is homelessness for families and even for others trying to survive on their own.

    As for the Tirado book, I do think that one is better and that it will open some eyes to what trying to live on a minimum wage job is really like. The thing I didn't care for, however, was the way that Tirado went off on longwinded political rants that were not always accurate, well-aimed, or even well-informed. I think she degraded herself and her message by taking that approach.

    Again, thanks for the comment.