You know a book is good when after you finish reading it, you just can’t stop thinking about it.
I just finished The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp, the memoirs of a woman who found herself homeless during the recession despite years in the workforce, a great resume, and a seemingly stable job. And yes, this post will contain spoilers.
I could not put the book down.
One thing I really admire about the author is her borderline self-deprecating honesty. A former Jehovah’s Witness, she openly admits that stigmas attached to homosexuals and racial minorities have been difficult for her to overcome, and in fact, she still struggles to un-learn them and think beyond instinctive gut-reactions.
Even sexism dies hard with her, and she explains why. When she talks about the things that she’s had to overcome with such brazen clarity, I feel almost voyeuristic for reading on, yet I couldn’t stop. I really wanted to see her triumph in the end. She knows that America is a patriarchy, and in certain circumstances (dealing with cops, etc.) she even finds ways to use her social disadvantage to her advantage, in a sense, which made me admire her. There is something about her–perhaps this reflective honesty she possesses–that makes you instantly like her. As a middle-class North American woman of about her age, I felt an instant bond with her. I felt that despite my liberal-minded parents and much easier upbringing, I could relate to her, and I rooted for her. Her sense of perseverance was inspiring, and made me want to root for her even more.
One thing I found unsettling was her love interest. She had met and fallen in love over the internet, which made me sceptical, but I supposed it could work in our tech-y age–the guy seemed all right from what she’d said about their e-mails and Gtalk sessions. But as soon as he got off the plane to meet her, something seemed off. He made snide comments about his ex-girlfriend, infantilizing her, which I found incredibly chauvinistic. All of his “you’re-so-much-more-intellectual-than-my-childish-ex” crap seemed shady. She adored him, of course, but he needed someone more cultured. Why were you with her, then? Why would you be with someone you have no regard for and use-and-abuse her just because you needed the place to stay and the emotional pick-me-up? Doesn’t that say more about you than it does about her?
His other favourite compliment, “you’re-so-unlike-how-I-imagined-you-shallow-American-girls-to-be” line, I found equally unimpressive. He even mocked her parochial upbringing and shamed her for the remnants she couldn’t shake loose. To be honest, it seemed a bit like Karp just lapped it up because she was in love with the idea of being in love, thrilled that someone she truly admired and e-loved (because there is no real “love” over the internet) had taken an interest in her. Her feelings were requited for the first time in her life, which was a self-esteem boost. Although he gave her backhanded compliments that might serve as red-flags for other women, she liked being different from stupider, shallower women. What she called “two crazy kids madly in love with each other” I called one young lady and one kinda-sleezy mid-thirties divorcé with a mid-life crisis that came early.
All right, so this guy’s lame, but I love this girl, so I’ll hope the best for them, I thought. But the chauvinism continued: despite his admission that a bout of depression lead him to indulge in promiscuous sex for a while, he was super judgmental when Karp confessed a racy tale of her own. To me it seemed like the kind of thing most men genuinely interested in a girl would brush off, or even find kind of impressive, especially for someone with a sexual history typical of a Jehovah’s Witness. His judg-y attitude showed me as a female reader that he thought that his emotional and sexual experiences were somehow more legitimate than hers, and that he had more right to a sexuality. And he actually seemed a little jealous, which was creepy.
Then came the xenophobia (176): “I’ll never understand your American system. Do you realize that in the UK, everybody gets free health care–homeless people go on a short waiting list and get a free flat, and you can live there the rest of your life if you want to, never even have to get a job or anything if you don’t want to. That’s why I was only homeless for a short time. It’s all cradle to grave there. We care about our people there.”
Hmmm, that seemed like strange talk to me coming from a homeless activist. If homeless people have it so easy in the UK with their government handouts and free flats, what’s this dude advocating for? And if the UK is anything like Canada, that whole free health-care schpiel is a lie, too.
I was also really pissed off that he said “WE” care about “OUR” people…as opposed to you and “YOUR” crazy backwards American system.
If you try to feel superior to me because of the country you happened to be born in, I’ll leave you right there.
This man was totally disregarding her feelings when it came to seriously important topics, like having children. He insisted that her fears were irrational and that if it was so bad, women wouldn’t keep doing it. This type of devaluing of women’s experiences really unsettled me. Why is she irrational for voicing her deepest concerns? Because she is a woman? Because she doesn’t feel ready to have your children when you are both essentially homeless?
I was fuming at this privileged white British man, with all his sexism, xenophobia and smug superiority. Why had he escaped his great life and free flat in the UK for a fantasy getaway with an e-love? It didn’t make sense.
Then Karp went to meet the douche in his homeland, and suddenly it did.
She found him in his flat with his ex, and suddenly she was no longer the fiancé, but the other woman. She was not allowed in the house, and he was verbally abused by this woman who had been described to Karp as the sweet and loving, but simply not-up-to-my-level ex-gf who could not take a hint and move on. Suddenly it became clear: he was the abused, not the abusee. He could not get out. She owned him.
Much like petty officers who morph into petty tyrants upon promotion (ex. Henry Morton Stanley, General Dyer, most colonizers, really), Doucheface enjoyed being able to escape his shitty life and put himself in the position of power when he ran away to meet his e-fling, as he put on an uppity British air that was never his own. He delved into his would-be life with her, living in a Victorian mansion raising snottishly “cultured” children with shelves full of leather bound (EW!) antique classics. Worst of all, he let her buy into it, too. But he never had any intention of leaving this so-called “ex” of his. Still, he let Karp make sacrifices for him.
As I finished the book, I still got the impression that Karp is unaware of the full extent of his douchebaggery. In lieu of her unusual ability for self-reflection, and even self-critique, when she reflects on her former romance with The Douche, she becomes all butterflies and irrationality.
I was almost relieved when he left her after abandoning her in the snowstorm (And you’re a homeless activist? Seriously?) because I knew that she wouldn’t do it herself. Which is sad because she can do a lot better than him, and she will.