Understanding the power of what is left unsaid
DO you remember the boy who cried wolf? Brianna Karp is the girl who cried ‘‘ I’m homeless’’ and a publisher listened. The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness is about as believable as Aesop’s mischievous shepherd boy, which is a shame because it does a disservice to all the genuinely homeless people who need our support and compassion.
There are no such questions about integrity or authenticity in Claire Bidwell Smith’s excellent memoir, The Rules of Inheritance, everything The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness is not. Both writers hail from the US west coast and each started her book as a blog, but there the similarities would seem to end.
Karp lives in an exterior world: everything she does is a reaction to some external force. Bidwell Smith inhabits a deeply interior world, where a thought or deed can play out mercilessly in the mind.
Bidwell Smith is the only child of a late marriage: her father is often assumed to be her grandfather. She is 14 when both her parents are diagnosed with cancer. She is 18 when her mother dies and 24 when her father dies. With the impatience of youth, her mother’s death is an inconvenience. But this is a Pyrrhic victory of circumstance over sentiment that haunts her unceasingly. While she deliberately avoided the reality of her mother’s mortality, she holds her father’s hand through his final moments.
A strong father-daughter bond is forged in these last debilitating months of cancer care. ‘‘ I am glad she died first,’’ she says of her mother, ‘‘ otherwise I would have buried my father without ever having known him.’’
The clarity of her self-reflection is exquisite and excruciating. There is a passionate sadness to her grief but the feeling of absolute aloneness is the hardest to bear. A minor traffic accident leads to a major emotional breakdown. ‘‘ This is the thing of it. The thing that leads me to those moments when every part of me is screaming. I’m nobody’s most important person.’’
The five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, from the work of Elisabeth Kubler-ross — mark the passage of Bidwell Smith’s narrative, making the book themed but non-linear. She understands the power of the pause: sometimes what is left unsaid can be more powerful than what is spoken. Her prose is direct, considered, elegant. She flouts the rules of punctuation but in doing so removes a final barrier between word and reader.
In contrast, even the title of Karp’s book is misleading. This is not a ‘‘ guide’’ to anything except squandering a life. Karp gives no advice, no savvy survival strategies, no insights into life on the margins.
At the heart of this infuriating book is the deceit that Karp was ever ‘‘ homeless’’. She wasn’t. At no time was she destitute, broke, or on the street. She is not illiterate, has no mental illness and is not addicted to anything other than her unfortunate boyfriend.
When the global financial crisis hit Orange County, California, Karp lost her job as a marketing assistant and was briefly unemployed. No longer able to afford the rent on her beachside cottage, she eschews the conventional cheap housing choices to live in a trailer home she inherited after her father’s suicide. Millions of Americans, and many Australians, live in mobile homes but they are not homeless.
Driving her truck, she is ‘‘ a tall woman with flaming red hair, with a jowly and imposing neapolitan mastiff ... in tow’’. Fezzik, the large and voracious mutt, is the real reason Karp decides to live in the trailer rather than find a flat or affordable share house. When life with Fezzik becomes untenable, she boards him at a doggy hotel.
Instead of paying rent in a trailer park, Karp takes advantage of a Walmart policy allowing trailers to stay overnight in their carparks free of charge. She suffers the privation of no running water by buying a gym membership to use the showers; the local Starbucks powers her laptop and phone while she monopolises the comfy chairs.
From here, the book plunges into the abyss of telemovie melodrama. A transatlantic internet romance goes catastrophically wrong. The denouement to this sorry affair has to be read to be believed or not.
From the outset, there are uncomfortable questions about the integrity of the narrative.
The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness may belong to the blurry genre of ‘‘ faction’’, where ‘‘ what happened’’ and ‘‘ what I remember’’ is indistinguishable from ‘‘ what I think’’ or ‘‘ what I believe’’. The success of Karp’s blog saw her become the face of ‘‘ Brand Homeless’’. She aims to disempower her critics by saying ‘‘ it’s important to debunk such stereotypes and misperceptions about what it means to be homeless’’.
Bidwell Smith ultimately found strength through her grief and now works in hospice care, helping others to face death. She also became someone’s ‘‘ most important person’’ when she met her now-husband Greg. The Rules of Inheritance ends with ‘‘ a perfect bubble of golden afternoon light’’, a beautiful image to close an emotionally demanding book about the power of love and loss. Diana Carroll teaches creative writing at the University of South Australia.