Monday, June 6, 2011

A conversation with Brianna Karp, author of The Girl's Guide To Homelessness

(all photos by Kyria Abrahams 2011)

"I'd like a fruity drink,"Brianna says, "Something with vodka. Do they have that here?"

We're seated at a small bar on 10th Avenue, just around the corner from the studio where they tape The Colbert Report. The audience coordinator at Colbert read and loved The Girl's Guide to Homelessness so much that he sent Brianna free tickets and a fancy personal invitation. Now, we paw through a red paper gift bag full of Colbert hats, boxer shorts and luggage tags. The bartender is waiting.

Brianna is not a big drinker. At the age of 26, she's still figuring her way around "worldly" customs, such as how to order drinks at a bar. This doesn't strike me as unusual since a large chunk of her book focuses on her childhood upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness. These are the random things you have to learn when you leave a high control religion.

"She'll have a mojito," I tell the bartender.

"Thank you," she says. "I never even know what to order. I usually just ask for something with fruit juice. And then I never know what to tip."

True to form, later that night, she will try to give the cab driver an extra five dollars in front of her hotel. He will stop her from doing this, saying "Miss? Miss?" while waving the change into the back seat. This is the difference between Brianna Karp and the rest of us. Something about her evokes compassion and stops an over-tipped New York cabbie from just driving away.

Brianna pokes at the muddled mint in the bottom of the glass and adjusts a vintage broach. Her hair is a shock of orange, perfectly colored due to a short child labor stint in a local beauty salon at the age of 10.

In the words of your grandmother, Brianna is a sweet girl. She is well dressed, polite and artsy. She plays the piano, loves antique shopping and drives a green 1968 VW bug.

This is the new face of homelessness, or at least the face people will listen to. She's articulate, bright-eyed, pretty, and, until recently, lived alone in a trailer on a Walmart parking lot. She's the spoonful of sugar to make the plight of the homeless go down.

Severely abused by a seemingly bi-polar mother who rendered her homeless at the age of 23, Brianna began blogging about her experience from a laptop in a Starbucks in 2009. People were immediately drawn to her story, and by 2010, she had landed Augusten Burrough's lit agent. By 2011, her life had been published as a memoir by Harlequin.

"I really don't want to be famous," she says.

I stop her for a moment. I suggest that what she means is that she doesn't want to be publicly judged and misunderstood. But doesn't everyone want to be famous, to have their art to be seen by the widest audience possible?

"You're not Emily Dickinson," I say. "On some level, you do want to be famous,"

She laughs at the suggestion that, in the spirit of Dickinson, she might be hiding a non-fiction marketing proposal under her bed. "Yeah, sure. I guess," she concedes. "Everyone wants to be loved. But I swear I really just want to be able to buy my house."

The house in question is a $100,000 Victorian fixer-upper in upstate New York which she first told me about in September of last year. They don't have houses like that in Orange County. It is her dream home, it is amazing, and it is still for sale. It's all she wants in life.

And here's the rub: For all the media attention that her book is getting, Brianna Karp, author of The Girl's Guide to Homelessness, is still homeless. She lives in a shed on a dirt lot.

"Funny thing, I always hated camping," she recalls, shaking her head at the irony of living in an RV for so long. "Every year, my parents would go to Kern River and I would always be like 'Yay, camping!' And then after about 20 minutes of being there reality would set in and I would already be asking to go home."

Lately, some have insinuated that she's not really "homeless," because she was shielded from the elements by an RV that was bequeathed to her by her dead father. By rote, Brianna begins to define homelessness. Hint: it doesn't mean that you don't have some form of shelter. Homeless does not equal rained on.

She has already answered this question too many times to count, and she hasn't even had her first book signing yet.

"I know I had it easier than a lot of people," she says, with some guilt. "I never said I didn't."

Brianna had no running water on the Walmart lot, no septic system to hook the RV up to. It's worth noting that 'water and sanitation' are described at inalienable rights by pretty much every human aid organization on the planet, including the United Nations.

I ask her how many people would be content with their lives if they had to get up in the middle of the night and drive to a local gas station bathroom. I wonder how many of those people challenge the ease of Brianna's living situation from the ease of their swiveling desk chair. How many of those people must hate camping, too.

We grew up in the same religion, she and I, which some have (perhaps rightly) called a cult. We are both ex-Jehovah's Witnesses and both first-time authors having written about our upbringing. Because of this, we've become friends.

In many ways, Brianna seems the ingenue. Then you hear about the things she's accomplished in her life, such as learning to drive a stick shift at the age of 12, taming a wild horse, or running with a hanky over her nose into the putrid room where her father had recently committed suicide. You have to concede she's a take-charge badass, even if she doesn't yet know quite how much to tip a bartender.

Is it possible that Brianna Karp is the most naive badass you've ever known?

But a girl does things the right way because things need to be done the right way, right? That's how the world should work, and, as such, an unwavering sense of justice is palpable in all her polemics. Although she could have, she never lied on her resume or stopped paying rent on her apartment and waited for them to have her evicted.

There is no paragraph in the book where she shoplifts a steak or gets stoned and pees into a Mountain Dew bottle like a truck driver.

Perhaps this is another difference between you and I and Brianna Karp. Brianna does not steal steaks. You and I, we probably would have stolen a steak.

I first met Brianna in May of 2009, when I noticed that some homeless girl was following me on Twitter. I wondered how someone so articulate could be homeless, until she told me that she had been raised as a Jehovah's Witness. After that, I didn't have to ask any more questions.

I remember how horrified I was when her trailer was towed from the Walmart parking lot. I didn't know her, but wasn't that her home? I wrote about her situation on my Facebook page, which is followed by about 2,000 angry apostates. Homeless ex-Jehovah's Witness here, guys. Maybe someone can help?

"Thank you! All the support/finger-crossing I can get will help!" Brianna responded. "I really, really appreciate it.  Matt says thanks, too!  He also says he loves the excerpts of your book I've read him."

At the bar on 10th Avenue, the discussion focused mostly on the Colbert taping and the free ice cream in the VIP lounge. But, as it often will with writers, the conversation quickly turned to some of the more insulting things people have said about us after reading our books.

I tell her I'm going to write a few things down as we talk.

"Okay, um, but please don't write that down," she says, in reference to her opinion about a recent over-the-top character assassination. Brianna does not talk trash anyone. This is not a PR move, this is a personality trait.

"The problem as I see it," I tell her, "Is that when you write a memoir, people focus on the protagonist (ie: you) and forget that a writer was involved (also you). They either hate you or they love you, but they forget that the person they hate is also responsible for the writing."

I tell her that if people truly hate her, that means she's a successful writer.

"I guess so," she says, trailing off a bit. Her book barely came out three weeks ago and she's still processing what it means when strangers get to have a negative opinion about you.

Besides, she tells me, it wasn't really her idea to write a book. She was approached by several agents after being on television with Kathy Lee for her popular Starbucks-powered blog. She had some help from others in forming the meat of a proposal. And, unlike most memoirs, she was actually writing the end of the book as it was happening.

Hence, jealous hardscrabble authors say that Brianna is not a real writer and has not paid her dues. Meanwhile, people with homes cry that Brianna was not really homeless. And the Jehovah's Witnesses say she brought everything on herself by leaving the one true religion and angering God. She's white, she's privileged, she's sad and lost and probably suicidal. And, worst of all, she has forgotten her initial purpose of putting a face to the homeless problem.

"I'm like, you know what people? Fuck off. I lived in a Walmart parking lot."

Her honest anger embarrasses her, as she clearly wants to be nothing but humble and gracious about this entire opportunity.

We look through our bags of Colbert Report swag. Neither of us are feeling particularly sad or lost or suicidal at the moment. We put on our free hats and giggle.

"Women get so mad at me," she says. "Women read the book and they hate me, especially about my relationship with Matt. They say: 'How could she do that, how could she pay for everything, how could she not see that coming?' I mean, haven't you ever been young and naive before? Haven't you ever had a bad relationship? Jeez, people.

"There's just something kinda unstable about it."

If women seem angry and threatened by her youthful mistakes, many men are responding positively. Men such as Stewart, the audience coordinator who was responsible for our Colbert hats and encouraged the two of us to take photos behind Steven's desk.

I asked him what about the book appealed to him.

"Well, I love autobiographies," Stewart explained. "And I was homeless in NYC for one night. Yes, only one night, but I just thought it might be an interesting read! Brianna seemed very mature and resourceful, and she is the type of person I could see being friendly with if she lived in New York... Plus, she mentioned The Colbert Report twice in the book and I thought it would be cool to have her see the show live."

Brianna is delighted, if not a bit confused by her male fans. "I'm like, why did you pick up a book with a picture of a girl on the cover?" she wonders. "It even had the word 'girl' in the title! What guy buys a book with the world 'girl' in the title?" She stops for a moment and remembers herself. Humble and gracious, as always.

"I mean, no. It's awesome to me, believe me. I'll take it!" As she so often does, she looks down at her lap.

"I just don't understand why they like it."


emily june said...

My friend and I have read the book and could not believe a young woman thriving in such situations (some people permanently crumble in similar situations). Wonderful off the cuff writing. I was raised in the same high control religion and my life has parallels to the themes in Briana's life and in her book she has been able to verbalize things I have yet to. Basically I loved the book. And I loved this piece about the author. Thank you.

Donna Renee Sanders said...

My husband and I lived for about a month in an RV, with no shower or bathroom facilities. It sucked. The fear of being on the street is probably almost as bad as being on the street. We stayed for several months in a motel before landing a rent house with our newly acquired jobs, so things got better.

Eleanor Bowtell said...

Wow! As someone who took almost 10yrs to get it together after escaping an abusive JW home, I feel inspired to order this book.

Vicki Day said...

I have just read this and Kyria you have really caught the essence of Brianna that nerve of steel and childlike essence mixed into one -- this is beautiful and you are a talented lady

Anonymous said...

Having been both a Jehovah's Witness and homeless, Brianna's story really appeals to me. I like it. I am not shocked. I am amazed that she has not resorted to the tools that I did to escape my upbringing. Not all JW's are bad, but creative individualism is NOT CONDONED!

Kyria said...

Yeah, Brianna is a great person. She weathered her storm with class :)